Community, Cakes, Castle Combe
“I can’t walk for shit,” Mac laughs. “I walk to the bridge and back and it’s like a sharp pain in the hips, you know?”
“I know, I know,” says his friend, empathetically. “When I lie on my side it’s like being stabbed inside with a bunch of keys. What about sex?”
“Well, uh…,” Mac looks out the window.
“Right.” His friend smiles.
Mac’s sitting with his friend of 18 years by a bay window in a tavern in Castle Combe, a tiny village of cottages huddled on one street in a picturesque Wiltshire valley. He’s well put together in a thick woolen jumper and slacks, sitting with perfect posture: back straight, both feet solid on the floor. Only his silver hair is left to its own whims.
Originally from nearby Bath, Mac made Castle Combe his home over 20 years ago. Shortly after he moved, Good Weekend Guide named Castle Combe one of the best villages in the UK. The village’s quaint beauty has brought filmmakers from far and wide to shoot movies like Dr. Doolittle, War Horse and Stardust.
And where filmmakers shoot, tourists flock. The town hasn’t been physically altered thanks to strict preservation rules, but there’s a rippling tension among the village residents. Underneath the pristine image of the medieval weaving town Castle Combe once was, the community has fallen prey to its fame.
Mac’s wife rolls her eyes as she remembers the dust, noise and crowds that War Horse dragged through her hamlet for ten straight days. The village’s residents are now faced with a tough choice between living near the town circle or down by the river. It’s quieter by the bridge, but then you have to contend with the Bybrook River that once flooded all the cottages on the west side. There’s simply no ideal choice anymore.
Unlike his wife, Mac still likes to talk about his village’s fame. He works on small films and proudly supplies homemade cakes for the larger film crews that invade Castle Combe. But in spite of this, it seems he’d rather not engage with the tourist riffraff. Mac and his wife used to run a bed and breakfast, but they’ve retired to leaving cakes outside their home with a note asking customers to leave money in their mail slot. The city slicker visitors seem to fall under the magical spell of the village environment, where the individual accountability and trust that drove the village’s economy years ago still holds strong.
Mac’s had two heart attacks in the past eight years—he quit smoking two years ago, but he still enjoys his evening drinks and socializing at the bar. His British accent rings across the stone walls, interspersed with smile-inducing laughs; hearty laughs for the truly funny, and resigned laughs that help him deal with his contradictory feelings toward the changes he’s seen in the world around him.
According to Mac, 31 percent of the homes in the village are now for rent. A day of walking through the woods around Castle Combe takes one through villages made up of two or three houses covered in tangled brush, vines, moss and flowers. Each home is surrounded by large fields of grazing sheep and cattle.
But over the years the area has changed hands to part-time vacationers, and very few permanent, local residents are left.
“That doesn’t make a community then, does it?” says Mac.
Mac says the Japanese love the town, and wealthy people from around the world will buy or rent a cottage to use as a vacation home once or twice a year. For most of the year, these homes either sit empty or are rented. The Manor House Hotel across the river hosts more visitors than the two-digit population of Castle Combe itself.
“The community’s dying,” says Mac. Castle Combe residents are now mostly retired elders and outside business owners. “You know, the Tarot card lady committed suicide, people have left.” He runs his fingers over his glass as he sits in silence with his friend.
After a long pause, Mac asks after his friend’s children: a daughter and two sons, all in their twenties.
“Alexandra will be 25 next week,” his friend says, proudly. “She’s been working for two years, selling cloud services.”
“Really? Well, then,” says Mac.
“Yes, you know, Cumulonimbus, that kind of stuff.”
Mac laughs appreciatively in the company of one of his oldest friends, as he gazes out the window over his village of people he hardly knows.