Counting the days until, finally, Friday arrives. The promise of a weekend in Wiltshire and its superb countryside, as beautiful in winter as in summer. I have lots of happy memories there – a delightful walk across fields near Tisbury, stopping at Old Wardour Castle… The ever so enigmatic Stonehenge, although my heart, I have to say, goes to the standing stones right in the centre of Avebury. A magical lunch in the Pythouse kitchen garden. Picturesque little villages, endless strolls through nature… To me, Wiltshire is the perfect escapism.
Leaving right after work, we drove bathed in the sunset light towards our haven for the night: Great Ashley Farm, a charming B&B near Bradford on Avon. Helen welcomed us as soon as we stepped out of the car, showing us to a rather romantic room in a palette of blue and white. Mini fridge, tea and coffee, extra blankets, brochures on the area… As perfect as a hotel room with the home feeling as a bonus. No traffic noise – just ducks happily quacking in the nearby pond. Her recommendation for dinner, The Seven Stars, a mere five minutes drive away, proved perfect (though do book – it’s clearly the locals’ favourite). From the outside, we expected a normal pub atmosphere. The inside is more elegant: beautiful stone walls, a refined yet festive atmosphere, vintage books on the shelves, Trivial Pursuit cards on each table… The pork cracklings, rather than a crisp shape, were served in their full length (think cheese straw format). The homemade bread, filled with apricots and cranberries, had my full approval (I’m French. Bread is a serious matter, my friend). The braised ox cheeks simply melted in the mouth. The leek, cranberry and stilton wellington wowed me even more, a real explosion of flavours – I need to steal the recipe from them…
Stepping outside our room the following morning was rather magical. Everything was so… peaceful, beautifully still and sunny. Spring’s already there, despite the cold temperatures, primroses, snowdrops, daffodils appearing between the dried leaves. Breakfast was a real treat – cooked on an AGA, no less, with super crispy bacon, juicy vine tomatoes, succulent egg yolk. Helen gave us some extra tips for our day – little detours to see beautiful buildings, where to park near the locks. The warm human touch than no travel guide (and I revise or write them for a living) can ever bring. Isn’t it wonderful when people feel like friends after just a few hours of knowing them?
And so we stopped by Great Chalfield Manor, on Helen’s advice: an amazing medieval manor house with arts and crafts garden. Although closed in winter, you can park just in front and enjoy the view… What a gem – no wonder it was used for filming the historical novel The Other Boleyn Girl, some scenes of the 2008 BBC Television adaptation of Tess of the d’Urbervilles and even Poldark…
Driving through the countryside, fascinated by the winter lights, the birds flying from hedge to hedge, hypnotised by the vibrant green and the bright blue sky, we completely lost track of time… We couldn’t help but quickly stop at Lacock, one of our favourite National Trust places, combining a village and abbey (pictures from our last visit here). And a Harry Potter filming location if you’re a fan! It always feels like jumping right into a fairy tale. Something about the exposed beams, the moss on the tiles, the walls leaning forward… Our steps always take us back to the sweet little bakery, the house selling plants by its gate (primroses, daffodils…) and the little river, which is easy to cross if you’re wearing wellies. A kids and dogs’ favourite…
A mere 30 minutes’ drive from there is the Kennet and Avon canal, which owes its fame to the Devizes Lock Flight: no less than 29 with a rise of 72 m in 3.2 km! What a challenge too: it take 5 to 6 hours to go through all of them with a narrowboat. The incline means that the distance between each pound is rather short. We parked at Caen Hill, which groups 16 locks and offers a magnificent view on the hilly countryside. Try and imagine the 19th century, when it was lit by gas lights! Sadly, the Canal Trust have lost their government funding. They need both volunteers and donations to keep this unique heritage in prime condition. It’s easy to forget, as you enjoy a stroll along the water, the extraordinary maintenance work this represents… Make sure you stop at the Caen Hill Café before leaving for a bacon bap and a cup of tea: it used to be the lock keeper’s cottage.
We couldn’t leave Devizes without a tour of the famous Wadworth brewery – 140 years’ experience in developing real ales and 240 traditional pubs throughout the country. It all started right here, in 1875, with Henry Alfred Wadworth buying the Northgate Brewery. He may have been only 22 but he already had spent 6 years in Hackney learning how to brew. His creations proved an instant hit: after 10 years, he builds the actual site in the centre of town to follow the ever increasing demand… He was quite a character, pub-crawling his penny farthing, being the first to cycle from London to Bath on a boneshaker bike (think wrought-iron frame, wooden wheels surrounded by tires made of iron, very uncomfortable saddle), ballooning… He recruited his best friend, John Smith Bartholomew, as a partner (even lending him the money to join) who would later marry his sister. Henry having no heir, the company went to John after his death. It remains an independent family brewery to this day, not a small feature knowing there are only 32 of those left in the UK.
If you’re a beer fan and have visited a number of breweries, seeing yet another one may not sound so exciting. This one, however, is a graded building with a Victorian heritage… It still has its HM Customs office – at the time, companies paid tax on the beer as they brewed. Now tax is applied on distribution meaning being able to stock at no extra cost. Another cool fact: the beer is still delivered to the local inns by Wadworth’s Shire Horses, as they have over 125 years… You will get to meet them too. Considered as employees, they get annual holiday when they are put out to grass for two weeks. To celebrate, they’re allowed a pint.
My favourite part, though, was the pub sign workshop. Wadworth is the only brewery making their own, with their master painter, David Young insisting on the traditional timber support. He even uses 23 carat gold leaf instead of gold paint… and like to feature locals in his masterpieces. Pub signs were imposed by King Richard II in 1393 as a way to solve the literacy problem, hence why they all seem to tell a little story of their own.
The tour finishes, of course, on tasting of 6 different brews – IPA, 6X, The Bishop’s Tipple, Horizon, Corvus Stout and the quite surprising Swordfish, a blend of Wadworth beer and Pusser’s Navy Rum. And you can even buy a few bottles of your favourite ones in the shop… The perfect end to a perfect day!