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Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire

PUBLISHED: 16:56 04 February 2010 | UPDATED: 15:03 20 February 2013

The flood plain between the Mill Avon (centre) and the course of the old Avon (top left) is perilously near the town

The flood plain between the Mill Avon (centre) and the course of the old Avon (top left) is perilously near the town

Last year, the nation held its breath for Tewkesbury, and then wept for it. Yet the town is determined that it should all be water under the bridge.<br/><br/>Words and photography by Mark Child

They may not have been iconic shots on a level with that of St Paul's cathedral during the wartime blitz in London, but the aerial photographs taken of Tewkesbury Abbey during the floods of July 2007 had their parallels. All around the building slid the swollen enragement of liquid mud that engulfed and submerged the streets and filled the ground floors and basements of so many buildings in much of the town. Yet the abbey, although threatened to within inches, remained almost untouched on its parcel of green.


The last time the floor of the abbey was submerged was in November 1770, when heavy snowfalls in mid-Wales, followed by a sudden thaw and torrential rain, occasioned flash floods. Last year, it was mid-summer when the waterways about the town rose to unprecedented levels. The vicar, Reverend Canon Paul Williams, whose home was fortunately on the same spit of high ground as the abbey, decreed that the latter should not be sandbagged until he was as sure as he could be that the houses in the town had been made as safe as was practicable. Eventually, only the north door of the abbey was sandbagged, the work carried out by sixty volunteers raised from people taking shelter and sustenance in the nearby Bell Hotel. In the event, just about one-eighth of the abbey floor was covered by water, to a maximum depth of an inch-and-a-half, occasioned by seepage out of the ground rather than the ingress of the flood.


Philippa Shaw was just six weeks into her job as Executive Officer of Tewkesbury Abbey when the floods came. Pretty sure that she was expected to organise events at the abbey, and that it would be her lot 'to deal with all the things that no-one else wanted to', she nonetheless had no idea that she was soon to be in a position to add 'organising dormitory accommodation' and 'setting up a field kitchen' to her CV.


Just as it would have done in times of danger throughout the ages, Tewkesbury Abbey became a place of sanctuary and refuge, its ministers giving spiritual and pastoral care. The abbey office was the central point for finding accommodation for people who were stranded in the town. The residents of Tewkesbury, who themselves had so much to worry about, generously offered up spare beds, couches, and accommodation in their own homes to strangers. In addition, some ninety people were put up in the hall of the abbey, and a further forty in the abbey itself.


Meanwhile, at the very height of the flood, Philippa Shaw set up a kitchen in the abbey refectory, providing chicken curry and vegetarian curry. Charles Whitney, an assistant curate, waded in to help, and got stuck at the abbey as the waters rose. Curate Steve Short only got as far as the council offices, where he spent the rest of the high flood serving food and dispensing drinking water.


People featured in news reports at the time spoke of 'the Dunkirk spirit' being abroad in Tewkesbury, although hardly anyone interviewed was old enough to know the meaning of the phrase. On the Sunday following the most frightening week in the town's history since the Battle of Tewkesbury in 1471, the sun blazed down out of a blue sky. Three local bell-ringers waded in and rang the abbey's bells, and, although there were only nine people at one of the services instead of the usual two hundred or so, not a single service was missed. And, on the less affected streets - where people hoped, prayed and anticipated that it would not get any worse - several street parties were in full swing.


The floods gave Tewkesbury's residents and visitors a great Internet opportunity. Residents, visitors, and even commentators from afar all went rapidly into print; sites appeared full of pictures of the watery mess; people published their personal experiences and went online to describe how they felt about the ways in which it was all being handled by the authorities. A service was held at the abbey in October, to give thanks for the spirit of the people, and to reflect on the consequences of the flooding. On Christmas Day 2007, the abbey and its visitor centre stayed open to accommodate local residents who were still displaced by the effects of the floods. Those photographs were by no means the only parallels.


Of course, they portrayed the town at its most vulnerable, and whilst the effects of the unprecedented floods of 2007 in residential and business premises are still being felt by many who experienced them, the economy of the town has also been badly damaged by the response from visitors. People have stayed away because they simply could not appreciate how soon Tewkesbury was again up and running. In truth, this town is used to being virtually encircled by an overspill of the waters. Although, mercifully, they rarely come beyond the rivers' flood plains, these are so close to the town that the scare-mongering media, happy to have yet more aerial photographs, do not distinguish between natural flood plain activity and flooded town. It has put off visitors when there was no need to do so. Tewkesbury's message is that it is open for business.



A great place to shop


..............................................................


Business is good at Tewkesbury. If you have the opportunity to view the town from the top of the abbey tower, it is worth doing so. From here, the medieval layout is most apparent; the panorama is exhilarating, and the town's character is laid out in a panoply of orange, black and white. It is also a good vantage point from where to appreciate just how potentially vulnerable the town is in its proximity to the rivers. If you are here to shop, you will see exactly where to go.


Immediately beneath you is Church Street, leading to The Cross, where the road forks. This is the point at which the town's original market was established. Until it was demolished in 1650, the town's 'great highe crosse' stood here; the present cross is a 20th-century war memorial. The left-hand fork, progressing vaguely north-east, is High Street; Barton Street is to the right. These are just about all there are as far as retail Tewkesbury is concerned, but you will need no more for a most satisfying retail visit.


Tewkesbury was very much a forgotten town until about forty years ago, through which heavy traffic came perilously close to damaging much of its fabric. Despite its abbey, and a wealth of historic buildings that were hardly exploited in any real commercial sense, relatively few people other than its residents considered Tewkesbury to be much of a tourist venue or even a destination shopping experience. For centuries, High Street led towards Worcester, Church Street was the way to Gloucester, and the road to Evesham was Barton Street; there was no need to stop in Tewkesbury except, historically, on the days that the corn and provisions markets were held there.


Then, in 1971, the M5 motorway opened, making a great difference to the number of lorries that clogged its old streets. This coincided with the 850th anniversary of the consecration of the abbey, and the 500th anniversary of the Battle of Tewkesbury.


The town took the opportunity to spruce up on a grand scale, and nowhere was this more evident than on its shop fronts. Generally, this has continued, with retail Tewkesbury taking advantage of the fine old buildings in which much of it lives, and the marketing potential for their faades. The town continued to improve into the third millennium, with some skilful conversions to older shop premises, attractive refurbishments, and long-term investment in business. Some contemporary retailers have created quite stunning interiors.


In previous articles on Tewkesbury, I have toured the town and described the main buildings individually, so will not do so again here. Suffice it to say that as you investigate what Tewkesbury has for sale - or eat in its old inns, hotels, restaurants and coffee shops - you will be doing so in historic building after historic building, all as visually attractive as any of their kind in the region and a good deal more atmospheric than much of it.


Church Street is full of speciality shops, arts and crafts, antiques and memorabilia, teashops, and historic hotels. The whole of Tewkesbury is peppered with independent retailers of fine goods and services, and Church Street is a good starting point. Gift and home-style shops, so often full of tasteless ephemera, here show taste and quality.


It is said that High Street was built up by the 14th century. This is where branches of national retailers are packed in beside private traders and family businesses. It is a good high street, possessed of everything you might hope for in a town of this size. In the matter of retail, it is difficult to see what, if anything, Tewkesbury lacks; and it is easy to understand why it attracts shoppers from a wide catchment area.



Pack it in Tewkesbury jute


If you are visiting Tewkesbury, I would like to commend you to the Tewkesbury bag, launched in December 2007 and currently being stocked by some twenty shops in the high street. The project was initiated by the town's Chamber of Commerce, whose secretary, Kirsty Cutler, organised funding for the initial stock from Rural Renaissance. This coincided with a drive by town councillor and borough councillor Claire Wright to make Tewkesbury a plastic bag-free zone. Although Claire applauds the move by some supermarkets towards more substantial, re-usable bags, these are still generally non-biodegradable. Claire grew up in an era when people managed perfectly well with brown paper bags and shopping baskets; she campaigned on the litter issue during the local government elections; and she is now on a mission to rid Tewkesbury of plastic bags.


The new Tewkesbury bag is made of natural fibre by JuteXpo of Broadway; it is 11 inches square, has a gusset of 7 inches, and bears an attractive illustration of Tewkesbury's memorial cross against a backdrop of its buildings. If it catches on, a larger bag may go into production in the future. The current bags cost 3 each, and profits are to be used to purchase additional stock. Should the Tewkesbury bag become successful - and it will need the support of visitors and tourists for that - excess profits will go to charities. Of course, since the Tewkesbury bag does not advertise any specific supermarket, it can be used in all of them without any embarrassment.




Rivers of leisure and trade


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The rivers that have so threatened Tewkesbury in recent months are the very reason for its existence. Historically, they have given a measure of security to the settlement, and they were of strategic importance in the Battle of Tewkesbury in 1471. The river courses and their flood plains were determining factors in the shape of the town, as it developed, and are also the reason for its compact appearance.


The River Severn and the River Avon join at Tewkesbury. The Severn is, at 210 miles in length, the longest river in Britain. The Romans called it Sabrina, or it may have been named Sabre after a drowned virgin who was granted the status of river goddess. Geoffrey of Monmouth recounts the story of her watery fate at the behest of her father's former murderously jealous wife. To Milton, Sabrina is a nymph of the Severn.


The Avon, one of many in the land to have the same name, is the Warwickshire Avon or Shakespeare's Avon: the very same that washes past Stratford. It is 96 miles long. The word 'Avon' is simply a derivation of the Welsh afon, meaning 'river'; a lack of etymological understanding accounts for there being so many of them around the country. This river splits into two waterways as it reaches the town. Flooding is no new phenomenon, and I love a description written in 1822: 'The River Avon, which is immediately close to the town, sometimes swells to an uncommon height, and overflows its banks, covering with its liquid nature, the fields that lie contiguous to it. These aberrations from its usual source are occasioned by heavy falls of rain'. In the mid 19th-century, the land around the town was said to be 'the subject of frequent inundations from the Severn and Avon'.


In order to facilitate the mills of Tewkesbury, the Mill Avon that now runs parallel with the town, and closest to it, was artificially created, allegedly by the Anglo-Saxons. Part of the town's problems at times of flood stem from this waterway, which also facilitated other developing business interests over the centuries. Yet, at other times, this same waterway is a big tourist attraction and the focal point of the annual Tewkesbury Water Festival.


The River Avon was navigable between Tewkesbury and Stratford-upon-Avon from 1639, after William Sandys (1607-69) - known as 'Waterway' Sandys, engineer and waterways surveyor - was authorised to set about making it so, three years earlier. This was, of course, primarily intended for trade. Leisure boating along its navigable length was approved by Parliament under the Navigation Acts of 1751 and 1793. Waterway carriers continued to operate several times weekly between Tewkesbury and Stratford-upon-Avon, conveying coal, grain, hay and building materials, at one time assisted by the steam tug 'Sabrina'.


The place thrived when goods were transported by river, and it did well in the coaching days. River trade and coach travel both declined commercially when the railways took over the monopoly on water-borne freight and passenger travel. The gathering clouds of impoverishment became the town's silver lining as there was insufficient money to make the kind of devastating wholesale redevelopments that we now regret seeing on such a scale elsewhere. If this had not been the case, Tewkesbury might have been more readily re-developed, and much would have been lost that continues to characterise the town.


At Tewkesbury, the flood plain of the Severn and the Avon comprises water meadows on the west side of the Mill Avon, which are known as Tewkesbury Ham, part of the Severn Ham system. These 177 acres cannot be developed in any way other than as hay meadows, for grazing, and as natural habitats, which is what makes them such a joy at Tewkesbury. They can be reached across footbridges at the end of Mill Street and Queen Street. The Severn Ham is a Site of Special Scientific Interest, and the Hams riverside walk, south from the Mill Street footbridge, leads to the Severn Way Walk. Some of the best views of Tewkesbury are to be had from this side of the river.


The Ham is an island, and other parts of Tewkesbury are almost so. Then there is the River Swilgate, which joins the Avon very close to its confluence with the Severn, swings around the abbey, and elsewhere joins the Severn itself. The River Carron joins the Avon at one end of the town, and connects with the Swilgate at the other, close to where the Avon and Severn meet.


Unsurprisingly, there are two marinas hereabouts. Bredon Marina is the last on the Avon before it arrives at Tewkesbury, and has eighty berths; Tewkesbury Marina, closer to where the Rivers Avon and Severn meet, has 350 berths. There is also riverside mooring about the place, and craft on both rivers can make their way into the Midlands canal system via the basin and canal at Stratford-upon-Avon, or can progress to Gloucester docks and thence to the Gloucester & Sharpness Canal. There is a ferry along the Avon out of Tewkesbury, where boats can also be hired for cruising the waterway. It is usual for the Avon to play a part at the time of the town's Food and Drink Festival.




A new one out of the hat


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Out of the Hat, Tewkesbury's brand-new heritage and visitor information centre, was opened in December 2007. The Olde Hatte Shop at The Cross, with its distinguishing beadle's headpiece trade sign, stood empty for about thirteen years, and was on the point of being earmarked for demolition when Tewkesbury Borough Council bought the building in 2002. It is an imposing three-storey, timber-framed building that may be much older than its faade. It has a double overhang and close-set, vertical timbers, and all is built in the characteristic local style. This includes the full-width runs of windows above the ground- floor stage that are evident in several 17th-century frontages around the town.


Once, this grade II* building was a haberdashery, lived and worked in by the Read family (Glover Bartholemew Read's inventory, taken in the 1600s, is still in existence; his initials and the date 1664 are on the door whose timbers have been confirmed to that time by dendrochronology.) In 2004, the Borough Council was awarded a grant of 1,339,000 by the Heritage Lottery Fund, for the purpose of establishing a new heritage interpretation project. English Heritage also had a considerable financial involvement. The Borough Council set about providing a new home for the visitor information centre, where, on the upper floors, the history of the town and the story of the Battle of Tewkesbury would be explained. Old Bank Alley, formerly Read's Alley and one of the town's famed passages, was also re-opened for access.


Of course, the Heritage Lottery involvement demanded more by way of interpretative involvement than just the restoration of the hat shop, but this will undoubtedly be the major focal point. Restoration of the premises uncovered re-used medieval timbers, old wallpapers, and a painted room, the latter believed to date from the late 16th or early 17th century. A treasure indeed, and one that the general public can experience for themselves, as well as enjoying the interactive displays, innovative technology, and personal media players that bring the whole place to life.


Out of the Hat has some fine attractions planned for its inaugural season. Its 'Living Weekend' (5 and 6 April) will give visitors the chance to see life in the 17th century at 100 Church Street, in the company of Bartholemew and Katherine Read. On 16 April, you can drop into the Hat and make a Wonderful Window Hanging inspired by the building. On 3 May, as part of the Tewkesbury Food and Drink Festival, there will be a Herbs and History craft-based event at the Hat. Activities will include making pomanders, lavender bags and cinnamon hangings. On 25 May, in conjunction with the town's Awaken Your Senses Festival, family historian and writer Dr Nick Barratt will conduct a journey of discovery around the historic houses. Details of all events here can be found at www.outofthehat.org.uk, and of Tewkesbury's festivals in general at www.visitcotswoldsandsevernvale.gov.uk. The celebrity chef at this year's Tewkesbury Food Festival, 3 and 4 May, is Paul Rankin.



The Tewkesbury artist


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Barbara Fletcher is primarily an artist of sea and sand, of the Cotswold landscape, and of the countryside around Tewkesbury, where she settled twenty-two years ago. Born overlooking the sea, into a family of talented and hugely successful artists of international repute, she won just about every school art prize going, before enmeshing herself in a degree in fine art at Cheltenham's Gloucester College of Art and Design. At the age of eighteen she had her first exhibition in a fashionable Oxford gallery.


As for so many artists over the years, the quality of light in Cornwall and the 'beautiful and fascinating colours and reflections you get in wet sand' are the inspiration for her coastal pictures. She is never lost for subjects and ideas around Tewkesbury, and a wander through her website at www.onlinegallery.co.uk will show you just how extensive these are.


It will also give you an idea of her haunting and atmospheric approach, mostly in oils, but also in acrylics and watercolour. She began at Tewkesbury by painting the Bloody Meadow, the Lower Lode, and Ducks on the River Swilgate. "At this time, my paintings were fairly figurative, and I was very concerned with reproducing the colours and perspective as closely as possible. After a while, they began to be more abstract, and I became less concerned with exact reproduction, and more with reproducing the feeling of being in that place. It became much more to do with spontaneity, and the sheer enjoyment of manipulating paint to get an end result that instils a feeling of excitement in me."


Barbara was selected as an exhibiting member of the Gloucestershire Society of Artists, whereupon her paintings started to sell like hotcakes. She had a successful solo exhibition at the Sabre Art Gallery, Gloucester in 2006, and was the top-selling artist at the Cheltenham Open Air Exhibition in 2007. Her paintings can currently be seen at the Burlington Art Gallery, Montpellier, Cheltenham, and others reside in private collections all over the world.



In a hot sort of place


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The only genuine Tewkesbury mustard to be made in the town is available to buy at just one retailer, Tim Webley's 1471 Delicatessen in Church Street. If you want to sample it in action, Melanie Jones puts it into the Welsh rarebit she sells at Melanie's Tea and Coffee Shop in High Street. This branded '1471 Tewkesbury Mustard' is made at Tewkesbury by Robin Ritchie, using only ingredients that would have been available to people in medieval times - mustard flour, white wine, honey and horseradish. Apparently, the last-mentioned ingredient, picked from the wild around the town, was such an irritant to the eyes that it caused considerable discomfort to the makers.


Traditionally, Tewkesbury mustard was a cottage industry that occupied women in the town. Until the 19th century, it was made in the form of dried balls, and the makers used a cannon ball and an iron mortar to crush the hard mustard seed into fine flour. Tewkesbury mustard was said to be exceptionally fine and pure, and the best in the land, but the local industry died out in the 19th century. This, Robin thinks, was consequent upon a new process developed by Coleman of Norwich.


Robin's involvement came a few years ago when he took the part of a gardener at Brother Ben's Day, during the school summer holidays. Then, under the tutelage of the abbey, schoolchildren dress as monks and undertake activities associated with their medieval lifestyle. Robin thought he would spice it up by making a batch of 'authentic' Tewkesbury mustard. It proved to be too hot for consumption by the youngsters, but fired the imaginations and the palates of their elders. Such was the interest, 'Brother Ben's Tewkesbury Mustard' became available; there is often a run on it during the re-enactments of the Battle of Tewkesbury, and at Christmas.


When the 1471 Delicatessen became its sole retailer, Brother Ben was retired into monastic obscurity in favour of a name change, and the re-labelled Tewkesbury mustard went on sale to great acclaim at the first Tewkesbury Food Festival. Robin says that medieval mustard was made in the form of dried balls; users carried these around with them, scraped off the required amount, and mixed it with wine or beer to reconstitute for use. He also makes these, and mustard balls coated in gold leaf, such as were said to have been presented to Henry VIII when he visited the town.



In the words of the mayor of Tewkesbury


Ken Powell


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"I was born just outside of Tewkesbury, went to school in the town, and now live and work there. I met my wife here, and all my three sons were born in Tewkesbury. We enjoy everything the town has to offer, and most of our friends live here. That is what makes Tewkesbury special for me.


"It can also be special for visitors. I would recommend them to look in the abbey - a wonderful 12th-century building that stands out at the centre of the town - and at the magnificent black and white buildings that line the streets. Visitors can enjoy so much associated with the two rivers that flow past, especially in the summer months when Tewkesbury is a marvellous place for boats and boating. There is also a weekly open-air market and the monthly farmers' market. Tewkesbury is a very old market town, with a history and heritage of the people who have always lived here. There is plenty for people to do, and there is a lot to be seen on a stroll along the riverside walk, from one end of the town to the other.


"Other places of interest include the museum, and the new heritage centre - Out of the Hat - in Church Street, the Roses Theatre, and the Cascades swimming baths complex. A visit to the old Baptist Chapel is an interesting experience. People will find our old black and white buildings fascinating to look at, and to photograph. Visitors can have a drink or a meal in some fine old hostelries such as the Old Black Bear, Berkley Arms, and the Tudor Hotel. We also have a large range of small- and medium-size shops.


"My favourite part of the town is the area around the abbey. I like Church Street because there is such a range of different styles of buildings. The old black and white Tudor Hotel, and the old abbey mill sit by the side of the River Avon, and there are walkways over the river to the huge area called the Ham, which is a painter's paradise. This is common land and people can walk on part of it; they can also fish the river.


"The large area known as the Vine Yards lies behind the abbey; it is known to the local people, but is less readily known to visitors. This is an open area of green belt land that is used as a park, where people can walk, play, or relax and have a picnic. It has a good view of the abbey, a children's play area, a bowling green, and a top-class caravan park. Landscape painters love it here, as well.


"The town has seen changes in the last few years. A number of new houses have been built here, leading to an intake of new people who live, work, and do their shopping in Tewkesbury. The old flour mill closed down, which stopped the heavy lorries coming into the town, and this resolved a big problem for us. A new Marks & Spencer has opened, and there are other new shops.


"All of this makes Tewkesbury a great place in which to live, surrounded by lovely countryside. It is away from any big cities, but has easy access to the motorways, and to larger towns that are only a short drive away. Tewkesbury has a full range of good schools; there are organisations for young and old to join, and the residents are friendly and helpful. There is a good industrial base offering jobs, and the housing market is buoyant."


They may not have been iconic shots on a level with that of St Paul's cathedral during the wartime blitz in London, but the aerial photographs taken of Tewkesbury Abbey during the floods of July 2007 had their parallels. All around the building slid the swollen enragement of liquid mud that engulfed and submerged the streets and filled the ground floors and basements of so many buildings in much of the town. Yet the abbey, although threatened to within inches, remained almost untouched on its parcel of green.


The last time the floor of the abbey was submerged was in November 1770, when heavy snowfalls in mid-Wales, followed by a sudden thaw and torrential rain, occasioned flash floods. Last year, it was mid-summer when the waterways about the town rose to unprecedented levels. The vicar, Reverend Canon Paul Williams, whose home was fortunately on the same spit of high ground as the abbey, decreed that the latter should not be sandbagged until he was as sure as he could be that the houses in the town had been made as safe as was practicable. Eventually, only the north door of the abbey was sandbagged, the work carried out by sixty volunteers raised from people taking shelter and sustenance in the nearby Bell Hotel. In the event, just about one-eighth of the abbey floor was covered by water, to a maximum depth of an inch-and-a-half, occasioned by seepage out of the ground rather than the ingress of the flood.


Philippa Shaw was just six weeks into her job as Executive Officer of Tewkesbury Abbey when the floods came. Pretty sure that she was expected to organise events at the abbey, and that it would be her lot 'to deal with all the things that no-one else wanted to', she nonetheless had no idea that she was soon to be in a position to add 'organising dormitory accommodation' and 'setting up a field kitchen' to her CV.


Just as it would have done in times of danger throughout the ages, Tewkesbury Abbey became a place of sanctuary and refuge, its ministers giving spiritual and pastoral care. The abbey office was the central point for finding accommodation for people who were stranded in the town. The residents of Tewkesbury, who themselves had so much to worry about, generously offered up spare beds, couches, and accommodation in their own homes to strangers. In addition, some ninety people were put up in the hall of the abbey, and a further forty in the abbey itself.


Meanwhile, at the very height of the flood, Philippa Shaw set up a kitchen in the abbey refectory, providing chicken curry and vegetarian curry. Charles Whitney, an assistant curate, waded in to help, and got stuck at the abbey as the waters rose. Curate Steve Short only got as far as the council offices, where he spent the rest of the high flood serving food and dispensing drinking water.


People featured in news reports at the time spoke of 'the Dunkirk spirit' being abroad in Tewkesbury, although hardly anyone interviewed was old enough to know the meaning of the phrase. On the Sunday following the most frightening week in the town's history since the Battle of Tewkesbury in 1471, the sun blazed down out of a blue sky. Three local bell-ringers waded in and rang the abbey's bells, and, although there were only nine people at one of the services instead of the usual two hundred or so, not a single service was missed. And, on the less affected streets - where people hoped, prayed and anticipated that it would not get any worse - several street parties were in full swing.


The floods gave Tewkesbury's residents and visitors a great Internet opportunity. Residents, visitors, and even commentators from afar all went rapidly into print; sites appeared full of pictures of the watery mess; people published their personal experiences and went online to describe how they felt about the ways in which it was all being handled by the authorities. A service was held at the abbey in October, to give thanks for the spirit of the people, and to reflect on the consequences of the flooding. On Christmas Day 2007, the abbey and its visitor centre stayed open to accommodate local residents who were still displaced by the effects of the floods. Those photographs were by no means the only parallels.


Of course, they portrayed the town at its most vulnerable, and whilst the effects of the unprecedented floods of 2007 in residential and business premises are still being felt by many who experienced them, the economy of the town has also been badly damaged by the response from visitors. People have stayed away because they simply could not appreciate how soon Tewkesbury was again up and running. In truth, this town is used to being virtually encircled by an overspill of the waters. Although, mercifully, they rarely come beyond the rivers' flood plains, these are so close to the town that the scare-mongering media, happy to have yet more aerial photographs, do not distinguish between natural flood plain activity and flooded town. It has put off visitors when there was no need to do so. Tewkesbury's message is that it is open for business.



A great place to shop


..............................................................


Business is good at Tewkesbury. If you have the opportunity to view the town from the top of the abbey tower, it is worth doing so. From here, the medieval layout is most apparent; the panorama is exhilarating, and the town's character is laid out in a panoply of orange, black and white. It is also a good vantage point from where to appreciate just how potentially vulnerable the town is in its proximity to the rivers. If you are here to shop, you will see exactly where to go.


Immediately beneath you is Church Street, leading to The Cross, where the road forks. This is the point at which the town's original market was established. Until it was demolished in 1650, the town's 'great highe crosse' stood here; the present cross is a 20th-century war memorial. The left-hand fork, progressing vaguely north-east, is High Street; Barton Street is to the right. These are just about all there are as far as retail Tewkesbury is concerned, but you will need no more for a most satisfying retail visit.


Tewkesbury was very much a forgotten town until about forty years ago, through which heavy traffic came perilously close to damaging much of its fabric. Despite its abbey, and a wealth of historic buildings that were hardly exploited in any real commercial sense, relatively few people other than its residents considered Tewkesbury to be much of a tourist venue or even a destination shopping experience. For centuries, High Street led towards Worcester, Church Street was the way to Gloucester, and the road to Evesham was Barton Street; there was no need to stop in Tewkesbury except, historically, on the days that the corn and provisions markets were held there.


Then, in 1971, the M5 motorway opened, making a great difference to the number of lorries that clogged its old streets. This coincided with the 850th anniversary of the consecration of the abbey, and the 500th anniversary of the Battle of Tewkesbury.


The town took the opportunity to spruce up on a grand scale, and nowhere was this more evident than on its shop fronts. Generally, this has continued, with retail Tewkesbury taking advantage of the fine old buildings in which much of it lives, and the marketing potential for their faades. The town continued to improve into the third millennium, with some skilful conversions to older shop premises, attractive refurbishments, and long-term investment in business. Some contemporary retailers have created quite stunning interiors.


In previous articles on Tewkesbury, I have toured the town and described the main buildings individually, so will not do so again here. Suffice it to say that as you investigate what Tewkesbury has for sale - or eat in its old inns, hotels, restaurants and coffee shops - you will be doing so in historic building after historic building, all as visually attractive as any of their kind in the region and a good deal more atmospheric than much of it.


Church Street is full of speciality shops, arts and crafts, antiques and memorabilia, teashops, and historic hotels. The whole of Tewkesbury is peppered with independent retailers of fine goods and services, and Church Street is a good starting point. Gift and home-style shops, so often full of tasteless ephemera, here show taste and quality.


It is said that High Street was built up by the 14th century. This is where branches of national retailers are packed in beside private traders and family businesses. It is a good high street, possessed of everything you might hope for in a town of this size. In the matter of retail, it is difficult to see what, if anything, Tewkesbury lacks; and it is easy to understand why it attracts shoppers from a wide catchment area.



Pack it in Tewkesbury jute


If you are visiting Tewkesbury, I would like to commend you to the Tewkesbury bag, launched in December 2007 and currently being stocked by some twenty shops in the high street. The project was initiated by the town's Chamber of Commerce, whose secretary, Kirsty Cutler, organised funding for the initial stock from Rural Renaissance. This coincided with a drive by town councillor and borough councillor Claire Wright to make Tewkesbury a plastic bag-free zone. Although Claire applauds the move by some supermarkets towards more substantial, re-usable bags, these are still generally non-biodegradable. Claire grew up in an era when people managed perfectly well with brown paper bags and shopping baskets; she campaigned on the litter issue during the local government elections; and she is now on a mission to rid Tewkesbury of plastic bags.


The new Tewkesbury bag is made of natural fibre by JuteXpo of Broadway; it is 11 inches square, has a gusset of 7 inches, and bears an attractive illustration of Tewkesbury's memorial cross against a backdrop of its buildings. If it catches on, a larger bag may go into production in the future. The current bags cost 3 each, and profits are to be used to purchase additional stock. Should the Tewkesbury bag become successful - and it will need the support of visitors and tourists for that - excess profits will go to charities. Of course, since the Tewkesbury bag does not advertise any specific supermarket, it can be used in all of them without any embarrassment.




Rivers of leisure and trade


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The rivers that have so threatened Tewkesbury in recent months are the very reason for its existence. Historically, they have given a measure of security to the settlement, and they were of strategic importance in the Battle of Tewkesbury in 1471. The river courses and their flood plains were determining factors in the shape of the town, as it developed, and are also the reason for its compact appearance.


The River Severn and the River Avon join at Tewkesbury. The Severn is, at 210 miles in length, the longest river in Britain. The Romans called it Sabrina, or it may have been named Sabre after a drowned virgin who was granted the status of river goddess. Geoffrey of Monmouth recounts the story of her watery fate at the behest of her father's former murderously jealous wife. To Milton, Sabrina is a nymph of the Severn.


The Avon, one of many in the land to have the same name, is the Warwickshire Avon or Shakespeare's Avon: the very same that washes past Stratford. It is 96 miles long. The word 'Avon' is simply a derivation of the Welsh afon, meaning 'river'; a lack of etymological understanding accounts for there being so many of them around the country. This river splits into two waterways as it reaches the town. Flooding is no new phenomenon, and I love a description written in 1822: 'The River Avon, which is immediately close to the town, sometimes swells to an uncommon height, and overflows its banks, covering with its liquid nature, the fields that lie contiguous to it. These aberrations from its usual source are occasioned by heavy falls of rain'. In the mid 19th-century, the land around the town was said to be 'the subject of frequent inundations from the Severn and Avon'.


In order to facilitate the mills of Tewkesbury, the Mill Avon that now runs parallel with the town, and closest to it, was artificially created, allegedly by the Anglo-Saxons. Part of the town's problems at times of flood stem from this waterway, which also facilitated other developing business interests over the centuries. Yet, at other times, this same waterway is a big tourist attraction and the focal point of the annual Tewkesbury Water Festival.


The River Avon was navigable between Tewkesbury and Stratford-upon-Avon from 1639, after William Sandys (1607-69) - known as 'Waterway' Sandys, engineer and waterways surveyor - was authorised to set about making it so, three years earlier. This was, of course, primarily intended for trade. Leisure boating along its navigable length was approved by Parliament under the Navigation Acts of 1751 and 1793. Waterway carriers continued to operate several times weekly between Tewkesbury and Stratford-upon-Avon, conveying coal, grain, hay and building materials, at one time assisted by the steam tug 'Sabrina'.


The place thrived when goods were transported by river, and it did well in the coaching days. River trade and coach travel both declined commercially when the railways took over the monopoly on water-borne freight and passenger travel. The gathering clouds of impoverishment became the town's silver lining as there was insufficient money to make the kind of devastating wholesale redevelopments that we now regret seeing on such a scale elsewhere. If this had not been the case, Tewkesbury might have been more readily re-developed, and much would have been lost that continues to characterise the town.


At Tewkesbury, the flood plain of the Severn and the Avon comprises water meadows on the west side of the Mill Avon, which are known as Tewkesbury Ham, part of the Severn Ham system. These 177 acres cannot be developed in any way other than as hay meadows, for grazing, and as natural habitats, which is what makes them such a joy at Tewkesbury. They can be reached across footbridges at the end of Mill Street and Queen Street. The Severn Ham is a Site of Special Scientific Interest, and the Hams riverside walk, south from the Mill Street footbridge, leads to the Severn Way Walk. Some of the best views of Tewkesbury are to be had from this side of the river.


The Ham is an island, and other parts of Tewkesbury are almost so. Then there is the River Swilgate, which joins the Avon very close to its confluence with the Severn, swings around the abbey, and elsewhere joins the Severn itself. The River Carron joins the Avon at one end of the town, and connects with the Swilgate at the other, close to where the Avon and Severn meet.


Unsurprisingly, there are two marinas hereabouts. Bredon Marina is the last on the Avon before it arrives at Tewkesbury, and has eighty berths; Tewkesbury Marina, closer to where the Rivers Avon and Severn meet, has 350 berths. There is also riverside mooring about the place, and craft on both rivers can make their way into the Midlands canal system via the basin and canal at Stratford-upon-Avon, or can progress to Gloucester docks and thence to the Gloucester & Sharpness Canal. There is a ferry along the Avon out of Tewkesbury, where boats can also be hired for cruising the waterway. It is usual for the Avon to play a part at the time of the town's Food and Drink Festival.




A new one out of the hat


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Out of the Hat, Tewkesbury's brand-new heritage and visitor information centre, was opened in December 2007. The Olde Hatte Shop at The Cross, with its distinguishing beadle's headpiece trade sign, stood empty for about thirteen years, and was on the point of being earmarked for demolition when Tewkesbury Borough Council bought the building in 2002. It is an imposing three-storey, timber-framed building that may be much older than its faade. It has a double overhang and close-set, vertical timbers, and all is built in the characteristic local style. This includes the full-width runs of windows above the ground- floor stage that are evident in several 17th-century frontages around the town.


Once, this grade II* building was a haberdashery, lived and worked in by the Read family (Glover Bartholemew Read's inventory, taken in the 1600s, is still in existence; his initials and the date 1664 are on the door whose timbers have been confirmed to that time by dendrochronology.) In 2004, the Borough Council was awarded a grant of 1,339,000 by the Heritage Lottery Fund, for the purpose of establishing a new heritage interpretation project. English Heritage also had a considerable financial involvement. The Borough Council set about providing a new home for the visitor information centre, where, on the upper floors, the history of the town and the story of the Battle of Tewkesbury would be explained. Old Bank Alley, formerly Read's Alley and one of the town's famed passages, was also re-opened for access.


Of course, the Heritage Lottery involvement demanded more by way of interpretative involvement than just the restoration of the hat shop, but this will undoubtedly be the major focal point. Restoration of the premises uncovered re-used medieval timbers, old wallpapers, and a painted room, the latter believed to date from the late 16th or early 17th century. A treasure indeed, and one that the general public can experience for themselves, as well as enjoying the interactive displays, innovative technology, and personal media players that bring the whole place to life.


Out of the Hat has some fine attractions planned for its inaugural season. Its 'Living Weekend' (5 and 6 April) will give visitors the chance to see life in the 17th century at 100 Church Street, in the company of Bartholemew and Katherine Read. On 16 April, you can drop into the Hat and make a Wonderful Window Hanging inspired by the building. On 3 May, as part of the Tewkesbury Food and Drink Festival, there will be a Herbs and History craft-based event at the Hat. Activities will include making pomanders, lavender bags and cinnamon hangings. On 25 May, in conjunction with the town's Awaken Your Senses Festival, family historian and writer Dr Nick Barratt will conduct a journey of discovery around the historic houses. Details of all events here can be found at www.outofthehat.org.uk, and of Tewkesbury's festivals in general at www.visitcotswoldsandsevernvale.gov.uk. The celebrity chef at this year's Tewkesbury Food Festival, 3 and 4 May, is Paul Rankin.



The Tewkesbury artist


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Barbara Fletcher is primarily an artist of sea and sand, of the Cotswold landscape, and of the countryside around Tewkesbury, where she settled twenty-two years ago. Born overlooking the sea, into a family of talented and hugely successful artists of international repute, she won just about every school art prize going, before enmeshing herself in a degree in fine art at Cheltenham's Gloucester College of Art and Design. At the age of eighteen she had her first exhibition in a fashionable Oxford gallery.


As for so many artists over the years, the quality of light in Cornwall and the 'beautiful and fascinating colours and reflections you get in wet sand' are the inspiration for her coastal pictures. She is never lost for subjects and ideas around Tewkesbury, and a wander through her website at www.onlinegallery.co.uk will show you just how extensive these are.


It will also give you an idea of her haunting and atmospheric approach, mostly in oils, but also in acrylics and watercolour. She began at Tewkesbury by painting the Bloody Meadow, the Lower Lode, and Ducks on the River Swilgate. "At this time, my paintings were fairly figurative, and I was very concerned with reproducing the colours and perspective as closely as possible. After a while, they began to be more abstract, and I became less concerned with exact reproduction, and more with reproducing the feeling of being in that place. It became much more to do with spontaneity, and the sheer enjoyment of manipulating paint to get an end result that instils a feeling of excitement in me."


Barbara was selected as an exhibiting member of the Gloucestershire Society of Artists, whereupon her paintings started to sell like hotcakes. She had a successful solo exhibition at the Sabre Art Gallery, Gloucester in 2006, and was the top-selling artist at the Cheltenham Open Air Exhibition in 2007. Her paintings can currently be seen at the Burlington Art Gallery, Montpellier, Cheltenham, and others reside in private collections all over the world.



In a hot sort of place


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The only genuine Tewkesbury mustard to be made in the town is available to buy at just one retailer, Tim Webley's 1471 Delicatessen in Church Street. If you want to sample it in action, Melanie Jones puts it into the Welsh rarebit she sells at Melanie's Tea and Coffee Shop in High Street. This branded '1471 Tewkesbury Mustard' is made at Tewkesbury by Robin Ritchie, using only ingredients that would have been available to people in medieval times - mustard flour, white wine, honey and horseradish. Apparently, the last-mentioned ingredient, picked from the wild around the town, was such an irritant to the eyes that it caused considerable discomfort to the makers.


Traditionally, Tewkesbury mustard was a cottage industry that occupied women in the town. Until the 19th century, it was made in the form of dried balls, and the makers used a cannon ball and an iron mortar to crush the hard mustard seed into fine flour. Tewkesbury mustard was said to be exceptionally fine and pure, and the best in the land, but the local industry died out in the 19th century. This, Robin thinks, was consequent upon a new process developed by Coleman of Norwich.


Robin's involvement came a few years ago when he took the part of a gardener at Brother Ben's Day, during the school summer holidays. Then, under the tutelage of the abbey, schoolchildren dress as monks and undertake activities associated with their medieval lifestyle. Robin thought he would spice it up by making a batch of 'authentic' Tewkesbury mustard. It proved to be too hot for consumption by the youngsters, but fired the imaginations and the palates of their elders. Such was the interest, 'Brother Ben's Tewkesbury Mustard' became available; there is often a run on it during the re-enactments of the Battle of Tewkesbury, and at Christmas.


When the 1471 Delicatessen became its sole retailer, Brother Ben was retired into monastic obscurity in favour of a name change, and the re-labelled Tewkesbury mustard went on sale to great acclaim at the first Tewkesbury Food Festival. Robin says that medieval mustard was made in the form of dried balls; users carried these around with them, scraped off the required amount, and mixed it with wine or beer to reconstitute for use. He also makes these, and mustard balls coated in gold leaf, such as were said to have been presented to Henry VIII when he visited the town.



In the words of the mayor of Tewkesbury


Ken Powell


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"I was born just outside of Tewkesbury, went to school in the town, and now live and work there. I met my wife here, and all my three sons were born in Tewkesbury. We enjoy everything the town has to offer, and most of our friends live here. That is what makes Tewkesbury special for me.


"It can also be special for visitors. I would recommend them to look in the abbey - a wonderful 12th-century building that stands out at the centre of the town - and at the magnificent black and white buildings that line the streets. Visitors can enjoy so much associated with the two rivers that flow past, especially in the summer months when Tewkesbury is a marvellous place for boats and boating. There is also a weekly open-air market and the monthly farmers' market. Tewkesbury is a very old market town, with a history and heritage of the people who have always lived here. There is plenty for people to do, and there is a lot to be seen on a stroll along the riverside walk, from one end of the town to the other.


"Other places of interest include the museum, and the new heritage centre - Out of the Hat - in Church Street, the Roses Theatre, and the Cascades swimming baths complex. A visit to the old Baptist Chapel is an interesting experience. People will find our old black and white buildings fascinating to look at, and to photograph. Visitors can have a drink or a meal in some fine old hostelries such as the Old Black Bear, Berkley Arms, and the Tudor Hotel. We also have a large range of small- and medium-size shops.


"My favourite part of the town is the area around the abbey. I like Church Street because there is such a range of different styles of buildings. The old black and white Tudor Hotel, and the old abbey mill sit by the side of the River Avon, and there are walkways over the river to the huge area called the Ham, which is a painter's paradise. This is common land and people can walk on part of it; they can also fish the river.


"The large area known as the Vine Yards lies behind the abbey; it is known to the local people, but is less readily known to visitors. This is an open area of green belt land that is used as a park, where people can walk, play, or relax and have a picnic. It has a good view of the abbey, a children's play area, a bowling green, and a top-class caravan park. Landscape painters love it here, as well.


"The town has seen changes in the last few years. A number of new houses have been built here, leading to an intake of new people who live, work, and do their shopping in Tewkesbury. The old flour mill closed down, which stopped the heavy lorries coming into the town, and this resolved a big problem for us. A new Marks & Spencer has opened, and there are other new shops.


"All of this makes Tewkesbury a great place in which to live, surrounded by lovely countryside. It is away from any big cities, but has easy access to the motorways, and to larger towns that are only a short drive away. Tewkesbury has a full range of good schools; there are organisations for young and old to join, and the residents are friendly and helpful. There is a good industrial base offering jobs, and the housing market is buoyant."

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