Andrew Swift takes a walk around the woods and valleys surrounding historic Castle Combe village
This is a lovely walk for autumn, starting in Castle Combe, before heading off in search of wooded valleys, old coach roads, packhorse trails and half-forgotten weaving villages.
Among Castle Combe’s charms is an almost total lack of parking. There is, however, a large free car park, signposted off the B4039 to the north of the village (ST845777).
Having parked the car, head down a flight of steps to the road and turn right. Bear right at a T junction and, 100m further on, turn right up a drive with a footpath sign to Nettleton Shrub. Walk past the old school and carry on through gateposts. When the drive bears right, follow a footpath sign along a narrow track straight on.
After 200m, when you emerge at the edge of a golf course, carry on beside a wall to follow a track downhill between trees. At the bottom, go through a gate on the left (ST840773). Head down steps, go under a bridge and follow a lane as it curves downhill and through an archway into Castle Combe’s market square.
Castle Combe was founded by the Normans, along with the castle – half a mile to the north – from which it took its name. By the 15th century, it had grown rich from clothmaking, outstripping even nearby Chippenham. By the end of the 17th century, however, its glory days were over, due to a dwindling of the flow of the Bybrook, which powered the mills on which its prosperity relied. The reason for this is unclear, but it may have been connected with a steady increase in the number of mills along the brook, built by those eager to make their fortunes.The market cross in the 19th Century
Whatever the reason, Castle Combe sank into a torpor, unchanged and unchanging, from which it was only awoken by the rise of mass tourism and the cult of picturesque antiquity. When it was declared England’s prettiest village in 1962, the glory days had well and truly returned.
Continue past the market cross, which incorporates an earlier preaching cross. On the left is the half-timbered Court House where the local court leet sat in the middle ages. The cottages on the right date from the 16th century and contain many original features – look out for a timber mullion window and a studded oak door.
Follow the road as it crosses the Bybrook and carries on alongside it. After passing a small bridge, the lane curves away from the brook and starts to climb. After another 100m, follow a footpath sign up a steep path on the right to head up through woods (ST840767).
After 500m, when you come to a stile, cross it and turn left along a road for a few metres before crossing another stile on the right (ST839762) and bearing right down a track. After 350m, you come to a clearing, with a seven-bar gate over to the left (ST836764). Go through it and head up a broad and muddy track. After 250 metres, when the way ahead is blocked by a gate marked private, bear right.
After 400m, go through a gate, past Truckle Hill Barn (ST833759), and through another gate which opens onto a panorama over a wooded valley. The stream that flows through it is an unnamed tributary of the By Brook.
Bear right, keeping to the upper track, and after 300m a cattle grid leads onto a lane. After 1500m, when you come to a T junction, turn left towards North Wraxall. Turn left at a T junction by the church and follow the lane as it curves down through the village, before crossing that unnamed tributary and climbing the other side of the valley.
After the lane levels out and bears right, turn left by a bungalow called Nutstock along the Old Coach Road, once the main road from London to Bristol (ST822747). As you carry on, it becomes muddier – an approximation of what it would have been like before its abandonment in the 18th century. After 1,400m it starts to head down a steep hill – the reason for a new road being built with a gentler gradient to the south. The lane leads down past the Old Malthouse to the village of Ford. At the main road, if you fancy calling in to the White Hart Inn, cross over and head down a flight of steps.
To carry on with the walk, don’t cross over but turn left along the pavement. Carry on past Park Lane, but take the next left by Bybrook Barn. After 325 metres, go through a stile on the right (ST845750) and follow a well-trodden track across a field. When you reach a stile, cross it and carry on alongside a barbed-wire fence.
After going through a six-bar gate, continue down a packhorse trail between moss-covered walls. The building at the bottom is Lower Long Dean Mill, built as a paper mill in 1635. In 1867, three people were killed when a boiler burst. It later became a corn mill.
Cross the Bybrook and carry on through Long Dean. When the lane forks by a cottage with a post box, bear left (ST850757). A little way up the lane is Upper Long Dean Mill, originally believed to have been a cloth mill before being converted to a corn mill.
Carry on up the lane, and, when it forks, bear right uphill. A little further on, cross a stile by a seven-bar gate, then a step stile by a six-bar gate, and continue along an old packhorse trail across Rack Hill, its name derived from the racks on which cloth from nearby mills was stretched to dry.A clearing in the woods reveals a superb view over the valley, with the 17th century house at Lower Colham below. As the path descends, look out for Colham Mill through the trees on the other side of the brook.
Carry on, ignoring a path branching off up to the right, go through a kissing gate, cross the Bybrook on the three-arched bridge you passed earlier and turn right along the road towards Castle Combe and the car park.
Length of walk: 8 miles
Approximate time: 3 – 4 hours
Map: OS Explorer 156
Refreshment stops: White Hart Inn, Ford, pubs and tea rooms at Castle Combe
Andrew Swift is the author of On Foot in Bath: Fifteen Walks Around a World Heritage City and co-author, with Kirsten Elliot, of Ghost Signs of Bath.