CHIPPENHAM is a town that has been busy rediscovering its old heritage – paving the old market square with York stone, bringing back market day and introducing a farmers’ market, re-erecting the Butter Cross and cherishing its Roman remains. It has all the basic shops anyone would need, including Emery Gate, a new classical-style pedestrian shopping mall in Bath stone on the banks of the River Avon. It is a place for small family firms, with a business park on the western outskirts.
The set-piece village of Castle Combe, five miles away, is known as the prettiest village in England. In the 1960s, the arched bridge over the Bye brook and little stone cottages with steeply pitched roofs were transformed to serve as a seaport for the film of Dr Dolittle. It is a bit of a goldfish bowl for tourists, but at least the visitors are expected to leave their cars behind at the top of the village. Residents become very attached and properties rarely come on the market. A thatched cottage could cost from £475,000. The pubs – the Castle Inn and the White Hart – make it convivial. Children go to Bybrook Valley primary school in a neighbouring village.
Far quieter and just as pretty is Biddestone, slightly closer to Chippenham, which has the classic village centre with stone houses, duck pond, pubs and a recreation ground for football and cricket. An older three-bedroom detached cottage will cost around £440,000. To the north-east is East Tytherton, which is very small, has attractive stone houses, and is close enough to the M4 to be favoured by those who prefer the car to the train. Bremhill, too, is a charming village with a pub. A former resident, the vicar and poet Canon Bowles, kept the bells around the necks of his sheep tuned to thirds and fifths, and was a favourite visitor at Bowood House a few miles to the south. A cottagey three-bedroom semi would sell at £250,000 to £300,000.
People prefer Corsham, which has a Cotswold stone heart and a delicatessen proudly selling local produce. The Heritage Centre concerns itself with the wool trade and stone quarrying. A three-bedroom stone house on the historic High Street sells for around £375,000. A Grade II listed house with five bedrooms, garden and orchard would cost £895,000. On the two new developments prices range from £200,000 for a three-bedroom semi to £350,000 for a five-bedroom detached. Further towards Bath on the A4 is Box. At one time it housed the workers building the Great Western Railway for Brunel; now it harbours the occasional rock star and is considered ideal by those who want to be within easy reach of Bath, but also close to Chippenham railway station. Peter Gabriel’s Real World Studios are here. The village has a butcher, chemist and hairdresser, and one primary school. There are lots of local activities and the village fête, known as the Box Revels, usually lasts for a week. Two-bedroom stone cottages start from £160,000; larger houses will top the £500,000 mark. Local interests manage to be both horsey and cultural, and also sporting. Here you are in rugby country – thanks to the proliferation of boys’ public schools and the huge success of Bath Rugby Club.
Marshfield, west of Chippenham on the A420, has a shop, butcher, doctor, pet and garden supplies. A four-bedroom terraced house on the High Street, in what was once the last staging post to Bath, would cost around £410,000. This long grey-stone street is dominated by the church tower and has some little almshouses dating from 1625.
Very few local sons and daughters can afford to buy homes in the villages they grew up in. First-time buyers are eased out into small towns such as Calne, a former woollen town where the site of a Victorian bacon factory in the centre has been put down to grass. A farmers’ market is held once a month. Two-bedroom flats cost from £110,000; an 18th-century, Grade II listed, three-bedroom beamed house will weigh in at £365,000. Compton Basset has been made a conservation area because of its delightful chalk-stone cottages and 12th- and 13th-century church. A stock of surplus Ministry of Defence houses that are eagerly snapped up by younger buyers is known as Lower Compton.
Other villages worth looking at include Cherhill (pronounced Cheryl), towards Marlborough, which stands beside a huge Iron Age camp and white horse, and has its own primary school. Modern three-bedroom houses start at £200,000. Heddington is a small village with infant and primary schools and a Buddhist meditation centre, The Pagoda. It is very upmarket; a modern five-bedroom family house would sell for around £390,000. Another sought-after cluster of properties is at Charlcutt. The houses have breathtaking views of the countryside for 20 miles in all directions. Something with five bedrooms and a double garage will cost about £400,000. Although Sandy Lane straddles the A342, it is very beautiful and has some very lovely thatched houses. A two-bedroom cottage here might go for £325,000. Its population is mainly retired, and the residents tend to grow high beech hedges to guard their privacy. It is short of local activity, but contains a great deal of wealth. One London commuter from here prefers to travel by helicopter rather than by train. Unfortunately, the village is used as a short cut by motorists heading off the M4 for Southampton.
South of Chippenham the showcase village is Lacock, but the jumble of timbered houses in the gorgeous twisted streets around the Abbey are all in the hands of the National Trust. On the fringe a three-bedroom detached house costs around £395,000 or one of the four Huf Haus modern eco-houses starts at £1.15m. Part-time commuters might choose to live in some of the wonderful villages further south in the Avon valley, which are also served by the Melksham branch line to Bath.