Broadway, Worcestershire

PUBLISHED: 10:22 03 June 2010 | UPDATED: 15:29 20 February 2013

The Renaissance architecture of Picton House

The Renaissance architecture of Picton House

Quintessentially Cotswoldian honey-coloured Broadway is an inspiration to artists and writers. Photography by Mark Child

It still attracts the rich and famous today. Best-selling American author of humorous travel books Bill Bryson, confessed on a recent Cotswolds trip his passion for the place.

"I love the Cotswolds. My wife and I had a spare day so I booked us into the Lygon Arms and it was gorgeous. It's rare it's just the two of us."

"And we just walked a bit of the Cotswolds - up to the tower and a bit beyond and did a big circular route and went down through Snowshill and we had the best time; and then you come back into Broadway and, particularly in the evening when everyone has gone away, it's just lovely."

The tower he refers to is the 65 ft high Broadway Tower, also known as Beacon or Fish Inn Tower and the "highest little castle in the Cotswolds." It's a dramatic punctuation mark dominating the skyline, built on an ancient beacon site by James Wyatt around 1799 as a token of love by the 6th Earl of Coventry for his wife Peggy, who wanted a tower built as a permanent landmark to use as a signalling device between their Springhill and Croombe Court Estates. The view from the top is panoramic engulfing 13 counties and more than a 100 miles in each direction. It boasts a fascinating history as home to both Sir Thomas Phillips' Printing Press and ancient manuscript collection and a favourite retreat for renowned Socialist, writer, painter and craftsman William Morris and his Pre-Raphaelite contemporaries. He apparently complained about the steep climb to it when laden with heavy picnic baskets! The Tower was also used as a location for the studies of the distinguished archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans and a farmhouse. Today it's a museum, currently home to a number of exhibitions celebrating its captivating past.

The oldest house in the village, and one of the oldest buildings in the country, is the 14th century monastic ruin Abbots Grange, used by the Abbots of Evesham as a country retreat. Francis Millet and his family acquired it, restored it and converted it into a studio and it subsequently became a refuge for his artist friends.

"In the morning, Henry James and I would write, while Abbey and Millet painted on the floor below, and Sargent and Parsons tilted their easels just outside. We were all within shouting distance, and not much serious work was done, for we were in towering spirits and everything was food for laughter," recorded writer Sir Edmund Gosse.

Today Broadway is still a centre for the arts and antiques and continues to lure thousands of visitors. In April this year, The Gordon Russell Museum was formally opened. Located in the original grade II listed workshop, it celebrates the work of the late 20th century furniture designer and manufacturer. Until about 2000 Sir Gordon still had a working furniture production factory in Broadway near the Lygon Arms hotel.

Broadway is also home to several of the countries best art galleries, antique shops, boutiques, jewellers and gift shops can now be found on the High Street, as well as a Christmas and Teddy Bear shop. There are three pubs, two restaurants, guest houses and other excellent eating houses in the village, which incidentally won Worcestershire's Calor Village of the Year in 2007.

Broadway's unique location makes it an ideal base for touring the Cotswold's or ambling along the Cotswold Way, a 102 mile long distance national walking trail. It's a relaxing way of seeing Broadway's beautiful chocolate box looks which has attracted millions of visitors throughout the decades.

English biographer and novelist E. V Lucas (1868 - 1938) was intrigued by the village's "wide, long, grass-bordered vistas of brownish- grey cottages, thatched, latticed, mottled, mended, ivied, immemorial. It is hardly surprising that this quintessentially English rural charm should have cast its spell on the American visitors."

That spell is still being cast today. The final words come from writer Henry James.

"Broadway and much of the land about it are in short the perfection of the old English rural tradition."

And long may it continue.

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"This is the great recommendation of Broadway: everything in it is convertible. There is portraiture in the air and composition in the very accidents. Everything is a subject or an effect....It is delicious to be at Broadway and not have to draw."

So wrote the American-born British writer Henry James (1843-1916), one of the foremost literary figures of his time. For James and a number of writers and artists including J.M.Barrie, Elgar, Vaughan Williams, John Singer Sargent, Mary Anderson and William Morris of the Arts and Crafts Movement, Broadway was an inspiration. It is also thought to have been the model for Riseholme, home of Lucia in E.F. Benson's novels.

James, along with the Broadway Group, a small band of American artists, led by illustrator and painter Francis Davis Millet, chose this idyllic spot to create an artistic colony in the 1880's. Millet was the first to "discover" Broadway, which he considered a "quaint reflection of a long ago country village."

German-born British scholar of history of art and architecture, the late Sir Nikolaus Pevsner called it the "show village of England." But Broadway is also affectionately known as the "Jewel of the Cotswolds." Tucked into the foot of Fish Hill on the western Cotswold escarpment and overlooking the Vale of Evesham, Broadway's name progressed from Bradanuuege in the 10th century to Bradeweye in the 13th, all roughly meaning "broad (wide) way." This of course refers to the wide mile-long grass-fringed high street, lined with red chestnut trees and the honey-coloured Cotswold limestone jumble of Tudor, Stuart and Georgian buildings.

Not surprisingly, Broadway has one of the longest high streets in Britain. Thomas Babington described it as "tedyous in lengthe, especially in winter" in his Survey of Worcestershire. It once had 23 inns and taverns including the Swan Inn, the White Hart Inn, the Crown & Trumpet and the Lygon Arms which started life in 1532 as a dominating private manor house. During the Civil War, King Charles I conferred with his confidants here and Oliver Cromwell spent the night at the Inn. Friends of the Broadway Group of Artists would have lodged here such as painter Edwin Abbey, who used some of the building's details in the backgrounds of his illustrations to Goldsmith's play She Stoops to Conquer.

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