A postcard from Faringdon

PUBLISHED: 16:28 26 November 2018

The Old Town Hall and War Memorial

The Old Town Hall and War Memorial

Tracy Spiers

“Faringdon upholds old-fashioned values through its traditional shops, personal service and shop owners who go the extra mile to make their customers feel at home.”

I grew up believing that pigeons were bluey grey. Children who have spent their childhoods in Faringdon know differently. Their town has pink, purple, yellow and blue ones. Now when sending postcards, most writers will talk about the architecture, the food, the weather and the people. I could write a few lines about that I suppose, but multi-coloured birds dyed by an eccentric gentleman sounds far more interesting. I jest. Faringdon has so much more to offer than pink pigeons. This year celebrates the 800th anniversary of its market Charter. Faringdon upholds old-fashioned values through its traditional shops, personal service and shop owners who go the extra mile to make their customers feel at home. I took my eldest daughter Naomi with me for company and it proved a special day out for us both, a fun memory before she left for university.

• Nestling on the slope of a hill, Faringdon overlooks valleys of the Thames, Ock and the vale of the White Horse. The hill is known as Folly hill and is well known for the unusual looking 100ft high Folly Tower, built in 1935 by Lord Berners. Although the tower, considered the last folly to built in England, isn’t open at this time of year, don’t forget to visit when it reopens next April. Its surrounding woodland however is always open and free. Look out for the Sing a Song of Sixpence blackbirds, Civil War cannon, the tree troll, Lord Berners placed high in a tree, the bridge to nowhere and carved woodland creatures.

Faringdon Folly (c) Stephen Clarke / ShutterstockFaringdon Folly (c) Stephen Clarke / Shutterstock

• Not quite the woodland creature, but one person who’s been a welcome find for visitors in recent years is Jane Rennells and her fabulous coffees made with organic milk. For two years she had a coffee van, but moved to a former deli in Faringdon town centre a year ago. Combining the deli and her coffee has proved a hit and Stay Grounded has been a popular meeting place for both local and visitor. Naomi has a chocolate pastry and I opt for Jane’s flat white. Her coffee keeps me grounded for my visit. I meet Eddie who has earned himself one of Jane’s tea badges for trying all the teas on her menu and Adrian, another regular who enjoys his morning porridge. If I lived here, I would easily earn my coffee badge! Jane serves homemade cakes made with organic butter from Berkeley Farm Dairy, free range eggs from Mayfield Eggs near Witney and organic milk in all drinks – her USP. “I have lived in Faringdon since 1989 and brought my children up here. I love its quirkiness and sense of community.”

Jane Rennells in Stay Grounded Coffee shop and DeliJane Rennells in Stay Grounded Coffee shop and Deli

• Quirkiness it certainly has. It’s a good time to introduce the pigeons. Naomi and pop into The Pump House, a Georgian Grade II listed building, and chat with friendly staff from Faringdon Information Centre. Here we learn more about Lord Berners, an artist, writer and composer who entertained his guests at Faringdon House by dyeing his resident pigeons in bright colours – a tradition still observed on special occasions. “We have our own plastic versions which are selling like hot cakes,” says Rebekah Pugh, deputy town clerk. One of her colleagues Val Sansford has lived in the town all her life. “As a child I was used to seeing different coloured pigeons and none of us thought it was unusual at the time. Now and then there are colourful ones around to keep his memory alive,” she adds. On a more serious note, ‘Hospital: Faringdon’s Pump House in WW1,’ is on show until January 2019 and is a moving yet informative tribute to the nurses who treated 242 men suffering with 74 different wounds and illnesses. These included gunshot and shrapnel wounds, shell shock, gas poisoning, frostbite, malaria and trench foot. Original items from the Red Cross’s historical collection make it a fascinating exhibition. Heroin was then sold to adults and children as cough sweets and morphine and cocaine kits were sold in shops as ‘a welcome present for friends at the front.’ In the foyer of the Pump House are scores of rocks with painted poppies on them. It’s part of an installation that will go on show at the old town hall and war memorial. The aim is to have enough pebbles to mark every year that each of the 97 Faringdon soldiers who died during battle, lived. Former mayor Cllr Dr Mike Wise is currently putting together a detailed profile on each of the men who represented Faringdon in the First World War. A Remembrance Parade will also take place on Sunday, November 11, featuring glass silhouettes to illustrated the concept ‘there but not there.’

Rebekah Pugh, deputy town clerk, with Adele Vincent, Faringdon Information Centre supervisor, with an artist's painted pigeons in keeping with Faringdon's traditionRebekah Pugh, deputy town clerk, with Adele Vincent, Faringdon Information Centre supervisor, with an artist's painted pigeons in keeping with Faringdon's tradition

• Still on the subject of war, Naomi and I walk past All Saints’ Church, which has a rather strange looking squat tower. During the Civil Wars, the steeple was blown away. Faringdon was heavily battle scarred during this time and many of its buildings were ruined. However there are still some reminders of pre-civil war Faringdon including the 14th century range and open Jacobean staircase in the Old Crown Hotel’s courtyard.

Tracy outside All Saints' Church, with its squat towerTracy outside All Saints' Church, with its squat tower

• Moving forward to present day, Naomi and I are struck by the friendly shop owners in this town. We meet Rob Blackburn at Manna, a delicatessen and cheese specialist shop. He’s affectionately known as ‘Rob the Cheese,’ and has on occasion serenaded locals with his good friend, the Ukulele. He serves customers who come from up to 18 miles away seeking out his impressive selection of cheeses from Skegness Blue, Old Weydeland and Devon and Cornish varieties, in order to entertain their guests in style.

Rob the Cheese in his deli, MannaRob the Cheese in his deli, Manna

• On a musical note, Naomi and I tinkle the ivories and pop into The Piano Gallery to meet Claire Dash, who runs the business with her father Steve. He started up the business in 1980 in Highworth and moved here in the 1990s. They specialise in the sale of quality new and used grand and upright pianos and have a stock of over 130 pianos too see and play. “Pianos are such wonderful instruments, each one is so different. Even all the brand new pianos aren’t the same, that’s what is so great about them. It’s not so much about the price or what it looks like, it is about how you feel when you start playing them,” says Claire. “We believe that everyone should be able to have a piano, and we really do have a piano for everybody whether their budget is a few hundred pounds, or thousands. You do get so much more piano with your money if you do buy a second-hand one, and it has a rich history with it then too. Some pianos come with a detailed account of who played it and where it came from.”

Claire Dash with Jerry Barnard, piano technician and tuner, at a Steinway model O from 1923Claire Dash with Jerry Barnard, piano technician and tuner, at a Steinway model O from 1923

• One thing that is evident in Faringdon is the passion and personal service within the business community. Old-fashioned values are really important. Peter Sharps has been at Pat Thomas Butchers in Market Square, for the past 34 years. He bought the business 14 years ago. It’s a traditional butchers shop, all cuts of meat are readily available, with sausages, burgers and meatballs freshly made on the premises. “We get people coming here from a fair distance and those who used to live here still come back to see us which is a great compliment. We are lucky to have great regular customers,” says Peter.

• Two gift shops, both owned by Rachel Gibbs are relatively new to Faringdon. The Little Big Top in Cornmarket is full of fun and exciting toys, gifts, clothing and things for the home which both little and big people appreciate. This opened three years ago following the success of The Gifted Magpie in London Street. This a gorgeous well-laid out shop and has plenty of delightfully different gifts to make one smile. I come away with two gifts for friends and family. “Being quite a small quiet town, it was an ideal place to start my first business. I have got to know people here and they are really friendly and I was lucky that this was already a gift shop when I took it on,” explains Rachel. “The children’s section was going really well which is why I decided to branch out and open the other store.”

Rachel Gibbs, owner of Little Big Top and The Gifted MagpieRachel Gibbs, owner of Little Big Top and The Gifted Magpie

• One event to look out for is Festive Faringdon, on December 1, 1.30-5.30pm. Father Christmas will be joining the people of Faringdon to celebrate this popular annual event, organised by the Faringdon Rotary Club. There will be lots of stalls, fairground rides and carols sung by local children. The Christmas Lights will be turned on during the afternoon by Father Christmas.

• Community spirit is strong in Faringdon and one project which confirms this is The Pump House Project. It’s a unique stand-alone self-funding charity which is based in a refurbished theatre. An average of 500 people use the facility every week, hosting local children’s groups including an all-ages weekly community café, baby and toddler sessions, urban movement classes, singing, yoga, tai chi, exercise classes for the over sixties and a dementia café.

• Incidentally there are many walks to go on around Faringdon and some interesting town trails to do. I take a fancy to Faringdon FUN Trail which celebrates the quirky humour of the pink pigeon man. He is someone I would have loved to have interviewed. Apparently on various buildings in and around the Market Place, there are a number of silly FUN signs, which stand for Frivolously Unnecessary Notices. It’s believed that the 12 signs were originally put up at Lord Berners’ prompting in 1935. These include the likes of: “Please return the ladder or further steps will be taken,” and “PLAQUE – please brush regularly.” Definitely my kind of humour.

• Naomi and I head home with a spring in our step and in good spirits. Spending time with a mother who currently has red/pink streaks in her hair, she has decided that Faringdon and its colourful pigeons are in keeping with her parent’s quirkiness. I have to agree.

To find out more, head to visitfaringdon.co.uk.

Latest from the Cotswold Life