A fascinating yarn about the wool town of Shipston-on-Stour
PUBLISHED: 12:02 15 January 2019 | UPDATED: 14:59 06 November 2020
© Thousand Word Media
“It is always a joy to find out about a town’s past and celebrate its heritage. Wool may no longer be Shipston’s main commodity or focus, but it does still weave its way into community life in a special way.”
In medieval times, drovers herded their sheep through the streets of Shipston-on-Stour to get washed ready for market. In modern times, I have herded my own flock (of children) through this picturesque Cotswold town for work purposes. Today, though, I am joined by my own shepherdess (my mum) who has rescued me from barbed wire and angry wolves metaphorically more than once in my lifetime. Needless to say I can spin a yarn when it comes to talking about sheep.
But so too can Shipston, which was recorded in the 8th century as Scepwaeisctune, translated as Sheep Wash Town in Old English. Evidence of its woolly traditions are still there in terms of its myriad of narrow alleyways where sheep would have been taken down to be counted. It makes the layout of the town an interesting one and a fun way to get from street to street. Sheep Street of course is another clue, while a handsome sheep carved out of Syreford Stone, commissioned in 2010, sits on the main roundabout leading into town as a testimony of its past.
The town is just off The Fosse Way, an important route for the Romans, which might explain why the famous Cotswold Lion sheep – the backbone of the local woollen industry – were introduced to the vicinity. Markets were a vital part of medieval society. Henry III granted Shipston its town charter in 1268, marking the start of a weekly market and annual three-day fair on the festival of St Barnabus in June. Predominantly aimed towards the sheep trade, this fair was held every year up to the mid 1800s.
Thanks to a legacy by the late Mayor elect, Angela Noyce, who led an initiative to revive this tradition back in 2009 after a break of 150 years, the Wool Fair of Shipston is now an important part of the town’s social and economic life. The 10th anniversary took place in May 2018 with a fabulous celebration of anything and everything to do with wool including the town’s own version of the Throckmorton Coat of 200 years ago. Instead of a coat, various people were on hand to produce a woollen hat - undergoing every process involved from sheep shearing, combing, carding, spinning to making the finished product - all in one day.
The aim of the 21st-century Wool Fair is to put people in touch with the heritage of the area in a playful, interesting and quirky way.
“Looking back at our original purpose of setting up the fair a decade ago, it has exceeded our expectations by far,” explains Bob Armstrong, one of the founder members of the Wool Fair, which will take place on Bank Holiday Monday, May 27 in 2019.
“It always draws people into Shipston from villages around the town, as well as visitors from all over. We wanted to provide this Spring event as a unique occasion to generate interest and knowledge of the Shipston history whilst encouraging people to come into the town, spend money and support our local traders, public houses and hotels. The aim was always to benefit the town both on a community and commercial level.”
Since the first modern day fair, which attracted around 2,000 people with its exhibits of rare sheep breeds, shearing demonstrations, exhibitions featuring various uses of wool, and street entertainment and stalls; the event has grown in popularity.
“The highlight of the fair, as always, is the real life exhibition of sheep. This includes many rare breeds and celebrity sheep. Children love seeing the sheep, with their long coats, being sheared too and it is a wonderful day our for everyone,” says Town Councillor and former Town Mayor Veronica Murphy.
“There is also a marquee which shows the wool process and how wool evolves through spinning, weaving and knitting. Last year, a group of 45 ladies knitted all day to make blankets for a clinic in Ethiopia.”
Veronica moved to Shipston with her husband and four children, as Neil Armstrong landed on the moon (and I landed on earth), in the summer of 1969. They took over the pub, The Bell Inn, now a private dwelling. Since her husband’s death in 2007, Veronica has played an active part in community life which includes the Wool Fair.
“What we have in Shipston, we try and keep. We want people to come and visit us so we try and put on events at least two or three times a year in the hope that they come back and make a weekend of it, using us as a base to visit other places,” she says.
The events Veronica refers to includes the Shipston Proms, a two-week long festival encompassing a wide range of music events across the town for all tastes and ages. It celebrated its 20th anniversary in June 2018. This year’s event takes place June 14-29 and will end with the popular festival climax of the spectacular Last Night of the Proms in the High Street. Organised by Shipston Angling Club, an angling festival called Fish ‘n’ Frolics takes place in July; Shipston Food Festival is a popular event in September, showcasing local food and drink; whilst the Victorian Evening, organised by Shipston Rotary Club, is a highlight for December.
Events such as these have a positive impact on community life. As part of the Wool Fair initiative, in 2012, to mark the Queen’s Golden Jubilee, the Shipston Tapestry, which hangs proudly in the town council offices, was created. Designed by Rosalind Lobb, a member of the Stratford Guild of Weavers, Spinners & Dyer’s, the tapestry took 200 people 4,000 hours to complete. Measuring almost 5ft in length, the tapestry was woven on a traditional wooden loom and depicts Shipston’s wonderful landscape including the famous River Stour where the sheep were once brought to be washed. Whilst in Shipston, I enjoy the opportunity to study it in detail. It certainly is an impressive feat.
Tapestries are synonymous with Shipston. In the neighbouring farming hamlet of Barcheston, the famous magnificent woollen Sheldon Tapestries were created in Tudor times. Exuberantly decorated with mythological motifs and flowers, these tapestries were unrivalled technically at the time. Sadly very few have survived.
Yet the art of creating lives on in modern Shipston. At last year’s Wool Fair, the town was artistically adorned in wool as yarn bombing brought fun and colour to various street furniture and lamp posts. Once the fair was over, the pieces were washed and recycled.
Within Shipston’s independent shops are further examples of creativity and I can’t help finding my own supply of wool-related items. In The Richard Harvey Collection, an inspiring interiors shop extending into an old Baptist Chapel, I come across a wire wiggle sheep and a painting entitled ‘Gate Escape’, which appeals to my sense of humour. Here I meet assistant manager, Carole Taylor.
“Everything you need you can get in Shipston; there is always somebody who knows where you can get it from. It’s a community, a friendly community where we all know everyone,” she says.
Meanwhile in Taste of the Country, an award-winning deli, crammed full of mouth-watering food products, my eyes hone in on the shop’s own homemade gingerbread sheep. They also make other bespoke woodland, farmyard and other designs at their production kitchen on the Alscot Estate near Stratford.
“It’s a wool town. I love it because it’s a very active proper market town with lots of diverse businesses and shops,” says Sarah Smith, retail assistant.
“It’s a working town as opposed to a tourist town and has an interesting mix of people and we are lucky that we don’t have many empty shops which is probably bucking the trend for some towns. It’s looking promising for 2019.”
As we’re talking about Shipston’s historic heritage, further clues to its past can be found in the buildings themselves. The town’s inns tell of a prosperous time when they flourished in the coaching era. The rise of the merchant class in the Elizabethan period and a need to travel, coupled with the fact the town lay on a drovers’ route meant it was an ideal location for hospitality. One example is the Black Horse, Shipston’s oldest pub and the town’s only thatched building, dating back to the 15th century.
Shop owners are also proud of the historic buildings in which they are based. Kate King, owner of Ivy Heart, a delightful gift shop, has been trading here for 10 years.
“One of the things that I personally love about the shops is that they are original buildings yet used in a way that is modern. We try and stay sympathetic to the original structure, rather than cover them. It adds something. It’s not a prefab town, it’s sympathetically pleasing and a lovely town to be in. It’s also relatively unchanged. When you look at old photographs, it doesn’t look a lot different,’ she explains.
She shows me evidence of what the shop was once used for – notably a square peg in one of its wooden pillars.
“There used to be a mezzanine floor here. The chickens would have been on the top, the pigs underneath and the family would have lived upstairs,” explains Kate, who fittingly sells a lot of country-related gifts. In keeping with my woolly theme, I find a 100% lambswool hat and a soothing microwavable warmsie in the form of a cuddly sheep.
To end my visit today, I pop into the Heritage Centre, based in Shipston’s Post Office in the High Street, opened at the Wool Fair in 2014. Here I find a shearing machine, a sheep’s horn, a shepherd’s folding bars, shuttles, hand shears and some castrators, dating back to the late 19th century.
It is always a joy to find out about a town’s past and celebrate its heritage. Wool may no longer be Shipston’s main commodity or focus, but it does still weave its way into community life in a special way. And thanks to dedicated volunteers, the Wool Fair in May will once again bring the sheep out of the history books and into the streets to mark their special place in the community calendar.