B is for Burford: An alphabet tour of the town

PUBLISHED: 15:17 26 May 2020 | UPDATED: 15:17 26 May 2020

Burford shops in historic buildings

Burford shops in historic buildings

Tracy Spiers

Tracy Spiers take a wander around the streets – and letters – of the Oxfordshire town of Burford

It is one of England’s most picturesque towns and is known as the Gateway to the Cotswolds. Set on the River Windrush, Burford is beautifully formed, has a unique history, plenty of retail independence, has a plethora of foods to taste, opportunity in terms of activities and events to see and experience, stunning surrounding countryside to explore on foot and is a destination as well as a launch-pad from which to venture out to other Cotswold gems. Taking its name in acrostic form, I will attempt to unpack this town’s characteristics and hopefully entice you to visit this timeless, charming place for yourself.

B for Beautiful Character

With its quaint medieval bridge, stunning old stone houses and attractive Tudor and Georgian frontages, Burford definitely scores top marks for its beauty. It is full of character and as one drives into its famous broad High Street, it is as if the modern world is left behind due to the timeless quality of this place. I famously wrote in one feature about Burford that its buildings seem to defy the laws of graffiti. My spell check let me down for what I meant to write was gravity. Many buildings seem to slant at funny angles making those enjoying a quiet cup of coffee to think something stronger might have been added to the caffeine and they weren’t seeing straight. Straight lines don’t exist here which adds to the character.

Rog in his element at Burford Garden Company (photo: Tracy Spiers)Rog in his element at Burford Garden Company (photo: Tracy Spiers)

One of the town’s 16th-century buildings is The Tolsey, once the meeting place for medieval merchants. The Tolsey Museum is a charming amenity celebrating the town’s social, cultural and industrial past. The Warwick almshouses and the Grade 1 listed Church of St John the Baptist with its amazing tombs with bales on top are worth looking at too. The central part of Burford’s High Street, originally the commercial heart of the town, contains some striking buildings. Many are of medieval origin and include former coaching inns and prominent merchants’ houses including Greyhounds, built for a wool merchant in the 15th century and now a popular B&B.

Burford is a place where one can easily feel in another time and place and if one lets the imagination take over, one can picture the town in medieval days.

A sculpture at the entrance to Burford Garden Company (photo: Tracy Spiers)A sculpture at the entrance to Burford Garden Company (photo: Tracy Spiers)

U for Unique History

Burford’s buildings and its history are of course connected. Burford derives its name from two old English words ‘burh’ meaning fortified town and ‘ford,’ the crossing of a river. According to history guides, the town was probably founded as an Anglo-Saxon fortified settlement in about 750AD to protect the ford over the River Windrush. The church itself has fascinating memorials detailing some of the town’s great families. On the baptismal font, there is a signature of Anthony Sedley, one of the Levellers besieged in the church in 1649. Oliver Cromwell’s men executed three of the ringleaders in the churchyard. Originally a fortified Anglo-Saxon ford, Burford later evolved as a vital regional crossroads and wealthy wool town. Give-away archways are clues to the town’s importance as a staging post on the main Oxford to Gloucester route. More than 40 coaches a day passed through at one time. It’s the reason that there are so many Inns, ale houses and the fact that brewing became important. Like many of our towns in this area, Burford’s wealth was based on sheep – notably the Cotswold ‘Lions’ with their long heavy fleece, considered the best wool in Europe. Burford also has England’s oldest pharmacy – Reavley’s chemist, dating back to 1734. The town used to have its own racecourse and hosted many a competition in the mid 18th century. At the same time three brothers – Tom, Dick and Harry – used to live a short walk from Burford, but sadly turned to a life of crime, including highway robbery. King Charles II’s mistress Nell Gwynn, orange seller turned actress visited Burford several times with Charles and stayed in the George Hotel, now an antique centre. Christopher Kempster, another historic character, made a fortune by providing Burford stone, masons and carvers for the rebuilding of London after the Great Fire of 1666. He also helped build the Great dome of St Paul’s Cathedral, whilst his son built the clock tower.

Burford's High Street, showing the beautiful, timeless buildings (photo: Tracy Spiers)Burford's High Street, showing the beautiful, timeless buildings (photo: Tracy Spiers)

R for Retail Independence

That was yesteryear. Today Burford’s story is a successful one thanks to its plethora of independent businesses, each unique and specialist. Personally, I feel it’s like walking or should I say hopping into Narnia. As I write, I am frustratingly sitting with one leg up having fractured my heel running. But one good thing it has done is to slow me down and savour what I see. I enjoy looking at the amazing gifts. We spend a good half an hour in Three French Hens and I come away with some novelty door knobs. My youngest girls Rosie and Kezia turn teenagers this month and both spot a gift for the other. It’s a twin thing as neither realise that they secretly buy for the other.

What is special about Burford is its variety of independent shops, many of which are family run businesses. It’s here where you can find ideas for the home and garden, browse around inspirational galleries, craft and antique shops. Being a creative, Burford is perfect and I love seeking out the unusual and quirky. Oxford Brush Company has every brush for every purpose from its best-selling radiator brush, tiny moustache-shaped brush for – you guessed it moustaches; beard brushes made from wild boar, copper massage glove brush and hat brushes containing copper so as not to rip fibres. Madhatter Bookshop, fabulous for books and hats is owned by Sara Hall, whose grandmother was a milliner. It is a great place to enjoy looking at new and old titles as well as trying on a wonderful selection of hats – ideal for Ascot, weddings or any special occasion. I chat to Christie, who works here and she agrees it’s the specialist shops which make Burford such an interesting place.

Burford Farm Shop owner David Hawes (centre right) with shop manager Graham Drinkwater (far left), Liz Hogarty and Jim Frew (photo: Tracy Spiers)Burford Farm Shop owner David Hawes (centre right) with shop manager Graham Drinkwater (far left), Liz Hogarty and Jim Frew (photo: Tracy Spiers)

“I love the independent shops which sell so many different things. Most of the High Streets have the same things, but in Burford you have lots of independent retailers. There is a great sense of community and you get to meet people from all over the world as well as the locals which is lovely.”

Forgive me Burford for not mentioning your unique shops and boutiques by name, but readers do visit as they are in abundance whether it is stylish fashion, wine, jewellery, art, a new hair style, the curious, quaint and collectable.

Walking around Burford (photo: Tracy Spiers)Walking around Burford (photo: Tracy Spiers)

F for Food

What I haven’t mentioned in the independent section, is the tremendous feast of foods on offer in this town. Visitors and locals can literally have a taste of Burford if they so wish. Take Mrs Bumbles for example, a great all-round deli and food shop. It’s packed with delicious products and owner Sally Colter loves promoting new local foods such as Mark’s Cotswold Bakery. New on the shelves are his peach sourdough loaf and French stick with Brie inside. Amongst her food feast are hand-crafted chocolates, truffles, fudge, olives and oils. Rog and I sample cranberry balsamic cream vinegar, fig balsam and tomato, chilli and garlic oil. We come away with a box of Cacklebean eggs produced from Burford Brown hens – the egg yolks are bright orange and the shell is extremely fragile; as well as a take-way Ue coffee, roasted over wood so there is no bitter after-taste.

The Cotswold Cheese Company situated halfway up the hill in another beautiful building, is where customers can find over 102 different artisan and farmhouse cheeses, as well as a wide selection of quality wines, crackers, chutneys, olives and meats. Then there’s The Burford Farm Shop (WJ Castle), a well-established butcher’s shop, part of Jesse Smith, selling quality meats including matured Aberdeen Angus beef direct from the Highlands of Scotland, eight different flavoured homemade sausages and an endless choice of pies, deli products, vegetables and cakes. I chat with David Hawes whose granddad bought WJ Castle – which has been selling high quality meet since the early 1800s - in the late 1950s.

Bale tombs in the graveyard (photo: Tracy Spiers)Bale tombs in the graveyard (photo: Tracy Spiers)

“Graham Drinkwater has been managing the shop for the past 30 years. His dad was also part of the company. We really are a family business and have a great local community,” says David.

Of course, under the F for Food banner, I should also mention here that there is a great choice of coffee shops, restaurants and bakeries from which to choose. Why not literally have a taste of Burford yourself and discover new culinary delights.

The Oxford Brush Company (photo: Tracy Spiers)The Oxford Brush Company (photo: Tracy Spiers)

O for Opportunity

As well as experiencing new tastes, there is lots to see and do in Burford. One important plus in Burford’s favour is its FREE parking. Visitors and locals wanting an introduction to the town’s fascinating history can take The Burford Tour, a regular 45-minute tour of the town giving an insight to introduction to some of its more interesting historic buildings. In May, the key event for the social diary is Leveller’s Day, a popular annual event celebrating and commemorating the legacy of the Levellers. With high profile speakers, historians, entertainers and family fun, the day starts with a commemoration by the church. Accompanied by music and song, participators then march up the hill to the recreation ground for a programme of politics, debate, children’s activities, refreshments and music.

Burford’s lively calendar of events include the 10-day biennial Burford Festival which was due to take place in June 2021 and includes the ever-popular Open Gardens as well as an eclectic programme of music, talks and festivities. The Warwick Hall, a fabulous amenity in the town, has a great range of activities happening on a weekly basis. Prior to the coronavirus outbreak, some events for May included Craft in Action, a non-profit-making organisation established in 1973, and the North Cotswold Arts group hosting an exhibition in the Lady Chapel of Burford Church, just across from the Warwick Hall. Look out for them when they return next year.

Tracy meets Philippa Reid, trade sales manager at Paxton and Whitfield, Burford Garden Company (photo: Tracy Spiers)Tracy meets Philippa Reid, trade sales manager at Paxton and Whitfield, Burford Garden Company (photo: Tracy Spiers)

An exciting sculpture show On Form 20, takes place at nearby Asthall Manor from June to July. Open from 11am to 6pm, Wednesdays to Sundays, On Form is the UK’s only exhibition in the UK dedicated exclusively to stone sculpture. Organisers say: “We take pride in the sensitivity of its placement in our glorious Windrush Valley setting, and our unique “Please DO touch” policy.” Burford-based Madhatter Bookshop was due to be back in the manor’s swimming pool hut this year, with books on sculpture, creativity, gardening, nature, philosophy, the Mitfords and other subjects that feel at ease here.

Other attractions worth visiting in the Burford area include the stunning Cotswold Wildlife Park and Gardens where one can up close with 260 different animal species or Crocodiles of the World, boasting one of the world’s wildest collections. Burford Garden Company, a family-run business, founded in 1975 by Nigel Johnson and family, has grown into a one-of-a-kind destination store for those seeking inspiration. It is an amazing place and as a family we enjoy the unique art, clothing, foods, plants and home décor.

The Mermaid, Burford (photo: Tracy Spiers)The Mermaid, Burford (photo: Tracy Spiers)

R for Rambling

As well as a Burford Guide, there are two other walks centred on Burford that are available to download – Great Barrington to Burford and the Villages of the Windrush Valley – as well as several free downloadable cycle rides that pass through Burford. It is well worth popping into the Visitor Information Centre in the High Street to find out more.

D for Destination

As well as being a destination in its own right, Burford is an excellent base to stay for exploring the rest of the Cotswolds. Samantha Cole, Visitor Information Centre advisor says Burford attracts visitors for a variety of reasons. “People love the architecture and the fact that it hasn’t changed in appearance over time. Burford is ideal as a springboard as it is central to other places, which is why we are known as the Gateway to the Cotswolds.” In recent years, the number of Air B&Bs has increased in Burford, and along with the high-quality hotels and pubs with rooms, many come to stay.

I ask Samantha what she considers to be Burford’s qualities? “It has to be its history. I love the Museum at The Tolsey and looking at the past. It makes us realise that the beauty and character of the town hasn’t changed.”

Burford therefore lives up to the acrostic I have created. When put like this – beauty, unique history, retail independent shops, a foodie’s heaven, opportunities to enjoy music, art, literature and gardens; rambling, cycling and running opportunities in stunning countryside and a platform to enjoy visiting other parts of the Cotswolds – what is there not to love?

www.burfordcotswolds.co.uk / www.burfordchurch.org / www.warwickhallburford.org / www.mrsbumbles.co.uk / www.madhatterbooks.co.uk / www.onformsculpture.co.uk / www.oxfordbrushcompany.com / www.oxfordshirecotswolds.org/things-to-do/attractions/tolsey-museum-p59093

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