|Village of haunting beauty
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