Situated in a narrow combe, made by the By Brook as it flows southwards on its journey to the river Avon and the sea, lies what is arguably the prettiest village in England. Indeed, it was given this title by a national newspaper in 1962 and from then the, not unsubstantial, number of visitors of the 19th and early 20th centuries increased dramatically. The By Brook, which made the steep sided combe, also made the village, with its fast flowing waters giving power to the medieval fulling mills, creating a prosperous medieval cloth industry. The village is on oolitic limestone at the edge of the Cotswolds, and from Roman times onwards quarrying in the area has provided local building stone. A Roman road, the Fosse Way, runs from south-west to north-east to the west of the village, forming part of the north western parish boundary.
Indications of prehistoric activity are few, worked flints from the mesolithic, neolithic and bronze age periods, may only indicate short term occupation. There were however extensive settlements in this area in the Roman period, with a settlement to the west of the parish, south east of West Kington, a villa on the edge of Truckle Hill, just over the parish boundary, and a Romano–British settlement on high ground, across the river from the church of St. Andrew. This small settlement has yielded much pottery and fragments of roof tiles and was probably a farmstead with several buildings. There is evidence that this site was occupied for a long time. Pottery fragments have been found on four other sites in the parish and, in 1825/6, a hoard of 300 Roman brass coins was found with a stone that was possibly an altar to Diana. This could have been the site of a Romano– British villa. This was a well-settled and extensively farmed landscape, with settlements either side of the Fosse Way and a shrine to Apollo at Nettleton. As with most places in Wiltshire there is little evidence of Saxon occupation as most structures and utensils were made of wood. We do know however that Saxons settled in Castle Combe from the details in the Domesday Book.
In 1086 the Come (Castle Combe) estate comprised 10 hides, which was sufficient land for 10 plough teams. The landholder, Humphrey de L’Isle, retained 4¾ hides with 13 serfs operating four plough teams. Tenants occupied the remaining hides and operated six plough teams. There were three mills, probably at Colham (Upper and Lower) and the main village mill, 12 acres of meadow, and an area of woodland about 3 miles by 1½ miles. The population of the whole estate would have been between 90 and 120 people.
There may not have been a nucleated village in Saxon times and both castle and church do not seem to have been built until the early 12th century, after which settlement probably grew around the site of the church. The castle was of the motte and bailey type, probably dating to 1140 and consisted of four baileys on an earthen mound. The owners, the Dunstanville family, created a deer park and Robert de Dunstanville was made Baron of Castle Combe. The ‘Castle’ had been added to Combe after 1140 to distinguish it from other Combes in the neighbourhood. There is landscape evidence of man-made rabbit warrens and strip lynchets, the latter formed when farmland needed to expand to satisfy a growing population. It is known that there was a tilting ground behind the castle, while in the village the market cross was built, followed at a later date by a market house. The Baron of Castle Combe obtained a Monday market for the village and a sheep fair on St George’s Day (April 23rd). The economic importance of sheep held sway here for several centuries.
By the early 14th century Castle Combe was held by Lord Badlesmere, who was executed in 1322. By 1339 the Baronry was large, comprising 85 manors, under a variety of owners, and 76 Knight’s Fees. After the Baron died Sir Richard Scrope, Lord of Bolton, paid 1,000 marks (£667) in 1375 for the wardship of the co-heiresses. Conforming to the practice of the time he betrothed them to three of his sons and so obtained permanent control of a large estate. In the early 15th century the widowed Lady Millicent Scrope married Sir John Fastolf, who distinguished himself during the wars in France. It is unlikely that he ever came to Castle Combe but his decisions, implemented by able stewards, had profound effects on the conduct of the estate and the villagers. It is believed that Shakespeare based Falstaf in Henry VI on Sir John but somewhat unfavourably altered his military behaviour. Sir John died, at the age of 80, in 1459 and bequeathed money to build the church tower and a chapel on the south side of the chancel. After his death the lordship reverted to Stephen Scrope.
From the writings of Fastolf’s steward, William Wrycester, we can gain a good picture of life in Castle Combe in the 15th century. For the estate Fastolf bought from the Crown both market and fair and the privilege that tenants should be free of taxes levied to pay the expenses of knights summonsed to Parliament. He also paid for the right that no animals should be taken for the King’s use. To clothe his troops in France he bought the local red and white cloth, known as Castlecombe, for a period of 22 years. This was worth £100 per year to the village where the cloth was made in several workshops and fulled at Colham Mill. The expansion of the cloth trade brought an influx of workers from other areas and some clothiers became rich. One of them, William Heyne, left a fortune of £2,000 in 1435.
There was much building in the village to accommodate the growing population and two more mills were also erected. There were restrictions however and permission was needed to build and any new house was inspected by the steward, who checked that it was well built. Some 50 houses were built at this period, laying the foundations and street pattern of the village we see today. At this time the manor house itself consisted of a large hall with gallery, one or two large chambers, and smaller private rooms for the family.
Among other restrictions placed upon villagers were the limit to one inn or alehouse, and no dice (the most popular medieval form of gambling) could be played. Everyone had to pay for a licence to inherit property, or to marry anyone outside the manor of Castle Combe. Despite restrictions this was a prosperous time for the community with barley and wheat grown alongside the sheep pastures that provided the wool for the weavers. There were trout in the By Brook and a fishery was let for 12 pence (5p) a year. However a few years after Falstaf’s death the level of the By Brook fell, and in some summers it was nearly dry. The fullers and other cloth workers left to work in the valley of the river Avon or in other Cotswold valleys. Industrial prosperity was over and the population decreased.
The community’s wealth now came only from farming, with little cloth being woven. This seems to be reflected in a lack of building in the 16th century although the Old Court House, in the Market Place, was erected early in the century and Gable Cottage and adjacent buildings also date from this century. The market was still thriving and in 1590 the market cross was repaired.
During the 17th century the deer park was disimparked when it was found that sheep farming was far more profitable. Enclosures of land were made on higher ground, indicating improvements in farming practice. The village economy must have been quite good and tradesmen were of sufficient standing to issue their own tokens, used instead of small coins. Around 1664 the medieval manor house was demolished and rebuilt, forming the central core of the present manor. Colham Mill Farmhouse has a datestone of 1669 and many other buildings including the White Hart, the Malt House, the Castle Hotel, Church Cottage, Bridge House, the Old Post Office, the Old Rectory, Reading Room Cottage and the Old Smithy, were built in this century. This seems to have been a second period of prosperity when the 15th century houses were rebuilt or modernised. The Dower House was also built in the late 17th century.
Further building took place in the 18th century with houses in Water Lane, West Street and Waterside. New farmhouses were built, perhaps reflecting further enclosures of land, and these included Hans Farmhouse, c.1700, and Upper Combe Farmhouse. The manor still showed a pervading influence on the village, owning most of the property, and in the early 19th century the Scropes had the bridge at the bottom of The Street completely rebuilt. A new school was built in 1826 and became the district school for people within five miles of the village. It also had a lending library attached to it. The market however had more or less ceased and the market house was demolished in 1840.
In the 1850s there was a total of 557 people living in 128 houses in the parish, which included Ford, Bybrook, Shrub and Colham. The parish was fairly self sufficient with four general shops, two butchers, a baker, a tailor and a shoemaker. There was a carpenter, a plumber and glazier, two blacksmiths, five masons and two plasterers and tilers. Two mills were grinding corn and grist while another, Lower Dean Mill, was used for papermaking. There was also a cooper and a tallow chandler. There were three inns and public houses, The Salutation Inn, the white Hart, and the Scrope's Arms. The village had a postmaster and two surgeons, while two carriers transported goods and people to and from local markets. The land was divided between eight farms.
For nearly 500 years the village had been owned by the Scrope family and George Poulet Scrope, who had married into the family and taken the name, researched the Baronry and wrote his very useful ‘History of Castle Combe’. In 1866 his wife died and he sold the estate and moved away. It was bought by the Gorst family and Edward Chaddock Lowndes (née Gorst – he had to change his name on inheriting) spent much of his fortune on improving the estate and the manor house. He re-introduced deer into the park, where there was a herd of 200 fallow deer in the early 20th century. The pattern of rural life began to change in the 20th century. Nettleton Mill closed before the First World War and Gatcombe Mill in c.1925. The number of shops and businesses decreased, but one improvement, from c.1905 to 1914, led to the streets being lit by oil lamps. In the 1920s and 1930s the baker, William Hurley, became famous for his bread and lardy cakes, winning many national medals. He left for Chippenham in 1937 and the business was taken over by an employee, becoming Brown’s Bakery. Mains water was brought to the village in 1939-40 but some cottages were not connected until after the Second World War.
At the start of the war an airfield was established, to the east of the village, as a landing ground and this was upgraded in 1940, and again in 1942. There were two runways with five hangers, on the eastern and south-eastern side of the site, and a control tower that is still used at the motor racing circuit. There were many other buildings on the site, while down below the Manor was used as a hospital. As with many other large houses used as institutions during the war the Manor was not re-occupied and was sold with the estate in 1947. Many tenants were able to buy the houses in which they were living and in 1949 the Manor House was bought by Major and Mrs Allen and converted into a country hotel.
Also in 1949 the runways of the airfield were converted into a 14 mile circuit for motor cycle and car racing. It was developed by Mrs Thomas (née Gorst) and the Bristol Motor Cycle and Light Car Club. The first International meeting was held in 1955 but the circuit was closed for car racing when expensive, more stringent, safety measurers were required for circuits. Go kart racing had begun in 1960 and car racing was reintroduced later. The circuit still holds several meetings each year.
In 1950 the remaining stone tower of the old castle was demolished and all that remains now is some masonry on the mound. Mrs Thomas gave an old barn and a piece of land for a children’s playground and site for meetings. In 1952 the village hall was built from stones of the old barn. A sewerage works was built above Long Dean Mill in 1954 and to take advantage of this public toilets were built in the village. The final cottage in the parish was connected to the mains drainage system in 1962. The last mill, Long Dean Mill, ceased in 1956 and in 1962 Colham Mill was demolished. It had been powered by a water turbine most recently, grinding corn and then machinery for timber cutting until 1955.
After being voted the Prettiest Village in England in 1962 the village was chosen as the location for '‘The Story of Doctor Doolittle’ by 20th Century Fox. Parts of the village were rebuilt, the By Brook was made into a fishing harbour, plastic cobbles were laid over roads and pavements, and villagers became accustomed to film stars Rex Harrison and Anthony Newley living among them. Since then Castle Combe has been firmly on the tourist trail and a car park has been made to the north east of the village to prevent the cars of visitors jamming the narrow streets.