A pretty walk around Bibury

The Swan Hotel, busy with less tricksy customers today (photo: Kirsty Hartsiotis and Anthony Nanson)

The Swan Hotel, busy with less tricksy customers today (photo: Kirsty Hartsiotis and Anthony Nanson) - Credit: Kirsty Hartsiotis and Anthony Nanson

A winter walk around and about Bibury in celebration of a legendary prank played by a naughty student at the Swan Hotel

Minster Lovell

Minster Lovell - Credit: Archant

'The most beautiful village in England' - so William Morris described Bibury. The accolade has not been forgotten; least of all in Japan, from which many visitors come, even in the dead of winter, to enjoy the golden oolitic beauty of the aged buildings set against scenery of water meadow, river, and woods. Sprawling directly opposite the bridge over the Coln stands the Swan Hotel - the setting of a simple tale from bygone days.

An undergraduate, on his way to resume his studies at Oxford, stopped the night at the Swan. Having neither grant nor loan, he didn't have the cash to pay his bill. What he did have were wits quick enough to get him through the Oxford entrance exam. He says to the landlord, "Do you know how to draw mild ale and strong beer from the same cask?"

The landlord shook his head.

Looking down towards the floodplain of the Coln

Looking down towards the floodplain of the Coln - Credit: Kirsty Hartsiotis and Anthony Nanson

"I'll show you if you like," says the student. "It's easy when you know how."

Blinded by science, the landlord descended with the student to the dank cellar where the barrels of beer waited. Having cadged a joiner's drill from the landlord, the student bored a hole in one end of a full barrel.

"Quick, pop your finger in there to stop it for the moment."

Visitors enjoying the buildings of Arlington

Visitors enjoying the buildings of Arlington - Credit: Kirsty Hartsiotis and Anthony Nanson

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The landlord trustingly does as he's bid.

"That's for the mild ale," says the student.

Then he drills a hole in the other end. "Now pop in a finger to stop that one too."

The trout farm on the way back to Bibury

The trout farm on the way back to Bibury - Credit: Kirsty Hartsiotis and Anthony Nanson

The landlord stretches his arms along the barrel so he can use both hands to keep in the beer at both ends. "This one be for the strong beer, then?"

"What's strong to one man," says the student, "may be mild to another."

While the landlord was cogitating this theorem of relativity, the student pulled the bung from the top of the barrel and ran upstairs, got his horse from the stables, and rode away - leaving the landlord clinging to both ends of the barrel and yelling to his wife to come and rescue him.

Whether it was the student or the wife who talked, the story of the landlord's misfortune soon spread. People came in droves to see the place where the prank was played. Red-faced it made him, but the humiliation was worthwhile because he soon turned a tidy profit from all the drinks he sold the visitors. Perhaps that's how the place first became such a magnet for tourists.

The main folkloric fieldwork for this story is the hard task of having a beer in the Swan, but we've devised a figue-of-eight stroll around and about Bibury which can easily be accomplished on a fleet midwinter day.

The village does harbour another, much graver tale. We'll tell you about that along the way.

The walk

1. We parked on the B4425 a short way into Arlington. Walk down the road till you see a telephone box. Turn left opposite up a cul-de-sac. Go through a gate - 'Arlington Farm' - and bear left on the footpath - the 'Palladian Way' - proceeding to the left of the gravel drive to the farm.

2. Follow the footpath signs heading northwest through the fields. The far corner of one field is concealed by trees and scrub; just keep to the right to reach the stone slab stile.

3. After crossing a grass ride the footpath continues between two hedges. In the field on your right you can faintly make out the earthwork enclosing a prehistoric settlement.

4. Turn right along the lane, then right again down to the bridge leading into the hamlet of Ablington. Keep right, along the wall of Ablington Manor, whose spectacular gables, roofs, and cupola are visible above the wall. After a massive barn on your left, turn right again along the lane to Bibury.

5. Glimpses of the Coln eventually segue into the complex of pools forming a trout farm. Just past these you'll come to the Swan, where you can pause for refreshment. The events of the story, we believe, took place in the older, northern part of the building, where today there's a dining room rather than a taproom.

6. Crossing the bridge, you come - after the entrance to the trout farm - to the sturdy structure of Arlington Mill. This is the setting of Bibury's other legend, about a girl called Mary who married the miller incumbent at that time. He was a widower with three grown-up sons. Her parents favoured the marriage because he had wealth and status, but he was too old for Mary. While her husband was away on business, she fell in love with his eldest son. Matters came to a head one frigid winter night when the miller got home to find the two of them in flagrante. Enraged, he pushed his son from the top of the mill - to fall to his doom in the millpond. Mary he locked outside. That night, she froze to death on the waterside. Ghostly faces are sometimes seen peering from the mill's windows. Mary's ghost - Bibury's Grey Lady - haunts the path alongside Rack Isle, the expanse of water meadow between the channels of the river.

7. It's that haunted path that you will take now, from opposite the mill, to Arlington Row, the terrace of cottages beloved of William Morris, film-makers, and Japanese tourists. Turn left along the cottages, then, at the bottom, turn sharp right behind them following the footpath up a flight of steps.

8. At the top edge of the woods, keep left along the wall, passing a cricket ground on your right. Go through the wooden gate straight ahead - not the stile at the far corner - and descend a grassy drive. Turn left through another gate - on the Palladian Way again - and follow the bridleway past Court Farm and associated cottages and mill. Crossing the bridge, you'll see nice views of a stepped weir and the immense Bibury Court.

9. An alley on the left just past the grounds of Bibury Court leads to a wooden gate. Be sure to reclose this, then turn right up to the 'Square' of lovely cottages around a triangular green.

10. Descend the street from the left-hand corner of the Square to reach St Mary's Church. Well worth seeing in the north chancel window is a gorgeous image of Madonna and Child designed in 1927 by Karl Parsons.

11. From the church gates, follow the road to the left to rejoin the B4425. Walk along the pavement to the stone footbridge opposite the William Morris Tea Room. Proceed back up Arlington Row, but this time continue up the lane, then bear right at a junction. When you reach the B4425 again, turn left to return, past the Catherine Wheel pub, to the starting point of this route.

Anthony Nanson and Kirsty Hartsiotis are Stroud-based storytellers and writers. Their books include Gloucestershire Folk Tales, Wiltshire Folk Tales, and Gloucestershire Ghost Tales. Kirsty is also the curator of decorative and fine art at The Wilson, Cheltenham. Anthony runs the small press Awen Publications.

Need to know

Distance: 4 miles

Duration: 3 hours

Level: Easy walking on footpaths and roads. Some stiles and steps.

Parking: Road parking (grid reference 109067).

Toilets and refreshments: Swan Hotel; Bibury Trout Farm; William Morris Tea Room; Catherine Wheel.

Transport links: 855 Pulham's bus between Cirencester and Bourton-on-the-Water.

Maps: OS Outdoor

Leisure 45: The Cotswolds.

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