Marlborough, in the north east corner of Wiltshire, is an archetypical, picturesque English market town, situated a few miles off the M4. The town is small enough to navigate easily as well as being on the edge of stunning countryside and a few miles from several heritage sites.
In 1086, Marlborough was recorded in the Domesday Book as “Merleberge” and legend has it that Merlin’s bones are buried here. In later years, the town was very much at the heart of things where Tudor kings hunted for deer, and coaches heading west from London stopped to feed and water their horses. “A pretty fair town for a street or two,” was Samuel Pepys’s verdict when he spent the night here 350 years ago. Today, Marlborough is still a hit as a slick, cosmopolitan town and has remained unspoiled, retaining its historic charm. It is also perfectly situated on the Great West Way, the new 125-mile touring route between London and Bristol – visitors can stop here to shop, eat and recharge their batteries as they meander along this ancient route by a combination of car, canal boat, bicycle, train and on foot.
Where To Shop
The high street, with its many listed buildings dating back to the 17th century, is said to be the second widest high street in Britain. You’ll find many of the stores you’d expect in any UK town centre, but there are also several small, individual boutiques and gift shops to explore. Towards the top end, womenswear store Kim Vine (92 High Street) stocks a range of niche designer labels as well as more popular brands (think Emporio Armani, MaxMara Weekend) and is a lovely place to just browse. Isabella, the owner of Willow & Wolf (95 High Street), travels the world to source clothes, gifts and homeware from independent and up and coming designers – there is something to buy in every corner of this shop which is housed in a characterful building with quirky old features. At Susie Watson Designs (114 High Street) you’ll find everything from hand-carved furniture to hand-made cushions and pottery; you can also browse their range of fabrics and lighting in their newly expanded showroom and quiz their designers on all things interiors. Valentiner (112 High Street) sells unusual greetings cards, cookware, as well as fashion accessories and skincare products. The White Horse Bookshop (136 High Street) is the best bookshop for miles and is a cultural destination in itself, with an art studio, and an event and exhibition space where they hold art workshops. The Merchant's House Shop (132 High Street) was originally set up in the front room of the house to raise funds for the restoration of the building; over the years it has become a larger enterprise and aims to provide presents for everyone – stock is varied from Emma Bridgewater pottery, William Yeoward glass, Glover and Smith (Wiltshire pewter company), to L'Occitane, Branche d'Olive toiletries and English soaps.
There’s more to Marlborough shopping than the high street. Seek out The Cat’s Whiskers (45 Kingsbury Street) which has a constantly changing range of antique and decorative items for the home and garden, including unusual one-offs made exclusively for them by local craftsmen. For a constantly changing range of antiques, Ropework Antiques (20 Kennet Place) won’t disappoint. Gorgeous leather goods, sourced locally as well as from Denmark, Italy and France, can be found at Mrs Upton’s Leathercraft of Marlborough (1 Old Hughenden Yard) which she opened nearly 60 years ago, originally as a saddlery shop. And if you’re looking for something to bring home for younger members of your family, head to traditional toy shop Ducklings (1a Hillier’s Yard) and sweet shop Marlborough Confectioners (7 Old Hughenden Yard) where owner Emma Waring Jones sells hand-made chocolates and fudge, retro sweets and American candy.
Where To Eat
For breakfast/brunch: The Food Gallery (47-48 High Street) serves excellent coffee and is the town’s most sociable, lively and relaxed hang out. Expect a delicious range of gourmet sandwiches, as well as perfect eggs Benedict, freshly made salads and chilli chocolate brownies to finish.
For tea: Bunce’s (100 High Street) is an all-day eatery but their freshly baked cakes and wide range of proper loose-leaf tea make it our choice for a welcome 4pm break from the shops and sights.
For lunch/dinner: Rick Stein (42a High Street) brings a taste of Cornwall to Wiltshire with its fresh and sustainable seafood, and is open daily for lunch and dinner, as well as breakfast at weekends. Australian-run restaurant Dan’s at The Crown (6-7 The Parade) serves avant garde food in cosy surroundings and has a lovely outdoor space for summer dining; the wine bar is open for walk-ins and the bar menu is available all day. The Marlborough branch of Elianes (Unit 8, 9 Hughenden Yard) is the latest outpost of the successful flagship restaurant in Hungerford and serves healthy, innovative dishes and caters for everyone, whether you’re a veggie, vegan, raw foodist or have food allergies.
Where To Walk
The Blue Plaque Walk is a gentle 2.5km stroll that starts at the Town Hall at the east end of the high street and will take you past some of the town’s history through the nine Blue Plaques – including houses lived in by William Golding, Samuel Pepys and the courtyard where Shakespeare’s company performed in the 1590s.
Savernake Forest lies a few miles south of the town and was once a popular hunting area for the royals. Today, it is privately owned but open to the public and managed by the Forestry Commission, and has several walks of varying length where you’ll come across veteran trees, including the imposing Big Belly Oak, one of the oldest oak trees in Britain.
Other popular walks include the Kennet & Avon Canal, the White Horse Trail and the Ridgeway, all within easy reach of the town.
Where To Visit
The Merchant’s House (132 High Street) was built after the Great Fire of Marlborough in 1653 as the home of prosperous silk mercer Thomas Bayly, his wife and nine children. The house boasts a magnificent oak staircase, original wall paintings and provides an insight into the lifestyle of a middle-class family in the 17th century.
Also on the high street, don’t miss a visit to St Peter’s Church – there has been a church on this site since 1090 and a few traces of that building remain. The present church was built in the 15th century but was made redundant in the 1970s. Today it acts as a community centre. A tour of the tower will take you up 139 steps to the top where you’ll enjoy fabulous views of the surrounding countryside and into the grounds of the College.
Ten miles from the town, along the A4, you’ll come to Silbury Hill, the largest artificial prehistoric mound in Europe built between about 2470 and 2350 BC. Head on to the village of Avebury, which is surrounded by a Neolithic henge monument, one of the best-known prehistoric sites in Britain with one of the largest megalithic stone circles in the world.
Where To Stay
If you’re planning an overnight stay, it is worth driving a few miles from the centre of Marlborough. About 12 miles away in the picturesque village of East Chisenbury, The Red Lion Freehouse & Troutbeck Guest House has five spacious and luxurious rooms on the bank of the River Avon. The pub serves Michelin-starred food but without all the stuffiness that tends to accompany fine dining. Also about 12 miles away in the other direction, down winding lanes in the sleepy village of Ham, you’ll find eight stylish rooms and locally sourced seasonal food at the recently revamped Crown & Anchor.
Look Forward To…
Open artists exhibitions are planned for July; August will see the launch of a boutique cinema; the Literature Festival, from 30th September to 3rd October, will have a varied programme of literary events for all ages and aims to champion new, upcoming writers as well as established names; the Dark Skies Festival, Marlborough’s first festival of arts and science dedicated to celebrating the night sky, is planned for 25th to 31st October.