On these, shores, the word Marlborough is redolent with history. John Churchill, created first duke of Marlborough after a diplomatic switch of allegiance to William of Orange, was one of the foremost, and the most successful, of military commanders at the time of the Restoration/Glorious Revolution (for more info, see Neal Stephenson’s sprawling Baroque Cycle, in which Churchill features regularly). Visiting the town today, you’ll find an attractive medium-sized country town, with an apparently famously wide high street – nice, but not the sort of grand gesture you’d expect for such a hero. Never mind though – Churchill had to console himself with Blenheim Palace, which might have helped. Actually, Marlborough’s refined bustle harks back to a lengthy history – the town’s name allegedly comes from Merlin’s Barrow, the bearded wizard reputedly being buried in the grounds of the College. Certainly there are archaeological remains from older than 2000BC, progressing through iron age buckets and Roman coins (at Cunetio, two miles east) and a Norman castle and mint, and notables such as William the Conqueror (hunted here), King John (married here), King Henry III (held parliament here), Thomas Wolsey (ordained here) and William Golding (raised here), all passed through.
There’s a nice, quick run-through of a lot of things you forgot from school there. No doubt they would disapprove at the town’s big educational establishment, Marlborough College, site of the aforementioned Barrow. Marlborough today is actually a rather pleasant town, with plenty of quaint olde worlde buildings – you wouldn’t, perhaps, get a sense of the overbearing weight of history compared to some other towns who ham it up more; Marlborough is a bit too select to flaunt itself in such ways. You’ll notice that from the shops in the wide high street (after you’ve spent the most stressful half-hour of your life trying to park): plenty of these are just that cut above the normal high street fare (Phase 8, Joules, White Stuff, that sort of thing).
That bodes well for the charity shops though, of which there are several. It’s tricky to pick the best here, there are several contenders, all based around the high street. The sort-of exception is the always excellent Helen & Douglas House Hospice, which is slightly up the hill on Kingsbury Street, opposite the artfully tatty Cat’s Whiskers. It yielded two t-shirts for me, and cheerfully so: it turns out that I’m a size smaller than I used to be. Must be all that car-less commuting, I heartily recommend it.
A new discovery on me that morning, the Prospect House Hospice in Marlborough turns out to much less odd-smelling, and a little cheaper than its Hungerford counterpart (although not that much cheaper). It’s a big old shop, with a large upstairs full of interesting bread bins and vast racks of antique books. On the same stretch is a smaller, more typical Blue Cross shop – the wife got a mustard handbag here, as mustard is absolutely in, in this household. On the opposite side of the high street is a well-stocked Oxfam Bookshop (with two (two!) boxes of maps) and a charming RSPCA shop which winds all the way back into the building, into snugs and down steps. There’s huge displays of trinketry, and I even picked up a DVD of Blood Simple, which I’ve had an eye peeled for for ages.
If we had a longer day, Marlborough would make a great stop for some proper exploration. There’s all sorts of hills and side-alleys leading off the main street, and the river Kennet which flows through is quite charming. The sheer volume of history makes it worth a trip if you’re into that sort of thing – interesting for me, as I tend to write off Wiltshire as being bucolic to the point of empty. Marlborough was certainly worth a stop though, and might find itself a convenient break point now my family members have moved. No doubt we’ll be back, if only for a pub lunch (of which many options).
Find: Marlborough @ Google Maps
Get there: you’ll have to get there from Pewsey or Swindon if you’re coming by train, but there’s plenty of buses no doubt.
Consume with: there were many, many options for a pub lunch along the high street. We plumped for the Royal Oak, a Greene King pub, but there’s also the Castle & Ball, the Green Dragon and the Bear. If you’re after something a bit littler, how about the Mustard Seed bookshop and cafe sat right over the river.
Visit: Jazz festival, food festival, but my pick would be the intriguing Big & Little Mop Fair. No idea.
Overall rating: three bags in mustard