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Tewkesbury: Bigger and better than ever

PUBLISHED: 11:41 20 March 2017 | UPDATED: 11:41 20 March 2017

Tewkesbury (c) Caron Badkin / Shutterstock

Tewkesbury (c) Caron Badkin / Shutterstock

Caron Badkin

Forget the bad press, says Tracy Spiers, visitors are flooding back to the beautiful riverside town of Tewkesbury

Five centuries ago the people of Tewkesbury did something remarkably generous. They raised £453 to insure their precious Abbey survived. It was a huge amount of money back in the 16th century but it’s thanks to their forward-thinking and faithfulness that we can enjoy the facility today.

The town may look very different with modern buildings sandwiched between the impressive black and white timber-framed medieval houses, but as I visit in the 21st century, this sense of generosity of spirit is still evident. And although Tewkesbury is proud of its medieval heritage and has more than 350 buildings which are listed as being of special architectural or historical interest, it is far from medieval in attitude.

It is testimony to a group of often unseen hard-working volunteers that the town hosts some key social events which attracts thousands from all over the world. Back in 1984, a few like-minded people decided it would be fun to re-enact an important part of Tewkesbury’s history – the Battle of Tewkesbury, the final battle in the War of the Roses between the Houses of York and Lancaster. Little did they realise that Tewkesbury Medieval Festival would become the largest free medieval re-enactment and fayre in Europe.

This takes place in July, but before I unpack it further, I want to highlight another event – a relatively new arrival on the town’s social scene – which is, as the name suggests Tewkesbury’s Big Weekend, although the weekend is fast stretching to a whole week.

One of the organisers Carol Crilly says the event came about after Tewkesbury featured in the press once too often.

“About four years ago we felt there was a drop in footfall due to the flood coverage and we wanted to do something that reminded everyone that Tewkesbury was still open for business. The town seemed to be at an all-time low and it was a way of lifting spirits. We used to have a carnival, and we felt why not do it again in a new way,” she explains.

Since 2013, the event has lived up its name ‘big’ and although the weekend officially is Friday, May 12 to Sunday, May 14, a preliminary event takes place on Saturday, May 6 with a Happy Dog Charity Fun Day sponsored by Clippers Groomers, at the Vineyards.

“We are hoping to have other things going on over the days leading up to the weekend, so I guess Tewkesbury Big Weekend is turning into Tewkesbury Big Week!”

“We hope it will bring the community together. It gives them something to look forward to, it encourages people to come and see what we have got in Tewkesbury and it raises money for charity too.”

Tewkesbury's fantastic buildingsTewkesbury's fantastic buildings

Macmillan, Avon Navigation Trust, the Mayor’s Charities and Mitton Manor Pre School will all benefit from funds raised this year.

On Friday, May 12, the weekend kicks off with a Children’s Olympic Games at Tewkesbury School (4-7pm) and a River Cruise on The Conway Castle – reportedly the UK’s largest in-land waterways vessel – from 7-9.30pm. Going down the river, it’s bingo, coming back it will be entertainment with live music. On Saturday, May 13, at 3.30pm, a Walking Parade, carnival style with the theme The Circus, will brighten up the High Street whilst a river parade with an ‘In the Navy’ theme will grace the waters on the Sunday. Boat trips will take place throughout the weekend.

Other highlights include Bell Boat Racing, Northern Soul Night, free music in the streets, demonstrations by Safety Services, children’s fairground rides, a Psychic Fayre in the town hall and hopefully an enchanted garden at The Tudor Hotel.

And this year brings a new relationship between Tewkesbury Big Weekend and Tewkesbury Half Marathon, which takes part on Sunday and is a major part of the action. Organisers will also be encouraging people to follow the Alleycat Trail, an initiative which seeks to highlight the town’s impressive collection of historic alleys. Tewkesbury was once linked by a network of 90 alleyways weaving in and out of the narrow streets. Today 30 are still in existence named after prominent local citizens and trades. (see panel)

And so we return to Tewkesbury’s sense of history and place. In 2021 Tewkesbury will mark two big anniversaries - 900 years since the consecration of the Abbey and 550 years since the Battle of Tewkesbury. One of the founder members of the Medieval Festival, who is also involved in the Alleycat Project, is a trustee of Tewkesbury Museum and the Chairman of Tewkesbury Battlefield Society, is Steve Goodchild.

He is a walking history book; his wealth of knowledge is outstanding and I come away enriched having spent time with him. He tells me more about the early festival days, an event which now draws in thousands of people, many of them now experts of the Middle Ages who willingly share their skills at the 120 stalls.

“In the 1980s the chain mail was knitted, the armour made out of fibre glass, the swords were wooden and the arrows were made out of dowel. It was all very amateur, but over the years historians started working with craftsmen and many discovered they could make a living out of it,” says Steve.

This year’s event takes place from Friday, July 7 until Sunday, July 9. Friday is schools’ day whereby authentic tradesmen, musicians and dancers help bring history alive for up to 600 youngsters.

“They get to have some squire training and are given some foam rubber pipe lagging so they can charge at terrified knights and attack them!”

Bell boat racing at Tewkesbury Big WeekendBell boat racing at Tewkesbury Big Weekend

“A parade takes place on the Sunday so carnival artists go in to help them make dragons whilst dancers teach them how to dance in the streets. People also show them how to make authentic costumes,” adds Steve.

“But what I love most of all about the Medieval Festival is the fact that it grew without huge grants, huge fuss and it is free to anybody wanting to attend.”

It was back in 1471 that the Battle of Tewkesbury took place. In recent years, two impressive wooden statues, Victor and Vanguished – collectively known as The Arrivall on the road leading to Gloucester – mark the events that proved decisive in the War of the Roses. Tewkesbury Museum, the John Moore Museum and the Heritage and Victor Centre are all excellent places to find out more.

Over the years attempts have been made to build on part of the Battlefield site which prompted Tewkesbury Battlefield Society to form in order to protect it and continue to protect it from future threats. The group is also responsible for the 150 historic banners which are famously put out in June, depicting the coats of arms of everyone who took part in the battle. Each shop which has one also has a leaflet explaining who the banner represents and what happened to them during the Battle. Fascinating Battlefield Walks which are a two-hour guided tour around the famous sites take place regularly. The next ones to note are on Sunday, March 5, and Sunday, April 2, meeting at 2.30pm at The Crescent, Church Street, with an extended guided tour taking place on Sunday, May 7 meeting at an earlier time of 2pm.

Forgive me for not majoring on other aspects of Tewkesbury in more detail. The Roses Theatre, where the late Eric Morecombe sadly collapsed and died in 1984, has a wealth of productions on offer and is a thriving part of the town’s community; and for those enjoying a day out shopping, there is a wonderful mix with excellent coffee shops, pubs and restaurants to enjoy too.

This is modern life happily embracing the 21st century trends whilst not forgetting the town’s amazing heritage which dates back more than 1,000 years, as Tewkesbury Borough Mayor Gill Blackwell agrees.

“Tewkesbury is so full of history and yet it has modern aspects as well. The modern mixes with the old timbers and the Abbey is truly spectacular. Everyone here is so welcoming and friendly and we do pretty well as a tourist destination,” says Gill.

“It is a very important historic town with the Abbey, the War of the Roses connection, the alleyways and the Medieval Festival in summer. We have also got lots of farmers’ and craft markets and plenty of parking and of course the Royal Hop Pole which is mentioned in Charles Dickens’ Pickwick Papers as an original coaching house.”

I always feel a sense of awe when visiting Tewkesbury. There is tremendous atmosphere of place and historic significance which makes it truly unique. Before I leave I can’t resist finding the Hop Pole reference which is on a plaque outside the said hotel. The words come from Chapter 50, and Dickens states that ale was a plenty.

Medieval Festival (c) Ian BartlettMedieval Festival (c) Ian Bartlett

I do leave Tewkesbury in a better state and certainly more sobre than his characters, it has to be said! But still I think Tewkesbury – and perhaps more importantly the community volunteers – deserve a good toast for all their hard work.

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Tewkesbury Abbey

World-renowned for being one of the UK’s greatest examples of medieval architecture, Tewkesbury Abbey and its striking Norman tower and long nave, have dominated the town’s skyline for almost 900 years.

The history of the current site starts in the 10th century when Abbot Geraldus travelled from Dorset with a group of monks to establish a new monastery at Tewkesbury. Consecrated in 1121, the Abbey thrived for many years until The Reformation when Henry VIII ordered the dissolution of the monasteries in 1540. Most of the monastery buildings were destroyed, but the Abbey itself survived thanks to the townsfolk of Tewkesbury who paid £453 – a huge sum in the 16th century – to buy their parish church.

Tewkesbury Abbey is famous for the medieval stained glass in its seven quire windows. It also possesses a fine collection of Victorian stained glass, as well as some excellent modern examples.

The most recent stained glass: two spectacular windows in the chapel of St Catherine and St John the Baptist, were created by Tom Denny to celebrate the 900th anniversary of the monks’ arrival at the Abbey. These were generously funded by the Friends of Tewkesbury Abbey.

Today the Abbey Church of St Mary the Virgin is one of the largest parish churches in England with music and worship at the heart of its mission and ministry. The Abbey choir sings services on Sundays and the major Christian festivals, and Tewkesbury Abbey Schola Cantorum sing Choral Evensong during term time. In addition to the services there are many concerts in the Abbey and the Abbey’s Musica Deo Sacra festival takes place annually in late July and early August.

Aerial view of Tewkesbury (c) Jack BoskettAerial view of Tewkesbury (c) Jack Boskett

Dates for the diary:

Saturday, April 29 and Monday, May 1: Armour at the Abbey

Sunday April 9 - Sunday April 16 – Holy Week: services will take place every day.

Sunday, May 7 – Tewkesbury Shield Bell Ringing Competition, 10am-6pm

Monday, May 29 – Tewkesbury Abbey Fete, 11am to 4pm

Friday, June 23- Saturday, June 24 – Tewkesbury Food and Drink Festival in the Abbey grounds. Dozens of stalls offering a wealth of local produce including award-winning cheeses, locally reared meat, homemade cakes and pastries, local wine, beer and cider plus much more. Live demonstrations, a cookery theatre, live music and a variety of children’s activities.

Monday, July 31-Sunday, August 6 - Musica Deo Sacra – The Abbey’s festival of music within the liturgy, with organ recitals, lectures, services every day including Compline.

Sunday, November 12 – Remembrance Sunday, 10.00am Civic Service

Saturday, November 25 – Tewkesbury Abbey’s Christmas Fair, 10am to 4pm

Sunday, December 3 – Advent Carol Service, 6pm

Monday, December 25 – Christmas Day Eucharist, 10.30am

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Project Alleycat

Walk down the streets of Tewkesbury, and every six of seven paces there is an alley hidden behind a door or arch. It is a throw-back to historic times when Queen Maud divided up the land.

Project Alleycat was set up last year to promote interest and pride in Tewkesbury’s alleys and create art displays reflecting the history of some of them. Each alley is either named after an important town figure or a trade. In my quest to find some of the alleys, I ventured to Hughes Alley, which is celebrated with a mosaic plaque by artist Lezli Lawrence depicting a tree under which John Wesley used to preach and a cat licking the cream – a reference to Mr Hughes’ dairy.

Alleycats has now partnered with Leonard Cheshire Disability to work with local schools and youth groups to create and install an artwork in Warders Alley. A local pottery will be working with Alderman Knight School to create some work using illustrations of the Cheshire Cat.

As well as carrying out an alley audit, improving the physical state of some of the alleys, promoting original art work with a cat theme and encouraging community involvement, Alleycats is also staging an exhibition at the Roses Theatre entitled Celebrating the Alleys, from April 10 until May 1. Sponsored by Bookworm, the charity bookshop, the event includes a free drawing workshop on April 17, a photo competition and a children’s drawing/painting competition on the theme of cats.

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