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Village of haunting beauty
Bibury, Gloucestershire

by Sarah Shuckburgh

It’s not only visitors that flock to Bibury - this Cotswold spot is so beguiling, even ghosts cannot stay away, says Sarah Shuckburgh.

William Morris considered Bibury to be the most beautiful village in England. From 1871 until his death in 1896, this eminent Victorian poet, designer and artist lived in nearby Kelmscott Manor, and he liked to walk through the beautiful countryside surrounding Bibury to soothe his troubled heart. Following William Morris’s recommendation, my friend Jane and I have come to this corner of the Cotswolds to walk and chat, and to soothe our own troubled hearts. And we find that although busloads of tourists descend each day, Bibury remains utterly beguiling.

The timescale alone is enough to make one forget the cares of modern life. This valley has been inhabited since pre-historic times. Romans lived here, and early in the 8th century, Beaga’s Byng was a stronghold, named after the daughter of the Saxon owner, Beaga. The village appears in the Domesday Book as Becheberie, and in 1086 a corn mill already stood on the site where Arlington mill now stands.

We are staying at the Bibury Court Hotel, a Tudor manor house on the edge of the village. In the 19th century, a disputed inheritance led to years of litigation, and this court case is said to have inspired Charles Dickens to write ‘Bleak House’. Today, the hotel retains the feel of a family house, not bleak at all, but peaceful and unpretentious, with excellent food.

The narrow river Coln runs through the garden, and beyond stretch undulating sheep pastures and woods. After feasting on breakfast in an oak-beamed conservatory, Jane and I copy William Morris, and stride out through the Cotswold countryside. We clamber over stone stiles, and amble along grassy tracks edged with ancient dry stone walls. Our path leads down through a stand of vast beeches to the pretty village of Coln St Aldwyns, with a lovely old church and manor house. On the way back to Bibury, we follow the shallow river Coln, walking through lush water meadows fringed with trees. Reluctant to leave this idyllic spot, we lie by the stream, on pale, river-smoothed slabs of stone, watching fish dart through the crystal water. On the far bank, the hillside rises steeply - the densely wooded Sidelands are a blaze of gold, russet and yellow.

Back at Bibury Court, we open a creaky gate in the wall of the orchard garden, and find the Saxon church of St Mary, tucked away out of sight of the road, and surrounded by tall cedars. A friendly parishioner explains how the 8th century building was augmented throughout the middle ages, but fortunately escaped restoration by the Victorians. Two handsome doorways, with zigzag mouldings, survive from a Norman extension in 1180. In the 13th century, pointed arches were added, in the early English Gothic style. There are 14th century windows, and a 15th century Perpendicular tower. By the reign of Edward VI, money for building had dried up, and a certain John Harrington was able to buy the whole village for £225.

Prosperity returned in the 17th and 18th centuries - boom years for the local wool trade. Most of Bibury’s surviving stone cottages date from this time, including the famously picturesque Arlington Row, with its higgledy-piggledy roofs and tasteful sludge-green National Trust paintwork. As we cross Row Bridge, several dozen Japanese tourists alight from a coach, and reach for their cameras. Within five minutes, they are back on the bus, and gone.

Jane and I follow Water Lane, a narrow path along the edge of a low-lying water meadow, where, for centuries, wooden racks dried cloth from Arlington mill. Today Rack Isle - this beautiful stretch of tangled undergrowth between the Coln river and the mill stream - forms a four-acre nature reserve, attracting water voles, great crested newts, kingfishers, frogs and early marsh orchids.

In the 19th century, the Arlington corn mill was the busiest in the district, but the machinery was dismantled to make armaments during the First World War, and now the building contains only a café and a disappointing museum of dusty exhibits. I was glad to read that the mill has several ghosts, including the Grey Lady - a young girl called Mary, who married an elderly miller, but fell in love with his eldest son. In a rage, the miller pushed his son from the top of the mill, and then shut Mary outside, where she froze to death on the banks of the river Coln. Her ghost haunts the village to this day.

Next to the mill, we come across a brilliant place for a family day out, and we feel quite sad (for a couple of minutes) that we haven’t got half a dozen small children with us. Bibury Trout Farm was established in 1902, by local naturalist Arthur Severn, and today is one of the oldest and prettiest working trout farms in the country. Springs feed a series of natural-looking ponds, and shoals of fish lurk beneath the glassy surface, waiting for a meal. We watch as a small child toddles to the bank and throws a fistful of the farm’s special non-smelly floating fish food into the water. As soon as the brown pellets hit the surface, the water starts to churn and boil as dozens of speckled backs and pale, slippery bellies thrash and jostle for the food. Trout are aptly named, from the Greek word trogte, meaning greedy. Twisting grey, pink and silvery fish leap from the water, fins and tails glinting in iridescent colours. The child squeals with delight as her legs are splashed. Ducks and swans paddle speedily towards the whirlpool, snapping at the pellets and pushing the fish away.

At the fishing pond, children are busy catching their supper. The water is crowded with trout, swimming nonchalantly past the rods. For £2 you get a line, net, bucket - and a truncheon for clubbing your catch to death. Here youngsters get a gruesome glimpse of where fish fingers come from. For 20p, staff will help you gut the fish, and then you can cook it on a barbecue. If you’ve forgotten to bring plates, cutlery and matches, you can buy a handy kit. Jane and I can hardly wait to have grandchildren so we can bring them here.

We peer into other ponds, trying to identify native brown trout, grayling and pike, sticklebacks, millers’ thumbs, crayfish and lampreys. A warden tells us that the 15 acres attract other wildlife too - voles and shrews, mink and otters, kingfishers, cormorants and, the bane of all fish farms, herons. Several trout have red, bloody heads and ripped scales - but having survived the heron’s attack, they will soon become tasty snacks for large pike.

As we walk back through the village through the gathering dusk, we look hopefully for the Grey Lady of Arlington mill. Swans seem to hover, ghostly white on the shadowy water of the river. Birds flock noisily towards the tall trees beyond Rack Isle. Cheery lights twinkle from cottage windows, including those of the tiny post office, which is closing for the night as we walk by. A couple who have been photographing Arlington Row in the twilight, return to their car and drive away. Bibury church forms a graceful silhouette against the translucent sky. And as we turn into the hotel drive, a tawny owl glides silently over our heads. Any troubles in our hearts are well and truly soothed.

First published by the Telegraph

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