A warm welcome in Witney
PUBLISHED: 11:32 13 March 2018
On a soggy day in Oxfordshire, Tracy Spiers and family discover first-hand just how warm a Witney Blanket is
One thing I’ve learnt as a parent is that if you want children to do something they may not necessarily want to do, you need to give them an incentive or reward for doing it. The challenge of coming on a two-hour walk around a town they’d not seen before was not a problem for 10-year-old twins Rosie and Kezia. The issue was it was pouring with rain – and I mean pouring. Never-the-less, the mother was on a mission to complete Witney Wool & Blanket Trail despite the soggy outlook and ensure the mood did not descend like the rain and become a wet blanket. The reward therefore for embarking on such an adventure was a doughnut. As it happened, the real prize was finding out the fascinating heritage and discovering first-hand the warmth of a Witney Blanket.
A few years ago The Sunday Times selected the market town of Witney as one of the best places to live in Britain. It certainly has plenty going for it: free parking – and there is plenty of spaces including a multi-storey car park; all the High Street chain stores yet a plethora of independents; rich architecture and the charm of a traditional market town, preserved in its former glory whilst accommodating growth in a sympathetic way.
Today, I am highlighting its unique history relating to the wool trade and good quality blankets, which led to world-wide reputation. It is only 16 years ago that looms stopped working, ending an industry which lasted almost 1,000 years. Landmarks and traces of this can be seen throughout the town. And to help my research, I pop into Witney Visitor Information Centre where I meet Sharon Whitehill, who hands me the Witney Wool & Blanket Trail, devised a couple of years ago.
“This is very popular not only to those who have just moved into the area but for visitors too. It gives them an opportunity to see the town, learn about the history and take it away as a souvenir as well,” says Sharon.
“Personally, I love the wool heritage and history. We have the High Street stores but we do have our independent shops and I like the fact we have maintained our traditional market town. It is individual and we have a great community spirit in Witney.”
Most people would perhaps decide to do something else on a soggy weather day, but we doggedly stick to the plan. So, armed with umbrellas, we venture off, walking past the comfort of warm shops inside the modern shopping centre, The Woolgate, towards Church Green.
Pretending to be Mary Poppins, I dance in the rain towards St Mary’s Church and its imposing 15ft spire, much to the amusement of the twins and my husband. We note the Holloway’s Almhouses, willed to Witney (or specifically to six blanket makers’ widows) by John Holloway in 1723 and walk around the Green and back towards the Buttercross, possibly a simple market cross, although some believe it could also be a site of an ancient preaching cross, a shrine or a statue of the Virgin Mary. In 1606 Richard Ashcombe left £50 to build a house or roof it and in 1983 the clock turret was added by draper and wool merchant William Blake.
Turning down Langdale Gate, we venture onto a bridleway towards Cogges and cross the River Windrush, where I challenge the twins to a game of Pooh sticks. The river was key to Witney’s success, powering the fulling mills and providing volumes of clean water for many cloth-making processes. I am intrigued by the curious tower on St Mary’s Church at Cogges which has a square base, octagonal further up and a pyramid roof. Inside is a memorial to William Blake, a wool merchant who lived at Cogges Manor Farm next door. His family founded three schools in Witney as well as the Buttercross clock.
Now run by a charitable trust, the 20-acre Cogges Manor Farm, a Scheduled Ancient Monument, reopens after a winter break on March 17. A popular film location, it was transformed into Yew Tree Farm for Downton Abbey and has also appeared in Countryfile and Arthur & George, based on Julian Barnes’ book about the life of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
The trail tells us to retrace our steps and follow the footpath over Langel Common where Kezia and her umbrella try out the World War II pillbox, a rare prototype design known as the Norcon. We follow the footpath through a housing estate and the twins find key buildings which tell the Witney story, including Newland House, originally home to several generations of the Early family of blanket makers; Townsend’s Almhouses built for ‘six aged, unmarried women; and the three-storey Cotswold stone Woodgreen Blanket Factory, built around 1830 and owned and occupied by blanket manufacturer John Early (1783-1862. Rog reads about John Wesley preaching to workers on Woodgreen in 1761 and does an impression. Although it isn’t a true one as the preacher held his meetings indoors when it was wet! By now we are extremely cold with damp feet: Kezia’s are wet due to puddle jumping; mine because I am wearing the wrong boots. Rog’s prayers keep us going and we find out about William Smith who lived in Woodgreen House, started work as a bobbin weaver aged 9 and became a great entrepreneur. He and his wife Ann had 15 children! Five is more than enough for Rog and I! We find Weavers Cottage; Bluecoat School set up by wealthy clothier John Holloway in 1723; and the former Jolly Tucker alehouse, a favourite haunt of the local ‘tuckers’- the name given to workers in the finishing department.
Passing other historic buildings, we note West End Woollen Factory, which in 1910 consisted of yarn rooms, offices, wool stores, weaving shops, a mop room, a stable and cart shed. This group of buildings traditionally used for cloth production, is one of the largest and most complete to survive in Witney. It was sold in the 1960s.
Our journey takes us into the water meadow and we cross the upper Windrush. Years ago the fields would have been full of regimented rows of blanket-drying racks; although as soon as it started to rain, every tucker available helped get the cloth inside quickly. From here we can see the 110ft chimney of Woodford Mill, bought in 1888 by the Early family, when it became known as Witney Mill. It was the town’s last working blanket factory and closed in 2002.
Before we finish our trail, we take note of Witney and District Museum, open April to October, which holds collections relating to the blanket history as well as glove making and brewing and other important local artefacts; and Bridge Street Mill, once a spinning and weaving mill producing up to 450,000 blankets a year.
By now very cold and wet, we end our walk at The Witney Blanket Hall, at 100 High Street, where Angela Griffin wraps us up in the very item we have been finding out about – a Witney Blanket, or to be precise ‘The Point Blanket.’ We are in The Measuring Room, which is now a shop selling woollen throws and scarves. It was here where every blanket woven in Witney and for 20 miles around was weighed and given its authentification. In recent years The Blanket Hall, built in 1721, has been restored and is a legacy of Witney’s past. As part of the hall’s transformation, owner Richard Martin opened a rug shop inside the Blanket Hall, as well as a pie shop. We meet his daughter Eleanor in The Pie Shop, where the twins receive their reward. They agree it is better than a doughnut. It’s homemade ginger cake, which they quickly devour.
Despite the weather, it was definitely not a wet blanket affair. I do however recommend doing Witney Wool & Blanket Trail on a warmer day. We will come back in the summer to visit Witney Lake and the 37 hectare Country Park. This time to do a picturesque walk through tranquil landscape and ending with a good old-fashioned picnic, on a Witney Blanket of course!
Pick up a trail from Witney Visitor Information Centre in Welch Way, or download here.