Tewkesbury: A town worth fighting for
PUBLISHED: 12:59 18 March 2019
Copyright © by Thomas Marchhart
Tewkesbury might not be the wealthiest town in the Cotswolds, but it's certainly not lacking in charm, character and beauty
A knight on horseback greets me at the crossroads as I round the corner towards Tewkesbury. Built from green oak boughs, the victorious knight – and, across the road, his vanquished opponent’s horse – commemorates the events of 1471, when Edward IV’s Yorkist army trod and fought and died upon this very ground to reclaim the realm of England from the Lancastrian Henry VI. The striking sculptures, which were created by Forest of Dean-based artists Phil Bews and Diane Gorvin, mark the entry to this medieval town, and they set the tone well, for Tewkesbury is a place revelling in its history.
Nowadays the town is perhaps most famous for its Medieval Festival, held every year over the second weekend in July, during which traders and re-enactors come from all over the world to dress, eat and celebrate in full medieval style, and to bring to life the Battle of Tewkesbury, which was a significant victory for the House of York during the War of the Roses. Of course when the weather’s this bleak, sunny July seems a long way off, but take heart – Tewkesbury still has plenty to offer year-round.
Undoubtedly, the first thing you’ll notice upon your arrival is the great Norman tower of the abbey soaring above the trees and rooftops. Consecrated in 1121 by the Bishop of Worcester, the abbey is almost 900 years old, although like so many churches, it’s become a hodgepodge of architectural styles as people down the centuries have added to it to create the splendid building standing today. The towering nave, its 14th-century fan-vaulted ceiling supported by 14 enormous Norman columns, is as breath taking today in its scope and grandeur as it must have been to the early churchgoers whose contemporaries built it.
But for all its immensity, it’s the details that make Tewkesbury Abbey one of my favourites – the carven misericords where the monks used to lean during worship, the snatches of medieval mural still visible in the Lady Chapel, the painted effigy of Lord Edward Despenser in full armour. Follow the wide, sweeping aisle to the quire at the far end, you’ll find yourself standing underneath a great golden sun: the symbol of the House of York. It’s a job not to get dizzy staring up at the ceiling trying to make out all the various faces looking down at you, but while there are plenty of angels and saintly types, don’t be surprised if you spot a Green Man or two. There are, in fact, about 50 Green Men all over the abbey – some just grinning, leafy chaps, others a much more visceral depiction of the deity they represent, with wild eyes and masses of twigs sprouting from their mouths; a testament to how early England was shaped just as much by its old pagan beliefs as by its Christian ones.
Across the road is Victoria Park, which still manages to maintain a balmy air even at this time of year. Wander through the overgrown archway down to the weeping willows dipping their branches in the river, where even today a fisherman sits sipping coffee from his thermos. From here, cross over the weir and enjoy a stroll along the river; see the timber-framed houses, Victorian mill and painted canal boats, and the sheep grazing on Severn Ham.
Cross back over, and it’s easy to make your way onto the high street. Here the timber-framed houses typical of the town jut out impressively over the shoppers, or seem to slouch against their neighbours like candles left out in the heat. Tucked away inside one of these is Cornell Books, a second-hand bookshop that looks like something out of Diagon Ally, its every possible crevice crammed with books. It also happens to be the set for the new short film ‘The Bookshop’ directed by Killing Eve star Susan Lynch, and featuring The Charlatans frontman Tim Burgess. But if Cornell’s hasn’t satisfied your bookworm appetite, head a few doors down to Alison’s, the second largest independent bookshop in the South West. Infused with that delicious new book smell, Alison’s celebrated its 20th year in 2018, and along with all the latest releases, it has one of the best-stocked classics sections I’ve ever seen in a local bookstore.
If you’re planning a longer stay in Tewkesbury, you can’t go wrong with the sumptuous Tewkesbury Park Hotel. Located just a mile outside of town, this 18th-century manor house offers all the comforts of a luxury hotel and spa, surrounded by unrivalled views of stunning Cotswold countryside. Guests can enjoy a dip in the pool or a full gym workout, or meander round the 6,579-yard golf course; meanwhile the locally-sourced cuisine served in the restaurant is available to guests and visitors alike throughout the day. Drop in for a spot of afternoon tea, or grab a cocktail in the bar and watch the sun set over the Malvern Hills.
Alternatively, if you’re spending a night or two in town, grab dinner and a show at The Roses. This independent theatre hosts a wide range of entertainment, from stand-up comedians to live music to showings of the latest films in its own little cinema.
Tewkesbury is not the wealthiest town in the Cotswolds – as more than one independent trader is keen to inform me – but it’s by no means lacking in charm, character or beauty. The quirky mix of vintage shops, cafés and bookstores here could rival any street in Stroud, and the museums are more interactive and family friendly than many you’d find in nearby Cheltenham or Gloucester. Visit the Tewkesbury Town Museum – a brilliant collection of local artefacts covering the town’s detailed past, all housed in a gorgeous 17th-century timber-framed house – or if nature and wildlife are more your thing, be sure to check out the John Moore Museum, where you can learn about the mammals and birds of Gloucestershire’s countryside.
Tewkesbury may not be the wealthiest, but it is certainly rich in culture and history – something that it goes to great lengths to preserve and celebrate – and with a last glance at that oaken knight standing proud in my rear-view mirror, I think Tewkesbury is still a town well worth fighting for.
Local artist Katie B Morgan designed this beautiful illustrated map of Tewkesbury for March’s issue of Cotswold Life. See below the map for points of interest...
• In 1793 JMW Turner RA stayed in Tewkesbury. He and his father owned a burgage which is now Turners Court
• Gravel Alley was once a medieval alley
• Bishops Walk: Originally had eight alleys and courts
• Alley Cats: Project Alleycat – a community art project with murals and artworks in the alleys
• The alleys with blue brick paths were for public use
• Light bulb: Treens Electrical Shop
• Beadles Hat outside The Heritage Centre: 19th-century sign
• Tewkesbury Town crier
• Golden Key: The site of an ironmonger’s shop on the High Street
• Tewkesbury Mustard: Mustard balls made with mustard seeds and horse radish
• Old grain barges Chaceley and Tirley used to be tied up by the Mill
• The White Bear Public House has a Tardis in its garden
• The Mythe Tute, also known as Royal Hill: George III and his queen enjoyed the view from there (earthworks are the remains of an 11th-century motte and bailey castle)
• Cotteswold Dairy founded in 1938 by Harry Workman
• Roses Theatre: Where Eric Morecambe gave his last performance
• Tudor House Hotel, High Street: The ghost of a dog
• Walls Court: Home of Mr Wall a tailor
• Stephens Alley: Named after Mr Stephens, a stocking framer (hosiery manufacture)
• St Mary’s Lane: Tanning hides
• Hughes Alley: Named after Joe Hughes who sold milk there
• Compton’s Alley: Historic home of cabinet makers and upholsterers
• Maud, the wife of William the Conqueror, established a market in the town
• The bridge across the Mill Avon may have initially been built by King John. It dates back to the 12th century
• Bloody Meadow, the site of the Battle of Tewkesbury in 1471
• Flags decorate the town during the huge re-enactment of the Battle of Tewkesbury
• In the 12th century the town was famous for cloth, knitting, malting and tanning
• John Moore: Author of Portrait of Elmbury
• Charles Dickens stayed with Turner and may have based his book The Old Curiosity Shop on a shop near Turner’s Court. The Royal Hop Pole is mentioned in The Pickwick Papers, and Queen Mary stayed there in 1891
• Tudor Roses: The White Rose of York, and the Red Rose of Lancaster
• Dowty Mining opened at Ashchurch in 1956
• Tewkesbury Mop Fair: Charter granted by Edward II in 1324
• The ambulance station is on the site of Thomas Walker & Sons Fairground Maker, est 1868
• Raymond Priestley was born in Tewkesbury, 1886: Geologist on Shackleton and Scott’s Expeditions to Antarctica.
• Abbey Mill: ‘Abel Fletchers Mill’ in John Halifax, Gentleman by Dinah Craick; Mrs Craik’s house is near Turner’s Court
• Tewkesbury Abbey: Possibly the best and largest Norman tower anywhere
• Circle in car park indicates a cholera pit of 1842
• The Old Black Bear: One of Gloucestershire’s oldest pubs, currently under restoration. Shakespeare’s theatre troupe may have performed here
• The old Baptist Chapel, possibly the oldest in the country. It also has graves belonging to the family of Shakespeare’s sister, Joan
• Severn Ham: Used for horse racing; the earliest record is 1721
• Fishing: Long history of fishing. In 1205 it was recorded that lamprey and salmon were supplied to the crown
• Fish Alley: Once the home of fishermen and fishmongers