Burford, Oxfordshire

PUBLISHED: 16:35 04 February 2010 | UPDATED: 15:08 20 February 2013

The wisteria-draped Bay Tree Hotel in Sheep Street.

The wisteria-draped Bay Tree Hotel in Sheep Street.

While visitors may provide the financial imperative, Burford wouldn't be what it is without the people behind the sceness and their sence of community.Words and photography by Mark Child

Now that Julia McKenzie, the next television Miss Marple, has found her own personal St Mary Mead at Taynton, nearby Burford is her local metropolis. The town has some other notable literary and theatrical connections, not the least of which are semi-retired actors and workers in the performing arts who find themselves much suited to its leisurely way of life. Arguably, the best-known of the town's literary old boys was the country writer Reginald Arkell, who was born at Lechlade but was educated at Burford Grammar School. The novelist Sir Compton Mackenzie and his brother-in-law Christoper Stone, who together founded The Gramophone magazine in 1923, lived there beside the River Windrush. In two of the former's novels - Sinister Street and Guy and Pauline - Burford becomes Wychford. Christopher Fry's play A Sleep of Prisoners, although not directly attributable to the incarceration of Civil War soldiers in Burford church, nonetheless has influences of it and was written to be performed in churches. It tells of four soldiers who were similarly locked up, and who dream of being Old Testament characters.

Burford may work on different people in different ways, but what you see now is all about the people who have ever lived there. The historical architecture that one so much admires is simply the result of building necessity influenced by a combination of economics and applied fashions in style. It has become the place it is now because it has developed to suit the circumstances of every age, the basic needs of its residents, and sometimes their aspirations. It was its people that made Burford what it is architecturally, and who gave it that enduring sense of community.

They still do. Burford has only about 1,100 residents; a place with such a small population elsewhere might consider itself fortunate these days to still be in possession of a general shop and a post office. What gives Burford so much by way of retail, trade and business are the visitors it gets; they are essential to its whole economy. The town council does all it can to ensure they keep coming. Everyone on it works together to achieve what best serves the town, and they can do so because the council is unusual in being completely non-political. Here are some of those who make Burford what it is today.

Giving something back


David Cohen has been mayor since 2004, and he is committed to the town's twinning with Potenza Picena in the Marche. "The town's children, sports teams, school orchestra, scouts and the Burford Singers have all benefited from exchanges and support," he says with pride. David, a kind and modest man, is a fine needleworker of some thirty years standing. His wife Jan runs the town's needlework shop and another in Shipston-upon-Stour, and sits on the museum and libraries committees.

The couple took over Burford's Highway Hotel, which had been owned by her parents since 1980, and ran it for ten years. They converted part of the place into a needlework shop, sold the hotel building in 2006, and relocated the shop close to the A40 roundabout. David is a fine example of the many people in Burford who quite simply want to give something of themselves back to the town that has supported them over the years. He is 'keen on working to keep Burford as a whole community, on developing as an ambassador for the place, and in representing the interests of Burford outside the town'.

A very English garden


Stand in the garden at Tiverton Villa, and you will have a wonderful view of Burford's ribbed church spire and the upper stages of the tower, framed by old Cotswold stone buildings and the abundance of nature's seasons. At the blooming of the year, the view is washed by blossoms and spring flowers; by lush foliage and a riot of colour throughout the summer; and with a warm burnishing when all about your feet are the kick-leaves of autumn. Tiverton Villa, the only Victorian residence in the town, lies adjacent to the millstream, beside the car park at the foot of Guildenford. You will be there, because these gardens belong to plantsman Keith Davies, who has opened them to the general public for the last two decades.

A sign on the gate will tell you that they are open, and another - should you wish for the society of its amiable proprietor - that 'Mr Davies is in the garden'. They are grounds in which to potter around, where the old red telephone kiosk is used as a propagator, and where Keith's young granddaughter proves that when it comes to raising plants in her own greenhouse, her fingers are as green as those of her grandfather. Visitors are welcome here, to buy plants and flowers, some of which Keith has raised on site or in his fields elsewhere. He also sells at The Tolsey in High Street every Tuesday, and, by these means, has raised many thousands of pounds over the years for charities.

Tiverton Villa cost 500 when it was built in colonial style in 1888 by Keith Davies's great-great grandfather George Rose. George was a Baptist lay preacher, and a widower, when he met Catherine Mitchell, and married her in Meysey Hampton Baptist Church in 1871. The couple settled at Burford, where they became Quakers, and where they would revive the old Quaker hall there in the late 1890s. They came into money through a bequest by John Lane, Catherine's uncle, who was born in Faringdon in 1799. At the age of twelve, John Lane went to Tiverton, Devon, where he did extremely well financially, partly in the lace-making industry, and his fortune was distributed widely and generously under his will.

The plans for Tiverton Villa were sent from America by George Rose's brother, who was a missionary worker in the new world. The house is distinguished by its front portico and pillars, and its decorative bargeboards. Inside, it had one of the first flush toilets in Burford. Keith Davies keeps two rooms exactly as they were when the house was first built and furnished, including the original gas fitments (the gas company was nearby, beside the church) and a large gas chandelier. George Rose served on the first Burford town council in 1894, and Catherine was the first lady to have a seat on it. Keith Davies was Burford's longest-standing mayor to date, having completed nine consecutive years in office when he stood down in 2004.

Moving with the times


In the days when there were still few enough cars on the road, most places the size of Burford had their own country garage with a single petrol pump at which there was rarely a queue. They came about from the opening years of the 20th century, and were generally at their busiest in the 1920s and '30s. When Vick Baden came back from the First World War, he got a job working in such a garage that had been set up at the rear of the Bull Inn at Burford. However, garage trade did not prosper in the town, and when, by 1928, his employers could no longer afford to pay him, he took his tools in lieu. With the help of a wartime annuity, he bought property, and obtained a site in Guildenford, whereupon he established what is still Vick's Byeway Garage.

Since Vick, it has had two owners - his son-in-law Greville Wain, whose wife Kath was mayor of Burford, 1980-85, and who took possession in the 1960s; and Vick's grandson Charlie Williams, who has owned the garage since 1990. This year, Vick's Byeway Garage will be celebrating eighty years in a business that has developed into MOTs, air conditioning, and diagnostics.

Vick Baden became famous for not paying his rates in the 1940s, and for the court case that ensued in which he cited in mitigation the state of Guildenford as an open sewer. The case was dismissed, as was the request for costs against Vick. Encouraged by Dr Cheatle to do something about the nuisance, the garage owner became elected to the Parish Council, and was its chairman, 1949-55. His grandson, Charlie Williams, is also doing his bit by way of public service.

He is Watch Manager of the Burford retained fire service - the officer in charge of the one-pump fire station in Witney Street. This is one of eighteen retained fire services in the county; these are all part-timers, operating under the auspices of Oxfordshire County Council. Burford has fourteen fire-fighters, who attend about 180 calls each year in the town and the surrounding district, and who have been known to give assistance at incidents in Gloucestershire. They are trained to do everything in the same way as a full-time fire officer, and undertake drills every Wednesday. During the floods of 2007, they equipped themselves very well at Burford, working solidly from 8.00 am until after midnight, and were out on five of the seven flooded days. The force needs more volunteers, particularly from people who are in the town during the day. Currently, just one of the volunteers is female, and they have recently lost another who has joined the full-time fire service.

Of pills and potions, and music at the Crown


The oldest chemist shop in the country is in Burford's High Street. It has been in business since 1734. The walls inside are lined with cabinets containing 163 drawers for storing drugs, herbs and medicines. They were installed c1850, and have fading labels bearing such names as opium and antim crun. Around the walls too, are Victorian chemists' rounds and old medicine bottles. This is the domain of Cedric Reavley, the town's pharmacist. The business was bought by his grandfather Robert Reavley in 1918; he passed it to his daughter-in-law Sybil, and now Robert is the third generation member of the family providing this necessary service in the community.

The pharmacy building was built in 1401 and became The Crown, mentioned as such in the 1420s, and is thereby Burford's earliest recorded inn. It was involved in a skirmish at the time of the Levellers' uprising in 1649, and appears later to have fulfilled a dual purpose as an established hostelry and the premises of an apothecary. According to historian Raymond Moody (see below), 'links between medicine and inn-keeping were frequent in Burford'.

Pharmacy is not the only service Robert provides. He was the parish church organist, 1970-95, and is an accomplished pianist. Latterly, he felt the call and volunteered for ordination, which was carried out in 2006. Since then, he has taken services at the parish church, and assisted in visiting within Burford and the surrounding communities. Robert believes that 'it is highly important to really belong to a local community, and do all that you can in it' and 'feels blessed to be able to live and work in the same place without having to commute'. His wife Ruth, who sings and plays the clarinet, is chairman of the one hundred-strong Cotswold Children's Choir that meets in the Methodist Church; they have two children, Lizzie who plays the violin, and David who plays piano and euphonium.

Sixty years on the boards


For the last twenty-five years, Burford has been home to the veteran character actors Dennis Ramsden and his wife Christine Russell. Both of them have performed in some of the funniest television series of the last few decades, and have been in some of the most notable West End farces and comedies of the last fifty years. In fact, that is the length of their marriage, and it seems that they can easily be persuaded out of retirement when the call comes from their beloved Mill at Sonning.

You may catch Dennis - who even as he approaches ninety years of age is not averse to directing the occasional piece or taking a cameo part - lecturing to some interested Burford society. And what a fund of nostalgia and anecdote flows from them both, being associated with so many of the great names of British comedy, and some of the very best actors on the stage today. Dennis began his stage career with the Dundee Repertory Company in 1946, and met Chrissie at repertory in Ipswich in the mid-1950s. Both were part of Brian Rix's great comedy company at the Whitehall Theatre in the 1960s. Their association with Ray Cooney and his hilarious plays has continued since that time. They came to live in Burford in 1983, commuting to London daily to take part in whatever stage plays they were in at the time.

The couple's enduring interest is the 18th-century former flour mill at Sonning, which opened for theatrical productions in 1982 and is the only dinner theatre (dinner and show come as a complete package) in England. Dennis has been associated with the place for the last eighteen years, and has directed upwards of eighteen plays there. He says he retired at the age of eighty, but apparently not very convincingly!

One of the Kings at Burford


In Burford, they say of Brian Kay that he is 'a highly active broadcaster, and generally good egg'. In 1982, this founder member of the King's singers (wherein he was the bass voice) departed the group after fifteen years, during which time he had performed more than two thousand concerts around the world. For the last thirty years, he has lived just across the Windrush in Fulbrook, in a village he so sufficiently enjoys as to have occupied eight addresses there. He is now one of three volunteer organists at St James's church in the village, a vacancy to which he succeeded following the death in 2007 of Sir Alan McLintock, the devoted church supporter whose was a business giant in the worlds of accountancy, insurance, and finance.

Six years ago, Brian Kay took over the baton of the Burford Singers from Brian Etheridge: a choir of one hundred singers of mixed talent that gives three concerts each year, usually in Burford church. These normally take place on Palm Sunday (this year it was the St John Passion), in late June, and at the end of November or early in December. The June concert, lately billed as the Midsummer Gala Concert, takes place during the Burford Festival. It is a mix of lighter music - for example works by Elgar, Bach and folk songs - unaccompanied, with piano, or with a wind quintet.

Next winter's offering will include Bach, Vaughan Williams, and Haydn. In 2009, being the 250th anniversary of Handel's death, the Burford Singers' Easter offering will be The Messiah. In June, it will be Claudio Monteverdi's Vespers. The Burford Singers welcome all voices, and there is no audition to pass; this is truly a community venture for the local community.

The King's Singers apart, Brian Kay lives much of his life on the concert platform and in the recording studio. On the one hand he has been the lowest frog on a Paul McCartney single and a member of the backing group for Pink Floyd, and on the other he is a double gold award-winning radio music presenter of the year, working on Radio 2, Radio 3 and the BBC World Service. In his concurrent career as a television presenter, he has presented the New Year's Day concert from Vienna annually since 1996. As well as this, he regularly conducts orchestras and choirs around the world, being involved in about one hundred concerts each year, and is Vice President of the Association of British Choral Directors and of the Royal School of Church Music. He sang the voice of Papageno in the film Amadeus, and his wife, the soprano Gillian Fisher, sang Papagena.

Finer arts


At ninety-one years of age, Tilly Marshall is still active in the family firm, The Stone Gallery, in Burford's High Street. Tilly, from Newcastle, was formerly an actress working in the north of England. In 1937, her father bought for her what was then Britain's largest retailer of gift cards (with a sideline in jewellery) - the business that was established in 1918 by Bernard J. Stone, whose demise was due to a neglected appendicitis. Her move into fine art was influenced by a great family friend, the painter L.S. Lowry, who was much taken with the Pre-Raphaelites. Lowry virtually lived with Tilly and her family during the last fifteen years of his life, and in 1981, Hutchinson published her book, Life With Lowry, that told of that time. Needless to say, her early gallery sold lots of Lowry, and a good deal of Pre-Raphaelite art.

When Newcastle went into severe depression in the 1980s, her son Simon was despatched to scour the country for somewhere the gallery might more profitably relocate. He came up with Burford, and the business has been there since 1985 selling fine art by such artists as Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Lowry, jewellery by Georg Jensen, modern and antique paperweights, and enamel boxes. Contemporary jewellery is made on site by Tilly, her son and his wife Veral, and latterly, her grandson Tom, who spent two years learning his craft at Birmingham School of Jewellery. He describes the family's pieces as 'handsome silver and gold handmade designer jewellery with chunky, semi-precious stones - very much after the simplicity of Scandinavian jewellers'. This has been regularly photographed for Vogue, and Harpers and Queen.

Tom Marshall's girlfriend, Tanya Wilkins, is also involved in organising the major art and crafts exhibitions that are held annually at The Stone Gallery. These include Oxfordshire Art Week, and the British Designer Jewellers Exhibition that aims to show the public that all jewellery is certainly not mass-produced, and there are still some highly skilled craft jewellers making unique pieces. For the rest of the time, the gallery majors on the work of local and contemporary British painters and craft workers. In his spare time, Tom is a member of the Burford retained fire brigade.

A loyal readership


If you are a bookish person, one of the greatest delights is to find an independent bookshop in a small Cotswold town. The kind of bookshop that is owned by the sort of person who has an empathy with books, an understanding of them, and an in-depth knowledge of the reading requirements of customers. The sort of place where you just know you are going to find titles that might not be stocked by the high street chains, as well as some of the bestsellers that are. Such a bookshop is Burford's Red Lion Bookshop, and such a person is Mary Anderson, who owns it with her husband Graham, a writer, book reviewer and translator.

Mary and Graham were formerly teachers; he taught French at a boys' school in London, and she, a teacher of English and drama, was latterly head teacher at a school in the capital. Between periods of teaching, they had bookshops, most recently at Hungerford in Berkshire, before taking over the Red Lion Bookshop in 2003. Amongst Graham's accomplishments is his translation of 17th-century French plays, which have also been performed. Their present business takes its name from the hostelry that was there in the 1700s, in a building that has since been a butcher's shop and a bank. The bookshop is the direct descendent of a business that has served Burford for some twenty-five years.

In its present two-room incarnation, the Red Lion Bookshop has a plethora of quality in the front room, paperbacks and children's titles at the rear, and a fine selection of popular Burford titles near the front door. Mary has 'an extremely loyal and enthusiastic group of Burford customers', whose preferences are for non-fiction biography and history, and an increasing number of weekend cottage owners and families who 'read about books in London, and then order them from me'. Holidaymakers in the area, and walkers in their seasons keep her on top of a stock of maps, walkers' guides, and topographical publications. Mary is an enthusiastic reader of book reviews and the advance information provided by book wholesalers. She is also the box office for performances by the Burford Singers.

Where the past is present


The Inns of Burford by Raymond Moody is a brand new title for 2008 from Hindsight of Burford, the publishing imprint that the town's historians Raymond and his wife Joan set up as a means of making more than four decades of their research available to the general public. It is available, as are all their Hindsight books, from several outlets in the town, and by post from the Red Lion Bookshop. Raymond grew up in the picture-postcard Essex village of Finchingfield. He first came to the Cotswold area in 1947 when, on National Service, he found himself on the permanent staff of the old Empire Flying School at RAF Hullavington, allied to the Central Flying School at Little Rissington, on the horizon from Burford. Released from His Majesty's uniform, he read chemistry and physics at Downing College, Cambridge, and then read theology at Lincoln College, Oxford and took the ordination course at Mansfield College.

Joan is the daughter of a Congregational minister, and was brought up in Swaledale. She and Raymond met in 1950 when Joan, fresh from a straight-laced nonconformist boarding school, arrived at Homerton College, Cambridge - by reputation the foremost teacher training college. They came to Burford in 1960, when Raymond took charge of religious education at Burford School, and became chaplain to the boarding house. Joan followed him onto the teaching staff in 1971, and became Head of the First Year. The couple were commissioned to write The Book of Burford (Barracuda Press, 1983), and published A Thousand Years of Burford (Hindsight, 2006). In between, they have also produced a wide-ranging series on aspects of the town's history.

Raymond is a Congregationalist minister, ordained in the United Reformed Church but has 'no denominational allegiance that anyone has ever been able to detect'. Once a month, and at festival services, he is called upon to preach by the local Methodist Church, and he regularly takes evensongs and the occasional matins for the six parish churches of the Burford Benefice, as well as preaching at a nearby United Reformed Church. Because of this, their local history research, and their teaching experience, Joan and Raymond Moody are arguably the Burford residents most easily recognised by all age groups in the town.

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