Lacock: A Most Unique Village

On a summer evening last year I led a free walk around Lacock for the Festival of Archaeology.  It was a showery day and I had my fingers crossed for a dry walk, which unfortunately didn’t work!  We had to shelter at least once while the heavens emptied a torrent on us.  The village is a huge draw for tourists, not just for the Abbey, but also to see the where so many dramas and movies have been filmed, Harry Potter not the least, both in the village and in the Abbey.  What makes Lacock so special?  The newly-revised Pevsner volume on Wiltshire edited by Julian Orbach states that Lacock village is ‘one of the best in the country, compact and without any loss of scale anywhere, and with a wealth of medieval buildings, both apparent and disguised.  The extraordinary degree of preservation is thanks to the Talbot family who owned nearly every house until they gave the estate to the National Trust in 1958’.

Outside 2-5 High Street, Lacock – a range of medieval timber-framed hall houses.  Image credit: Tom Sunley

The village as it stands is said to date substantially from the early 14th century, though there is a documented settlement before then, probably soon after Lacock Abbey was founded in 1229 by Ela, Countess of Salisbury, as an Augustinian nunnery.  At the same time she also founded Hinton Charterhouse Priory in Somerset, about 20 miles from here.  Both were in memory of her husband William Longspee, whose tomb can be seen in Salisbury Cathedral.

The village was started soon after the Abbey and is said to have been completed in 1247.  Very little of this original village remains, though there are 13th century fragments of what look to be the very first building on the site inside at King John’s Hunting Lodge in Church Street. Every one of the buildings lining the four core streets are listed, and there are more grade II* buildings than you can shake a stick at, something of a rarity considering the normal rate of development elsewhere.  Here you can see seven centuries of buildings in a 10-minute walk around in a variety of materials: ancient crucks, timber-frame, rubblestone, fine ashlar and brick.  What you won’t see is concrete or anything after about 1926, the date of the extension to the 18th century Red House in Church Street.

Our walk started outside the Red Lion pub, a hostelry dating from just after 1722.  The wide High Street was documented as the first part of the village to be built and was the heart of the village in the 18th century, when the market was held here, and in the impressive 14th century Manor farm barn which is opposite.  The great arched entrance from the High Street is still visible, though it is now long since blocked up. This was not the earliest market place, however. When Lacock was first built the original market was held in the wide open space outside St Cyriac’s church.  The narrowness of Church Street suddenly flares out at the junction with East Street, as the houses step back.  The Abbey was granted a fair in 1237 and a weekly market on Tuesdays in 1242.  At that time the village was bustling not with tourists as now, but with tradesmen such as grocers, dyers, masons, butchers, blacksmiths, carpenters, wheelwrights and more over the centuries.  During the 19th century Lacock had its own workhouse, situated at the east end of Church Street opposite St Cyriac’s.  This became a tanyard by the mid-19th century and a unique drying shed for bark remains, used as part of the tanning process.  The gravelled yard where cars now park was once occupied by tanning pits.  The smell must have been horrific, urine being one of the components of the leather cure.

Though Lacock is small by village standards, it had a pub on every street (the Georgian stone Carpenter’s Arms backs onto East Street); the impressive mellow brick Red Lion in the High Street with its unique semi-circular pediment; the quaint George Inn, licensed since 1361 once using canine slave labour to turn the spit, and the ancient charm of the Sign of the Angel, a very beautiful and impressive stone building of 1480 said to have a priest hole over the arched passageway.

The more you look, the further you realise how rich the architectural heritage of Lacock is, quite apart from the splendour of the Abbey and its environs.  Our walk took an hour and half, and even then, some buildings, remarkable in their own right, were not looked at simply to get around in the time we had.  Lacock’s historic buildings extends further than the four main streets, Cantax Hill, Lover’s Walk, The Wharf and Bowden Hill all have remarkable buildings worth remarking on beyond the scope of this blog.

Dorothy Treasure

Principal Buildings Historian, Wiltshire Buildings Record

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