A postcard from Chipping Norton
PUBLISHED: 10:02 25 May 2018
It is the highest town in Oxfordshire, was once a major industrial hive for wool and tweed, took part in the rather bizarre ritual of wife selling in the mid 19th century and is home to the ‘Aspirin Man’. Chipping Norton is certainly a colourful place, full of character and charm whilst maintaining a down-to-earth friendliness. I took my mum, dad and daughter number three with me to explore this vibrant little Cotswold town and had a few surprises of my own
• As we approach Chipping Norton, we take note of the impressive landmark Bliss Tweed Mill with its unusual dome-based chimney, which up until 1980 was instrumental for producing high quality tweed. It is now luxury apartments, but it stands as a tribute to Chippy’s historic roots as an industrial base in wool and tweed production.
• In keeping with the wool theme, we visit the great ‘wool’ church of St Mary, built in perpendicular style testifying to the town’s 15th-century prosperity. There is a sense of height and lightness to this place. Looking at its website, there is a real sense of community.
• On the way back up Church Street, we walk past the town’s almshouses, built for eight aged widows, thanks to money left by Henry Cornish, who died in 1650. Cornish had 12 children with his wife Sarah, but sadly 10 of them died in childhood and the other two lived until they were in their thirties. He also left money to provide coats and gowns for two poor men and two poor women, and four pence each to 40 other widows.
• We pop into The Theatre in Spring Street which provides an eclectic programme of live theatre, music, dance and comedy, culminating in the famous annual pantomime, which attracts visitors worldwide for its charm and tradition. Coming up in May is Ben Power’s A Tender Thing, starring Suzanna Hamilton and is the latest production made for The Theatre’s audience. This is Romeo and Juliet reimagined weaving Shakespeare’s original words together into a new, deeply romantic story of loyalty, loss and enduring love. Other live performances include High Society by the Chipping Norton Amateur Operatic Society (CHAOS), Persuasion and Quarter Life Crisis. The Theatre also screens contemporary, classic, art house and foreign language films throughout the year.
• One of Chippy’s most colourful streets is Middle Row, where The Fibreworks Shop is based. Owned by Claire Jarvis, this inviting multi-coloured haven boosts any low mood. Claire and her fellow shop companion Bev Taylor, tell us about The Fibre Festival which will spread its magic through the streets of Chipping Norton on Saturday, June 2. This popular annual festival celebrates the town’s wool heritage in the form of a traditional fair, with sheep, spinning, weaving, and hand dyeing. It’s one of many festivals this small town holds. “There is a great sense of community – I guess that is our stand out factor,” says Claire. “We live in such a beautiful place in the country. You only have to step out of your front door and do an amazing walk.”
• Further along Middle Row is the shop which catches Megan’s eye. It is Tickittyshake, which has just won the West Oxfordshire best new business award. This fun-filled milkshake parlour specialises in serving smoothies, organic icecream, freak shakes, pickamix, hot drinks and soups. It’s also a fantastic party venue for children and the not so young. Amy Law, part of the Tickittyshake team makes Megan a Kinder Bueno shake with marshmallow topping, but there is also a great choice of less calorific options including a Green River and a Mango Dream.
• Part of Chipping Norton’s charm is its collection of individual and independent shops. We visit MASH which stands for Modern Accessories Stylish Home and chat to Liz Demczynska who shows us the exclusive Bali range – some limited edition beautiful hand woven and crafted items, directly from the island of Bali. I am particularly taken with the back scratcher! This is what a shop should be – a place to happily browse at leisure without pressure. There’s a great man cave section too, where one can find a range of manly gifts from an exquisite three-piece tweed suit to a collection of cycling ephemera.
• Chipping Norton also has a plethora of fabulous places to eat and drink. Last time I visited I popped into The Tea Set. Today I settle for Delicacy, a deli and coffee shop in one, but another great venue to visit is Jaffé & Neale, where coffee and books prove a winning combination. In Delicacy, home-made almond croissants and salted caramel brownies are eagerly consumed and I happily people-watch out of the window, overlooking the High Street. As I do a man crosses the road wearing an impressive pair of long black boots, carrying gardening equipment. I am about to sketch him when I realise it is the ex-Prime Minister and Chipping Nortons’s former MP David Cameron. Wondering whether I am seeing things, I visit the town’s hardware shop Gill & Co where I chat with Vic Hunt and he confirms the former PM has just bought a spade and fork. “We used to see him more when he was Prime Minister. There are quite a number of familiar faces who come in here from time to time,” he tells me. Jeremy Clarkson and Alex James also live in the area. Incidentally it’s refreshing to see a small town have a hardware store such as this.
• Celebrity confirmation done, I go back to visiting the town’s landmarks, notably the Town Hall, which acts as a proud symbol of days when the town was a Borough. It was originally built on arches with the entrance to the main hall and the Council Chamber up the broad flight of steps, while underneath four lock-up cells held prisoners of the Borough as well as a weighbridge and fire engine.
• Opposite the Town Hall is Chipping Norton Museum, an independent museum run by the Local History Society. Open from Easter until end of October (Monday to Saturday & Bank Holiday Mondays 2pm to 4pm), it is home to many exhibits such as prehistoric and Roman artefacts, a display of farming equipment, Chippy at War, Granny’s Kitchen, Chipping Norton Baseball Club and a valuable collection of more than two thousand postcards of local places and events.
• We go in hunt for the blue plaque which pays reference to the Aspirin Man. This was the Rev. Edward Stone (1702-1768), a vicar from Chipping Norton in Oxfordshire, who is generally recognised as the man who gave the first scientific description of the effects of willow bark. It states that Stone discovered the active ingredient in Aspirin whilst living near Chipping Norton from 1745 until his death.
• Chippy is known for its amazing festivals which continue throughout the year. Not content with one, two or even five festivals, I count at least nine. The community just loves to get together and celebrate everything whether it is food, drink, music, dance, literature, arts, textiles, nature, animals, husbandry and craft and including all ages in the process.
• Just before we travel home, I have a brisk stroll in the countryside to stretch my legs. There are plenty of opportunities to walk around here and one landmark worth visiting is the Rollright Stones, believed to date from 3000BC and considered one of the most famous stone circles in the British Isles.
• Having spent an enjoyable few hours in Chipping Norton, my dad has decided not to follow an ancient custom of selling his wife, (who after 54 years of marriage deserves a medal for patience and humour!). And next time I have a headache, I will raise my glass of water to Chippy’s Aspirin Man, the Rev. Edward Stone.
While I spend time in Chipping Norton, my husband trades in our old car for a new one. In this town back in 1855, however, it wasn’t vehicles people were in the habit of trading. It’s recorded that during this year a man sold his wife for £25 which was considered a generous amount as the minimum price expected was 25 pence. Wife selling was a way of ending an unsatisfactory marriage by mutual agreement that probably began in the late 17th century, when divorce was impossible for all but the very wealthiest. However, by 1855 wife selling was no longer considered respectable by the townspeople. For three nights running the purchaser and his new ‘bride’ were subjected to ‘rough music’, a traditional rural punishment for sexual misdemeanors, and the third night a straw effigy of the man was burnt outside his house. He eventually gave in and paid the original husband to take his wife back. On May 3 Mr Spiers and I celebrate 21 years of marriage. I do hope he doesn’t get any ideas!
To find out more, visit experiencechippingnorton.com.