A guide to the historic town of Banbury, Oxfordshire
PUBLISHED: 09:36 26 February 2019
Rebellion might have been plotted in the back room of the Reindeer Inn, but Banbury – and its Fine Lady – is more welcoming today
These days most visitors to Banbury tend to arrive by car rather than cockhorse, but cast in bronze, the Fine Lady upon her White Horse still cuts a splendid figure as you arrive at Banbury Cross. The town was once home to many crosses – although it can trace its origins back further than Christianity in this country – but the great Gothic monument standing in the town centre today was a Victorian addition. Banbury’s fraught Civil War history cost it much of its original Medieval architecture, crosses included, but as is so often the case, that turbulent era has left its own fascinating mark on this bustling market town.
Built off the back of the Cotswolds’ rich wool trade, Banbury was largely Puritan in its Civil War loyalties. It formed a vital base for Oliver Cromwell’s military operations, and it’s even said that he planned the 1642 Battle of Edgehill in the back room of the Reindeer Inn on Parson’s Street. Now known as Ye Olde Reine Deer Inn, this timber-framed pub still boasts the old wood-panelled back room, but an equally good reason for visiting now is to sample some of the local ales, made just down the road at the Hook Norton Brewery. Forget the Banbury Cakes (I hunted around town all day and couldn’t find a single place that sold them, except the museum, which could say it all, really...); grab a pint of Old Hooky instead.
If coffee and cake is more your thing – and let’s face it, a day out in a beautiful English town is hardly complete without a stop-off at the local teashop – Calthorpe Street’s By The Fire is as cosy as its name suggests. This snug little tearoom offers a delicious range of homemade cakes, and is only a short walk from Banbury Cross in one direction, and historic Old Town in the other, making it the ideal place to stop and take the weight off your feet.
Banbury offers plenty of modern retail opportunities too, primarily in its large Castle Quay shopping centre, but Old Town is full of independent businesses and quirky little shops tucked away in old houses of timber frames or dark Hornton ironstone. And if you’re around by the shopping centre, the Banbury Museum is just next door, showcasing a wonderful collection of artefacts that detail the town’s absorbing history. The museum’s in-house café also has a fabulous selection of fresh food and cakes, with children’s and gluten free menus available too. Enjoy a pastry while overlooking the Oxford Canal, and then mosey down to see the riverboats at Tooley’s Boatyard, one of the oldest working dry docks on our nation’s waterways. For something a little different, Tooley’s is now offering an authentic blacksmithing course, using their 200-year-old forge. Could be just the ticket for anyone looking to pick up a new hobby while the year’s still young.
Heading back into the town centre, the domed tower of St Mary’s parish church will surely catch your eye. A traditional Medieval church once stood here, but the Civil War left it in ruins, and so at the end of the 18th Century this striking neo-classical building was raised in its place. Although the design is typical of the era, Georgian churches are so few and far between in this part of the country that the colourful arches, gold murals and grand pillars feel almost Byzantine. The stunning stained glass windows in the upper and lower galleries exhibit that incomparable Victorian eye for detail, and the Arctic Window, inspired by the sketches of polar bears, reindeer and walruses made by Admiral Sir George Back during his stranding on the HMS Terror, is a must-see.
Unsurprisingly, the Civil War’s influence on Banbury extends beyond the town and into the surrounding countryside. A couple of miles down the road, Broughton Castle was besieged by Royalist troops following the battle at Edgehill. After being captured and occupied, this remarkable fortified manor was left in a state of disrepair for centuries, prompting one 19th Century visitor to comment that the rooms were “daily dilapidating from misuse”. However, thanks to renovations funded by the Historic Buildings Council and English Heritage, the castle has been restored to its former glory. Visitors today now have the chance to view the original Medieval manor with its many fine 16th and 18th Century additions. Stroll down to the gatehouse and see the surrounding moat and battlements that were added by Sir Thomas Wykeham after he attained his ‘license to crenulated and embattle’ in 1406. Look out for the suits of armour in the Great Hall, where leading Parliamentary opponents of Charles I once met and discussed strategy, wander through lavish bedchambers where many a European royal has slept, and be sure to visit the Oak Room - a beautiful panelled Tudor drawing room that has made appearances in films such as Shakespeare In Love and the 2011 adaption of Jane Eyre.
Broughton Castle has belonged to the Fiennes family since the 15th Century, and their descendants still live in the manor today. The people in town tell me that the enigmatic ‘fine lady’ in Ride A Cockhorse To Banbury Cross is actually a ‘Fiennes lady’, which I found a rather satisfying explanation, although after digging a little deeper into the origins of the famous nursery rhyme, the ‘fine lady’ version we know today seems to be a modern rewording of a similar song that featured an ‘old lady’ instead. According to Artcyle Ltd, the sculptors responsible for the Fine Lady statue, the damsel in their sculpture is Guinevere of Arthurian legend, and with flowers in her crown, she is also meant to represent a spring deity. It seems nobody can quite agree on her original identity, but I think one thing’s for certain – no matter who she was supposed to be originally, the striking bronze woman who greets visitors to the town today, with rings on her fingers and bells on her toes, is very much the spirit of Banbury.
Local artist Katie B Morgan designed this beautiful illustrated map of Stroud for January’s issue of Cotswold Life. See below the map for points of interest...
• Known as Banburyshire, good business community and communication routes.
• Johnathan Swift is reputed to have taken the name ‘Gulliver’ from a tombstone in St Mary’s Churchyard (library book pinned to the ground).
• Castle Quay Shopping Centre- the site of original castle built in 1135 (castellation decoration in border).
• Jacobs Douwe Egbert symbol: the world’s largest coffee-processing facility.
• Banbury Cakes: made using a secret recipe that dates back to at least 1586.
• Trial electric Post Office delivery vans, built by Arrival Ltd.
• Spinning Wheel: at the start of the 19th century, Banbury was weaving ‘plush’, fabric with around 1000 workers in and around Banbury.
• Compass: stone sun sculpture on Banbury Town Hall.
• Border based on Banbury Coat of Arms: sun and wavy bar, castellation of castle and shields of battles.
• Tom Rolt: author of ‘Narrowboat’ and one of the instigators of keeping canals alive for work and leisure. Had his boat Cressy restored at Tooleys boat yard in 1939.
• Birds Custard used to be made in Banbury.
• Reindeer Inn: used by Oliver Cromwell.
• Thomas Hankinson donated the initial piece of land. His family were local High Street butchers, who sold hand-made faggots called ‘spice balls’.
• The hearts are based on the decoration of a building in Butchers Row.
• Novelist Anthony Burgess wrote Clockwork Orange while teaching at Banbury Grammar School.
• The racing car symbol indicates both Haas F1 racing team and Prodrive who design, construct and race cars.
• Chapbooks: cheap printed books printed using ‘Banbury blocks’ (wood engraved blocks).
• Banbury was once the home to Europe’s largest cattle market.
• Tooley’s Boatyard: the oldest working dry dock in Britain, repairing and building boats since 1790.
• Alfred Beesley (1800-1847): topograper and poet.
• Dick Chipperfield: English circus animal trainer and circus owner (1904 – 1988).
• Pioneer of X-Rays: Richard Reynolds (1829-1900).
• It is thought that Celia Fiennes was the fine lady on a white horse. Her family owned Broughton Castle: the bells symbolize wealth and rings authority.
• Banbury Cheese: mentioned by Shakespeare in a few of his plays. It was produced in one-inch rounds so became a byword for anything unreasonably thin.
• Larry Grayson: born in Banbury in 1923. He was known for his catch phrase “Shut that door!”