A postcard from...Bicester
PUBLISHED: 14:39 18 December 2018
Recorded in the Domesday Book, Bicester has a rich past relating to sheep, horses, leather working, lace making and military. It's a treat to visit somewhere new, and so it is with a first-time visitor's perspective this postcard by Tracy Spiers is written...
Label lovers and shopping enthusiasts will probably know this place for its modern retail outlet, but Bicester is an historic Oxfordshire market town where Oliver Cromwell once played a game of marbles. Recorded in the Domesday Book, Bicester has a rich past relating to sheep, horses, leather working, lace making and military. It’s a treat to visit somewhere new, and so it is with a first-time visitor’s perspective this postcard is written. It also comes with a special creative twist as I have my equally fun-loving sister with me in Bicester. And armed with a purple Santa hat on a hot autumnal day, we cause a few smiles.
• With the ending ‘cester’ we realise there must be a Roman connection to this town. The straight road leading into Bicester provides a clue. Reading up, we discover that there was a Roman settlement of Alchester, just two miles away where archaeologists have excavated a tombstone that commemorated the life of a retired legionary.
• We start our postcard in the older part of town in Sheep Street, which as the name indicates, connects Bicester to its agricultural roots. The first market was granted in 1239 and throughout the centuries, Bicester built on this tradition. Sheep Street was established 300 years ago to accommodate the animals brought into town. It still hosts a market on Friday and is now a main shopping street. Here we find some independents who are trying to find their own niche in the market. Kim is drawn to the Gent’s Groom-Room, owned by Emma Fielding, who opened it in February. “This used to be our barber shop but we ran out of space. We moved the barber shop to a bigger space but we loved this Grade II listed building and didn’t want to let it go.” The barber shop she refers to is award-winning Andy’s Barber Shop. Exclusively for men, the groom room is Oxfordshire’s first grooming salon and offers a range of treatments including facials, pedicures, waxing and sports massage. It suits the needs of “the smart, more refined Gentleman” and sells exclusive shaving cream and other products from Geo. F. Trumper. As it is a festive postcard, Kim considers buying her other half a voucher for Christmas.
• Sharp eyes and inquisitiveness leads us through an alleyway to the unusually whacky courtyard of Frequently Asked Questions, a bar with a barber shop owned by Marc Sylvester. It’s a wonderful example of upcycling, with both the exterior and interior kitted out with familiar objects used in a fresh way. “Inside the bar we have used the seats from an old bus, the lights come from a factory in Birmingham, whilst outside we have made a sofa by cutting a section out of a bath and created a fence using tennis rackets,” explains Marc. As for the cocktails, many of them are devised by three gentlemen who work for Marc. This delightfully quirky bar opened at the end of summer and is a sister to a little bar in Banbury called Also Known As.
• At the heart of Bicester’s mediaeval centre in Church Street is St Edburg’s Church where we meet licensed lay minister Christopher Young who tells us about its mixed architectural and social history. “It’s a beautiful church. There’s been a church on site since the 9th century. The oldest part of the current building dates back to the 11th or 12th century and it has grown since then. I love its sense of spaciousness and light which is fabulous.” According to some historians, a triangular archway set in the north wall of the current nave, is thought to be part of the original Saxon Church. Christopher tells us about the great storm of 1765 which damaged the church. “Lightning struck the tower and the force of the blast was enough to blow out the glass in the windows.” According to the church guide we pick up, there is only one mediaeval stained glass window remaining from that 18th century storm. One window to also note is the Burne Jones window, made by William Morris & Co. to a design by Edward Burne Jones, depicting the figures of Hope, Faith and Charity.
• As we walk through town, Kim and I admire the architectural diversity. In Market Square - which is a triangle - there is an impressive set of island buildings built by wealthy townspeople in the 16th and 17th centuries. We take note of Bicester House, first built in 1582 by John Coker as the Manor House. Rebuilt in 1780 and 1820, the house remained the home of the Coker family until 1978.
• Looking onto the town ‘triangle,’ is Stansfield and Hoole, an independent lounge-style cafe serving artisan coffees, teas, fresh sandwiches, cream teas and cakes. David Hoole is an excellent host and shares his vision for the business which he runs with husband graphic designer Tim Stansfield. “We wanted people to come in, sit down and chill as if they were entering our living room. We have had cats, dogs, even rabbits – in fact customers can bring any animal in as long as they don’t go near the kitchen. We support the work of local artists so all the pictures you see on the walls are done by the local art community. There isn’t a lot of wall space for artists in Bicester and we found there is a high demand for it. We are booked up until May next year,” says David. He also shares an interesting nugget of history and it explains why the property is called Cromwell House. “Oliver Cromwell stayed upstairs and he apparently played marbles in the doorway and the rules were that whoever hit the wall first, won the game.” As we look out onto the square, which is full of cars, David also says that plans are on the cards to turn it into footfall only so it would recreate the look in the days’ pre-car.
• Whilst we concentrate on the ‘old’ Bicester, we can’t ignore the growing popularity of its modern “Bicester Village” shopping outlet. It reminds me of entering a film set of an American film. It even has its own railway station and Kim charms a chauffeur and has a ride in one of the special village vehicles. We enter the retail world where we’re overwhelmed by more than 100 stores selling international and British luxury goods including exquisite items for the home; shoes, jewellery, high-end fashion and a plethora of restaurants, coffee shops and street food. Noting the numbers of shoppers and the even larger number of bags laden with shoes, clothes and other things, I can only imagine the amount of money spent here. I do buy one Christmas present, and have a taste of vegan ice cream before enjoying a latte from Artisan Oliphant’s Ice Cream stand, served by friendly Catherine Walsh.
• We take a short walk from town into Garth Park. It has a stunning bandstand and beautiful grounds. The day we visit, there isn’t a cloud in the sky and we enjoy eating our lunch outside – wishing we were a little bit younger so we can play in the children’s playground as we used to. In the park, we come across a sculpture that celebrates Bicester’s crafts history. Its title In the Making, suggests that whilst created objects are important, the ‘making process’ itself may be even more so. It also implies that Bicester is an on-going, unfinished thing with a life of its own – which we see in the town as it embraces growth and change: Bicester-in-the-making. At various times in Bicester’s history it was a place where the artisan and craftsperson were seen at work on their saddlery, lace making, sack weaving, rope making, wool combing, bronze casting and brick making. The tools of the trade were as important as the hands that used them, and so they are integral to the collection of objects here. The sculpture was made and cast in bronze by local artists Helen & Wesley Jacobs with the assistance of their department at Pangolin Editions sculpture foundry.
• Before we leave we try and find Bicester Heritage, the UK’s first business campus dedicated to historic motoring and aviation. It is based at the UK’s best-preserved WW2 RAF bomber station, the former RAF Bicester. Somehow, we miss it and instead come across former airmen’s quarters at the site in Caversfield, across the road from the RAF Bicester airfield. I’m intrigued by a Second World War bunker, originally built to withstand a bombing, gas or chemical attack, but now transformed into a pair of luxury homes.
• It’s been a fascinating first visit to this town and today’s outing will go down in our memory book as the Sister Bicester trip.