The Prince of Wales, Charles, tours Ramsbury Estate on December 15, 2017 in Marlborough, England
A FLASH of creamy white rump catches my eye as a roe deer darts delicately across my path and disappears into the forest.
Startled, I almost trip over a brace of rusty-coloured pheasants seemingly rooted into the earth with shock.
I’m tramping along a section of The Ridgeway, an ancient 87-mile-long walking trail which threads its way through Buckinghamshire to Wiltshire.
Often described as Britain’s oldest road, as I take in this bucolic scene, I briefly wonder what century I’m in.
Tucked away in this verdant cleavage of the North Wessex Downs, the nearby village of Ramsbury is the epitome of rural England on this idyllic autumnal day.
Neatly thatched cottages glow like illuminated Love Hearts in the late afternoon sun, ruddy-faced men trot by on horses while cheery women in colourful headscarves cooee at their friends – this corner of north-east Wiltshire has more than a touch of the Jilly Coopers about it.
Once deemed a cut-through to the West Country, Wiltshire has often been overlooked for the delights of Somerset, Dorset and Devon. I pass signs for whimsically named places like Crooked Soley, Chilton Foliat, and my all-time favourite, Clench.
In recent years, it’s seen a resurgence in popularity, not least because it’s had starring roles in Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, as a faux Truro in Poldark and its Lacock Abbey has moonlighted as Hogwarts in two of the Harry Potter movies, and has been enticing city weekenders down to muddy up their 4x4s and box-fresh Hunter wellies in the Wiltshire countryside.
The Bell pub and restaurant, Ramsbury, Wiltshire, England, UK
As proof of its increased popularity, Ramsbury’s local pub, The Bell, a 300-year-old coaching inn, has been named the AA’s Pub of the Year 2017-2018. Dominating the main square, this cream-fronted pub abundant with floral tributes is as pretty as it is charming. I’ve managed to bag one of the rare-as-hensteeth rooms here for the weekend and I’m using this romp through the surrounding woodlands to work up an appetite.
There are nine rooms, six upstairs reached by a narrow staircase, and three over in the coach house, all with a countrychic vibe – muted tones, scrubbed oak and plenty of expensive soft furnishings. The pub attracts a loyal following thanks to its excellent beers and award-winning food. The restaurant is comfortable yet chic, while the bar is the place for more informal meals and drinks.
It’s part of the Ramsbury Estate, a 19,000-acre farm land which fringes into West Berkshire and Hampshire. The estate’s home farms are largely centred around Ramsbury and in the past few years, the name has become renowned for its boozy attributes, namely beer, gin and vodka.
Owned by Swedish retail magnate Stefan Persson, who brings his Nordic sustainability ideals to Ramsbury, its products have made it on to the rader of Prince Charles, who visited the estate and the pub last year. Visitors can follow in royal footsteps with a guided tour of the brewery and distillery, and the estate shop which also sells its own rapeseed oil, honey and cured meats and fish.
Prince Charles, Prince of Wales meets local school children in the village of Ramsbury
While renowned in the county for its beers, Ramsbury has only been in the hard spirit business since 2015 and is one of the few single estate distilleries in the UK. On a guided tour, I wander around the tanks in the brewery and copper stills in the distillery before finishing up in the tasting room and shop where I’m urged to sample Ramsbury’s gins and vodkas.
Back at the pub, which champions the estate’s bounty, I go to town at dinner with Ramsbury gin and tonics, some of their home-cured charcuterie and Cornishcaught monkfish with local lovage pesto spaghetti, before I squeeze myself up the stairs to bed.
After breakfast, it doesn’t take long to explore the village. The main street is little more than a clutch of thatched cottages, a church and quirky village stores.
Instead, I follow the Old Bath Road, once the main thoroughfare from London to the west, seven miles to Marlborough. Sliced by the River Kennet, Georgian coaching inns, red-brick townhouses and pastel-hued cottages line its wide, cobbled streets and with its twice-weekly market, rash of good restaurants and expensive schools, it’s easy to see why it’s one of Wiltshire’s most covetable places to live.
It’s worth nipping into the grounds of Marlborough College to see Merlin’s Mount, a neolithic knoll where the legendary wizard is said to be buried. Just mooch around the High Street and pick up local cheeses, meats and the odd antique from the market, or nip in to The Merchant’s House museum, which details the history of Marlborough in a 17th-century silk merchant’s house.
Avebury Neolithic Stone Circle, Avebury near Marlborough, Wiltshire, England, UK
On the southeastern flanks is the Savernake Forest, 4,500 acres of ancient forest famous for its Big Bellied Oaks.
Venturing further west still I come across Avebury, a one-pub village and home of the Avebury stones, the largest megalithic stone circle in the world. Unlike its glitzy neighbour, Stonehenge, visitors are allowed to wander freely around the granite stones. Being amid these giant monoliths is rather eerie yet calming, proved as I watch a pair of toddlers reach up to hug the aeons-old rocks.
From scenic rambles and home-grown spirits to mythical legends and mystical stones, a weekend in Wiltshire is magic.
The Bell (01672 520230/thebellramsbury.com) offers doubles from £120, B&B. Guided tours of the Ramsbury Estate brewery and distillery (01672 541407/ ramsbury.com) from £15.
Wiltshire tourism: visitwiltshire.co.uk