For a time at the dawn of the 19th century Trowbridge was dubbed the “Manchester of the West” for its booming textile industry.
The woollen cloth trade in Trowbridge had been around since the Medieval period, but went into overdrive with industrialisation, to the point where there were 20 large scale mills here in the early 1800s.
The Trowbridge Museum is in one of these factories and is an excellent resource for this half-forgotten trade.
The town has a lively arts scene, bolstered by the modern Civic Centre and the community-focussed Town Hall Arts.
You can shop at a healthy outdoor market on Wednesdays, and there’s no shortage of things to investigate in the area, like the bucolic towpath on the Kennet and Avon Canal, Medieval manor houses and romantic country gardens.
1. Trowbridge Museum
Appropriate for a town that made a name for its woollen cloth industry, the town museum is at the historic Salter’s Home Mill, which was incorporated into the Shires Shopping Centre in 1990. The museum has a massive inventory linked to the local textile trade, including a very rare Spinning Jenny, a teazle gig (for raising the nap of the cloth), a Fulling machine (for cleansing cloth), along with all kinds of tools and woollen cloth samples.
Keeping Trowbridge’s woollen heritage alive, the museum hosts craft workshops all year, when you can take a starter course in weaving with a loom and learn wet felting.
These classes were ongoing at the time of writing in March 2019, even while the museum was temporarily closed for renovations.
2. Farleigh Hungerford Castle
This castle, constructed in the 14th century and made more luxurious over time, is rare for the South West of England as it came through the Civil War without being slighted afterwards.
And although the property was abandoned not long after and fell into ruin, there’s lots to uncover.
The outer court is in a tremendous state of preservation, to the point where the initials and coat of arms of Sir Edward Hungerford can clearly be seen on the eastern gatehouse, dating to between 1516 and 1522. The Hungerford family lived here for 300 years up to the end of the 17th century, and the English Heritage audioguide lifts the lid on some pretty grim secrets, like Edward Hungerford’s murder by strangulation on the orders of his wife in 1522. The chapel was restored in the 18th century and is celebrated for its splendid Medieval wall paintings and unnerving human-shaped lead coffins.
3. St James’s Church
The first mention of St James’s Church is from 1115, while the majority of the building is Perpendicular Gothic from the late 15th century, given a sympathetic restoration in the mid-19th century.
See the nave’s panelled ceiling with winged cartouches, and the fan vaulting under the tower and north porch.
There are also tomb slabs in great condition dating back to the 12th century in the north porch.
In the graveyard look for the tomb of Thomas Helliker, a luddite who was hanged at just 19, despite having an alibi, for allegedly taking part in a machine-breaking riot at a woollen mill in 1803. His death is seen as an important step towards trade unions in the UK, and on the 200th anniversary of his death in 2003 there was a ceremony at this grave.
4. Kennet and Avon Canal
Inland navigation was made a lot easier in the 18th century with the construction of this 87-mile canal between the River Kennet at Newbury and the Thames at Reading, effectively linking the port city of Bristol with London.
Around Trowbridge the canal stays close to the natural course of the River Avon and is as rural as you’d hope, with bucolic scenery in both directions.
Head west to Bradford-on-Avon and there are long rows of trees for ample shade on sunny days, as well as the elegant Trowbridge Road Canal Bridge.
Going east, on the way to Semington there’s a sequence of swing bridges in lush countryside, and you’ll pass something rare in the UK, a solar energy farm.
On the canal in Trowbridge Hilperton Marina offers narrowboat rentals for a day, week or more, and has a well-stocked shop for voyagers.
5. Trowbridge Town Park
A well-appointed green space in the centre of Trowbridge, the Town Park is fringed by the Civic Centre, Town Hall and Castle Place Shopping Centre.
All down the west side is a long avenue with three rows of trees leading to the warm memorial at the top.
Just next to the avenue there’s a great little sports complex, complete with a crazy golf course, bowling green and tennis courts.
The kiosk, where you pay for the crazy golf, sells refreshments, while across the way, next to the Civic Centre is an action-packed play area for kids.
To the south you’ll find a lake fed by the River Biss, with a raised seating area on its east side.
You can use the park to get out into the countryside, tracing the course of the River Biss to the Biss Meadow Country Park.
6. Great Chalfield Manor and Garden
In the 1460s the powerful lawyer and businessman Thomas Tropenell built himself a palatial manor house at Great Chalfield.
There have been modifications over time, most substantially in the 19th century, but Tropenell would recognise the building standing today.
In the parlour a 15th-century portrait is thought to depict Tropenell’s likeness – a heavy set man wearing an ermine-trimmed gown, a money bag and possibly a beaver hat.
Another holdover from the 15th century is the Tropenell Cartulary, a document recording Tropenell’s progress as a businessman acquiring estates.
The National Trust gives guided tours at set times on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Sundays, while in the Arts and Crafts-style garden is a group of four giant clipped yews called “tree houses”. Great Chalfield Manor’s extensive original architecture has made it a favoured shooting location for period dramas like 2008’s The Other Boleyn Girl and the BBC series Poldark.
7. The Courts Garden
A classic English country garden, the Courts Garden was laid out in the early 20th century around a grand house from 1720. The garden is made up of a variety of contrasting “rooms”. There’s a formal garden with masterfully sculpted yews and florid borders, or an arboretum, which is much looser and is planted with exotic species from all over the world.
The water gardens are fabulous too for their dye pool and lily pond, and with paths weaving through the surrounding flowerbeds and borders, delivering you to a classical stone temple and benches for a moment of repose.
8. Trowbridge Civic Centre
In 2011 Trowbridge opened a state-of-the-art live entertainment and conference venue in front of the town park.
The Civic Centre stages touring musicians, particularly tribute acts, as well as well-known comedians, shows for kids, occasional club nights and festivals.
The Civic Centre is also an everyday amenity for the town, with a comfy lounge equipped with a self-serve Costa Coffee express machine and a bar stocked with craft gins.
Trowbridge’s Information centre is under the same roof, while just behind is the town’s Odeon cinema and a handful of fast-casual restaurants like Wagamama and Nando’s.
9. Westwood Manor
In the namesake village, Westwood Manor was begun in the 15th century and mixes late-Medieval architecture with Tudor and Jacobean.
The property had been altered until Edward Lister, a diplomat at the Ottoman court, took over and restored the interiors to their 17th-century glory.
Underneath newer layers of plaster he discovered original stuccowork, window glazing and wooden wall-panelling.
Lister was also an avid collector, amassing musical instruments, tapestries and furniture, while adding beautiful topiary to the garden.
On top of all that Lister was a master in needlework, so a lot of Westwood Manor’s upholstery, in Bargello, is by his own hand.
The manor is owned by the National Trust and opens to the public on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Sundays from April to the end of September.
10. Tithe Barn, Bradford-on-Avon
An extraordinary Medieval monument awaits in the neighbouring town of Bradford-on-Avon.
The Grade I listed Tithe Barn dates to the early 14th century and was part of an outlying landholding, or grange, belonging to Shaftesbury Abbey, a convent with some of the richest landholdings in England up to its dissolution by Henry VIII.
Landlords were able to store their produce in this building, subject to a 10% tax levied by the abbey.
Incredibly the barn, 51 metres long and 10 metres across, was in use until 1974 and is now looked after by English Heritage.
You can enter for free to look up in awe at the surviving timber cruck roof.
11. Picket and Clanger Wood
These 150 acres of mixed woodland south of Trowbridge are cared for by the Woodland Trust.
The environment at Picket and Clanger Wood hasn’t changed a great deal since it was noted in the Domesday Book in 1086, and being ancient woodland allows lots of species to flourish.
There are upwards of 35 different types of butterfly here, and 300 moth species, among them the bizarre narrow-bordered bee hawk moth.
Tawny owls, willow tits, green woodpeckers, greater spotted woodpeckers, buzzards and nuthatches are year-round residents.
The Woodland Trust also rates Picket and Clanger Wood as one of the ten best places in the UK to enjoy bluebells in spring.
12. Trowbridge Town Hall Arts
There’s a multidisciplinary hub for community arts at Trowbridge Town Hall.
A word on the building, which dates to 1889 and is a mix of styles, but mostly Jacobethan, with a bold Italian clock tower.
The building was donated to Trowbridge by the local businessman Sir William Roger Brown to mark Victoria’s Golden Jubilee.
It would be impossible to list everything going on at Town Hall Arts, but for a taster there are plays, dance performances, concerts, art classes, exhibitions, dance and drama workshops, comedy nights, craft workshops, open mic music nights and performances just for children.
13. Southwick Country Park
You can venture out into the countryside without having to travel far from Trowbridge at this 150-acre country park on the town’s south-west edge.
Southwick is a patchwork of fields linked by a network of mown grass paths and divided by hedges and clumps of woodland.
Those meadows are former farmland, and, as they’ve slowly returned to nature, wildflower species like common spotted orchids have started appearing.
At the park’s pond you may catch sight of a kingfisher in summer, while buzzards, a variety of owls and sparrow hawks are some of the many birds of prey recorded in the park.
14. Hope Nature Centre
Another reason to head to Southwick Country Park is for the Hope Nature Centre, an animal park in 15 acres, keeping donkeys, pigs, goats, sheep, alpacas, ducks, chickens and many more.
At the time of writing (2019) the park is applying for a zoo licence, so in future will have emus, owls, tortoises and parrots.
Hope Nature Centre is run by a charity, providing employment for vulnerable adults.
When you arrive you can buy some animal feed from the Park Hut so little ones can get up close and personal with the centre’s animals.
Check the calendar for seasonal events like a Mother’s Day lunch, Easter egg hunts and a Christmas market.
15. Wednesday Market
The pedestrianised Fore Street is bedecked with stalls on Wednesdays for the weekly market, selling fruit and vegetables, flowers, meat, poultry, eggs, fish, clothing, bread, pastries, nuts, confectionery and arts and crafts.
The market was launched in 2013 to accompany the covered market open Monday to Saturday at the Castle Place shopping centre.
Also on Fore Street on the second and fourth Fridays of the month there’s a farmers’ market where you can buy all vegetables, sausages (a Wiltshire speciality), poultry, jams, honey and cakes straight from the producer.
Something out of the ordinary here is unpasteurised milk, which can legally only be sold directly to the customer.