It's altogether fitting that the place where photography was invented is itself an extremely good place to take photographs.
The village of Lacock, at the foot of the Cotswold Hills about 10 miles east of Bath, is where William Henry Fox Talbot, who spent most of his life (1800-1877) here, developed the modern photographic process a century and a half ago. With so many of Fox Talbot's photo ops still in place -- leaning houses, rock fences giving way to rich green fields, arched stone footbridges over tiny bubbling waterfalls -- it's not hard to see why an inventor would be inspired to preserve such images forever.
The entire village has been given historic-preservation status by the English National Trust, which means its four streets, wandering little brook and three dozen buildings all remain much as they were in Victorian times. Nearly all the homes and other buildings date from the 13th through the 18th centuries.
Besides the village itself, there are two main attractions, with entrances side by side: 13th-century Lacock Abbey, the medieval manorial home of Fox Talbot's ancestors, and a 16th-century brick barn that now houses the Fox Talbot Museum.
Anyone who has ever aimed a camera can't help but be fascinated by the museum's well-displayed explanation of how Fox Talbot and Louis Daguerre, a Frenchman, both came up with photographic processes. In 1837 the "daguerreotype" gained immediate popularity, while Fox Talbot quietly continued his experiments in a different direction. In the end, of course, it was Fox Talbot's methods that led to the developing and printing process, surpassing the daguerreotype's limitations as a one-time impression that did not allow duplication of the original image.
"I do not profess to have perfected an art, but to have commenced one, the limits of which it is not possible at present exactly to ascertain. I only claim to have based this new art upon a secure foundation," Fox Talbot wrote in 1839.
Unlike many museums, Lacock's provides a warts-and-all impression of its subject. Fox Talbot emerges as a brilliant but obsessive figure who must rank among the most memorable of the breed known as the English eccentric. One biographer, for example, described his constant taking of notes and making entries in his voluminous diaries as the "almost fanatical urge to record every minute of his life and to retain every record."
Only two years after unveiling his "photogenic drawing" experiments, Fox Talbot sought and was granted the first of several patents from Queen Victoria. In 1844 he published a book of photographs. Appropriately, "The Pencil of Nature" was about photography itself, and many of the photos from that book can be matched with the scenes still existing in and around Lacock.
Besides nature, however, Fox Talbot's early photos foreshadowed that irresistible use of the camera: Many of the shots were of his family. It's reassuring to note that, like most amateurs, he occasionally cut off his subjects' feet, or positioned them so that background objects appear to be growing out of the tops of their heads.
In addition to many photos, the museum has a large collection of photographic equipment, including a crude "camera obscura" that operated on the same principle as today's sensitive single-lens reflex models, an 1858 Dallmeyer Twin Lens "stereo" camera, a World War I "gun" camera, some midget cameras from the 1930s and some of the earliest Kodak Brownies.
The museum also has an audiovisual presentation and a shop selling photography books and, of course, film for touring camera buffs who exhaust their supply while walking around Lacock. Locals, by the way, pronounce it "LAY-cock" rather than the "la-COCK," but it may be less because of the typical English Francophobia than because of the Saxon word lacu ("little stream"), for the Bide Brook that wends so delightfully through the middle of the village.
The abbey itself, dating back to 1232, is also open to visitors, and many of its rooms and furnishings have been preserved. Other buildings worth noting -- and photographing -- include a medieval hunting lodge, the 15th-century church, the Tithe Barn, the Packhorse Bridge across the brook, the Chamberlain's House and various homes with the distinctive Elizabethan exposed-beam construction.
There are a handful of pubs, B&Bs and tearooms in and around the village, including the Red Lion, an inn that serves solid pints of the local bitter in front of the large open fireplace. Those who stop here can partake of homemade English country food such as beef pies and pork in mustard seed sauce; there are three pleasant and reasonably priced bedrooms upstairs for overnight guests.
For more information about Lacock, contact the National Trust Wessex Regional Office, Stourton, Near Warminster, Wiltshire BA12 6QD, England, 011-44-747-840-224.
Timothy Harper is a freelance writer based in London.