A walk in Burford in the footsteps of Sir Lawrence Tanfield

PUBLISHED: 12:53 21 April 2020 | UPDATED: 12:53 21 April 2020

The church of St John the Evangelist, Burford (credit: Kirsty Hartsiotis and Anthony Nanson)

The church of St John the Evangelist, Burford (credit: Kirsty Hartsiotis and Anthony Nanson)

Kirsty Hartsiotis and Anthony Nanson

In this stroll around beautiful Burford we follow in the footsteps of the life, death, and afterlife of Sir Lawrence Tanfield, a local lad made good - or bad, as you will see - and his equally hard-nosed wife

Lawrence Tanfield was just three when his father died. In the late 1550s there was little provision for the misfortunes that life could throw at you, and Lawrence was now just a widow’s younger son. It must have made him determined. He became a lawyer and married well. He rose to be a judge and then Lord Chief Baron of the Exchequer! Now rich, he came back to Burford. He bought up the old Priory, where once, in his grandfather’s time, monks had tended to the needy. The late 16th century was a brave new world, where fortunes were there to be made by craft and graft. Lawrence built himself a grand home. Burford Priory is where we’ll head to first on our walk.

Beginning from the car park, cross the bridge over the river, turn left at the signpost towards the town centre, then turn right by the Royal Oak. Turn right into the High Street, cross the road and turn left into Priory Lane, and there, behind its high walls, sits the Priory. Lawrence rose so high that in 1603 he entertained King James I. The house you see today dates from a little after Lawrence’s time, but he too would certainly have wanted to keep out the townsfolk.

Lawrence and his wife were loathed by all. If he was harsh, Elizabeth was harsher: she said she wanted to grind the people of Burford to powder under her chariot wheels! Lawrence was more than a harsh landlord; he broke the power of the proud Burford burgesses and clawed back his rights as lord of the manor. How the burgesses fumed! Think of them as you bear left along the wall of the Priory grounds, then turn right on to Sheep Street and away from the town. The Priory’s estate stretches on, but soon you can glimpse the hills beyond, and, down in the valley, the river Windrush.

Just after the end of Priory grounds, we cross the road to the footpath and make a detour into Burford’s earlier history. Back in the eighth century this was the borderland between the all-powerful Mercians and the up-and-coming West Saxons. As you follow the path up to the skyline and walk through the field back to the town, imagine the clash of swords, the zing of arrows, the shouts of men as Cuthred of Wessex marched against Mercia’s all-conquering King Athelbald in 752. Athelbald’s standard, a golden dragon, was carried by one Athelhum. Athelhum was slain, and Wessex took the standard and won the day. From then on Wessex was free of Mercian power, and the golden dragon became the standard of Wessex – and then the flag of England, too, carried by Harold II into the Battle of Hastings. It was used throughout the Middle Ages, and by Queen Elizabeth I too. As you return among the residential properties, you’ll see one called Battle Hill.

Sir Lawrence Tanfield and the burgesses of Burford would have been familiar with this battle because every year on Midsummer’s Eve a golden dragon was paraded beside a mighty giant along the High Street in celebration of the Wessex victory. This tradition was revived in the 1970s – and perhaps needs reviving again! To return to the High Street, descend some steps to a road, where you turn right and then cross into Tanner’s Lane. Enter the recreation ground on the right of the lane and follow its left-hand edge till you reach the snicket that cuts through to the High Street.

After a long career of squeezing the people dry, Sir Lawrence died in 1625 and his wife in 1629. The people breathed a long sigh of relief … but they breathed it too soon. The Tanfields returned from beyond the grave to torment the town. Elizabeth’s ghost was as determined in death as in life to grind the people down – and now she had a fiery ghostly chariot to do it. On dark nights she and Sir Lawrence would ride her chariot over the roofs of Burford High Street – down one side and up the other! Picture that as you cross the High Street and follow the chariot’s route down the hill. For years the haunting went on and the people lived in fear.

By the 18th century the folk of Burford were so fed up they decided something must be done. Seven clergymen were called upon to the lay the ghosts. A merry dance the Tanfields led them, till the clerics drove the ghosts into the church. To get there, turn right from the High Street into Swan Lane, then left down Pyatt’s Lane, past the peaceful Quaker Meeting House and garden, over the crossroads again by the Royal Oak, and then, near the car park, turn left into Church Lane. The church is just past some lovely almhouses founded nearly 900 years ago.

The Tanfields already had a spectacular presence in the church. In its east end, in the chapel of St Katherine, stands their huge colourful tomb. Their hard-faced effigies appear upon it. Though the Tanfields’ bodies were buried here in the church, the clergymen didn’t want their spirits to stay there. In this consecrated place the clerics managed to force them into a bottle and stopper it tight. Clutching the bottle, they sprinted down to the bridge. To follow them, turn right out of the church, through the churchyard to the fittingly named Lawrence Lane, then turn right on to the High Street and down to the bridge. The clergymen hurled the bottle into the water below the first arch, and there it stayed. The spirits were laid, the streets quiet, the people of Burford able to rest. But should the Windrush ever run dry under that first arch, it is said, the Tanfields will rise again to torment the town. This was hardly a problem the day we visited, but in one time of drought the townsfolk got so desperate they formed a bucket chain to bring water from upriver to keep that spot moist.


Route: gb.mapometer.com/walking/route_5013602.html

Burford: cotswolds.info/places/burford.shtml

Watch the Burford dragon in 1980: admin.player.bfi.org.uk/free/film/watch-burford-dragon-1980-online

Anthony Nanson and Kirsty Hartsiotis are Stroud-based storytellers and writers. Their books include Gloucestershire Folk Tales, Wiltshire Folk Tales, and Gloucestershire Ghost Tales. Kirsty is also the curator of decorative and fine art at The Wilson, Cheltenham. Anthony runs the small press Awen Publications.

Explore the Cotswolds

Ordnance Survey maps are available from all good booksellers and outdoor stores or visit our online shop www.ordnancesurvey.co.uk/al

Need to know

Distance: 2½ miles.

Duration: 2 hours.

Level: Easy walking on pavements and footpaths through a field.

Parking: Free town car park, near the river.

Toilets and refreshments: Burford has many eateries – we enjoyed Burford House. Public toilets at the car park and Tourist Information Office.

Transport links: Swanbrook’s Oxford–Cheltenham 853 service; Stagecoach 233 Woodstock–Witney.

Map: OS Explorer OL45: The Cotswolds.

Further reading: Kevan Manwaring, Oxfordshire Folk Tales.

Latest from the Cotswold Life