Is Tetbury the most cultural town in the Cotswolds?
PUBLISHED: 11:58 01 October 2019 | UPDATED: 11:58 01 October 2019
Tetbury Town Council
Vying for the title of ‘most cultural town in the Cotswolds’, Tetbury’s arts scene, architecture and foodie-ness make it the perfect place for the intellectually curious
Pretty, with its ancient buildings, sky-high church spire and market house topped by a weather vane sporting the town's double dolphin crest, Tetbury has more than its fair share of charm and architectural beauty. Its royal associations lend it even more caché, with Prince Charles and Princess Anne maintaining country houses, Highgrove and Gatcombe Park respectively, south and north of the town. Tetbury has a reputation for antique shops and purveyors of fine food (including a Highgrove shop in Long Street) but the icing on the cultural cake must be its unusual arts centre, newly begun book festival and internationally acclaimed music festival, all of which draw the intellectual visitor to the town.
Much more than art
It may not sound like an arts venue, but Tetbury Goods Shed is fast gaining a reputation for excellence in rather unusual surroundings. With its retractable seating and multi-purpose interior, Shed-Arts, as it is known, puts on poetry and talks, exhibitions, and jazz, classical, rock and choral music performances. What's more, the centre has its own Steinway B piano, secured for future use through the donations of local music lovers and performing arts buffs.
It's all a far cry from the days when the shed was owned and used by the railway, but it hasn't shaken off its heritage to swank around with new-found friends. There's a railway carriage where workshops and indoor dining are hosted, and the old track bed makes a perfect cycle trail, bridleway, and walking and running route, thanks to additional permission from local landowners.
Meanwhile, the Goods Shed's origins and the railway line's past are being commemorated and celebrated with the collation of local people's memories. Anyone who worked or travelled on the Tetbury railway branch line in the 50s and 60s prior to its closure as part of Beeching's 1963 cuts to services, is invited to get involved. Stay for coffee and pastries at the Whistle Stop Café, pick up farm fresh fruit and vegetables every Saturday and sign up to work as an occasional volunteer at this charming and characterful venture.
It is 16 years since Tetbury Music Festival was founded by Graham Kean and Elise Smith, with the aim of bringing concert hall quality music to the hallowed aisles of St Mary's church. The festival's tagline is 'the finest music in the Cotswolds' and it's a claim that would take some challenging. Past performers include international soprano Elizabeth Watts, violinists Rachel Podger and Tasmin Little, pianists Till Fellner and Roger Vignoles, and the cellist Steven Isserlis, who was also the founding artistic director.
The 2019 festival programme kicks off with a performance at the Goods Shed featuring the Derek Pravicini Quartet with Hannah Davey and the festival champions. With stellar names such as Russian pianist Pavel Kolesnikov and Dame Felicity Lott among those due to grace the stage at St Mary's itself, and a series of lectures and interviews scheduled for those who want to understand and appreciate the performances in greater depth, the festival really is a music lover's dream. The organisers also encourage new ensembles and performers, bringing new talent to the fore.
The church itself is a thing of splendour, with brilliant acoustics and a spire to rival many a cathedral. Officially the parish church of St Mary the Virgin and St Mary Magdalen, the building dates back to the 18th century, when the main body of the old church was demolished and rebuilt in grand Georgian gothic elegance. Though the original tower and spire were retained, the ground around the two subsided, so these had to be reconstructed a century later, though much of the building material was repurposed and the style remained unchanged. The festival's candlelight performances, held after the autumn equinox, add to the church's year-round atmosphere and beauty.
This year's festival closes with Handel's Brockes Passion, composed when Handel was living in England. In a performance marking 300 years after the Passion's premiere, the Arcangelo ensemble, conducted by Tetbury Music Festival's artistic director Jonathan Cohen, will be joined by soprano Sandrine Piau, tenor Stuart Jackson and baritone Konstantin Krimmel.
Festival tickets start at £10.
With its bars, restaurants and hostelries, cafés, tea-shops and takeaways, as well as its food specialist outlets and wine merchant, Tetbury's visitors and locals are spoilt for choice when it comes to eating options.
The grade I listed Market House, with its clock face and saffron-coloured rendering, dominates the town centre and it's here you'll find a twice-weekly market, featuring fresh fruit and vegetables, pies and fish. Tetbury's shopping streets are lined with old merchants' houses and there are weavers' cottages dotted around the town.
Besides getting a taste of Highgrove produce at Tetbury's Long Street shop, it is possible to pre-book a visit to Highgrove Estate gardens and see the Prince of Wales's environmental gardening principles in practice. Nearby Chavenage House, known to Poldark fans as Trenwith, is also open to the public from May to September.
New to the town
An addition to Tetbury's cultural scene, the town now has its own book festival, thanks to the sterling efforts of the Yellow Lighted Bookshop. An inaugural festival was held in May 2019 at the Goods Shed, and featured a series of authors, academics and writers including Ali Smith, Melanie Golding, Melissa Harrison, Natalie Haynes and Amy Sackville, archaeologist Francis Pryor, stonemason Alex Woodcock and professors Robert Eaglestone and Dave Cliff. The four-day event had a packed programme and looks set to become an annual event in the Tetbury calendar. The bookshop itself, based in Church Street, holds regular author readings both in the shop premises and at Tetbury Market House. All well worth signing up for.
Local artist Katie B Morgan designed this beautiful illustrated map of Tetbury for August's issue of Cotswold Life. See below the map for points of interest...
- Courtyard on Gumstool Hill: Used by the American army to create models of Omaha beach, preparing for the Normandy D-Day landings
- Wiltshire Bridge: Used to mark the boundary between Wiltshire and Gloucestershire
- Goods Shed: The Tetbury Branch line closed in 1964, and the building is now a lively arts centre
- St Mary the Virgin: This has the fourth highest spire in England
- Cycling capital of the Cotswolds
- BBC's Tess of the d'Urbervilles and Lark Rise to Candleford: Both were filmed at Chavenage House, near Tetbury
- Woolsack Races on Gumstool Hill: Featuring a 1-in-4 hill, the races are held on the last Monday in May
- HRH Prince Charles, Prince of Wales: Lives at Highgrove, near Tetbury
- Dolphins: There are three dolphin stories associated with Tetbury… 1. A local benefactor many years ago was said to have been rescued by two dolphins when he fell overboard in a shipping accident. 2. Two dolphins plugged holes in a ship to stop it from sinking when a benefactor was aboard. 3. A family that came over with William the Conqueror owned Tetbury. Their home town had two dolphins on its heraldic shield
- Chipping Steps: This was the old entrance into the town, with its lovely row of weavers' cottages. The Chipping is also the site of an old Cistercian monastery and the original site of the mop fair
- The Market House: Built in 1655 by the Tetbury Feoffees. The Feoffees were initially four local residents who wanted to build the prosperity of the town. There are now seven and they still exist today as trustees of the town's charities
- George Whyte-Melville (1821-78): Poet and novelist
- Parish register 1710-54: During the reign of James I a man called Henry West from Upton, a mile out of Tetbury, died at the grand old age of 152, after having five wives and 100 grandchildren
- Tetbury Town Football Club: Founded 1900
- Thomas Southgate: Rower in the 1924 Olympics was born in Tetbury
- Brian John Duffy: Jet Black, drummer in The Stranglers, lives here
- Sidney Kitcat: English cricketer (1890-1904) was born in Tetbury in 1868
- Cecil Sam Cook: English cricketer, born in Tetbury in 1921
- Jake Meyer: The youngest Britain to climb Mount Everest, in 2005, was born in Tetbury in 1984
- John Dunlop: Racehorse trainer born in Tetbury, 1939
- Alfred Ernest Ind: Shoeing smith who was awarded the Victoria Cross WWI. Born in Tetbury, 1872
- Algernon Maudslay: Won two Gold medals for sailing in the 1980 Olympics
- David Mabberley: Botanist who wrote a plant dictionary, born in Tetbury, 1948
- Royce Mills: Actor whose many roles included being a much-loved pantomime dame (1942-2019)