A postcard from...Witney
PUBLISHED: 13:42 15 April 2019 | UPDATED: 13:42 15 April 2019
It’s the land of blankets and beer. It has an industrial heart and is not the usual Cotswold chocolate box destination. Yet the Oxfordshire market town of Witney has a welcoming community spirit and plenty to offer those visiting
Last time I drove here, my husband, twin daughters and I literally looked like wet blankets as we carried out a history walk to find out more about Witney's famous heritage for blanket making, gloves and other woollen products. Today on a somewhat brighter day, I take my fun-loving friend Lisa Nicholls-Grey with me to see other aspects of this charming bustling market town. Today however is definitely an adult day with a child-like attitude, as we can't resist starting at one of the town's modern-day popular industries – the brewery.
• First stop is Wychwood Brewery, based at the old Eagle Maltings. Built in 1841 to malt barley, it's home to award-winning flagship beer Hobgoblin, described as a powerful “full-bodied copper red, well-balanced brew. Strong in roasted malt with a moderate hoppy bitterness and slight fruity character that lasts through to the end.” As an illustrator, I am excited to discover that it was the first bottled beer to feature an illustrated label in the UK. It certainly is unique. The brewery's fantasy-based label artwork is inspired by the myths and legends surrounding the ancient Wychwood Forest. Its website really catches the imagination and is a work of art reflecting the creative flair of its product. We arrive as Douglas Rudlin, one of the tour guides prepares for his first tour of the day. Tours are for adults only and Douglas takes visitors through the brewing process of Wychwood and Breakspear Beer beers. The brewery has recently opened up the Tap Room, which is now a popular music venue. I ask Douglas how many barrels of beer they produce each year. “From this brewery, we make about 65,000 which are sent all over the world. We've even got Hobgoblin in Tasmania,” he tells us. We get our own private tour before everyone arrives and get a better understanding of the process from raw ingredients to finished products. Lisa and I are wowed by the enormity of the giant bubbling copper-domes and the strong hoppy smell and we feel like big kids let loose in a giant laboratory. Being the driver on this occasion, I leave Lisa to sample the legendary Hobgoblin ale, which brings back fond memories as it was her late father's favourite tipple. It's also my husband's, so we both buy a few bottles – including Ginger Beard - to take home. Incidentally Douglas is an expert when it come to Witney's beer history. He's published book, The Life and Times of the Inns, Taverns and Beerhouses of Witney Oxfordshire, is on display at the brewery.
• I do stress to Lisa that my work postcards don't usually start with alcohol. But our brewery trip is a fascinating one and sets us up for the day. Trying to park on a Saturday can be a nightmare in many towns, but with free parking available even in the multi-storey car parks, it's not an issue in Witney and is a definite plus in the town's favour for attracting people. We head off to see the friendly staff at Witney Visitor Information Centre where Jo Cox and Kerry Harris kit us out with maps, leaflets and highlight key points of interest. They tell us what they admire about the town. “I love the feel and vibrancy that Witney has. It has something for everybody and we have a great mix of independents and main stream shops,” says Kerry. “It's a proper working town, it's friendly and we are here all year round not just through tourist season,” adds Jo.
• Armed with fresh knowledge, we head off into town, passing the impressive Victorian Corn Exchange building, built in 1863 by a private company of which blanket maker Edward Early – a key influential town figure – was part. It provided a modern market house and social centre for Witney. As we visit today, a bustling market catches our eye and I lose Lisa as she gravitates towards the inviting colourful selection of inviting fruit and veg. She eventually emerges armed with beetroot. Markets are a key part of Witney's heritage and modern day life. They take place every Thursday and Saturday, with a Farmers' Market on the last Friday of every month. Another fascinating landmark is the Buttercross, a medieval marketing and meeting place where women from neighbouring villages gathered to sell butter and eggs.
• On Kerry and Jo's recommendations, we head down Langdale Gate, where we find some independent businesses. A relatively newcomer is Oxbrew, a modern micro-brewery run by Aaron Baldwin, which specialises in local gin and Oxfordshire craft beers. His intention is to preserve the best bits of traditional brewing history while keeping it fresh. Aaron tells us he is about to join forces with another micro-brewery Little Ox, to become Little Oxbrew. I'm fascinated by the amazing list of names such as Filfthy Rich, Odd Bodd and Aaron's own labels, Freudian Sip and Citrafella. Lisa samples a collaboration stout (Little Ox and Oxbrew) with a distinct vanilla flavour. It's called Dark and Seedy. Aaron, who has been thrilled with the reception by the local people, shares his hopes for his business. “I would like it to be a focal point for locals to celebrate local beers and local produce. I am thinking of introducing having local food here as well such as scotch eggs and pork pies,” he says.
• On the subject of scotch eggs, Lisa and I are drawn to a beautifully laid out deli, Wates & Co. We come out with all sorts of goodies, including the said eggs and brightly coloured pasta which I determine to display on my kitchen work surface as examples of artistry, although I might let the children eat some of it!
• The largest town in Oxfordshire, Witney has grown rapidly over the last 50 years yet still retains its charm. There is an excellent range of shops and one can easily come for the day just to do some retail therapy. With a degree in building surveying, Lisa says she always endeavours to look up when visiting anywhere new. We often forget to do that and therefore miss the architectural gems around us. Witney has many and much of it reflects the prosperity of its woollen heritage. We head into Church Green, dominated by the town and imposing 156ft spire of 13th century church St. Mary's. As we approach, Lisa and I look carefully at the spire to see if we can spot a small monkey climbing up it - as you do. According to locals, 500 years ago when the church was in the final stages of completion, a monkey escaped from the annual fair on the green and climbed the new tower. He fell to a sticky end and as a memorial, a stone monkey now climbs the steeple for keen eyes to see. A service is taking place as we approach so we don't get chance to find him. I vow to come back on another occasion to do so.
• Nearby is The Henry Box comprehensive school, which takes its name from a local boy who, like Dick Whittington, went to London to seek his fortune. Having succeeded, he left money in 1662 to fund the new school which was originally founded and endowed as a free grammar school.
• We admire a set of almshouses next to St.Mary's given by John Holloway in the 18th century and refurbished in 1868. It was one of three groups of almshouses in Witney. Another on Church Green was first mentioned in 1652. Money from the rents was used to buy food, mainly bread and beef, for the poor so the cottages are known as the 'Bread and Beef' Houses. Townsend Almshouses are on the old Oxford Road near Newland and date from 1821.
• I take Lisa to one of the town's most important landmarks, the Witney Blanket Hall, built in 1721 by the Company of Blanket Makers. For over 120 years it's here where every locally woven blanket was brought to be weighed and measured, while upstairs the Company set the Rules for the Trade upstairs in the Great Room. Post 1845, the New Mills established their own measuring and the Blanket Hall, then redundant was used for various new purposes including a brewery, a lemonade factory, engineering shop, place to register births, marriages and deaths, a dancing school and distinctive gentleman's house. In this hall is where great feasts were held to celebrate the birth of Royal princes, and the deaths of Kings solemnly commemorated. Four years ago the Hall reopened to the public so its history could be celebrated. Whilst blankets and throws are sold in the Blanket Hall, its adjoining café, known as The Pie Shop tempts both locals and visitors alike with its famous pies crafted by local pieman David Pitcher, platters, cakes, teas and coffees. Tours of the Blanket Hall are available in the afternoon. We chat with Eleanor Martin who tells us about the café's popular monthly event Pie Night, where locals can tuck into the café's signature meal - three different meat pies and a vegetarian option. Look out for the next one on April 5. “All our pies are melt-in-the- mouth short-crust pastry. No soggy bottoms here. It's a British tradition having pies and goes back to 1791, the date of this blanket hall.” One must, if visitors do come to this wonderful building, is to pop into the adjoining museum, which celebrates the stunning worksmanship involved in making the blankets. I am drawn to a set of 15 wood carvings – including one of the Blanket Hall - which depict 1,000 years of Oxfordshire history. It's been on tour around local museums and Eleanor is hoping it will find a permanent home here. Another Museum to note is Witney & District Museum, off the High Street, open from April to October which tells the town's story through artefacts and photographs relating to local buildings, Witney at war, transport, education and religion.
• Pie lovers who need to walk off the extra calories, have no excuse in Witney. There are plenty of lovely places to walk to including the attractive Witney Lake and Meadows, a tranquil haven for wildlife just a short walk from the town centre. Here you can get away from it all by walking around this beautiful lake and peaceful pastures. I take Lisa on part of the Witney Wool & Blanket Trail, which we did last year. As we cross the River Windrush, we meet the biggest portly pigeons we've ever seen and wonder if they are the ones who have eaten one pie too many! We eventually reach Cogges Manor Farm, a set of beautifully preserved Cotswold stone farm buildings where farming has taken place pre-Domesday Book. Parts of the manor house date back to the 13th century. It acted as the film location for both Downton Abbey and Arthur & George, based on Julian Barnes' book about the life of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Cogges was transformed into Yew Tree Farm, home to the Drewe family who bring up Lady Edith's child in Downton. Many of the farm sheep, chickens and volunteers enjoyed their moment of fame alongside Dame Maggie Smith and other of the leading actors.
• Before heading home, we admire a huge chimney which dominates the skyline. It belongs to Witney Mill, based on the site of Woodford Mill, a medieval fulling mill, one of the town's oldest wool-related sites. Witney Mill closed in 2002 and was the area's last working blanket factory.
• Armed with our bottles of Hobgoblin, scotch eggs, pasta, brisket and beetroot, we venture home to our own town, which too once had fields full of woollen cloth stretched out on tenter hooks. Grateful we don't possess the wet blanket look my family and I inherited last year, Lisa and I raise a toast to Witney, promising to return.