A taste of old England

For a family break that's truly relaxing, visit historic Malmesbury, says Siobhan Mulholland
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The Independent Travel

It was the picture of the hotel in one of those oh-so-aspirational parenting magazines that first took me to Malmesbury in Wiltshire. I was attracted by the photo of happy blond children sitting in a very English-looking garden on a summer's evening. That and the promise of a weekend break in a luxury hotel on "the edge of the Cotswolds". It all looked and sounded very glossy - like something out of a Richard Curtis film.

It was the picture of the hotel in one of those oh-so-aspirational parenting magazines that first took me to Malmesbury in Wiltshire. I was attracted by the photo of happy blond children sitting in a very English-looking garden on a summer's evening. That and the promise of a weekend break in a luxury hotel on "the edge of the Cotswolds". It all looked and sounded very glossy - like something out of a Richard Curtis film.

When I phoned to book, the receptionist assured me that the Old Bell Hotel was totally family friendly: with children's meals, a staffed playroom, and a listening service. I needed reassurance as I had yet to be convinced that a weekend break with children under five was actually a "break"; that, as a family, you didn't return home after a couple of nights away edgy from sleeping somewhere different and worn out from making small children "behave" in an alien environment.

My expectations were low: I had never been to Malmesbury before, and had only been to Wiltshire a handful of times; I had stayed in quite a few family-friendly hotels, but had never really felt at ease.

Maybe it was because I was expecting so little that I enjoyed it so much. Or maybe it was a combination of that and the fact that, for my family, the place worked - the hotel, the town, the area. In fact, it worked so well that we returned less than a year later to stay a couple more nights.

The Old Bell Hotel is in the centre of town, on top of a hill, and bang next door to Malmesbury Abbey - you can't miss it, really. It is said to be England's oldest hotel because there has been a hostelry of some sort or other on the site since 1220. It started out as a guesthouse for pilgrims visiting the town's Benedictine monastery. The hotel's Grade I listed building still has a few medieval bits and pieces remaining, although you do have to look hard to find them.

This is a small and cosy hotel, with a core that is lovely and old. The Edwardian extensions, in particular the restaurant, do not intrude on the real history of the place. The detail is utterly English; from the portraits on walls, to the log fires, oak furniture and food - which is good. But it's the proximity to the abbey that makes the present-day hostelry so different from all the olde worlde-type inns in the area cashing in on Cotswolds' appeal.

The abbey is just 30 metres from the hotel's front door, dominating the landscape with its powerful architecture. As you sit eating your cream tea in the hotel's elegant sitting room, the view of this 1,000-year-old place of worship is magnificent. And if you get a room at the front you can actually lie back in your bath and enjoy a vision of ecclesiastical arches.

The abbey has defined Malmesbury and its history. A monk called Aldhelm founded a monastery on the site in 676 and the area became a centre of pilgrimage.

The present building dates from the 12th century, and at one time had a spire taller than that of Salisbury Cathedral.

Today the building is just a third of its original size, but it is still hugely impressive and makes you wonder what it looked like in its full glory. It is open nearly every day of the year and is now Malmesbury's parish church. I doubt many parish churches can boast the tomb of a king and a carved Norman porch.

There is without question a lot of history in Malmesbury, and I read several claims to being the "oldest": "one of the oldest continuously inhabited sites in Britain", "the oldest borough in England" and of course we stayed in the country's most ancient hotel.

But it would be a shame to visit Malmesbury and not appreciate its impressive heritage. It is a conservation area with over 400 listed properties. The town centre is classic Cotswolds - distinctive light stone buildings, discreet and tasteful shop fronts, and a vast array of tea shops.

Shopping, history and architecture are not really appreciated by the under-fives, however. Our tour of the abbey was a short one, and the wander round the town centre was slow. What we enjoyed as a family was our walk across the fields to the neighbouring village of Lea. The three-mile round trip, with a long pub lunch in the middle, was perhaps my favourite day.

The urban-bred progeny appeared to enjoy it, too. It helped that the sun was shining, that there were cows in the fields and that not too much shoulder-carrying was called for.

The countryside here is the genuine article: over half the district has been declared an Area of Outstanding Beauty. Wiltshire is a county made for walking, boasting over 7,500 paths. On the morning we set off on our family jaunt, I saw many hard-core walkers embarking on what looked like full-on cross-country expeditions.

Malmesbury is a good base for lots of expeditions. It is just half-an-hour from Bath and 40 minutes from Bristol. Bowood House, the home of the Earl and Countess Shelburne, is nearby, and Westonbirt Arboretum three miles away.

We chose to spend a day at Cotswold Wildlife Park and Gardens at Burford. Despite the overcast day and constant drizzle it was still a good family day out. Surrounding a Victorian manor house we viewed the lions, leopards, pandas and giant tortoises. And when the rain started bucketing down we took refuge under cover to see the reptiles, insects and fruit bats.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

The Old Bell Hotel, Abbey Row, Malmesbury, Wiltshire SN16 0AG (01666 822344; www.oldbellhotel.com) is situated on top of a hill, so it is easy to find. Junction 17 of the M4 is five miles south. For those arriving by public transport, the nearest main line station is Chippenham, from which a taxi costs around £15.

STAYING THERE

The hotel has 31 bedrooms: 15 in the main house and the remainder in the coach house. The main house rooms have four-poster beds, views of the abbey or garden, beams, and the odd friendly ghost. But you won't find any of this in the coach house, which was converted 40 years ago. It was thought at the time a bad idea to imitate the style of the main house with all its heritage. So a Japanese theme was chosen instead.

Double rooms with breakfast cost from £110 to £200 depending on size. It is well worth taking advantage of the winter-breaks offer: rooms start at £250 for two nights, dinner, bed and breakfast; large doubles go for £362, and family suites for £440.

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