East Knoyle is a small Wiltshire village which sits just inside the border of the Cranborne Chase Area of Natural Beauty. Only 3 miles south of the A303, that artery to the South west which is filled with traffic jams of holiday makers heading to the beaches of Devon and Cornwall, the village is an ideal place to stop for a break where you can walk through woods, admire sweeping valley views, absorb some history and enjoy some excellent local food.
This quiet village is a place for those who are ‘in the know’. While others speed relentlessly by, or stop for a quick break at the dismal concrete services owned by a billionaire, just five minutes down the road is a peaceful, rural sanctuary, home to some beautiful old buildings, a splendid pub and the birthplace of one of Britain’s greatest architects, Sir Christopher Wren.
East Knoyle is a parish of several small hamlets all intermingled by a network of narrow, tree-lined roads which twist and turn up and down the steep sides of the valley. Driving here is not for the faint hearted as each new bend brings with it a horror of meeting someone coming in the opposite direction and the inevitable ensuant reversing.
It is well worth the journey though, for you end up in an attractive and peaceful village, flourishing and well cared for, a mixture of old cottages with wisps of smoke drifting out of chimneys, thatched houses, expansive bungalows sheltering behind cobblestone walls, and greenery everywhere; wild plants growing out of every cracked wall, ivy and climbers over every building, lanes lined with banks of colourful wild flowers and towering cow parsley.
The centre of the village is the crossroads of Church Road and Wise Lane. A large grassy green next to the road is home to the war memorial, a memorial to Christopher Wren, a thriving community shop and a large children’s playground, which is barely visible behind sculpted hedges.
Just a few yards up Church Lane is the church of St. Mary’s, a Grade I listed building which has been the focal point of the community for over 1000 years. It is a traditional church of weathered grey stone with a squat little tower which sports a blue clock charmingly askew. Part of the church is Saxon, with later additions of a 13th century nave and a 15th century tower.
The church is fronted by a prodigious yew tree with a thick, peeling trunk, its soft green needles falling on the cracked chest tomb underneath. You can walk amongst the lichen clad gravestones around the back of the church and up a steep hill to get a wonderful view, with church, trees and rooftops blending into a backdrop of hills, valleys and endless sky.
The church is usually open and is well worth a visit. It is simple inside with white walls, parabolic arches and a timbered roof with little in the way of interior decoration. There are some vibrant stained glass windows and interesting memorials but the the highlight is the plasterwork in the chancel, which was actually created by a 17th century rector, Dr Christopher Wren, who designed some scenes from the Bible and inscriptions.
Dr Wren was Rector of East Knoyle for 20 years and it was while living in the village that his son was born, the man who would grow up to be one of England’s true Renaissance men, Sir Christopher Wren.
Christopher Wren was an astronomer, geometrician, physicist, mathematician and founder of the Royal Society amongst his other achievements, but he is remembered mainly for his architecture. After the Great Fire of London he was King’s Surveyor, tasked with rebuilding over 50 churches in the capital, including what is widely considered to be the pinnacle of his accomplishments, St Paul’s Cathedral. His Baroque style of architecture graces many of the most important buildings in England’s history.
Behind the war memorial is Wren’s Shop, a true community enterprise staffed mostly by volunteers, which is open every day.
Like all good village shops, it seems to sell everything, most of which is locally sourced. Groceries are on display in wicker baskets, bread is baked daily, there are pastries, coffee, freshly made sandwiches and wines selected by the village sommelier. The noticeboard outside is covered in fluttering handwritten signs advertising local clubs and events, and the red telephone box has been converted to hold a defibrillator. The church may once have been the hub of the community, but I strongly suspect that it is now this delightful shop.
Opposite the shop is the monument to Christopher Wren, a low stone monument with the sides barely visible between the ivy climbing down from the top and the moss creeping up from the base.
In a house near this spot
was born on 20th October 1632
Sir Christopher Wren
Architect Mathematician Patriot
The Son of the Rector of this Parish
The house no longer exists, apparently knocked down in the 1800s to allow for the road to be widened, which seems something of a tragedy.
L: This is thought to be the house Christopher Wren was born in
R: The house which replaced it which was demolished in the 1950s
Less than a mile up Wise Lane, another impossibly narrow road flanked by thick woodland, you find the East Knoyle Windmill, standing alone on a small hill overlooking a deep valley.
This was once a barley meal mill, built in the 17th century and used until 1896. Built from rubble as a functional building with very little ornamentation, it lost its sails in 1911 when a firework was released during the celebrations for the Coronation of George V and set the wooden sails aflame.
The mill was converted to an artist’s studio in the 1920s, but seems to no longer be in use. It does still looked cared for and is apparently entirely unchanged. You can walk all around the mill, to admire the views over the valley, full of green fields and gentle hills.
Just opposite the mill are the grounds of Clouds House, a once stately home which is now a famous treatment centre, where rich celebrities go to be cured of their addictions. Some very famous people have wandered through these woods, not that you are likely to see any of them.
Another 5 minute walk through the winding lanes leads to a large glade with views over the valley on one side and the Fox & Hounds, a 15th century country pub, on the other. With wood-burning fires, flagstone floors and a small but blossoming garden, this is no manicured village pub curated for visitors, this is the real thing where the locals gather. The food is excellent, with far more vegetarian options than you get in most rural locations, and I still remember with fondness the truly fantastic homemade Eton Mess I had there a few years ago.
In less than 5 minutes you can be back on the A303 and back in the eternal queues to get to the West country. As you re-join the road at Willoughby Hedge Service Station, you can reflect with some relief that you avoided the soulless concrete car park with its giant Starbucks, or eating warm sandwiches wrapped in plastic triangles with cars screeching past you; instead you wandered through a beautiful village with valley views, ate locally sourced food and saw the birthplace of one of England’s greatest men.
How to get to East Knoyle
Turn of the A303 at Willoughby Hedge Service Station on to the B3089. Turn right at the crossroads onto the A350 which will take you straight into the centre of the village. This route avoids the narrow roads.
There is free parking near the village shop or by the church.
The village shop is open 7 days a week from 8am.
The church is open 10am - 4pm.
If you want to stay a while longer, there is a beautiful glamping site in open meadows overlooking the valley which is just a ten minute walk away from the village. It has shepherds huts and bell tents, a wood fired hot tub and home cooked, locally sourced food delivered to your fire pit. Find out more >>