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Stow-on-the-Wold, Gloucestershire

PUBLISHED: 12:23 03 June 2010 | UPDATED: 15:01 20 February 2013

St. Edward's Hall of 1878, in the centre of Stow's old market place

St. Edward's Hall of 1878, in the centre of Stow's old market place

Full of history, full of charm, Stow-on-the-Wold is everything one would expect of an English, Cotswold town.<br/><br/><br/><br/>Words and photography by Mark Child

A deuce of a name


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All about Stow-on-the-Wold there are references to St Edward. Yet no-one really knows to which Edward these refer, or, indeed, if one of the Edwards in the frame ever existed at all. It may have been called St Edward's Stow, it is said, after a hermit who lived near the well that still bears his name, to the south of the town. Then there is the St Edward to whom the church, built between the 11th and 15th centuries, is dedicated. This is supposed to have been Edward II who was murdered at Corfe Castle, Dorset in 978: an act for which Aethelred gave lands hereabouts to the monks of Evesham by way or reparation, but without admitting any part in the deed. That Stow was called Eduuardestou at Domesday gives credence to this, as also does the fact that Aethelred similarly settled lands on the abbey at Shaftesbury, where Edward was reburied in 980, and which was at one time called Edwardstow. The name has also been perpetuated at Stow-on-the-Wold in the former St Edward's school; the neo-gothic municipal St Edward's Hall, built in 1878; and St Edward's House of the early 1700s, which is now St Edward's Caf.




Raising the steaks ... and chips


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Stow-on-the-Wold has not embraced caf culture to such a degree as other Cotswold places, but some little backyards in the town have been planted up, stocked with tables and chairs, and arranged for alfresco eating in a profusion of colour and perfume. You will find independent coffee shops and restaurants in, and off, Church Street, Digbeth Street, Park Street, Sheep Street, and Stow Square. The town's cafs and coffee shops are intimate and frequently historic; its delicatessens are rich and exciting voyages of epicurean discovery; and, lately, the contemporary-style bar and brasserie culture has been weaved with style and panache into the mix of public cuisine. If takeaway sweetness is to your palate, you can buy indulgent handmade chocolates, home-made fudge, and traditional sweets at Stow-on-the-Wold.



The more traditional hotel bars and restaurants in Stow have been raising their game for years, and in the very places that local residents still pack the public bars, aspirational chefs are creating menus for a society whose culinary expectations are being driven by celebrity chef standards, the provision of farmers' markets, and the campaigns to buy organic and local. In Stow, you can enjoy traditional-style fine dining in historic surroundings, fast food takeaways, and eating at various levels in between. As hotels have changed hands in recent years, so have these moves brought with them new owners and chefs who are eager to incorporate national trends and developments into their menus. This has given considerable impetus for experimentation with food, and honed an edge to the whole dining-out experience in the town.




In the words of the Mayor of Stow-on-the-Wold


Tom Morris


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What makes Stow special for you?


I have lived and worked in Stow for over forty years and, when returning to the town, I never fail to be excited by the sight of the ancient church tower standing at well over 700 feet above sea level, which gives the town such an air of security and permanence.



Why should people visit Stow?


Being at the crossroads of seven major roads, people have used the Market Square in Stow as a meeting and trading place for centuries.



What are the biggest changes in the town over the last five years?


I suppose the biggest change has been the arrival of a Tesco store at the northern end of the town, although it does not seem to have had the disastrous effects that have occurred in other market towns. We still have a butcher, baker, two delicatessens, banks, etc. which all help to make it a vibrant place to live and work. The other noticeable change has been the dramatic increase in building on infill sites, otherwise known as 'garden grabbing'. This has resulted in a loss of 'green' areas, and the Town Council and the Civic Society are considering the refurbishment of the town with the planting of new trees.



What would you recommend to Stow visitors?


The medieval market square with its village green and stocks is a favourite place for people to meet and enjoy the wide variety of shops. I would recommend this area to visitors. The antique


shops and art galleries have made Stow the antique centre of the Cotswolds and this attracts visitors from all over the world.



Where is your favourite part of the town and why?


It has to be the Market Square. Its ancient buildings and market cross give it a sense of history and a strong link with the past.



Is there an alternative Stow perhaps best known to the locals but less readily experienced by visitors?


Two areas spring to mind. One is the ancient wells, said to be of Roman origin, with beautiful views over the Evenlode Valley. The second is the site of the cricket field/recreation ground to the north of the Fosse Way, again with one of the finest views in England.



What makes Stow a good place in which to live?


Stow is readily accessible to many parts of the country, including a rail link to Paddington from nearby Kingham and Moreton in Marsh. It is relatively crime-free, with a strong sense of community.



A place of retail potential


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Martin Elliott, surveyor, and proprietor of the Partnership that lets much of the commercial property in Stow-on-the Wold, believes that the prosperity of the town in 2008 will stand in good stead on the variety and breadth of its traders. There are more than 120 businesses here, but only five of them are high street PLCs, and these are small branches. This wide range of independent traders is exactly what is required to attract visitors. It is what has characterised Stow over the last decade or so, and is why new businesses continue to be drawn to the town. According to Martin, the town's retail health is generally good, with fewer premises available for sale or to let than is usual at this time of the year.



New businesses to Stow are bringing with them a new vitality, new ideas, new work ethics, and a determination to succeed. Not so recent, but nonetheless a huge success story, to the point that it has just expanded, is Peter Wilsdon's Crock Shop in Digbeth Street. He opens his kitchenware, tableware, and ironmongery emporium every day of the year except Christmas Day, and the reward for all this hard work has been a clientele so large that he has very recently taken over the former antiques centre across the road and now operates from both premises.



Since we last visited Stow, a fly fishing shop has opened, and a new jeweller, and Christine Kilsby has not closed the Cotswold Frock Shop that she has run in Talbot Court since 1988, and in whose creations literally hundreds of brides have walked a good many aisles. Christine was astonished to learn, over Christmas and the New Year, that Stow and district widely believed she had given up her in-house, bespoke design bridal creations - just because owners of the premises next door retired and held a closing down sale!



Businesses do close down, of course, although in Stow comparatively few close due to being unsuccessful. As I write, there are changes afoot for two that are dear to my heart: the brace of second-hand bookshops in Sheep Street. Lucy and Henry Baggott, for some years the owners of Wychwood Books, simply want to spread their wings and are looking, at the time of writing, for a buyer. Constance Fisher and Pat Brown, who have been running Book Box for two decades, are retiring. I mention these because it would be a dreadful shame and a great loss to the eclectic retail mix of Stow-on-the-Wold were its antiquarian books element be depleted.



Coming to the market cross


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The market cross has been a symbolic point of reference at Stow, and a meeting place, since medieval times. Yet it is not what it was, even in recent years. The steps, monolithic base, square- broached socket, and seven-foot-tall shaft are original, but the inhabited head is not the one that was added by Medland & Son of Gloucester in 1878, and which had sufficiently weathered by the late twentieth century for most people to think it too, was a 14th- century survival. Around the base at one time was a man-trap of low, ornamental railings that would probably be considered far too dangerous now, but helped to distinguish the cross at a time when more buildings than at present pressed upon it in closer proximity.


At Whitsun 1994, a reveller from Northleach climbed the badly weathered piece, only to discover just how weathered it all was when he and the head of the floriated cross descended together with indecent haste, the former sustaining a broken leg. A Stow Cross Restoration Committee swung into action, which oversaw the collection of funds - including a substantial gift from the hapless former reveller, and a grant from the Cotswold District Council. The sides of the current head, the gable cross that tops it, and the base stone beneath, are the work of stonemason Dick Podd, using local Guiting stone from the quarry at Coscombe on Stanway Hill. These are all joined to the shaft by means of a stainless-steel rod, and are bedded together and bonded with stone dust and lime mortar.


The main elements on the 19th-century head were a crucifixion, and Henry I presenting the town's market charter to the Abbot of Evesham. The version that was dedicated by Rt. Revd. Cyril Bowles, one-time Bishop of Derby, and unveiled by Henry Elwes, the Lord Lieutenant of Gloucestershire, has the crucifixion on one of the gable ends representing the foundation of the church at Stow. The other gable end has the likenesses of Charles II and Cromwell, and bears the date 1646, which was when the English Civil War raged through the streets of Stow. This political face also has a representation of an oak tree, in which the King allegedly hid following the Battle of Worcester in 1651. Both gable end carvings are beneath cinquefoils.


The carvings in both of the square-headed sides are beneath trefoils with decorative motifs in the spandrels. One, a representation of commerce, shows wool being carded, and is in remembrance of the industry that made Stow what it is today, and what the market place stood for until well into the 20th century. The other face has the seal of King Edward, a reminder that the town's origins lie in a settlement of nearby lands on the Abbey of Evesham following the murder of Edward II in 978 under questionable circumstances, and that the town was once called Eduuardstou. There's a history lesson spanning several centuries in the town cross at Stow.




Raising a new note


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The Stow Youth Singers were formed in 2007 by Linda Green, following her appointment as Director of Music at St Edward's church. Linda, who has a degree in music from London University, teaches the subject at the independent Dormer House School, Moreton-in-Marsh. She is also an experienced organist, playing at several churches. The choir, which currently consists of pupils from five local schools, has nineteen singers of between eight and fifteen years of age and has been formed to give public concerts of church music - on a monthly basis at St Edward's - and secular music. Just getting into their vocal stride, they have recently given a concert of mixed music, a carol concert, a recital at Chipping Norton School, and another at Longborough church. Linda hopes that they will be able to go on a singing holiday in 2008, and aims to take her choir to France the following year.




One in the eye for Stow


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It is said that in Anglo-Saxon times, the mineral spring at Stow was renowned for its curative properties, particularly in regard to eye problems. In the 18th century, spa mania was fuelled by a national obsession with hypochondria, and Stow tapped into this in 1806 when attempts were made to turn the town into a spa resort. Stow must have thought that all the elements for success were in place. Historically, so many roads met at Stow that it was relatively easy to get to; for centuries, it had been a vibrant market town; and there were already sufficient hostelries in place to accommodate those who might come for the waters. Stow spruced itself up in anticipation.


A pump room was built around the spring in the Lower Swell road, and much was claimed for its beneficial properties. The water was said to be effective against rheumatic pain; it cured virtual blindness; and it was marketed, together with the efficacy of the air thereabouts, as the panacea for those troubled with consumption. A classical building was erected, and the pump room was apparently equipped with a 'water engine' that was as much a marvel as were the cures. Pleasure gardens were designed that set off St Edward's well, and a walkway was made to it. However, two springs emitting the much-desired chalybeate waters were never going to make a Cheltenham or a Bath of the area. Without royal patronage, and close to such well-established centres, the Stow spa failed to prevail. St Edward's spring became the town's only source of water until 1871. The stonework extant is now Grade II listed.



Artist in residence


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Some years ago, I asked a former editor of Cotswold Life if I could write about an artist in one of my pieces. 'No!' he said emphatically, adding 'nor about craftspeople; there are too many of both sorts in the Cotswolds'. I took that to be a 'yes', and have since mentioned in my articles those engaged in arts and crafts whom I come across and whose work appeals to me. There may be a lot of these in the Cotswolds, but the vein is a rich one. Stow is becoming increasingly well known for its art galleries, mostly located in Brewery Yard, Church Street, Sheep Street, and Talbot Court. Some have relocated from other Cotswold towns, and one of them has its own, as it were, owner-artist in residence.


The town is home to the international portrait artist Lindy Allfrey, who studied at the world-famous Charles Cecil School of Art in Florence, at The Art Academy in London where she also taught, and at Heatherley's School of Fine Art, which focuses on portraiture, figurative painting and sculpture. Today, she works, teaches, and exhibits at Walton House in Stow's Sheep Street.


Convent school-educated, Lindy studied three-dimensional design at college, then worked in the film industry, before starting her career in portraiture by painting the likenesses of friends. "When the UK film industry went into decline, I arrived in Suffolk, sat on the beach and started to paint watercolours of old fishing boats. These were very successful, but it was a lonely life. Then people began to sit for me; I enjoyed the challenge of getting the real person on canvas, and discovered that I could achieve good likenesses. And I got to meet so many interesting people, and loved chatting to them."


Years of formal study followed, before she felt she had reached an acceptable standard. "In portraiture, painting from life is irreplaceable," she says. "My ethos is to capture the character of a person, and, to achieve this, I always insist on live sittings. Painting from photographs loses two dimensions - not just the physical three-dimensional shape of a person's head, but also their character and nature that comes across as we chat while I work." She claims that all of her sitters have found the sessions to be 'verging on therapeutic', and the good friends she makes as a result often remain in touch years after the portrait is finished.


Lindy works with the best materials, best quality oil paints, and on canvases from Italy. She teaches in the Venetian method, incorporating drawing, chiaroscuro (light and shade), and colour, and her husband, Paul Walker, provides in-house framing.



And so to horse


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The Abbey at Evesham set out the extremely wide market place at Stow in anticipation of considerable trade. Henry I gave official market status to the town in 1107. In 1330, the Abbot of Evesham granted an annual fair, to be held between 29 July and 4 August. Then, in 1476, two annual fairs were granted by Edward IV, and these have become the gypsy horse fairs for which the town is well known today, and which continue to split opinion within the resident community. The charter rights are owned by the Lord of the Manors of Stow and Maugersbury. These state that the fairs must be held on two days immediately either side of the Feast of St Phillip and St James, which is 1 May, and similarly on the two days adjacent to 13 October, which is the Feast of St Edward, King and Martyr.


Whilst the gypsy fair is certainly a historic and very colourful affair, it continues to raise concerns in the town because of the conduct of some of the people associated with it. Fair days usually require a large police presence in the town, including officers on horseback, and whilst the fairs are in themselves biannual, one-day events, the gypsy presence continues over several days, bringing a sense of unease throughout the business and residential community. The visiting gypsies regard the fairs as highlights in their annual calendar, being frequently the only time when whole families can meet together. There is no doubt that it presents a vibrant and colourful scene, attracting a considerable percentage of the town's annual 150,000 or so visitors. Here are horses and ponies changing hands in large numbers, against a backdrop of historic and traditionally styled modern gypsy caravans, horse boxes and camp fires. Some of the well-decorated and highly painted wagons are generations old, and there are numerous stalls on site selling a wide range of commodities; clothes, leather goods and tack, and pots and pans being particularly evident. The future of these events has been under discussion and their form and nature held in the balance for as long as I have been aware of their existence. It must be reassuring to the gypsy fairs' supporters, that after so much discussion, for so long, not a lot has changed.




Wide Ranging


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Walter Didcote, founder of the Cotswold Rangers, was a local character who ran The Wood Shop in Stow's Park Street. He also owned a bicycle shop in Charlton Kings. His Stow shop was well known for its rustic bird boxes and feeding tables, seats and tables, hollowed-out sections of tree trunks, etc, which were stacked against the front of his little cottage. It is said that, following an altercation with a local butcher, one of Mr Didcote's lumps of wood found its way through the butcher's window!


In 1970, Walter Didcote, aggrieved by a lack of serious attention to his suggestions, resigned as a warden under the scheme then operated by Gloucestershire County Council, and set up an independent group (initially four people) primarily to combat what they believed to be the abuse of the Cotswolds during the summer season. He thought the name 'ranger' was more acceptable to the public than 'warden', which could have negative institutional connotations. Litter, fire, vandalism, and the public's lack of awareness for the Country Code and the reasons for it, were the Cotswold Rangers' main targets. The weekend litter-dropper, and the lorry-loaded fly tippers were at the top of their list.


Wherever the public congregated, it was the Rangers' intention to use the megaphone and the camera as their weapons of choice. The former in 'educating' the public on how they should behave, and the condition in which they should leave the area; the latter to offer 'photographic persuasion' in helping them to mend their ways or as evidence for prosecution in more serious matters. In the early 1970s, there was no visitor information centre at Stow, so Walter Didcote's aim was to create an information bureau of local events, places to see, and hotels, second only on his list to establishing the Cotswold Rangers' headquarters in the town. They also offered their services in educating schoolchildren in nature study and the country code, in the hope that the children would then educate their elders whom the Rangers saw as being very much responsible for the despoliation of the Cotswolds. The original Cotswold Rangers operated for many years.


As for the tourist information initiative, this was developed into an information point in St Edward's Hall. In 1986, the District Council, which had been operating the TIC at Cirencester, chose Stow in preference to Moreton-in-Marsh for its north Cotswolds centre, and opened there in Talbot Court the following year. Forty thousand visitors went through its door in the first twelve months. In 1992, it moved into its present location, a former stationery shop in Stow Square. At its height, in the 1990s, the information centre was dealing with 160,000 visitors each year, and still averages over 125,000. The staff here are amazing, in the breadth of their local knowledge, and in the lengths to which they are prepared to go to help. I have heard that they tracked down, and reunited a visitor with her wedding clothes that had been left on a train, and once took a visitor, who had missed her coach, to catch up with it several stops down the road! In my several years' experience, Veronica Woodford and her team are fantastic, and deserve a mention.



Civic welfare and history


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The history and continuing welfare of Stow-on-the-Wold is in the hands of the Stow Civic Society. Formed in 1972, their aim has always been to encourage high standards of planning, architecture and amenities in the town, and to comment on planning applications. The Society, which has some eighty-five members, has helped to restore the market cross, the fountain at the northern entrance to the town, and the stocks on the green, and they also financed a tree replanting programme in Stow Hill. They have two available publications, The Town Trail Guide and Glimpses of Stow, hold five talks each year, and produce five newsletters annually for members. The Society goes on outings to places of interest, and holds a Society dinner. One of their intentions is to publish a visitors' guide to the Battle of Stow, which took place in the town in 1646, and to the places of interest extant that were associated with it.


The Society has also financed a programme of tree planting, and it plans to erect three or four directional finger posts around the town. The present chairman, Derek Walker, is hoping to be able to arrange a commemorative plaque to William Smith on premises where he worked in Stow Square. William 'Strata' Smith (1769-1839) came to Stow in 1787, when he was apprenticed to Edward Webb, a surveyor. Smith became a geologist, created the first nationwide geological map, and earned the name 'The Father of English Geology'.


At nearly 800 feet above sea level, Stow-on-the-Wold is the highest town in the Cotswolds. Together with Broadway and Burford, it is one of the most frequently visited of the Cotswold settlements, although it has no great buildings and no traditional-type attractions. What it does have is a style and character that meets with our parameters for what is quintessential small-town Englishness. Its buildings are romantic; its businesses are eclectic; it is extraordinary in the way it has survived and meets the criteria for modern-day tourism.


Stow was developed immediately to the east of the Roman Fosseway, now the A429, at a point where, in medieval times, seven roads met at a watering hole of a crossroads for drovers. The land-owning Abbots of Evesham, the originators and mentors of Stow, saw the opportunities for trade and the potential for controls, taxes and financial advancement, and set out the place to take advantage of it all. Wool was the catalyst; wool was the sustaining commodity; and wool built its history, reputation and fabric.


All of those roads gave Stow a stake above its station in the coaching era, and left a legacy of fine old inns that delight us today. They flank greens, on one of which are the stocks, and close by stands the old market cross. Necessities in their day, these are now aspirational elements on the visitor's tick-list of nostalgic must-haves. They are as important as the 'in bloom' concept which has crept around our towns and cities in recent decades, and whose awards are worn as ostentatiously about the necks of civic pride as are AA rosettes on our hotels and Michelin stars in our restaurants.


Yet contemporary Stow is a quiet place. It is a place to enjoy at leisure; a place in which you can eat well; somewhere to put up your feet and watch the world go by. Even in its layout, the town is visitor-friendly, laying out most of its attractions around a bisected triangle that comprises Sheep Street, Church Street, Digbeth Street, and Market Place, with one or two sorties into pedestrianised alleys and courtyards leading off. It is all very accommodating and civilised, thoughtfully packed into decently few footfalls, and means that the visitor can easily get to everything the place has to offer.


With the single exception of the ongoing tetchiness over the biannual gypsy horse fair, it is all very agreeable. Most of what happens in the town is mind-numbingly parochial, which is just as we like it. The old traders go on, decade after decade; young couples start up surprising enterprises and make a go of them against all theoretical odds; and established retailers relocate to Stow, attracted by this retail diversity, from where one might have thought they were better established. In recent years, Stow hasn't become a small town distillation of larger ones, but a retail microcosm of its own invention. This is what makes it so appealing to visitors. Here are some snapshots of Stow.




A deuce of a name


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All about Stow-on-the-Wold there are references to St Edward. Yet no-one really knows to which Edward these refer, or, indeed, if one of the Edwards in the frame ever existed at all. It may have been called St Edward's Stow, it is said, after a hermit who lived near the well that still bears his name, to the south of the town. Then there is the St Edward to whom the church, built between the 11th and 15th centuries, is dedicated. This is supposed to have been Edward II who was murdered at Corfe Castle, Dorset in 978: an act for which Aethelred gave lands hereabouts to the monks of Evesham by way or reparation, but without admitting any part in the deed. That Stow was called Eduuardestou at Domesday gives credence to this, as also does the fact that Aethelred similarly settled lands on the abbey at Shaftesbury, where Edward was reburied in 980, and which was at one time called Edwardstow. The name has also been perpetuated at Stow-on-the-Wold in the former St Edward's school; the neo-gothic municipal St Edward's Hall, built in 1878; and St Edward's House of the early 1700s, which is now St Edward's Caf.




Raising the steaks ... and chips


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Stow-on-the-Wold has not embraced caf culture to such a degree as other Cotswold places, but some little backyards in the town have been planted up, stocked with tables and chairs, and arranged for alfresco eating in a profusion of colour and perfume. You will find independent coffee shops and restaurants in, and off, Church Street, Digbeth Street, Park Street, Sheep Street, and Stow Square. The town's cafs and coffee shops are intimate and frequently historic; its delicatessens are rich and exciting voyages of epicurean discovery; and, lately, the contemporary-style bar and brasserie culture has been weaved with style and panache into the mix of public cuisine. If takeaway sweetness is to your palate, you can buy indulgent handmade chocolates, home-made fudge, and traditional sweets at Stow-on-the-Wold.


The more traditional hotel bars and restaurants in Stow have been raising their game for years, and in the very places that local residents still pack the public bars, aspirational chefs are creating menus for a society whose culinary expectations are being driven by celebrity chef standards, the provision of farmers' markets, and the campaigns to buy organic and local. In Stow, you can enjoy traditional-style fine dining in historic surroundings, fast food takeaways, and eating at various levels in between. As hotels have changed hands in recent years, so have these moves brought with them new owners and chefs who are eager to incorporate national trends and developments into their menus. This has given considerable impetus for experimentation with food, and honed an edge to the whole dining-out experience in the town.




In the words of the Mayor of Stow-on-the-Wold


Tom Morris


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What makes Stow special for you?


I have lived and worked in Stow for over forty years and, when returning to the town, I never fail to be excited by the sight of the ancient church tower standing at well over 700 feet above sea level, which gives the town such an air of security and permanence.



Why should people visit Stow?


Being at the crossroads of seven major roads, people have used the Market Square in Stow as a meeting and trading place for centuries.



What are the biggest changes in the town over the last five years?


I suppose the biggest change has been the arrival of a Tesco store at the northern end of the town, although it does not seem to have had the disastrous effects that have occurred in other market towns. We still have a butcher, baker, two delicatessens, banks, etc. which all help to make it a vibrant place to live and work. The other noticeable change has been the dramatic increase in building on infill sites, otherwise known as 'garden grabbing'. This has resulted in a loss of 'green' areas, and the Town Council and the Civic Society are considering the refurbishment of the town with the planting of new trees.



What would you recommend to Stow visitors?


The medieval market square with its village green and stocks is a favourite place for people to meet and enjoy the wide variety of shops. I would recommend this area to visitors. The antique


shops and art galleries have made Stow the antique centre of the Cotswolds and this attracts visitors from all over the world.



Where is your favourite part of the town and why?


It has to be the Market Square. Its ancient buildings and market cross give it a sense of history and a strong link with the past.



Is there an alternative Stow perhaps best known to the locals but less readily experienced by visitors?


Two areas spring to mind. One is the ancient wells, said to be of Roman origin, with beautiful views over the Evenlode Valley. The second is the site of the cricket field/recreation ground to the north of the Fosse Way, again with one of the finest views in England.



What makes Stow a good place in which to live?


Stow is readily accessible to many parts of the country, including a rail link to Paddington from nearby Kingham and Moreton in Marsh. It is relatively crime-free, with a strong sense of community.



A place of retail potential


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Martin Elliott, surveyor, and proprietor of the Partnership that lets much of the commercial property in Stow-on-the Wold, believes that the prosperity of the town in 2008 will stand in good stead on the variety and breadth of its traders. There are more than 120 businesses here, but only five of them are high street PLCs, and these are small branches. This wide range of independent traders is exactly what is required to attract visitors. It is what has characterised Stow over the last decade or so, and is why new businesses continue to be drawn to the town. According to Martin, the town's retail health is generally good, with fewer premises available for sale or to let than is usual at this time of the year.


New businesses to Stow are bringing with them a new vitality, new ideas, new work ethics, and a determination to succeed. Not so recent, but nonetheless a huge success story, to the point that it has just expanded, is Peter Wilsdon's Crock Shop in Digbeth Street. He opens his kitchenware, tableware, and ironmongery emporium every day of the year except Christmas Day, and the reward for all this hard work has been a clientele so large that he has very recently taken over the former antiques centre across the road and now operates from both premises.


Since we last visited Stow, a fly fishing shop has opened, and a new jeweller, and Christine Kilsby has not closed the Cotswold Frock Shop that she has run in Talbot Court since 1988, and in whose creations literally hundreds of brides have walked a good many aisles. Christine was astonished to learn, over Christmas and the New Year, that Stow and district widely believed she had given up her in-house, bespoke design bridal creations - just because owners of the premises next door retired and held a closing down sale!


Businesses do close down, of course, although in Stow comparatively few close due to being unsuccessful. As I write, there are changes afoot for two that are dear to my heart: the brace of second-hand bookshops in Sheep Street. Lucy and Henry Baggott, for some years the owners of Wychwood Books, simply want to spread their wings and are looking, at the time of writing, for a buyer. Constance Fisher and Pat Brown, who have been running Book Box for two decades, are retiring. I mention these because it would be a dreadful shame and a great loss to the eclectic retail mix of Stow-on-the-Wold were its antiquarian books element be depleted.





Coming to the market cross


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The market cross has been a symbolic point of reference at Stow, and a meeting place, since medieval times. Yet it is not what it was, even in recent years. The steps, monolithic base, square- broached socket, and seven-foot-tall shaft are original, but the inhabited head is not the one that was added by Medland & Son of Gloucester in 1878, and which had sufficiently weathered by the late twentieth century for most people to think it too, was a 14th- century survival. Around the base at one time was a man-trap of low, ornamental railings that would probably be considered far too dangerous now, but helped to distinguish the cross at a time when more buildings than at present pressed upon it in closer proximity.


At Whitsun 1994, a reveller from Northleach climbed the badly weathered piece, only to discover just how weathered it all was when he and the head of the floriated cross descended together with indecent haste, the former sustaining a broken leg. A Stow Cross Restoration Committee swung into action, which oversaw the collection of funds - including a substantial gift from the hapless former reveller, and a grant from the Cotswold District Council. The sides of the current head, the gable cross that tops it, and the base stone beneath, are the work of stonemason Dick Podd, using local Guiting stone from the quarry at Coscombe on Stanway Hill. These are all joined to the shaft by means of a stainless-steel rod, and are bedded together and bonded with stone dust and lime mortar.


The main elements on the 19th-century head were a crucifixion, and Henry I presenting the town's market charter to the Abbot of Evesham. The version that was dedicated by Rt. Revd. Cyril Bowles, one-time Bishop of Derby, and unveiled by Henry Elwes, the Lord Lieutenant of Gloucestershire, has the crucifixion on one of the gable ends representing the foundation of the church at Stow. The other gable end has the likenesses of Charles II and Cromwell, and bears the date 1646, which was when the English Civil War raged through the streets of Stow. This political face also has a representation of an oak tree, in which the King allegedly hid following the Battle of Worcester in 1651. Both gable end carvings are beneath cinquefoils.


The carvings in both of the square-headed sides are beneath trefoils with decorative motifs in the spandrels. One, a representation of commerce, shows wool being carded, and is in remembrance of the industry that made Stow what it is today, and what the market place stood for until well into the 20th century. The other face has the seal of King Edward, a reminder that the town's origins lie in a settlement of nearby lands on the Abbey of Evesham following the murder of Edward II in 978 under questionable circumstances, and that the town was once called Eduuardstou. There's a history lesson spanning several centuries in the town cross at Stow.




Raising a new note


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The Stow Youth Singers were formed in 2007 by Linda Green, following her appointment as Director of Music at St Edward's church. Linda, who has a degree in music from London University, teaches the subject at the independent Dormer House School, Moreton-in-Marsh. She is also an experienced organist, playing at several churches. The choir, which currently consists of pupils from five local schools, has nineteen singers of between eight and fifteen years of age and has been formed to give public concerts of church music - on a monthly basis at St Edward's - and secular music. Just getting into their vocal stride, they have recently given a concert of mixed music, a carol concert, a recital at Chipping Norton School, and another at Longborough church. Linda hopes that they will be able to go on a singing holiday in 2008, and aims to take her choir to France the following year.




One in the eye for Stow


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It is said that in Anglo-Saxon times, the mineral spring at Stow was renowned for its curative properties, particularly in regard to eye problems. In the 18th century, spa mania was fuelled by a national obsession with hypochondria, and Stow tapped into this in 1806 when attempts were made to turn the town into a spa resort. Stow must have thought that all the elements for success were in place. Historically, so many roads met at Stow that it was relatively easy to get to; for centuries, it had been a vibrant market town; and there were already sufficient hostelries in place to accommodate those who might come for the waters. Stow spruced itself up in anticipation.


A pump room was built around the spring in the Lower Swell road, and much was claimed for its beneficial properties. The water was said to be effective against rheumatic pain; it cured virtual blindness; and it was marketed, together with the efficacy of the air thereabouts, as the panacea for those troubled with consumption. A classical building was erected, and the pump room was apparently equipped with a 'water engine' that was as much a marvel as were the cures. Pleasure gardens were designed that set off St Edward's well, and a walkway was made to it. However, two springs emitting the much-desired chalybeate waters were never going to make a Cheltenham or a Bath of the area. Without royal patronage, and close to such well-established centres, the Stow spa failed to prevail. St Edward's spring became the town's only source of water until 1871. The stonework extant is now Grade II listed.



Artist in residence


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Some years ago, I asked a former editor of Cotswold Life if I could write about an artist in one of my pieces. 'No!' he said emphatically, adding 'nor about craftspeople; there are too many of both sorts in the Cotswolds'. I took that to be a 'yes', and have since mentioned in my articles those engaged in arts and crafts whom I come across and whose work appeals to me. There may be a lot of these in the Cotswolds, but the vein is a rich one. Stow is becoming increasingly well known for its art galleries, mostly located in Brewery Yard, Church Street, Sheep Street, and Talbot Court. Some have relocated from other Cotswold towns, and one of them has its own, as it were, owner-artist in residence.


The town is home to the international portrait artist Lindy Allfrey, who studied at the world-famous Charles Cecil School of Art in Florence, at The Art Academy in London where she also taught, and at Heatherley's School of Fine Art, which focuses on portraiture, figurative painting and sculpture. Today, she works, teaches, and exhibits at Walton House in Stow's Sheep Street.


Convent school-educated, Lindy studied three-dimensional design at college, then worked in the film industry, before starting her career in portraiture by painting the likenesses of friends. "When the UK film industry went into decline, I arrived in Suffolk, sat on the beach and started to paint watercolours of old fishing boats. These were very successful, but it was a lonely life. Then people began to sit for me; I enjoyed the challenge of getting the real person on canvas, and discovered that I could achieve good likenesses. And I got to meet so many interesting people, and loved chatting to them."


Years of formal study followed, before she felt she had reached an acceptable standard. "In portraiture, painting from life is irreplaceable," she says. "My ethos is to capture the character of a person, and, to achieve this, I always insist on live sittings. Painting from photographs loses two dimensions - not just the physical three-dimensional shape of a person's head, but also their character and nature that comes across as we chat while I work." She claims that all of her sitters have found the sessions to be 'verging on therapeutic', and the good friends she makes as a result often remain in touch years after the portrait is finished.


Lindy works with the best materials, best quality oil paints, and on canvases from Italy. She teaches in the Venetian method, incorporating drawing, chiaroscuro (light and shade), and colour, and her husband, Paul Walker, provides in-house framing.



And so to horse


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The Abbey at Evesham set out the extremely wide market place at Stow in anticipation of considerable trade. Henry I gave official market status to the town in 1107. In 1330, the Abbot of Evesham granted an annual fair, to be held between 29 July and 4 August. Then, in 1476, two annual fairs were granted by Edward IV, and these have become the gypsy horse fairs for which the town is well known today, and which continue to split opinion within the resident community. The charter rights are owned by the Lord of the Manors of Stow and Maugersbury. These state that the fairs must be held on two days immediately either side of the Feast of St Phillip and St James, which is 1 May, and similarly on the two days adjacent to 13 October, which is the Feast of St Edward, King and Martyr.



Whilst the gypsy fair is certainly a historic and very colourful affair, it continues to raise concerns in the town because of the conduct of some of the people associated with it. Fair days usually require a large police presence in the town, including officers on horseback, and whilst the fairs are in themselves biannual, one-day events, the gypsy presence continues over several days, bringing a sense of unease throughout the business and residential community. The visiting gypsies regard the fairs as highlights in their annual calendar, being frequently the only time when whole families can meet together. There is no doubt that it presents a vibrant and colourful scene, attracting a considerable percentage of the town's annual 150,000 or so visitors. Here are horses and ponies changing hands in large numbers, against a backdrop of historic and traditionally styled modern gypsy caravans, horse boxes and camp fires.



Some of the well-decorated and highly painted wagons are generations old, and there are numerous stalls on site selling a wide range of commodities; clothes, leather goods and tack, and pots and pans being particularly evident. The future of these events has been under discussion and their form and nature held in the balance for as long as I have been aware of their existence. It must be reassuring to the gypsy fairs' supporters, that after so much discussion, for so long, not a lot has changed.



Wide Ranging


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Walter Didcote, founder of the Cotswold Rangers, was a local character who ran The Wood Shop in Stow's Park Street. He also owned a bicycle shop in Charlton Kings. His Stow shop was well known for its rustic bird boxes and feeding tables, seats and tables, hollowed-out sections of tree trunks, etc, which were stacked against the front of his little cottage. It is said that, following an altercation with a local butcher, one of Mr Didcote's lumps of wood found its way through the butcher's window!



In 1970, Walter Didcote, aggrieved by a lack of serious attention to his suggestions, resigned as a warden under the scheme then operated by Gloucestershire County Council, and set up an independent group (initially four people) primarily to combat what they believed to be the abuse of the Cotswolds during the summer season. He thought the name 'ranger' was more acceptable to the public than 'warden', which could have negative institutional connotations. Litter, fire, vandalism, and the public's lack of awareness for the Country Code and the reasons for it, were the Cotswold Rangers' main targets. The weekend litter-dropper, and the lorry-loaded fly tippers were at the top of their list.



Wherever the public congregated, it was the Rangers' intention to use the megaphone and the camera as their weapons of choice. The former in 'educating' the public on how they should behave, and the condition in which they should leave the area; the latter to offer 'photographic persuasion' in helping them to mend their ways or as evidence for prosecution in more serious matters. In the early 1970s, there was no visitor information centre at Stow, so Walter Didcote's aim was to create an information bureau of local events, places to see, and hotels, second only on his list to establishing the Cotswold Rangers' headquarters in the town. They also offered their services in educating schoolchildren in nature study and the country code, in the hope that the children would then educate their elders whom the Rangers saw as being very much responsible for the despoliation of the Cotswolds. The original Cotswold Rangers operated for many years.


As for the tourist information initiative, this was developed into an information point in St Edward's Hall. In 1986, the District Council, which had been operating the TIC at Cirencester, chose Stow in preference to Moreton-in-Marsh for its north Cotswolds centre, and opened there in Talbot Court the following year. Forty thousand visitors went through its door in the first twelve months. In 1992, it moved into its present location, a former stationery shop in Stow Square. At its height, in the 1990s, the information centre was dealing with 160,000 visitors each year, and still averages over 125,000. The staff here are amazing, in the breadth of their local knowledge, and in the lengths to which they are prepared to go to help. I have heard that they tracked down, and reunited a visitor with her wedding clothes that had been left on a train, and once took a visitor, who had missed her coach, to catch up with it several stops down the road! In my several years' experience, Veronica Woodford and her team are fantastic, and deserve a mention.



Civic welfare and history


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The history and continuing welfare of Stow-on-the-Wold is in the hands of the Stow Civic Society. Formed in 1972, their aim has always been to encourage high standards of planning, architecture and amenities in the town, and to comment on planning applications. The Society, which has some eighty-five members, has helped to restore the market cross, the fountain at the northern entrance to the town, and the stocks on the green, and they also financed a tree replanting programme in Stow Hill. They have two available publications, The Town Trail Guide and Glimpses of Stow, hold five talks each year, and produce five newsletters annually for members. The Society goes on outings to places of interest, and holds a Society dinner. One of their intentions is to publish a visitors' guide to the Battle of Stow, which took place in the town in 1646, and to the places of interest extant that were associated with it.


The Society has also financed a programme of tree planting, and it plans to erect three or four directional finger posts around the town. The present chairman, Derek Walker, is hoping to be able to arrange a commemorative plaque to William Smith on premises where he worked in Stow Square. William 'Strata' Smith (1769-1839) came to Stow in 1787, when he was apprenticed to Edward Webb, a surveyor. Smith became a geologist, created the first nationwide geological map, and earned the name 'The Father of English Geology'.



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At nearly 800 feet above sea level, Stow-on-the-Wold is the highest town in the Cotswolds. Together with Broadway and Burford, it is one of the most frequently visited of the Cotswold settlements, although it has no great buildings and no traditional-type attractions. What it does have is a style and character that meets with our parameters for what is quintessential small-town Englishness. Its buildings are romantic; its businesses are eclectic; it is extraordinary in the way it has survived and meets the criteria for modern-day tourism.



Stow was developed immediately to the east of the Roman Fosseway, now the A429, at a point where, in medieval times, seven roads met at a watering hole of a crossroads for drovers. The land-owning Abbots of Evesham, the originators and mentors of Stow, saw the opportunities for trade and the potential for controls, taxes and financial advancement, and set out the place to take advantage of it all. Wool was the catalyst; wool was the sustaining commodity; and wool built its history, reputation and fabric.



All of those roads gave Stow a stake above its station in the coaching era, and left a legacy of fine old inns that delight us today. They flank greens, on one of which are the stocks, and close by stands the old market cross. Necessities in their day, these are now aspirational elements on the visitor's tick-list of nostalgic must-haves. They are as important as the 'in bloom' concept which has crept around our towns and cities in recent decades, and whose awards are worn as ostentatiously about the necks of civic pride as are AA rosettes on our hotels and Michelin stars in our restaurants.



Yet contemporary Stow is a quiet place. It is a place to enjoy at leisure; a place in which you can eat well; somewhere to put up your feet and watch the world go by. Even in its layout, the town is visitor-friendly, laying out most of its attractions around a bisected triangle that comprises Sheep Street, Church Street, Digbeth Street, and Market Place, with one or two sorties into pedestrianised alleys and courtyards leading off. It is all very accommodating and civilised, thoughtfully packed into decently few footfalls, and means that the visitor can easily get to everything the place has to offer.



With the single exception of the ongoing tetchiness over the biannual gypsy horse fair, it is all very agreeable. Most of what happens in the town is mind-numbingly parochial, which is just as we like it. The old traders go on, decade after decade; young couples start up surprising enterprises and make a go of them against all theoretical odds; and established retailers relocate to Stow, attracted by this retail diversity, from where one might have thought they were better established. In recent years, Stow hasn't become a small town distillation of larger ones, but a retail microcosm of its own invention. This is what makes it so appealing to visitors. Here are some snapshots of Stow.


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