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The home of the famous Witney blanket is a treasure trove of antique finds, artistic treasures and rather special teddy-bears! Words by Tracy Spiers
Rare finds are the words that come to mind when describing the charming unpretentious Cotswold market town of Witney. For here art enthusiasts can enjoy studying an original by the masters of the contemporary and modern art world such as Andy Warhol, Howard Hodgkin, Henry Matisse, Salvador Dali and Pablo Picasso; antique lovers can get lost in vintage heaven and shoppers can revel in retail bliss, where limited-edition teddy-bears and tailor-made cakes feature in the eclectic mix of national and independent stores. Oh and you dont have to pay to park your car, which is a rare find indeed!
Up until a few years ago this thriving community was making the famous Witney blanket, which was first made here more than 400 years ago. In the 19th century there were five working mills in and around Witney. Although the last blanket mill was closed in 2002, the association with blankets will live on. The Cogges Manor Farm Museum hosts displays celebrating the Witney blanket market, once a global concern with blankets being exported to American Indians in exchange for furs; and The Witney and District Museum in the High Street has a long-term exhibition showing the towns development over the last 1,000 years, which pays homage to the famous blanket, glove making, brewing and other historic industries. Today those industries may have shifted towards tourism, retail and technology, but the essence of this popular community hasnt altered and the largest town in West Oxfordshire has retained its market town charm. When businessman Ian Pout in 1985 first opened his exquisite shop Teddy Bears of Witney the first shop in the UK to specialise in selling new and old teddy bears, he confesses he had misgivings about his chosen trading location.
As the years have passed, I have warmed to the atmosphere of this workaday town. It has spacious greens at each end, the River Windrush flowing through the middle and useful shops in the High Street. It feels lived in and more real than some nearby towns, whose high streets seem to me to be dominated now by tourists, he says.
Sue Forty is manager of Huffkins, a Renowned bakery and tea rooms Renowned bakery and tea rooms renowned tearooms with a craft bakery heritage stretching back to the late 1800s, which was chosen to represent the nation at last years British Fair in Osaka, Japan in recognition of its excellent cream teas.
We made 14,000 scones during the 10 days we were there that was 2,000 a day. It was a real honour to be asked by the Cotswold Tourist Board to go. It was absolutely amazing. We are obviously doing something right. And so is Witney it seems.
Witney is a great place to work, its got everything you need on a small scale, its compact and accessible for getting to cities like Oxford or London and its free car parking is fabulous, adds Sue.
One of the towns independent retail newcomers is Fresh, a card and gifts store, marking its first anniversary in September. Owners Paul Hobbs and Graham Brogden, who live in the town, admit they opened the shop because he recognised Witney as a growing, thriving community.
We enjoy trading in Witney as it is an historic market town yet is able to grow and flourish with the times, says Paul.
We are delighted the community has embraced Fresh and that it is trying to bring something new and exciting to the developing town.
Julia Murnaghan, owner of The Old Pill Factory, an antiques and homeware centre also saw Witneys potential and opened her business last October. Having researched the area I saw Witney as an up and coming market town crying out for a unique shopping experience as The Old Pill Factory and we are pleased to say that we have been overwhelmed by the response.
Antique lovers looking for a rare find are surely lured into this town. Witneys Mayor James Mills works in the antique industry at W.R. Harvey & Co (Antiques) Ltd, where incidentally three members of staff can claim theyve served as Mayor over the years.
Witney has a large concentration of antique shops and so it works for us in that people know they can come and find an excellent source of antiques in one place, he says.
He confesses that more visitors have come to Witney in the recent few months for another reason.
Certainly since our MP David Cameron has been the Prime Minister we have had more attention from the world at large, in good ways and bad; but on the positive side I am sure its drawn more people to the town because of the connection.
Others know they can park their cars for free and enjoy a wide range of national retail shops and interesting independent ones as well.
And there are other treats in store. As well as regular farmers and charter markets, an annual music festival, and quaint historic landmarks to see such as the Buttercross, where medieval women used to sell butter and eggs; any art fanatic will find themselves magnetically pulled to Witney - if only just to see a Howard Hodgkin, Damian Hirst or Henry Moore original at the stunning Meller Merceus Gallery in the High Street. Now I know about these rare art finds, I for one will be encouraging a family outing to this attractive market town in the very near future.