‘The Waggon and Horses’, Beckhampton – walk in the steps of Dickens!


Those of you who are aware of my literary tastes, know that they are both obscure and catholic; everything from Alison Uttley (who I was brought up on) to Giovanni Guareschi (who, I suppose, deserves a capital ‘C’, rather than a lower case one). I adore Victorian/Edwardian writing, both fiction and non-fiction, so when the chance came to put all that together with a Sunday lunch…..I could not resist!

For many years I lived in Wiltshire, one of those counties that is heavily populated in the extreme north and the south, and has large stretches of sparsely settled farmland, dotted with small villages and towns, in between. The Marlborough Downs are very beautiful and offer the visitor many wonderful things to see. I was on my way east from visiting my brother and sister-in-law, on one of my periodic visits ‘home’ to the U.K., and decided to stop and see Avebury and Silbury Hill. The morning sped by, and when I hit the old A4 road which used to be the main highway between London and Bristol via Bath, I realized that I was hungry. Since it was Sunday, it only sufficed to look for a convivial pub to satisfy the inner man. I drove around the next bend – and gave loud chuckle. There, ahead me was a pub – and WHAT a pub! Not just a fine example of a thatched 16th century coaching inn, which would have wonderful atmosphere, but an inn famous in literature, the ‘Waggon and Horses’, Beckhampton around which one part of ‘The Pickwick Papers'(1986/7) was based. As you know, this was a part-work, which was eventually bound together and published as Dickens first novel. Some of the episodes are rather dark, but ‘The Bagman’s Story’ is a bright, cheerful little tale, all about the adventures of Tom Smart, a commercial traveller, or bagman, for a London firm. Here is Tom, finding the inn on a raw winter’s night…

“Tom cast a hasty glance at the upper part of the house as he threw the reins to the hostler, and stuck the whip in the box. It was a strange old place, built of a kind of shingle, inlaid, as it were, with cross-beams, with gabled-topped windows projecting completely over the pathway, and a low door with a dark porch, and a couple of steep steps leading down into the house, instead of the modern fashion of half a dozen shallow ones leading up to it. It was a comfortable-looking place though, for there was a strong cheerful light in the bar-window, which shed a bright ray across the road, and even lighted up the hedge on the other side; and there was a red flickering light in the opposite window, one moment but faintly discernible, and the next gleaming strongly through the drawn curtains, which intimated that a rousing fire was blazing within. Marking these little evidences with the eye of an experienced traveller, Tom dismounted with as much agility as his half-frozen limbs would permit, and entered the house”

Apparently, Dickens stayed here on numerous occasions, as travellers between London and Bath and Bristol would have done in pre-railway days, although in Dickens’ time it could have been called ‘The Bear’ or even ‘The Hare and Hounds’! The building is in limestone, with a thatched roof, and dates from 1669, with early 20th century additions. It is a Grade II Listed Building by English Heritage (Building # 311472), and was granted this status on 29th April, 1987. The inn is constructed in four bays, with a ‘forward wing’, and lean-to, at the rear. Features include a lovely two-storey porch in local limestone, and beautiful stone-mullioned bay windows. The interior features period oak beams, chamfered, with lark’s tongue ends. A Listed Building brings with it many legal responsibilities and duties. For example, ANY work, internal or external, is subject to approval by the local planning authority (Avebury Parish Council or ultimately, Wiltshire County Council in large matters). On 15th March, 2011, Avebury Parish Council consented to minor internal alterations, including the re-opening of certain door openings and the widening of others; on 3rd July, 2012, approval was given for the ‘replacement of the oak entrance door’. It doesn’t ALWAYS go the owner’s way however. On the 7th August, 2011, the inn applied for permission to renew an advertising sign near the entrance to Silbury Hill Visitors’ Car Park. Since this is in a World Heritage Site, as defined by the United Nations, the attempt to renew the sign, as it existed, was denied. The ‘Waggon and Horses’ is a ‘managed house’ in that it is owned by the local brewery, Wadsworth’s, and they install a management team. The proximity to Silbury Hill, Avebury, West Kennett Long Barrow and Stonehenge make for a solid business base for the inn, and this is further cemented by there being a stop outside for the ‘Henge Hopper’, a mini-bus service linking these attractions as well as the Wiltshire Heritage Museum in Devises, and many other local historic sites.

When I had parked my car, I strolled into the dark and welcoming interior. It was all that I had imagined – and the board outside which had said ‘British Roast Sunday Lunch’ was not joking! I was faced with a choice of roast beef, turkey or pork and all the trimmings; I chose – of course – roast beef and Yorkshire pudding. It was magnificent. I have a feeling Charles Dickens would have approved.

The ‘Waggon and Horses’, Beckhampton, Wiltshire. Walk in the steps of Dickens.

Bucket list, ladies and gentlemen, bucket list!

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