This enchanting village is rich in history, Andrew Swift takes you on a tour
Picture a village at the end of a narrow, winding lane, hidden in a fold of the hills. No shop, no pub, and, since dwindling numbers led to its closure over 30 years ago, no school. A place, you might think, where nothing much has ever happened. But appearances can be deceptive. On a scrubby patch of ground beyond the last houses lie the ruins of a Norman castle, seized by the crown and demolished after its owner was involved in the murder of Edward II.
Centuries earlier, in the aftermath of the Roman exodus from Britain, a vast defensive earthwork was built through the village, marking the boundary between the Romano-British and Anglo Saxon insurgents. High above the village, meanwhile, silhouetted against the eastern horizon, stands a Silbury-like round hill, long believed to be a mighty funeral mound.Perhaps most remarkable of all, this extraordinary village lies not in some hidden corner of the Wessex downs or deep in the Welsh marches, but just beyond our city boundary, less than three miles from the centre of Bath.
Standing in the churchyard at Englishcombe, though, you could be forgiven for thinking yourself miles from anywhere. Looking east, Bath lies hidden behind a high ridge punctuated by the conical mound of Twerton Round Hill, once known as High Barrow and believed to be man-made. John Wood thought it was the sepulchre of Bladud, the legendary founder of Bath, others that it was raised in commemoration of some famous victory and covered with the relics and spoils of some great warrior. It wasn’t until the late 19th century that it was confirmed to have been formed naturally.
If you head over to the western edge of the churchyard, you can see, through a gap in the trees, a high bank running across the fields, with a deep ditch on its northern side. This is the Wansdyke, a defensive earthwork about which virtually nothing is known, except that it was built after the collapse of Roman rule to mark a frontier. Englishcombe’s position on that frontier would have given it the status of a border post, with all that entailed. Even the name of the village has a resonance that suggests past glories, and there is a persistent legend, dating back to at least the 18th century, that Saxon kings held court at Englishcombe.
The church itself, on a high mound above the valley of the Padley Brook, is Norman, built by one of the de Gournays, who came over with William the Conqueror and built a castle on another mound at the far end of the village. Originally constructed of wood, the castle was probably rebuilt in stone in the 13th century, and surrounded by a deer park. But as to what it looked like, that too is a mystery.View the privately owned Grade II original tithe barn in Englishcombe
Its most notorious resident was Sir Thomas de Gournay. Indicted for his part in the murder of Edward II at Berkeley Castle, he fled abroad, but was captured. Despite orders from Edward III to bring him back alive, he died in mysterious circumstances on the voyage home. Englishcombe, along with the rest of his estates, was confiscated by the crown, and passed to the Duchy of Cornwall, which still owns it today. The castle was razed to the ground and its stones were used by the prior of Bath Abbey to build a tithe barn, which still survives.
So, despite the tranquillity that characterises Englishcombe today, it has seen turbulent times. And there can be few places whose history is so imbued with mystery, legend and conjecture. The two short walks described below – one a mile long, one 2½ miles long – explore some of the byways of this fascinating village. Both start at the churchyard gate and can be combined in a figure-of-eight circuit.
The Short Walk
For the first walk, turn left out of the churchyard and walk downhill along a lane thought to follow the course of the Wansdyke. As the lane starts to rise, you pass the old vicarage on your right and a cottage called Yeomans (said to have been a beerhouse in the 19th century) on your left.
At a T junction, with the old school up to your right, bear left, and after passing the Old Forge turn left down Washpool Lane. Just before a row of redbrick cottages, look through a gate on your left to see the site of Culverhay Castle, neglected and overgrown, and on private land, so from here it is difficult to get any sense of its layout.
Carry on as the lane dwindles to a narrow track and heads steeply downhill before crossing Padley Brook on a narrow footbridge. Carry on uphill and after 150m follow a footpath sign through a gate on the left. A little way along, you can look across to the site of the castle, whose profile – especially if raked by the late-afternoon sun – can now been seen more clearly. After joining a tarmac lane, bear left downhill at a T junction. When you come to the old stables, turn left through a gate and head down through an avenue of beeches. Cross the brook at the bottom and head uphill through a field where there may be cows. Keep close to the hedge on your left, and when you come to a gate with a footpath sign, go through it and head up a drungway. A right turn at the top leads to steps up into the churchyard.
The long walk
This will take you mostly on quiet country lanes, with far reaching views across open country to the heights of Lansdown. It starts though with a walk along a green lane to the hamlet of Inglesbatch. From the churchyard, head uphill to Rectory Farm, beyond which is a 14th century tithe barn, that was restored in the 1990s.
Turn right and carry on past Manor Farm, which bears the crest of the Duchy of Cornwall. Tarmac soon gives way to a muddy green lane. After about after 500m it drops down a dark and rocky way, running with water, to a causeway across a brook, before climbing and continuing southwestward.
The return of tarmac signals your entry to Inglesbatch (batch being a local word for a tump or hill), past more Duchy properties. When you come to a T junction, turn left and, after 700m, turn left at a crossroads. Ignore a turning to the right a little way along, and carry on, with views ahead to Twerton Round Hill and Lansdown. After 1,500m, turn left to return to Englishcombe.
More on Englishcombe, Twerton Round Hill and the Wansdyke can be found in Andrew Swift’s Country Walks from Bath, published by Akeman Press, £12. For information, including a comprehensive history of the village visit: englishcombe.net. Limited roadside parking is available in the village, but please park considerately.