..Barry Napier..

Marlborough: Deliciously English

Marlborough is a lovely small town in Wiltshire, just south of Swindon. Georgian buildings decorate either side of the High Street. With hundreds of listed buildings, the town is far more ancient than its Georgian facade implies.

Every building is different and most are constructed of old red brick instead of the usual yellow Cotswold stone, topped by old brown tiles. Shops, alleyways and cottages mingle quite happily in a rustic setting.

Like many British rural towns, Marlborough has collected modern buildings around itself. This, however, is not a problem for visitors, who are simply charmed by its busy but very English character. It is this ethos of "Englishness" that attracts me.

The High Street (said to be the widest in Britain) now allows for parking down its middle (there is also plenty of parking behind the High Street). This is because an entire row of houses was burned to the ground about five years ago. But even these were not part of ancient Marlborough, which was a major stopping point on the stage-coach route between London and Bath. Then, the extra-wide road was accessed by troops, carriages and cattle.

Before that the town grew from a small village, having witnessed the presence of Neolithic man, Bronze-age tribes and Iron-age families, Roman Legions, and every other era right up to the present day. It is, then, one of the oldest habitation sites in Europe, as the surrounding countryside with its ancient burial mounds prove.

Marlborough is the legendary home of Merlin, King Arthur's magician. The very name of the town comes from "Merle Barrow" or Merlin's Tomb...he is said to be buried in the grounds of the elite Marlborough College, which was built on the site of a much earlier royal castle, close to the town centre.

With such a varied and evocative past, Marlborough is an exciting, interesting place to be. Step onto the High Street, down the winding narrow streets, or venture carefully up an even narrower alleyway, and "ancient" fills the air! The river behind High Street is full of swans, ducks and other birds, making this a wonderful tourism location with scope for countless happy memories. And if you enjoy music, there is even an international jazz festival every July.

Marlborough is what you expect an old rural English town to be, and does not disappoint. It is not an invention, where local planners have devised mock traditions or pseudo-old buildings to draw tourists who know no better. This is the real thing - quintessential England, hearkening back to much gentler, nicer times.

Because it is genuine, the town affects its people, who are themselves rustic and gentle in the best of senses. Live in modern brashness and you become brash...live in old England and you become truly English.

That's why you must take an English break in Polly's Tea Rooms. Crammed with pictures and genuine features, and offering traditional fare, you will know you have just had tea just as they did before the Second World War. The other food venues have offerings just as nice, but Polly's has gone out of its way to remain part of old England. If you want to take home food that can be traced back to its origin, and with a real English background, you can buy from a farm shop...game turkeys, geese, ducks; plus partridge, mallard, pheasant, hare and venison.

And, of course, there are more than enough traditional, old pubs, for those pub lunches and slow drinks during a warm summer afternoon (or a winter day is just as good!). The larger places, like The Ivy House Hotel, offer traditional British meals, too. Added to the old architecture, that's a bonus.

Carrying on the traditional theme, locally produced cheeses, hand-made preserves, and wines are all available in another typically British shop, Mackintosh. There are many old shops to choose from - just wander around and take delight in every one, knowing they are not the usual run-of-the-mill places selling tired old mass-produced stuff.

The Merchant's House on the High Street was erected in the time of Cromwell, following a serious fire in what was then a small village. Get there on a Saturday and wonder at its ancient heritage and interior. Equally old churches stand like sentinels at each end of the High Street.

The town is twinned with its American name-sake, Marlborough, Connecticut, which is suitably small in size, with about 5000 inhabitants. Also like Marlborough, England, its businesses are family-run. Good choice of twins!

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March 2006 Barry Napier.