A postcard from Stow-on-the-Wold
PUBLISHED: 13:47 20 April 2018 | UPDATED: 13:47 20 April 2018
Stow-on-the-Wold may be the highest point of the Cotswolds and a few degrees colder than its counterparts, but it has a warm community heart
Stow-on-the-Wold lives up to its famous line “where the wind doth blow cold,” but it has everything a visitor or local could wish for – great scenery, fantastic individual and specialist shops from coffee, patisseries, antiques, art, chocolates and fine dining and a fascinating history. But most of all the people here are friendly and go out of their way to make you feel at home. So much so my mum Jan, 14-year-old daughter Megan and I spent a few hours more than we had intended.
• We start our visit at St Edward’s Hall, one of the most photographed buildings in Stow, home to the library and the Visitor Information Centre. It is the best place to begin. Staff here are wonderfully helpful and friendly and visitors will leave well-informed as to what they can do in the time they have to spend in Stow, whether it is a couple of hours or more. It’s exactly four years since the VIC moved to the library and thanks to the dedication of the team including Sue John and Valerie Goddard, it is now bucking the trend in terms of numbers of locals and tourists visiting both library and VICs. Other town and parish councils are now looking at them as a shining example.
It’s a lovely library too and being an illustrator who loves children’s books, I am drawn to the children’s section, which colourful and attractive. On Saturday April 7, 10-2pm, a Spring Craft Fair takes place and marks the first Saturday of summer opening hours, with the library open until 4pm. St Edward’s Hall, built in 1878 is also home to the Captain Crawfurd Christie painting collection. Both Sue and Valerie admit they love the sense of community in Stow and are proud to be a part of it.
• As teenagers are always hungry, Megan quickly eyes up the tea and coffee shops. There is a plethora of them – New England Coffee House, Coach House Coffee, Lucy’s Tearoom, In the Mood Tearoom which is 1940s style...to name but a few. I offer Megan food on condition she poses in Stow’s stocks for me. I ignore the “that’s so embarrassing,” comments and prolong the picture-taking on purpose. I leave her with Mum in Huffkins, an independent family business which dates back to 1890. I am always intrigued by the upper windows of this property as they lean heavily on one side.
I am instead hungry to meet Stow’s traders and grab a delicious take-away coffee from Coach House Coffee in Talbot Court and have a chat with owner Emily Hopkins, who uses local hand-roasted Rave Coffee, and specialises in gluten-free and vegan cakes which are homemade by local bakers and producers. On the menus there’s turmeric latte, cashew hot chocolate and Emily also offers six different variety of milk including tigernut, cashew and almond.
• Next door is The Talbot, and to its left is a narrow alley, known as a ‘ture’. There are three more of these leading South from Sheep Street to Back Walls. As well as providing access to houses at the rear of the ancient ‘burgage’ strips, these proved useful on fair days for counting sheep into the markets.
Today, I enjoy discovering the little shops and boutiques and pop into Evergreen Livres, specialising in second-hand and antiquarian books. Here I meet Nick O’Keeffe who has been trading for nine years. As well as stocking 8,500 titles on an eclectic range of interests, plus a selection of O/S maps and sheet music, he says visitors enjoy the collection of classic Penguin Green Crime editions. “The reason we are here is due to the many visitors we get in Stow. We get about 150,000 visitors every year. Normally a town this size would not be able to support a second-hand book shop. When we moved here there were three, now there is just ours. It is the tourists that keep us going. The other day I was asked if I had a book on pre-stressed concrete – that was a first for me,” Nick says. “However, I love the people of Stow, they are so friendly and they have been very good to me. I will never forget a comment the estate agent said to me when showing me around: ‘If Stow likes you, Stow will keep you.’ And it’s true, it’s kept me!”
• Not far away in this same ture is The Stow Flower Shop, a relatively new business, which opened in June last year.
This beautiful florist and gift shop is run by sisters Sophie and Melissa who are successfully combining their years of knowledge in floristry and retail. Their ethos is simple: to provide bespoke floral designs using top quality flowers to enhance any occasion. I watch Sophie, an award-winning florist, in action as she helps a customer choose her wedding flowers.
• Something unique to Stow is the French inspired authentic patisserie in the town’s square. Pastry chef Carl Asimakopoulou hand-makes delicate fancies and pastries each day and is a master at his art. Carl treats us to one of his mille-feuille, an exquisite melt-in-the-mouth three-layered custard slice, a popular amongst customers. Each item is a work of art and it easy to see why his meringues, mousse, tiramisu and delicate tarts are a hit for those who want to impress friends and family or just want to enjoy something a bit special. He also provides canapés for parties and home cooked meals for those who want the professional touch. Carl has worked in France, Netherlands and Germany, and took two years to find the right place to base his business. “Stow seemed the perfect place to come. I figured the people here wanted something a bit different and special for their parties. I have worked in high pressure environments in London and this is just a world away from it. I have been well received and have some loyal customers,” he says.
• Stow is also one of the towns in the Cotswold Foodie Tours and the town’s chocolate shop and Carl’s patisserie is part of the Stow excursion.
• For the art lovers there is also plenty to see. Megan and Mum find me in Fosse Gallery, founded in 1980 and housed in its splendid original Cotswold location in the Manor House on the Square. For April, the gallery is staging an exhibition for Gareth Thomas, Mike Jones and Wendy Murphy; and in May, Alex Williams, who used to be based in Cheltenham will be hosting a one-man exhibition.
Meanwhile, throughout April, Clarendon Fine Art will be hosting Sculpture in Stow, showcasing local and national three-dimensional work from talented sculptors, before celebrating the work of LS Lowry in May.
• Now I have my models back, I march them to St Edward’s Church to see the ‘Tolkienesque’ North Door which is flanked by ancient yew trees and the tombstone of Captain Hastings Keyte who died at the Battle of Stow. Incidentally, Stow and District Civic Society has produced a Town Trail which provides some fascinating facts and historic context for those who want to know more about Stow.
It starts at the Cross in the Market Square. During the Charter markets which began in 1107, the cross acted as a symbolic reminder to the market traders of medieval times to deal honestly. Its four sides represents a Crucifixion, St Edward, the Wool Trade and the Battle of Stow.
• Not far away to west of Donnington, on a public footpath, stands a stone obelisk marking the site where the Royalist forces spent the night before the battle. It’s here where you can see the commanding position they held the tough slope the parliamentary army had to climb in order to dislodge them.
• Other notable landmarks in Stow include The Porch House on Digbeth Street, the town’s oldest street. The hotel is probably the oldest surviving building in Stow and is said to be England’s oldest inn, with parts of the building dating back to 947. Its Jacobean fireplace surround still retains a witch’s mark to prevent evil spirits from entering through the chimney.
• Before I leave I pop to Stow Town Council and have a chat with town clerk Heather Sipthorp to find out what key events are happening in 2018. She tells me about the Motor Show on Saturday, July 14 which has its own home-grown The Stig (rumoured to be a Stow-based professional test driver) who will oversee the family fun extravaganza on QEII field and cricket ground. Every other year the Stow Cotswold Festival takes place. The next one will be on Saturday, July 20, 2019 and its aim is to promote the town and celebrate traditional Cotswold life, crafts and heritage. Other events for 2018 include the regular Farmers Market. They are always held in The Square on the second Thursday of each month, but from April onwards and throughout the summer, there are two. This month, it will take place on April 12 and 26, 10am onwards. (see Stow Town Council website for calendar dates). St Edward’s Church also hosts two music festivals in March and October and the annual bonfire night takes place on Friday, November 2, which is a free event and is a fun evening for the whole community.
“Stow has a fantastic community spirit. There are lots of ex-businessmen who have retired in Stow who want to be involved and use their skills. It means we have a hard-core group of people we rely on who make events happen such as the Christmas tree lights switch on, the bonfire event and the Cotswold Festival,” says Heather. “We have a very pro-active council and have a hard-working team at the Visitors Information Centre too. I love it.”
• Before we leave I show Megan the ancient wells in Well Lane said to be of Roman origin, with beautiful views over the Evenlode Valley. It gives us a glimpse of the beautiful walks to be had in this area and we can see why ramblers love it. It finishes our visit to Stow off in a peaceful way and we go back to Stroud, feeling better for spending time in this friendly Cotswold town and uplifted thanks to the lovely people we have met.