PUBLISHED: 13:06 15 June 2015 | UPDATED: 13:40 18 June 2015
Art, theatre, books, food, sport, history… politics, it's all there in spades in Chipping Norton
Chipping Norton seems to be laid out on a pleasant set of tiers. With a charmingly traditional department store, Beales, at the top by the Town Hall with its splendid pillars, there is ample parking. Many other useful shops include another traditional style Harper’s Hardware shop and even a garden nursery/cookshop hiding away at the top of an alleyway called Gill & Co. MASH has some great ‘lifestyle gifts’.
Central to the top tier is the Crown & Cushion 40-bedroom hotel which, frankly, I could spend the whole day within, swimming in its indoor pool. At one time owned by Keith Moon of The Who, it also has a sunny terrace, gym and a squash court; happy memories of playing that sport as a young gel come back to me. Certainly a place to visit.
The town is equipped with a leisure centre with swimming, racquets and gym. There is also a popular Rugby Club and not least is the Vintage Sports Car Club.
Swivelling round at the top of the town, the eye is drawn downwards through the tiers to the beautiful countryside beyond. Further out and from Worcester Road, Bliss Mill stands out. At one time its tweed production was hugely successful and its chimney is still a landmark today though the building is converted into luxury dwellings. Other industries in the town have been glove-making, leather and iron.
Residents have included the late great Ronnie Barker and Prime Minister David Cameron – MP for nearby Witney - et al. Election fever is high when I visit, with posters for both main parties seen around the town.
The middle tier has The Blue Boar, offering good food, drinks and musical evenings. It’s also an ideal place to sit outside at a table as it has a good vantage point if people watching is your thing. A little further down is Jaffé & Neale – a must for that mid-visit coffee, chat and book browse.
Further down and what I see as the bottom tier is Spring Street, narrowly packed with charming cottages, cafes and essentials. Further along there and tucked away is a surprise theatre with an impressive programme. If ballet is your point of interest, put in the diary June 13 for a performance of Ballet Central. Check out other events at ChippingNortonTheatre.co.uk. Another date to put in is a Rotary Town Festival on June 21.
When visiting Chipping Norton, one of the buildings which stands out is the Co-operative supermarket, an original for purpose, it still houses the Co-op. Also on the top floor of that building is the town’s museum, open from September to May and presenting tableaux, teas and talks; worth a visit. To find out how to join the History Society, which meets in the Methodist Hall, see ChippingNortonMuseum.org.uk
History notes describe the poor of Chipping Norton with the first workhouse in 1777 being in Church Street and housing 40 inmates. A new one was built in 1836 between the London and Banbury Roads at a cost of £6,153 and designed to hold 350 inmates, or shall we prefer to say people. Old photos and more fascinating stuff of this ilk is to be found at Workhouses.org.uk. You could be there all day if you love historical tales.
For example, in 1880 Jackson’s Oxford Journal reports of an outing for the hapless people from the workhouse organised by a kindly Mr and Mrs TF Penyston - owners of the Jacobean Manor House Cornwell, CornwellManor.com, which is still in family possession - and we can only imagine their delight as they were taken for a ‘hot dinner of boiled and roast joints, plum puddings and fruit tarts’. The women left the summer party with some kind of party bag full of fruit, tea and sugar, the men were given beer and tobacco. At the end of the day, cheers resounded for the Penystons.
All was not forever calm in those days, however, as a case in 1900 reports some insubordination at the workhouse, where a certain Mrs. Scarrott rose up in ire with some sort of grievance, slapping a nurse by the name of Pink and threatening to put her in the copper boiler. Ye Gods. The paupers apparently were subsequently taught a lesson (not specified the manner of which) so they knew they could not do as they pleased as they may have imagined on occasion.
More details at the site reveal the fire in the workhouse causing much damage in 1911 but I shall leave you to explore more historic facts.
So on the day I visit, there is no uprising, notwithstanding those various election posters about the place and overheard political discussion, no visible slapping to be seen thank goodness but there is some feasting. I happen upon an excellent fresh fish shop in New Street called Rogér’s. The place is bursting with glistening and colourful fish of all sorts and other delicious fayre. A regular customer, Alex Grant, makes a special trip.
“I always pop into Chippy (locals’ name for the town) for my fish and for the brilliant bookshop Jaffé’s in Middle Row.” says Alex, “Rogér’s fish is truly wonderful, the best around, and I try to avoid going to too many supermarkets, supporting the independents as much as possible.”
Patrice Rogér has had the shop since 2013 with his wife Debbie and, with a catering career locally behind him, knows many in Chippy. Originally French, from Normandy, he now calls England home.
“It’s a very close community here and it’s a great town. I source my fish from Brixham and from Birmingham market where I was buying at 2am today, picking the best. It’s a way of life I really enjoy. It’s fun!” he tells me. “I know many people. We like to talk as I serve them.”
Art, theatre, books, food, sport, history, it’s there in Chipping Norton in spades, even politics. So, anyway, must rush, I have an invitation to Chequers. No, not that one! I wish. The jolly old pub in Goddard Lane. Why not?