Cotswold Towns: Shipston-on-Stour
PUBLISHED: 18:14 05 May 2011 | UPDATED: 19:19 20 February 2013
A damson-tinted woollen hunting coat is the inspiration behind Shipston-on-Stour's unique festival this month, as Tracy Spiers discovers.
Exactly two centuries ago two Cotswold cloth manufacturers waged a bet to see who could make a coat of wool from sheep to garment in 24 hours. John Coxeter boasted that so great were the improvements in his machinery, he believed within the time restraints, he could take the coat off Sir John Throckmortons back, reduce it to wool, and turn it back into a coat again. Within 13 hours and ten minutes the extraordinary undertaking was complete and the well-woven damson-tinted hunting coat was presented to Sir John of Coughton Court.
Its this very garment, the Throckmorton Coat which is inspiring the picturesque historic market town, where this honourable cloth manufacturer once lived.
Shipston-on-Stour, once known as Scepwaeisctune, Old English for Sheep Wash Town, is as the name suggests steeped in woollen history. In early summer, sheep were driven off the Cotswold Hills and washed in the River Stour, before being moved to higher pastures after lambing. Due to its position, Shipston became one of the largest sheep markets in the country and the sight of dozens of sheep being forced to run through the narrow alley ways between Sheep Street and Telegraph Street to be counted, would have been a familiar one.
One famous Shipston son was John Hart, who established the woollen velvet (known as shag) industry using home workers in the town. In 1738 he was appointed High Sheriff of Worcestershire, the county of which Shipston was once part, until it was transferred to Warwickshire in 1931.
Later this month the Golden Fleece will be celebrated in style and the noises and activity of years gone by recreated as the town marks its third Shipston Wool Fair. And the wager set 100 years ago will be resurrected in a creative way, thanks to an idea by local shearer Alan Scorer.
His suggestion, which has already created great interest, is to make a Shipston hat, within six hours, from wool sheared and spun on the day. This is, in effect, Shipstons version of the Throckmorton Coat, says Bob Armstrong, the fairs deputy chair and Livestock and Agriculture Consultant.
The Shipston hat will involve an early morning shearing. Then the wool will be processed and spun during the Fair with an on-site record of progress.
Although the fair doesnt happen until Bank Holiday Monday, May 30 a fundraising auction in aid of the annual event, promising fantastic lots all kindly donated by the businesses in Shipston and the surrounding area, takes place on Saturday, May 14 at The George Hotel.
Enthusiasm is high for what is fast becoming one of Shipstons main social events. The day itself will start as it means to go on with a rejoicing fanfare of noise, which includes a peal of bells, a cry from a Town Crier and some jaunty music from the Town Band. The highlight is an exhibition of rare breeds of sheep and lambs, and a couple of celebrity sheep all on show in the town centre. Other sheep arrive with long woolly coats, but leave without as they are sheared at half-hourly intervals by highly skilled professional shearers Alan Scorer and Alice Hutchings.
As part of the Exhibition Centre there will be spinners, weavers, felters and knitters. The spinners and knitters being involved in the Shipston hat and much else besides.
Last year thousands of visitors turned up to watch the woollen spectacle. But one of the event organisers, Nigel Willis believes this years event, which takes place from 10am to 4pm will be the best ever.
Last year almost every stall sold out long before the close so this year stallholders have booked early and are stocking up. There will be woolly slippers, woolly rugs, woolly jumpers, woolly childrens clothes, some wonderful ewes milk ice cream, milk from the acclaimed Mabels Farm Dairy, ice cream from local farmer Jane Ridgway and lots of delicious cakes and other exciting nibbles, Victorian button jewellery and much else to entice all the family, he exclaims.
Several local charities are taking stalls to raise funds and games for children of all ages will be in the High Street including the famous electric sheep and pin the tail on Shaun.
Examples of antique farm machinery and other historic exhibits will also be on show and local shops will contribute to the atmosphere by dressing their windows with a sheep or wool theme, with the pubs offering different delicious lamb dishes. Its an example of an inclusive community, which continues throughout the year.
Hot on the heels of the Wool Fair, is the ever-popular two-week Shipston Prom Music Festival which starts in earnest on Friday, June 17 and is an eclectic mix of jazz, blues, folk, rock and classical performances, from both local and world-renowned artists. Organised by local people, the Proms; which begins with a Shipston Music Society concert at the Methodist Church on the Friday evening, also organises educational events such as school workshops with musicians.
The Shipston Fame contest in the Townsend Hall on Saturday, June 18, enables local talents to display their musical abilities and win themselves a 50 prize and an opportunity to perform live on stage at the outdoor concert, the Last Night of the Proms, featuring The Blockheads in the High Street on Saturday, July 2.
We are very lucky to get the legendary 70s/80s band The Blockheads who are in big demand following the success of the film following the life of Ian Dury Sex, Drugs and Rock and Roll. They are the ideal band for our last night free party in the town square, says Tim Porter, Chairman of Shipston Proms and Shipston Community Arts.
An exciting new event for Shipston between the Wool Fair and The Proms is the Creative Arts Festival, scheduled for Saturday, June 4 at Townsend Hall in Sheep Street. An innovative project to set up an Arts Centre to serve Shipston and surrounding area, starts with this inspiring day. Conventional artists will be represented alongside a programme of performance by poets and musicians.
Mentioned in the Doomsday Book and believed to be first settled in Roman times; Shipston has a thriving local community. Two years ago Transition Shipston lauched as a network for local people and groups working on the transition to a locally-based low carbon lifestyle. Following last years mid-summer festival, members are now organising a Harvest Fair for Sunday, September 25 from 11-3pm. Featuring music and up to 30 local food stalls, the informal fun event in the High Streets square, hopes to encourage people to grow more food themselves as well as support the local food supplies.
As well as organising the now traditional and colourful Victorian Evening, which marks the start of the festive season, Shipstons Rotary Club has organised a seven mile Cotswold Walk on Sunday, May 1 starting at the top of Foxcote Hill, any time from 10am-2pm.
This years Victorian Evening is on Friday, December 2. It is usually opened by a well-known celebrity who switches on the towns Festive Lights and the lights on the imposing Tree of Life in the High Street. The Best Dressed Window competition brings out both traders and their staffs creative talents with some amazingly imaginative creations. The event is two hours of fun and entertainment with the exciting appearance of Father Christmas and his two elves. Nearly all shops stay open for the evening and many put on something special and market stalls also brim with goodies of all kinds.
Shipston-on-Stour is undoubtedly a lively, thriving town of great antiquity which celebrates its past whilst embracing its future. Well served by a plethora of individual shops, galleries and places to eat, it is an attractive place to visit. But perhaps its greatest attribute is that it has found a unique way of bringing its heritage alive. One only has to walk through the streets and listen to the bleating cacophony on May 30 to have a taste of what life was like in bygone days. And no doubt many will watch in awe as the Shipston Hat takes shapes just as the gentlemen of the day did during the Throckmorton Coat challenge exactly 200 years ago.