Castle Combe is a pretty village, population 350, on the edge of the Cotswolds by the banks of the river Bybrook 5 miles or 8km northwest of Chippenham.
There are remnants of earth defences in the form of a Neolithic hill fort and a long barrow just to the northwest of the village close to the ancient Fosse Way. Evidence of more permanent settlement consists of shards of pottery, tiles and coins dating from the Roman occupation of the area around 100 A.D. Many of these artefacts are housed in the most interesting local museum in the village. Fosse Way was originally a defensive ditch running from Exeter in the southwest of England to Lincoln but was filled in to make a Roman Road and formed the western boundary of Roman controlled England.
Combe or cumbe is a Celtic word used to describe a narrow valley and the names Nether (Combe) and Upper (Combe) are of Saxon origin. The Neolithic hillfort was reoccupied by the Saxons as protection against marauding Danes who had by then occupied large tracts of land in the north and east of England.
Richard de Dunstanville became the first Norman baron following the invasion of England in 1066 and was believed to have built the castle, probably of wood, with motte and bailey on the same limestone spur overlooking the Bybrook that was occupied by the ancient Britons. There are few remnants of the site on land occupied by a private golf course but is inaccessible to the public. There was a tower on the site of 19th century origin but that was demolished in 1950.
From the Domesday Book of 1086 there were between 90 and 129 people working on the estate with three functioning mills in the area. The most prominent industry was sheep rearing.
In subsequent centuries the village expanded and prospered to become by medieval standards a small and important town and by the 15th century a weekly market and an annual sheep fair were held. Weaving, carried on in 50 or so weaving cottages lining the river banks, came to dominate the local industry with the fast flowing Bybrook powering the fulling mills. The beautiful 14th century manor house, today a luxury hotel, has been altered, enlarged and rebuilt many times since it was first built. There are many historic and interesting buildings from this era throughout the village including the old market Cross which adjoins the church of St Andrew. This church, in the centre of the lower part of the village and founded in the 13th century, has been extended over many years. Although the 16th century tower remains much was rebuilt in the mid 19th century. There are many interesting monuments, particularly the tomb of the Norman knight Sir Walter de Dunstanville, Baron of the village who died in 1270.
During the 16th century the weaving industry went into decline, a result of a catastrophic fall in the river level and increased competition from nearby weaving towns. Further decline following the Industrial Revolution occurred later during the 18th century and by the turn of the century cloth weaving had ceased altogether.
The main source of wealth was now agriculture, in particular sheep rearing, and prosperity returned with more building in the village. In the early part of the 19th century the population reached a peak of over 600 but thereafter was a steady fall in both employment and prosperity as this rural economy also declined and people migrated into nearby expanding towns.
In the spring of 1941 Castle Combe airfield, half a mile to the southeast of the village became operational and used as a practise landing ground by nearby R.A.F. Hullavington, home of No 9 Service Flying Training School. Over the next couple of years flying training expanded considerably and facilities were upgraded. Waterlogging, (often a problem on grass airfields) caused the suspension of flying on many occasions. To help minimise the problem steel tracking runways were laid and a tarmac perimeter track constructed around the outside of the airfield. At the end of the war flying ceased and the site was used for other purposes. In 1948 the airfield was sold when the site swapped its aero engines for car engines and the airfield became a motor-racing circuit. The perimeter track built in time of war was ready made for motor racing and post-war race meetings attracted large crowds.
First opened in 1950 with racing stars such as Stirling Moss, Mike Hawthorn, Roy Salvadori, Colin Chapman and John Surtees makes it one of the oldest race circuits to survive in England. The old air traffic control with some additions served as a control for the race circuit. Although motor racing was suspended in the 50’s (go-karting and motorcycling continued in the meantime) it restarted again in the 60’s. Motor and kart racing continues today with many other attractions and events such as Skid pan training courses, 4x4 offroad experience and various other rallies and events.
Fancy yourself as a race car driver? Why not take a course in driving a Formula Ford racing car from expert instructors and drive in the tracks of the famous racing stars.Castle Combe