Malmesbury

First published in Town guides by

The year was 1010, and the place was Malmesbury. A young brother from the Abbey was climbing steadily up the tower of the already ancient building, a weird home-made contraption in his hands. Looking partly like the wings of a bat, partly like primitive scaffolding, this strange invention was to go down in history.

Brother Elmer was about to put his life, literally into his hands, and try to fly.

Without hesitation, he donned his wings, and launched himself off the high abbey tower. For two hundred glorious yards, Elmer flew. But on landing, he was to learn two important things: the first was that a tail was required for successful flight; the second was that his Abbot was non-too-impressed.

The Abbot banned any further experiments, which, probably, was just as well. For Elmer's legacies from the attempt were two broken legs (he was crippled for the rest of his long life) - and a commemorative stained glass window in the present-day Malmesbury Abbey.

There's little wonder that Elmer wanted to fly from this particular town. Malmesbury stands proud on a hill, surrounded by water, herself soaring over the land around her.

It's a perfect defensive position, and that could account for why the land has been settled since the earliest of times. As England's oldest borough, Malmesbury was granted a charter by AD 924. But historians believe that King Alfred may well have recognised it as early as 880.

The present-day Abbey dates from around 1180 - well over 100 years after Elmer's brave attempt - but it stands on the site of a Benedictine monastery, founded by St Aldhelm in the 7th Century. It's a fraction of the size it once was; the church that now stands is the original nave, magnificent with its Romanesque pillars that support the vaulted roof. Do study the south porch, renowned for its stunning Norman sculptures which depict Bible scenes.

Another must-see is the tomb of the town's great benefactor, and the first king of all England, King Athelstan - though it's an empty tomb. It is thought that his remains may now lie beneath the vegetable bed of the neighbouring Abbey House.

In the centre of the town is the Cross Hayes, once upon a time the Market Square. As this leads into Silver Street, you can turn into St John's Street and see the Old Courtroom and the St John's Almshouses. The Old Courtroom has seen a turbulent past.

In AD930, King Athelstan called upon Malmesbury's men to resist yet another raid from the marauding Danes. The brave fighters repelled the invaders, and were granted common land called King's Heath.

The almshouses have been "sheltered housing" since 1694. But they are older than this. The arch used to be the entrance to a priory and the hospital of St John.

The pretty little street of King's Wall owes nothing, in fact, to royalty. This was named after Matthew King, an Elizabethan mill owner and MP. Following round to the Market Cross, you'll see why the town boasts one of the most unusual centres in the country.

It dates from around 1500, and is decorated with figures of saints and the Crucifixion. It was said to be built "for poore folkes to stande dry when rain cummeth" - a very useful addition for any English town.

If it isn't raining, then the River Walk is a must. Geese once used to be driven over Goose Bridge to graze in the water meadows.

And don't forget to visit the Athelstan Museum. It's filled with fascinating relics and facts - including another, even less successful, pilot. Walter Powell, a local MP, disappeared out to sea in a balloon in 1881, and was never heard of again.

He should have stayed at home, and enjoyed a drink and a meal in one of the town's historic pubs or eating houses. Or even just shopped at the many fascinating boutiques that still offer their wares.

For tales of more modern valour, look to the Wilts and Gloucestershire Standard which has its own office in Malmesbury, and reports weekly on the goings-on. There may not be so many would-be aviators around nowadays, but there's still plenty of interest on the ground.

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