Tewkesbury: A medieval marvel
PUBLISHED: 11:21 13 April 2018 | UPDATED: 11:54 13 April 2018
What’s black and white and well-bred all over? Tracy Spiers explores Tewkesbury’s abbey and ancient alleyways
It has one of the best medieval black-and-white townscapes in England and as most of it lies within a conservation area, over 350 of its buildings are listed. Tewkesbury is fantastically rich when it comes to history and it is the perfect place to step back in time, whilst enjoying the modern delights of unique shops and places to eat. It’s this dipping in out of different centuries that make it such a fun town to visit and it’s why I had every confidence of keeping a 76-year-old history buff, a former tourist information assistant, a lively 10-year-old and her equally lively intrepid reporter of a mother, occupied for a few hours.
Having picked up the popular Alleyways and Heritage Trails from Tewkesbury Heritage and Visitor Centre, we went in search of the town’s alleys, stepped back into 2018 for lunch and then returned to the past for the second trail. It proved a great way to get a good walk whilst challenging the grey matter and learning some fascinating facts.
It was at the end of the 17th century that alleyways started appearing in Tewkesbury due to an increased demand for housing and restricted land space. Built at right angles to the street, the alleyways acted as drains and rubbish dumps. Today they are a lot cleaner but it is easy to imagine the unhealthy, filthy cramped conditions locals would have experienced then. Originally there were about 90 alleyways. Today a third of them can be seen, all named after the families who once lived and owned the properties.
Machine Court is the starting point and it’s here where one of the cottages allegedly housed 30 people in the attic. Kezia enjoyed ducking and diving into the alleys and courts, proving it is a memorable way of exploring the town. We found Clark’s Alley, Eagles Alley which warns us ‘Commit No Nuisance’; Care Alley and Old Post Office Alley, where a post office was based until 1840. At Walls Court, which has Tudor work in the archway, the trail encouraged us to feel how cold and damp the alley would have been. I loved the alleyway at Cornell Books, full of bookshelves and lined with classic Penguins. At Warder’s Alley one will find an impressive mosaic Cheshire Cat, produced by pupils of Alderman Knight School with Eastnor Pottery and a detailed map of all the alleyways and courts of Tewkesbury, produced by Project Alleycat, which instigated this unique alley initiative.
Oyez, Oyez, Oyez!
As we popped out of an alley, Mum spotted a colourful character walking down the High Street. He looked very majestic in his striking red jacket and as if he had just stepped out of a history book. I ran after him. He towered above me. It was of course Tewkesbury Town Crier Michael Kean-Price who has been crying for 19 years. His proper title Town Sergeant and Common Crier stems back to the days when town sergeants were in charge of the town watch in case there was a fire. I was honoured as he allowed me to hold his eight-pound bell! It was clear he was proud of his role and his town.
“Tewkesbury is the centre of the universe. The people are friendly and the original medieval layout is protected, you can not mess about with the centre of Tewkesbury and of course the Abbey is absolutely amazing,” he told me.
“What is unique in the whole of the Commonwealth is the fact that Tewkesbury’s Town Sargent has to go to the top of Abbey tower for any Royal occasion – that’s 132ft and 201 steps – to issue a congratulatory proclamation. I’m about to have a knee operation but the fire brigade has said they will carry me to the top if I can’t walk the steps so we can keep up the tradition for Prince Harry’s wedding in May!”
Michael recalled the occasion he knew he wanted to be a town crier. “It was at the Royal Coronation in 1953 when Ted Preston, who was town crier for 42 years, cried for the first time. He was the voice of Tewkesbury and was like a thunderclap! I said to my father, I want to be him. I waited 46 years and I wouldn’t change it for anything.”
After a refreshment break in Café au Chocolat, the taste of heaven for chocolate lovers and a place to indulge in delicious coffees and cakes, we hopped back into the past again and headed for Tewkesbury Heritage Centre. On the outside of the building, the beadles hat is an example of an early 19th century trade sign, in days before most people could read. The staff here were very helpful and we enjoyed exploring upstairs in this restored 17th-century building. It took us back to Tewkesbury’s earliest settlers, through the Wars of the Roses, the Civil War, the industrial revolution into present day. An opportunity for children to dress up in traditional costume was taken up by my parents who pretended to be on the battle field with heavy helmets that hid most of their faces!
We set out to find The Royal Hop Pole, one of Tewkesbury’s coaching inns. Incidentally now and then I noticed an “I used to be a pub” sign in a shop window, part of a former trail. Apparently one in three of the buildings in Tewkesbury used to be a pub – that would have been a lot of ale drinking! Queen Mary stayed at The Royal Hop Pole in 1930 and Charles Dickens’ fictional character Mr Pickwick, in The Pickwick Papers, dined here and had a very merry time drinking ale, Madeira and port! We found a recently restored timber-framed building, dating back to 1475 in Church Street and visited The Old Baptist Chapel, believed to be one of the first small such chapels in southern England. We walked by the Abbey Mill, the foundations of which date back to the late 12th century when the River Avon was diverted into the town to power the Benedictine Monastery’s corn mill. Today’s building is late 18th century and was used as a mill until 1933 and featured in John Halifax, Gentleman, a novel by Dinah Craik, first published in 1856 and adapted for television by the BBC in 1974. The Bell Hotel also appeared in it as the house of wealthy tanner Abel Fletcher.
A busy and popular arts venue for live music, theatre, dance, film and comedy with a 370-seat auditorium and a bar is The Roses in Tewkesbury.
It has an exciting film programme of world, independent and UK film, as well as a diverse and wide-ranging programme with an enviable mix of both popular entertainment and innovative contemporary arts. There is a happy balance between the programming of new talent and emerging artists and the return of favourite shows.
The famous comic legend Eric Morecambe gave his last performance at The Roses on May 27, 1984. A conference room is named after him and is regularly used for meetings, craft activities, and rehearsals, as well for the wardrobe for The Roses’ annual pantomime.
One of the highlights in Tewkesbury’s townscape is The Abbey, which takes its place in the Heritage Trail. Founded in 1087 and consecrated in 1121, it has many tombs and chantries of the medieval baronage. It was the town’s people who saved this magnificent building when they bought the abbey from Henry VIII for £453 during the dissolution of the monasteries.
The fields to the south of the abbey are where the famous penultimate and decisive battle between the houses of York and Lancaster took place in 1471. It is worth getting hold of a Battle trail walk to find out more.
We ended our heritage lesson by taking note of Abbey Lawn Cottages and John Moore Museum, built in the late 15th century as a commercial shop venture for the Benedictine Monastery, before walking to The Town Museum. Housed in a fine 17th century half-timbered building, the museum pays tribute to the cultural history of Tewkesbury. Kezia enjoyed pretending to bash the hammer on one of the colourful fair models which highlights Tewkesbury as a centre for fairground manufacturing.
We also enjoyed looking upwards as we walked through the town, admiring the impressive timber-clad houses with their top-heavy appearances and unique details. We spotted the Golden Key on the town’s former ironmonger’s shop which I felt was rather symbolic to Tewkesbury. In a popular reading scheme, it is the golden key that leads the children on historic adventures when it starts to glow.
On this occasion, the 66 year age gap in our small party was irrelevant. Thanks to the informative Alleyways and Heritage Trails, we were given that special chance to step back in time, imagine what life was like centuries ago for the people who lived here and appreciate first-hand the charm and wonderful historic ambience the town of Tewkesbury has.
Dates to put in the diary:
April 1 and 29 – Tewkesbury Battlefield Guided Walks. Stroll around the battlefield; learn about the politics of the 15th century and the events of the battle of Tewkesbury. The walks leave from The Crescent, Gander Lane Tewkesbury and will last for about 2 hours.
No booking necessary. Meet on both occasions at 2.30pm.
May 6 - Battle of Tewkesbury Anniversary Walk. This is an all-day event commemorating the battle fought 547 years ago, consisting of talks, walks and refreshments. Cost £30 contact 07884106549.
May 6 and 7 - Armour in the Abbey. On Sunday, May 6, a Living History encampment, tourneys, demonstrations of armour, cannon and archery takes place in Abbey House gardens from 12 noon-4.30pm. On Monday, May 7 there will be activities in the Quire each hour from noon until 3 include Waytes and Measures, Medieval Music, Knighting ceremonies and Dressing a Knight.
Tower tours of the Abbey, weather permitting. Price £5 for one day £7.50 for two days, accompanied children under 16 free.
On the Sunday it’s hoped a yew tree will be planted on Windmill Hill in memory of Robert Hardy, patron of Tewkesbury Medieval Festival and also the Tewkesbury Battlefield Society.
May 19-20 - Tewkesbury’s Big Weekend is a key event in the town’s social diary and is a fun time for the whole community. As well as boat trips, riverside activities, demonstrations, fair rides and stalls, the event helps raise funds for Tewkesbury. This year’s event will have a Royal Wedding theme to the walking and river parades.
June 23-24 – Tewkesbury Food & Drink Festival - The festival will again be held in the stunning grounds of Tewkesbury Abbey and provide a weekend of fun and foodie delights.
July 14-15 - The Tewkesbury Medieval Festival is the largest free medieval re-enactment and fayre in Europe. Traditional medieval entertainment is provided by jugglers, musicians, dancers and jesters. The Medieval Market is full of stall holders selling everything from musical instruments to medieval style pots and pans. It is a great family day out and an insight into living history, marking the Battle of Tewkesbury which took place on May 4 1471. It was the final battle in the War of the Roses between the Houses of York and Lancaster. Prince Edward was killed either during or just after the battle and is now buried in Tewkesbury Abbey. The Battle of Tewkesbury is now fought every year with cannons firing, swords clashing and soldiers marching. Thousands of re-enactors and medieval enthusiasts from all around the world visit Tewkesbury as part of the Tewkesbury Medieval Festival. The battleground is filled with knights in armour, warriors and townsfolk in medieval dress. Many sleep in traditional tents and cook over open fires eating typical medieval food. The action takes place along the A38 Gloucester Road, Tewkesbury and gates open 11am-6pm on Saturday, 11am-5pm on Sunday.
October 9-10 - Tewkesbury Mop Fair
Tewkesbury Mop Fair celebrates 800 years of Fairs (since 1199) and is the Biggest Street Fair in the west, with traditional rides and stalls complemented with the very latest Thrill Rides. Shops, cafes, pubs and restaurants stay open while the Mop Fair takes over the medieval town centre with rides and stalls squeezed between fine Tudor buildings and in some of the town centre car parks. The Fair is presented by James Danter, a member of the famous Danter showman family. This outstanding heritage event is kept alive by Tewkesbury Fair Society. Tewkesbury’s Fairs were granted a Royal Charter in 1610. Galloping Horse Rides were manufactured in Tewkesbury until 1925.
November 25 - Tewkesbury Festival of Lights - the town’s traditional event for switching on the Christmas lights, promising a great day out for all the family and has a lovely Christmas market too.