The ancient and very beautiful town of Malmesbury lies about six miles north of Junction 17 of the M4, on the southern edge of the Cotswolds.
The oldest borough in England, with a charter, given by Alfred the Great, Malmesbury is a wonderful place to visit.
Most visitors will actually park in the central car park, called The Cross Hayes. Conveniently, that is where we are sited, between a Ford garage and the local vets.
The Cross Hayes is actually behind the main street in Malmesbury, the High Street, and access is easy through a small passage way. One end of the Cross Hayes is dominated by the Town Hall, complete with its Visitor Centre and the Athelstan Museum.
The alley way opens out onto the High Street, the ancient coaching inn, The Kings Arms, almost opposite, and a good place for fine beers and wines and an inexpensive meal.
To your left is the lower High Street with a WH Smiths and a number of estate agencies, while to your right is the ancient Market Cross and a number of interesting shops and places to eat and get a cup of tea.
There are also several specialist shops offering a unique range of goods. Towns people may go shopping elsewhere, but there are few needs that cannot be met within the Town.
At the top of the High Street is the 15th century Market Cross. From there you back on to the top of the High Street and face the magnificent Malmesbury Abbey.
The Market Cross offers the benefit of having shelter on wet days, is a meeting place in addition to being the focal point of a fortnightly Farmers’ Market (on a Saturday).
The Market Cross is still used as a selling point for charities and other organisations. The Town Crier, in his regalia, is sometimes found there to tell everyone of local events.
There are a number of shops surrounding the Market Cross and entrance to the famous and very beautiful Abbey House Gardens can be found to the right of the Cross.
The gardens are open during the summer and are well deserving of a visit, although you would probably need to allow at least 2 hours to see everything, in which case you’d better move your car from the Cross Hayes car park (limited to 2 hours) to the Long Stay car park (situated at the bottom of the hill below the Abbey).
The Market Cross itself was built at the end of the 15th Century and was, according to a quote of the time “a place for poor folkes to stand when the rain cometh.”
Today it remains one of the finest examples of its kind in England.
Malmesbury is famous for its Abbey though only a part of the Abbey Church now remains. The surviving building is only around two thirds of the nave of the original. It was from a tower here that Elmer, the flying monk, leaped in c.1000 AD. in his attempt to be the first man to fly.
Elmer traveled more than a furlong, but broke both his legs!
Athelstan first King of all England is said to have been buried here in 939 AD.
With the Dissolution of the Monasteries the Abbey was sold by Henry VIII’s commissioners to William Stumpe, a clothier, who used the building as workshops. Stumpe must have been both rich and influential as at the same time he also bought Osney Abbey at Oxford.
A Monastery was first established on the site around 676 by Aldhelm, but the present building dates from the 12th century, and was consecrated about 1180. One of the most notable features surviving from that period is the south porch with its magnificent Norman arch containing carvings depicting Bible stories. There is also a fine vaulted roof to the nave.
During the next 2 centuries the building was expanded, including the addition of a spire which was even taller than that on Salisbury Cathedral. Unfortunately it fell down, probably during a storm, some time around the turn of the 16th century.
In 1539 Henry VIII dissolved the monastery for which this building was the centre of worship. It was bought by William Stumpe, who arranged for it to become the parish church, and it was consecrated as such on 20th August 1541. Since then it has been a place of worship almost continuously.
As the years passed the building continued to decay, and successive artists’ depictions of it over the next centuries show less and less of the original still standing. The most significant event was
the collapse of the west tower which left a gaping hole behind what is now the rear of the nave. Prints from the 18th century show that is had degenerated to a state of affairs where it was being used for storing hay and keeping pigs and donkeys. Thankfully, this situation has been reversed, particularly by restoration work carried out early in the 20th century. The remaining part of the Abbey is now in regular use as the Parish Church.
Hannah Twynnoy (d. 1703) is reputedly the first person on record to have been killed by a tiger in Britain.
Hannah Twynnoy was an early 18th century barmaid working in a pub in the centre of the English market town of Malmesbury in Wiltshire. All that remains of the story of her untimely death is her gravestone, in a corner of the churchyard of Malmesbury Abbey. Her tombstone records her name and death at the age of 33 as occurring on October 23, 1703, with a gravestone poem which reads:
In bloom of life/ She’s snatched from hence/ She had no room/ To make defence/ For tyger fierce/ Took life away/ And here she lies in a bed of clay/ Until the Resurrection Day.
Although this poem is all that exists as a source for her death, recent research by historian John Bowen has discovered that a more detailed account of the death was placed in a plaque on the wall of the parish church in Hullavington, a village five miles from Malmesbury. The plaque, which was almost certainly installed soon after her death in the first years of the 18th century has since been lost but was recorded in Victorian times by a local historian.
It said that Hannah Twynnoy was a barmaid working at a pub called the White Lion in Malmesbury in 1703 when a traveling circus arrived to set up in the pub’s large rear yard. The circus contained a menagerie of animals including a tiger, which Hannah was warned against upsetting.
She took pleasure in riling the tiger until one day the tiger broke free and mauled her to death.
Hannah’s gravestone can be found half way from the Tolsey Gate, once the town’s “lock up” to the front of the Abbey itself on the right hand side as you approach the magnificent carved stone arch.
Apparently all the stories of the bible are captured in the stone. Sadly the ravages of time mean that many images are indistinct but Noah and his entourage can be picked out above and to the left.
Having passed through the entrance we recommend seeking out the Parvaise, a room that sits immediately above the entrance and which houses some of the relics from the past, including some fascinating drawings which capture just how large the Abbey was at its peak.
We can’t remember where we heard it, but rumour suggests that the original spire was taller than that to be found at Salisbury, and that’s big!!
Leaving the Abbey its worth taking a look around at the remains of the arches. You can walk around to the back of the Abbey and see the Cloister Garden and the view down the hill towards the Long Stay car park.
Alongside the Abbey is the Old Bell Hotel, reputed to be one of the oldest hotels in the country, parts of it reaching back well into the middle ages.
Of course there is more to Malmesbury than just the Abbey, The Bell and the Pottery but you’ll have to come an visit to appreciate the beauty of what Betjeman called “A city set on a hill which cannot be hid.” This is indeed where John Betjeman found the perfect combination of both countryside and county towns that he loved.