Category: village life

A pilgrimage down leafy English laneways

The English country road curves at Shaw’s corner, a location that warrants no more than a small dot on the map of rural Hertfordshire.

And, the house that stands there – among well-maintained gardens – gives no indication that it’s considered a British treasure.

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This house was one of the reasons why we found our way off the motorways to the English village of Ayot St Lawrence, a tiny community in picturesque surroundings well away from the tourist trail.

The story of Shaw’s Corner had caught our attention, as part of our series of reviews on traditional villages.

Built as a Church of England rectory in 1902, this house was designed in the Arts and Crafts style, with stained glass windows and hearts cut into the banisters.

But, today, it resembles a time capsule – with some particularly intriguing aspects.

Take, for example, the replica Nobel Prize in Literature and Academy Award that stand side-by-side on the mantlepiece, alongside photographs of Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin.

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Or the small garden shed that was once able to rotate in time with the English sunlight.

These are the relics of remarkable people: artefacts of fascinating lives.

The man at Shaw’s Corner

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Photo courtesy National Trust
The man at Shaw’s Corner was influential Irish playwright, novelist and political activist, George Bernard Shaw, regularly rated as second only to Sharkespeare among British dramatists.

He wrote about 60 plays, over 250,000 letters, many novels and untold numbers of articles and pamphlets – many of them penned during more than 40 years at Shaw’s Corner.

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Along with his Anglo-Irish wife, Charlotte, he started renting the Ayot St Lawrence house in 1906.

They bought Shaw’s Corner in 1920 and lived there until it was handed to the National Trust after Charlotte’s death in 1944.

Shaw died in the dining room of the house on November 2 in 1950.

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My Fair Lady

During his prolific career, Shaw produced major works such as ‘Man and Superman’, ‘Pygmalion’ (he later wrote the screenplay when it was made into the movie, My Fair Lady), and ‘Saint Joan’.

Ranging from history to contemporary satire, Shaw became the leading dramatist of his generation – and in 1925 was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. As of now, Shaw and legendary musician, Bob Dylan, are the only people to have won both a Nobel Prize and an Academy Award.

But, entering the stately brick home is definitely unnerving.

Just popped out

Shaw’s well-polished boots sit by the hearth and his manual typewriter stands at the ready, as if the owner is expected back at any minute.

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And Shaw’s fingerprints are everywhere, from photographs by close friend, TE Lawrence of Arabia, to the William Morris fabrics and a striking bust of Shaw sculpted by another colleague, Auguste Rodin.

During our visit, the National Trust was staging an exhibition to mark the centenary of Rodin’s death.

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For the first time Rodin’s bust of Shaw was displayed shown alongside the rarely seen plaster original, created in Rodin’s studio in 1906.

The display featured striking images documenting Shaw’s creative relationship with Rodin.

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Elsewhere in Shaw’s Corner, the library contains a rich and varied collection that ranges from the Bible to H.G.Wells, socialism and Eastern religions.

There are some 4,000 books.

Shaw’s presence extends to the colourful and ivy-entangled gardens which, fittingly, are often the scene of open-air productions.

Rotating while writing

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His writing hut stands in a bottom end of Shaw’s Corner, equipped with bed, typewriter and rotating mechanism for turning to catch the sunlight.

Although humble in its interior facilities, Shaw’s Corner is one of the many imposing houses that line the roads and laneways of beautiful and historic Ayot St Lawrence.

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See our separate report on stunning Ayot St Lawrence.

According to local knowledge, Shaw was hardly impressed by the isolated rural atmosphere on arrival, but later embraced the area.

This would seem to be supported by this later verse:

“No dwelling place can rival Ayot
So there I labor at my job
And boil the kettle on the hob
Seemingly I have the best of reasons
For staying there through all the seasons”.

Shaw’s Corner can be found at Ayot St Lawrence, near Welwyn, Hertfordshire, UK. Unfortunately, there is no public transport to Ayot St Lawrence.

The nearest bus stops are in Wheathampstead and Blackmore End, both of which are at least two miles away.

Nearest big centres

By road, the closest bigger centres are Welwyn Garden City, which is about 15 minutes away and St Albans which is about 20-25 minutes away.

The nearest railway stations at Welwyn North four-and-a-half miles; Welwyn Garden City six miles; and Harpenden, which is about five miles.

For detailed directions, see the National Trust website.

We used a local courier called Point to Point Car Services, from nearby Codicote.

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And we stayed for a few delightful days at the historic Brocket Arms inn at Ayot St Lawrence.

Watch for our upcoming review of The Brocket Arms.

Note; The writer flew to Europe courtesy of Scoot Airlines.

A village experience with an added history lesson

What do leafy country lanes, the musical ‘My Fair Lady’ and England’s King Henry VIII have in common with a charming 14th Century pub, Lawrence of Arabia and a man who hated his local church?

The answer to that riddle lies in a romantic vale nestling in the southern English county of Hertfordshire


We discovered Ayot St Lawrence, as part of our review series on traditional village life.

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Do I hear a chorus of “where”?

Nestled among quintessentially English estates, narrow roads bounded by tall hedges and a maze of walking footpaths, Ayot St Lawrence is about 25 miles from central London.

However, it is  a world away in reality – an area of jaw-dropping beauty and stately houses.

All the over-worked but time-honoured phrases like ‘quaint, picture-postcard village’, ‘chocolate box scenery’ and ‘frozen in time’ certainly apply to this area.

But, there’s a lot more to Ayot St Lawrence than just the vision of the sunshine seeping through the undergrowth along its roadsides – as beautiful as that is.

Atmosphere plus at the Brocket Arms.

Take, for example, the Brocket Arms – a wonderful country inn that dates to 1378 and was originally the monastic quarters for the Norman church. Legend has it that a priest was hanged there and that it has been haunted ever since.

With low ceilings, oak beams and a 17th Century fireplace that features a priest’s hiding hole, the Brocket Arms provides high standard accommodation in a rustic inn that is literally the centre of the community.

Friendly locals – often accompanied by numerous dogs – mingle easily with travellers like us; wonderful hotel staff; and day-trippers up from London to soak up the atmosphere.

Watch for our upcoming review specifically about the Brocket Arms.

As well as the pub, Ayot St Lawrence boasts ancient and well preserved homes, including an old Rectory that dates to 1291 and is now divided into three.

There’s also the Tudor ‘Manor House, that was owned, at one stage, by Sir Richard Parr,     whose daughter, Catherine, was the sixth wife of Henry VIII.

According to local folklore, Henry courted Catherine at the manor

Shaw’s Corner

Another reason for our visit to Ayot St Lawrence was the George Bernard Shaw factor.

The famous writer and dramatist, who won an Oscar for Pygmalion (or My Fair Lady) lived in the village for more than 40 years from 1906.


‘Shaw’s Corner’, the Edwardian villa he shared with his wife, Charlotte is now a National Trust property and is open for inspection from mid-March to November.

The house features sweeping lawns and a small, rotating writing hut, where Shaw created many plays.

It is preserved like a time capsule – with hats, walking sticks, toothbrush, photographs, books, typewriter, Oscar, Nobel Prize – giving the impression that George has just stepped out for a while.

When Lawrence visited George

Shaw had many VIP visitors to the area and locals still like to tell a story about Lawrence of Arabia roaring around Ayot St Lawrence on his motorcycle.

The old St Lawrence church

 

Ayot St Lawrence is also known as a photographer’s dream, largely because of the partially demolished Old Lawrence Church.

Dating back to the 12th century, the church met an awkward fate, because Sir Lyonel Lyle, the Lord of the local manor took a dislike to the building in the late 1700’s.

Claiming that the stone church blocked the view from his house, Lord Lyle decided to pull down the building and erect another resembling a Greek Theatre.

The new church

 

Today, the old church is a much-sought backdrop – and the new one has two separate pavilions – one containing Sir Lyonel’s tomb and the other for his wife.

According to local folklore, the Lord of the manor declared that the church made him live with his wife when he was alive – but it sure wasn’t going to make him stay with her after death!

True or not, he certainly made his mark on the district – and the ruined church has a starkness and beauty that it may not have achieved if left intact.

Ayot St Lawrence, with its striking buildings and fabulous Brocket Arms inn is yet another gem of a village – with an intriguing story or two.

We loved our time mingling with the locals and, for a few days, becoming part of their community. Once again we were able to join in village life, not just observe.

Not the sheep!

Within hours of arriving, we were invited to a special surprise birthday party for Kelly, the charming owner of the Brocket Arms. The pub’s staff took us under their wing and we had a wonderful time at the party / although neither of us tried our hand at riding the mechanical bucking sheep

Ayot St Lawrence has village history in spades; beautiful scenery; wonderful, warm people and probably the most comfortable and friendly village pub we have encountered.

It is ideal for a village experience – but the real secret is that Ayot St Lawrence is only about 40 minutes drive from Heathrow Airport.

We used a local cab company called Point to Point Car Services, from nearby Codicote. The owner, Nick Payne, treated us well.

Note; The writer flew to Europe courtesy of Scoot. Why not take Scoot to Athens and then journey from there into other parts of Europe and the UK.

English villages: the pub

There’s nothing quite like the atmosphere of a genuine English village pub.

Many of them are so steeped in tradition that people actually talk to each other around the bar, instead of tapping away at smartphones.

However, a lot of these wonderful old pubs are finding the going tough, as essential services continue to shrink in the villages around them.

As part of our series on English villages, we thought it was about time we celebrated these traditional pubs by showing some of the best that we’ve been fortunate to visit.

George Inn, Lacock, Wiltshire

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This medieval inn dates to 1361 and is a highlight of a picturesque village brimming with charm. See our review of Lacock.

The King Arthur, Reynoldston, Gower, Wales

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There’s more than a touch of magic to this inn on the beautiful Gower. Good food, great ale and a fabulous atmosphere.  See our review of Gower 

Porch House, Stow-on-the-Wold, Gloucestershire

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Situated in one of our favourite villages in the gorgeous Cotswolds, parts of this building are said to date to 947 AD. This is another contender for the label of England’s oldest pub.

Pant-yr-Ochain, Gresford, Wales

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Another Welsh gem, this pub is known for the high quality of its meals – and we can only agree. There has been a structure on the site since the 13th Century. The building as it now stands dates from the 1530’s, but was enlarged in 1785.

The George, Stamford, Lincolnshire

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Situated on the famous Great North Road, this inn is part of one of England’s finest stone towns. The structure is believed to date to 947 AD.  See our review of Stamford.

The Eagle, Cambridge

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While not exactly in a village, this 17th Century coaching inn, in the charming city of Cambridge, is notable for its RAF ceiling.  See the details.

The Bingley Arms, Bardsley, Leeds

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Set in a tranquil position away from busy roads and near a trickling stream, this wonderful old pub, in the picturesque village of Bardsley, is said to date to 953 AD.

Wellington Hotel, Boscastle, North Cornwall.

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One of Cornwall’s oldest former coaching inns, this striking hotel dates to the 16th Century and is situated in the lovely coastal village of Boscastle. See our review of the hotel.

Old Ferry Boat Hotel, Hollywell, St Ives,

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With its thatched roof and white stone walls, this pub looks right at home in the hamlet of Holywell in rural Cambridgeshire. Overlooking the Great Ouse River, a building is thought to have been on this site since 560 AD.

The Green Man, Denham, Buckinghamshire

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With its attractive frontage, great food and fine ales, the Green Man catches the eye in the picture postcard village of Denham. It’s believed that the inn dates to about 1895.

The Fighting Cocks, Horncastle, Lincolnshire

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We visited Horncastle largely for its array of antique shops, but this old pub, which has been operating since 1720, also caught the eye.

The Brocket Arms, Ayot St Lawrence, Hertfordshire

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Another gem in a stunning and historic little village, the Brocket Arms oozes charm. It was built in the 14th Century.

Watch for a detailed review of this hotel later in the year.

 Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem, Nottingham.

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Not far from Sherwood Forest, this pub is another with claims to the title of England’s oldest, possibly dating to 1189 AD.

 

English village series: the stone crosses

We’d never heard of preaching crosses until we came face to face with one in England.

Since then, we’ve kept and eye open for these unusual medieval landmarks – many of which are fast weathering away.

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Cross in the Nadder Valley

Driving on the A30 motorway in Southern Wiltshire, we crossed the River Nadder and entered the picturesque village of Barford St Martin.

Sitting between the provincial centres of Salisbury and Shaftsbury, this dot on the map was known to us only for the 16th Century Barford Inn, which once brewed its own high quality beer.

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After checking out the inn, we set off for Shaftesbury – and then encountered the village’s preaching cross.

It was obviously taller and much different to the market crosses which can be found in many English villages and rural towns.

High crosses

After photographing the structure out of curiosity, we wandered into the adjoining Church of St Martin and were told that the stone cross dated to early medieval times.

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Courtesy Wikimedia and Pauline Eccles

It was one of many so-called ‘high crosses’ built across England, Scotland and Ireland for travelling priests to preach where there wasn’t a church. At Barford St Martin, for example, we were told that a church wasn’t erected until the 13th Century.

Historians say that Cornwall was probably the first county in England to have stone crosses, as long ago as the 4th century.

Market crosses

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On the other hand, smaller market crosses – like this one at Sturminster Newton in Dorset – designed a market place, although they were also sometimes used as a rallying point for important news.

Political crosses?

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In another twist to the story of the stone crosses, we came across a plaque in the East Sussex town of Rye that marked the site of another cross – this time for the election of the local mayor  between 1289 and 1602.

Perhaps an example of mixing politics and religion?

 

Main photo courtesy Wikimedia and Pauline Eccles

English village series: Rye’s colourful past

History, some say,  isn’t what it used to be.

Take the case of Rye, in beautiful East Sussex, England, where the town’s rich past included smuggling; gangs; ghosts; secret escape tunnels; a disappearing harbour; and a mass evacuation of sheep.

One of the best preserved medieval towns we’ve visited, Rye draws  big crowds of visitors eager for a taste of its colourful past.

The town’s Mermaid Inn – parts of which date to 1156 – offers a peek into the days when the bloody Hawkhurst smuggling gang met in the bar and often left by a secret passageway.

Today, the inn continues to be well known as the site of repeated ghost sightings.

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Photo courtesy Mermaid Inn

 

Smuggling is known to have existed in the Rye area since the 13th Century, when King Edward I introduced the Customs system.

Taxation on wool exports made the rewards from illegal wool export well worth the risk of capture.

Rye fronted the English channel and locals knew the shifting  and dangerous sands well. Smugglers were able to evade customs officials with relative ease before moving  contraband across the misty Romney Marsh that adjoins Rye and covers over 100 square miles.

Rye’s narrow cobbled streets and closely built houses interconnected by attics and cellars, made it an ideal landing place for smuggled cargoes. As import taxes were later imposed on luxury items, the emphasis switched to bringing in tea, spirits, and tobacco.

The murderous Hawkhurst gang – at one stage about 600 strong – was a force to be reckoned with until it was finally crushed in 1747 and many of its members executed. For a time,  the gang was so bold that it transported goods in broad daylight in convoys of hundreds of heavily armed men, known as ‘Owlers’.

Coastal defences too

With its channel frontage, Rye was also at the forefront of England’s coastal defences against attack from Europe.

Eventually, the coast shifted, leaving Rye with a dry sea port but three local rivers.

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Today, visitors can stand on Ypres Tower – built in 1249 to defend the town – and gaze across the old port area.

The tower has served as a fort, private dwelling, prison, court hall and now finally as a museum. Visit the tower to read a lot about the area’s smuggling past.

Rye’s charm

With enchanting streets, the 900 year old medieval Church of St Mary’s, restaurants, shops and pubs, and well preserved historic houses from medieval, Tudor and Georgian times, Rye is a ‘must-see’ for travellers in southern England.

Again, we soaked up the town’s history by checking out  the Landgate, which built in 1329 and is another remnant of Rye’s earliest fortifications.

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And we rambled  through the original town and smiled at the quaintly named houses such as ‘The House with two front Doors’ or ‘The House Opposite’.

At the Rye Heritage Centre, there is a sound and light show that brings to life seven hundred years of the area’s history.

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World War II

Rye’s dramatic history certainly didn’t end with the smugglers.

In World War II – expecting an invasion by Germany – a radar station was set up near the town, beaches were mined and the Rye area was fortified with wire and concrete pill boxes designed to hold machine guns.

Many of Rye’s residents were evacuated – including tens of thousands of  local sheep.

Medieval gem

Overall, Rye is fascinating with a capital ‘F’.

The town thoroughly deserves its international reputation for architectual treasures, medieval ‘feel’, specialist shops, art and photography galleries, stunning nature reserves and long beaches.

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Getting there

Rye is in East Sussex, about 75 miles or just over one-and-a-half hours by road from London.

The town is situated on the A259 between Hastings to the west and Folkestone to the east – and on the A268 from the north.

By train, the trip takes a little more than one hour. High speed trains run from London’s St Pancras station to Ashford International, where you change into a train for Rye.

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Across Romney Marsh

Accommodation

The visitor can choose from a range of hotels, including the Mermaid Inn and  The George Hotel, which is one of the south coast’s most luxurious accommodation options.

Rye also boasts guests houses, B&B’s and self-catering accommodation.

Main photo courtesy Rye Museum

English villages: mystery and history at Painswick

Sharp-eyed travellers can find an historical gem when visiting the village of Painswick, in the Cotswolds Hills of west-central England.

In 1644, Painswick was occupied by Parliamentarian forces during the English civil war.

It was later recaptured by Royalists, but the fighting was so severe that bullet and cannon shot marks remain to this day on the tower of the parish church of Saint Mary.

The marks are one of the highlights of the historic Gloucestershire village, which is built mainly of mellow, honey-coloured Cotswold stone and features quaint, narrow streets.

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Photo courtesy http://www.geograph.org.uk and Lyn Haigh

We visited Painswick to see friends who live nearby, but couldn’t pass up the chance to first spend time in the beautiful village that is promoted as the ‘Queen of the Cotswolds’.

Sitting quietly in the Cotswolds Hills and surrounded by lovely Gloucestershire countryside, Painswick is about two-and-a-quarter hours from London via the M4 motorway or two hours by train from Paddington Station.

Our first stop was the church, which is known world-wide for the yew trees planted in its grounds and an unusual ceremony held each September.

The church yard is famous because it boasts 99 yew trees. According to local folklore, many attempts to grow the 100th tree have never succeeded.

While no one seems willing to swear that the 100th tree story is correct, it certainly gets plenty of publicity and draws large numbers of visitors to the village.

Each September, the church is also the scene of a ‘Clypping’ ceremony that apparently comes from the old Saxon word ‘ycleping’ that means embracing. It involves local children carrying ‘nosegays’ or a small bunch of flowers, joining hands around the church to form an unbroken chain.

The children sing the Clypping Hymn as part of a re-dedication of the church. The custom is apparently thought to date to 1321.

While checking out the yew trees, we were impressed by the collection of chest tombs and monuments standing in the church yard.

Dating from the early 17th century onwards, the tombs were apparently carved in local stone by local craftsmen.

Church officials told us that the oldest tomb is dated 1623.

Behind the church, near the Painswick courthouse, are a set of 17th Century stocks and we wandered to the Falcon Hotel, said to have the oldest bowling green in England.

After a quick look at Painswick’s former post office, which is the only example of exposed timber framing in the village and the striking Georgian frontage of a building known as Beacon House, we took to the road to visit our friends.

Like most of the Cotswolds settlements, Painswick is a picture-postcard example of a traditional English village.

However the area’s historic gems like the civil war reminders, yew trees and the Clypping ceremony make this slice of heaven stand out from the crowd.

We wholeheartedly recommend a visit.

 

English villages: evolution at Lacock?

We used our iPhone to take photos at Lacock.

It was a particularly apt thing to do, because this beautiful village – in the English county of Wiltshire – is said to be the official birthplace of photography.

In 1835, Lacock resident and scientist, William Henry Fox Talbot, created the world’s first photographic negative using a camera. The negative was not much bigger than a postage stamp.

Now, about 180 years later, we were taking photographs in the same place – without even needing a dedicated camera.

How things change!

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Fox Talbot’s discovery is one of the reasons that visitors find their way to Lacock.

His former home, Lacock Abbey, now contains a museum devoted to the history of photography.

The museum tells how Fox Talbot – frustrated that the could neither paint nor draw – became determined to ‘fix’ images on paper. After experiments, he took an image of a window in his home – the first negative.

And, in doing so, he changed the way we would see the world.

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National Trust image/Arnhel de Serra

 

Although it is fascinating and well worth of look, the museum is far from the only reason to visit Lacock, a medieval wool village in the delightful Southern Cotswolds, about 30 minutes drive from the grand English city of Bath.

Lacock is the quintessential English village and dates from the 13th Century.

Visiting is like taking a step back in time, with many lime washed, half-timbered and stone cottages.

Most of Lacock is owned by the National Trust and is beautifully preserved.

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We stopped for a meal and a pint at The George Inn, which dates to about 1361, before taking a look at Lacock Abbey, Fox Talbot’s old home and one of the few intact medieval abbeys in England.

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Founded in 1232 and converted into a country house in about 1540, the Abbey features medieval cloisters; a sacristy; chapel; and monastic rooms.

As well as 800 years of history, the Abbey also boasts extensive grounds and gardens that are ideal for a relaxing wander.

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It’s also easy to see why Lacock village is such a favourite with film and TV producers.

Its picturesque streets and historic cottages, largely untouched by modern alterations, have appeared in the likes of ‘Downton Abbey’, ‘Pride and Prejudice’ and the films ‘Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince’ and ‘Wolfman’.

Main image of Fox Talbot courtesy of The National Trust and Nick Carter.