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ANTIQUING THE COTSWOLDS
A Journey Among the Villages

by Bob Brooke
 

My antiquing itinerary wasn’t laid in tablets of stone. Indeed, I wandered off the beaten path a number of times, for the picturesque lanes leading to Cotswold villages and towns encourage that. The Cotswolds, a 50-mile-long escarpment running from Chipping Campden to Tetbury and from Cheltenham to Burford, is home to the largest concentration of serious antique dealers outside London. Besides, there’s no better place to delve into Britain’s past--Roman villas, fine churches, stately homes, magnificent gardens and museums.

Chipping Campden

I began my antiquing foray through the Cotswolds in Chipping Campden. Set back off the main road, it’s name “chipping” actually began as “cheaping,” meaning market. The streets of this town aren’t paved with gold, but the buildings are. Cotswold limestone varies greatly in color from one region to another, from weathered grey to off-white. The stone used in buildings here ranges from golden yellow to honey brown and in sunlight glows like Eldorado. It makes more sense to visit the Louvre wearing dark sunglasses than it does to visit Chipping Campden in the rain. When the sun shines the streets seem to be suffused with the essence of a summer's day. I could almost smell honey and beeswax.

As I wandered about town, I discovered antique shops filled with suits of mail, old powder horns, snuff boxes, and antique jewelry. I also found scrimshaw, old frames and unique writing boxes. These shops catered to tourists, and their prices were high. But they were full of history.

I almost missed the church of St. James, located some distance from the High Street. Upon entering its dark depths, I discovered altar hangings dating from 1500, and a vicar's ceremonial cope dating from 1400. Although threadbare in places, the quality and richness of the original work is evident--they clothed their vicars in cloth with as much expense as they did their churches in stone. A huge brass 15th-century Flemish lectern in the shape of a falcon with outstretched wings stood guard over the silent pews.

Broadway

From Chipping Campden, I headed over to Broadway. I thought I had entered the Twilight Zone when I saw a shop in the main street of Broadway advertising itself as a "Cashmere Specialist.". It’s that kind of place. I found that Broadway offered antiques that only the Getty Museum can afford. I was beginning to think I’d only be browsing on this trip.

But Broadway wasn’t always like this. It began as a possession of the Benedictine Abbey of Pershore, and a royal charter from King Edgar dated 972 A.D. still exists and describes the boundaries of Broadway. It remained a possession of the Abbey until the reformation in 1539, when it was sold by the Crown and passed into private hands.

Until the time of the railways the village was an important coaching stop on the main London- Worcester route, where teams of horses had to be changed here in order to get the coaches up the steep, rutted and often muddy Fish Hill onto the Cotswold escarpment. At one time there were at least 24 inns in town. The railways killed that, and the village became, not to put it too subtly, "dead as a doornail.” Not a lot happened. Not a lot changed.

But things did change when William Morris stayed with a couple of Oxford tutors, one of whom, Carmel Price, had rented Broadway Tower, a folly with superb views over the Severn Valley. Morris had a wide circle of artistic friends, and it didn’t take long for the sleepy rural
perfection of Broadway to become known. Two American artists, E.A. Abbey and Frank Millet leased Farnham House on Broadway Green, and from then on Broadway, crowded with famous artists, became the most famous, undiscovered village in England.

Even though prices were high, I still thought I should have a look around. Who knows what I would find. H.W. Keil Ltd. at Tudor House on Main Street, offered extensive displays of oak and walnut furniture, early pewter and interesting items from 16th to 18th century homes. Here, I didn’t find one or two 17th or 18th century dressers but a dozen or more.

On the other side of the road and further up Main Street towards Fish Hill, I found Fenwick and Fenwick Antiques. Dealers Jane and George Fenwick pride themselves that it’s possible to furnish a complete house from their regularly changing stock. Their shop, filled with oak, mahogany and walnut furniture from the 17th-early 19th centuries, has a warm, inviting ambiance. I was especially taken with the dozens of small items from treen lace bobbins and corkscrews to silver, rugs, ceramics, pewter and brass. But what really caught my eye as a devout box collector was their wide selection of boxes ranging from bible boxes to tea caddies. I dawdled a bit over a Regency book tray in contrasting rosewood and satinwood but decided I had lots more to see.

Winchombe

I drove southwest to Winchombe, once the ancient capital of the Saxon Kingdom of Mercia and later a medieval market wool town. For many years it served as a stopover for pilgrims who came to Hailes Abbey en route to Winchester and Canterbury.

I remember Winchcombe for its pubs. I didn't go into all of them, but found time to visit the Corner Cupboard, built around 1550 as a farmhouse, which eventually became an inn. I noted the massive buttresses and the bust of Disraeli above the door. There are reports of it being haunted by the ghost of a 12-year-old girl. Another, the George Inn, was built in the early 16th century to house pilgrims traveling to the great abbey at Winchcombe.

People didn't travel for fun in the 11th Century. Instead, they went on pilgrimages to find places where miracles happened. A monk of Winchcombe Abbey invented a story that Prince Kenelm of Mercia was murdered, by the lover of his sister Quendreda, while hunting. He severed Kenelm’s head and buried it under a thorn tree. Out of it flew a white dove which carried a scroll telling of the evil deed to the Pope in Rome. The Pope ordered that the body be found, and local clerics used a white cow to locate it on the slopes of Sudely Hill, where a spring burst forth. During the funeral procession Quendreda tried to curse the event by reading Psalm 108 backwards, but her eyes exploded. Thus, on the strength of this tale, Winchcombe Abbey became one of the largest in England.

Winchcombe today is a quiet and very pleasant little town which is easily ignored by tourists who cram themselves into Broadway and Chipping Campden. I stumbled upon Pritchard Antiques, located on High Street in a 16th century half-timbered shop, which once was a manor house. Besides traditional oak and mahogany furniture, proprietors Debbie and Keith Pritchard also offered a wide variety of boxes, along with mirrors, clocks, barometers, metalware and unique decorative objects. What caught my eye, however, was a rare late 17th-century oak and elm child’s size plank coffer, a small chest for holding valuables.

Following an eastward route from Winchcombe, I came upon Stow-on-the-Wold. The highest of Cotswold towns, Stow-on-the-Wold was given the right to hold a market by Royal Charter of Edward I and continues to this day. Originally, this market was principally for sheep. Daniel Defoe records that in the 18th century more than 20,000 sheep could be sold on a busy day. Such was the press of animals entering the Market Square that special sheep “runs,” narrow streets known as tures, were used to control their access. Many of these remain today.

The town’s historic significance was mainly due to its important position on the Roman Fosse Way, sometimes called the backbone of the Cotswolds. In medieval times, salt, minerals and other trade moved from west to east crossing the Fosse Way at Stow. In its open market square, I saw the stocks where townsfolk threw rotten eggs at offenders in days gone by. The final battle between the Roundheads and the Royalists took place here.

Stow-on-the-Wold
There’s a local rhyme which goes: "Stow-on-the-Wold, where the wind blows cold." Stow stand at a high point of the Cotswold plateau—700 feet above sea level. The locals recommend that visitors spend a week acclimatizing before venturing out into the market square. They jokingly say the condition of those who feel faint after inquiring about the price of a Jacobean oak refectory table is more likely caused by the price than a lack of oxygen.

Stow is a major center for English antiques and has a concentration of shops which compares well with any antiques center in the UK. The economic recession over the last few years hit the UK antiques trade hard, so there are fewer antique shops now. Five years ago, it was difficult to find a shop in Stow selling anything other than antiques. But antiques still dominate. Many of the Cotswold towns have a concentration of antique shops, but Stow is still the largest, and I found it easy to spend several hours browsing.

I began at Christopher Clarke Antiques on the corner of Fosse Way and Sheep Street. Long-time residents Christopher and Ida Clarke have stocked their shop with 17th century medieval wood carvings, lamps, urns and statues, as well as a menagerie of cast, carved, and turned beasts, fish, insects and birds dating from classical times to the 20th century.

Woolcomber House on Sheep Street, a house with Tudor origins, formally a coaching in known as the Crown, now houses the antique collections of Jack and Chrissie Baggott. As I passed through the Georgian door, I discovered a diverse collection of English furniture and decorative items arranged in room settings, each with a distinctive style and character—a beamed dining room, for instance, displayed 17th and 18th century oak and country furniture, pewter and metalware with appropriate portrait and landscape paintings on the walls. The library had formal 18th century mahogany furniture and the conservatory, garden related items, with urns, fountains and figures in stone and marble sited in the garden beyond. Upstairs, in the Crown Room, I found a traditional bedroom, fully furnished, which even included hide luggage.

The Baggots other shop, Baggott Church Street Ltd., on the other side of Church Street, has a very different ambience. The two inviting window displays gave me a glimpse as to what I might find within--large secretary bookcases, mahogany dining and oak refectory tables with sets of chairs and accouterments such as writing boxes, work boxes, chess sets, lamps, telescopes and sporting items. I took a special interest in a Regency X-framed rosewood stool with original needlework upholstery and told them I might stop back.

Walking along Church Street down to the corner, just before I come to the square and opposite St. Edwards Church, I found Huntington Antiques Ltd. Michael and Sheila Golding concentrate on early objects from fine oak and walnut furniture to textiles, metalware and works of art. Their extensive low-ceilinged and subtly lit showrooms reflect the soft glow of finely patinated wood. I strolled through the 16th and 17th centuries past massive refectory tables, carved court cupboards and fine dressers. Two pieces, an oak court cupboard from the reign of Charles I and a spectacular Gothic walnut cathedral vestments chest dated 1480-1500, were particularly interesting.

Also on Church Street is Roger Lamb Antiques, a charming shop filled with elegant small items of furniture predominantly from the Georgian and Regency periods, as well as decorative painted and papier mache pieces. To my delight, he had many Regency boxes, including tea caddies, along with fine period needlework and silks.

Back on Market Square, I found Fosse Antiques, run by Mark Beeston. Entering through a superb medieval doorway into what was once an inn, I noticed the marks of a poker burned into the wooden beam over the inglenook fireplace where its heater was tested before being used to make a hot toddies for thirsty travelers on cold windy nights. Beeston, who specializes in 18th and 19th century furniture, especially English mahogany dining pieces, has carefully arranged them in what’s close to a home setting. In addition, he carried a good selection of Sheffield plate, tea caddies and all manner of antique boxes.

Set on the corner of the square, behind the green with the large beech trees and the village stocks lies Stow Antiques. The carefully chosen stock consists mainly of Georgian furniture made between 1740 and 1800 , including small chests, sideboards, tea, card and dining tables, sets of chairs, bookcases, and bureaus, as well as gilded mirrors.

Moreton-on-Marsh
A bit antiqued out for the moment, I decided to take a scenic detour to Moreton-on-Marsh, a scant four miles north of Stow. Centuries ago, Roman legions trudged down its High Street, and the name Marsh actually refers to an old word meaning border not marshy area. Moreton-on-Marsh stands at the intersection of the Roman Fosse Way and medieval roads running east and west. The Curfew Tower, its best known feature, is the oldest building in town. Many towns rang a curfew bell at night to warn residents that night was falling. There were no street lights in the 17th century, though citizens could hire a torchman from a local tavern to light their way home. The Curfew bell, dated 1633, was last rung in 1860.

Unlike some Cotswold towns that avoided having a rail line in the 19th century, Moreton-on-Marsh has had a line since 1826, even though the carriages were horse drawn until 1889. Today, Moreton remains one of the main rail links to London and the rest of Britain, with service from Paddington Station taking under two hours.

While in Moreton-in-Marsh, I stopped into Astley House on High Street, which houses the fine art collection of David and Nanette Glaisyer, members of the oldest family of picture dealers in the Cotswolds. I found their cross section of landscapes, genre paintings and portraits fascinating.

The Slaughters
On a quiet country lane midway between Stow-on-the-Wold and Bourton-on-the-Water, I saw a road sign directing travelers to The Slaughters. I followed the sign and came not to scenes of some dreadful carnage but to the village of Upper Slaughter, where pink roses ramble over honey-colored stone and a brook tingles past the well-kept gardens. The name of these villages has nothing to do with the Civil War, and nothing to do with motorists arguing over parking spaces. It’s derived from the Old English slohtre, a slough or muddy place, a corruption of “de Sclotre,” the surname of the original Norman landowner. Upper Slaughter’s twin, Lower Slaughter, lying less than a mile further down the River Eye, offers cream teas in a quintessential Cotswolds setting. I couldn’t resist.

Less then a mile of the River Eye, which joins the Windrush just west of Bourton-on-the-Water, separates the villages of Upper and Lower Slaughter. Of the two villages, I believe Lower Slaughter the prettier. The stream wraps around the village like a drape on an artist's model, showing off the cottages to best effect. I marveled at the beauty along Warden's Way, a path connecting the villages.

After pausing a bit too long in the Slaughters, I meandered southwards through Taynton, Great Barrington, and Great Rissington to Bourton-on-the-Water, known as the “Venice of the Cotswolds” due to the six bridges which cross the River Windrush. The architecture here is traditional Cotswold—stone roofs, gables here and there, mullioned windows, golden brown limestone throughout. Its oldest cottages date back only to the 17th century, but the village itself can trace its beginnings as a military camp in pre-Roman times known as Burghton or Boroughton. It looks just like it looks in the model for which it’s famous.

Bourton

I’ve noticed that when I take a branch from certain trees, the branch looks like a miniature version of the tree, and when I break a piece off the branch, that looks like a tree, too. Mathematicians call this property self-similarity. Bourton has a wonderful example of self-similarity—a 1/10 scale model of itself. Because the 1/10 scale model is a complete model of the town, it must contain a model of itself, and it does, a 1/100th scale model of Bourton, and because the 1/100th scale model is also a complete model of Bourton, it must also contain a 1/1000th scale model of the scale model of the scale model of Bourton. And it does. I think it will only be a matter of time before a team of nano-technicians turn up in the town to etch a sub-micron scale model of Bourton on a silicon wafer, complete with mill, waterwheel, and a highly imaginative interpretation of the River Windrush as a stream of electrons.

A friend of mine told me not to miss the Cotswold Perfumery. Smelling each sample was like visiting another country. The difference between this perfume and the mass-market brands is like the difference between a harmonica and an orchestra.

Cirencester
Bourton’s beauty awed me, but I knew there was even more to see, so I headed south to Cirencester. The town , in the center of which several centuries of building blend together harmoniously, reminded me of a precious antique wrapped in newspaper, kept safe from the blandness of suburban sprawl by a ring road.. Often considered the unofficial capital of the Cotswolds, Cirencester flourished in the Middle Ages as the center of the great wool industry.

Thought to have been developed as a Roman center in about AD 75 and called Corinium, Cirencester, in size second only to London, remained an important town long after the Romans had left Britain. Corinium fell into complete decay after the 5th century, but by the Middle Ages it had become the most important wool trade town in the Cotswolds. I found it easy to spend a full day just wandering around Cirencester. The Roman street plan may be gone, but Roman roads like the Fosse Way and Ermine Street radiate from Corinium like spokes from a wheel-hub.

I discovered two fine antique shops on Dollar Street, close to the church just off the Market Square--Rankine Taylor Antiques, run by Mrs. Leslie Taylor, a shop filled with fine examples of oak, mahogany and walnut furniture, silver, glass and wood carvings and pottery and William H. Stokes Antiques, which occupies a 15th century building that originally housed a pie shop and then a cafe. The highlight of this shop is its collection of Tudor and Stuart furniture—large refectory and gateleg tables, generously sized carved wainscot chairs, joint stools and coffers. An early 17th century plasterwork overmantel depicting the Annunciation with styled heads and fruits in strapwork decoration made by the Abbot family of Barnstaple, Devon, stood out.

Just south of Cirencester lies the market town of Tetbury, built almost exclusively in stone and known to be an “ancient” borough as early as 1227. Located only three miles from the source of the Thames, all of its streets converge on a fine Elizabethan market hall, which for generations was used for buying and selling yarn.

Tetbury
Tetbury offers 22 antique shops containing over 50 dealers. The majority line Long Street. Day Antiques, located near the junction of Long Street and New Church Street, and nearest to the car park, is set behind white iron railings. The collection emphasized the Welsh heritage of the owners and features good quality well patinated oak furniture of the 17th and early 18th centuries. I was particularly taken by a carved Charles II oak high-backed chair from about 1680.

I’ve always admired brass beds and Morpheus at Elgin House, next to Day Antiques, had the largest collection of antique brass beds I had seen. By now, I was beginning to look for the unusual, and I found it at The Antiques Emporium, a collection of 40 dealers housed in an old chapel. Just about anything I could want was here—and at reasonable prices.

Bibury
Heading north back through Cirencester, I eventually came to Bibury, where the fat trout in the River Coln reminded me of pigeons in a city park. I didn't actually see any leap out of the water to grab peanuts out of childrens’ fingers, but for all I know they were doing it when I wasn't looking. I imagined that if I stood in the river they would pose on my shoulders for photographs as I fed them bits of bread. This probably has a lot to do with the adjacent trout farm, one of the largest and one of the oldest in the country, founded in 1902 and spawning up to 10 million Rainbow trout each year, mostly for restocking lakes and reservoirs.

Bibury was described by William Morris as "the most beautiful village in England.” I’d have to agree. It’s actually two villages, Arlington on one side of the river and Bibury on the other. Friends told me not to miss it, mostly because of Arlington Row.

Arlington Row is a picture-postcard group of weavers cottages close to the River Coln, and while they’re undeniably pretty, there are many, pretty places in the Cotswolds which don’t see a tourist from one week to the next, so I found myself asking, "Why these?" The row was originally a timber framed hall used to store the Bishop of Worcester's wool (at a time when the village was part of an ecclesiastical estate), but the hall was converted into a row of cottages in the 17 Century.

Burford
Rich in treasures of the past, Burford architecture testifies to the men--wool merchants, gunsmiths, bell founders and saddlers—who all contributed to the town’s prosperity.

I visited the Tolsey, now a museum, which stands in the center of town and dates from around 1450. Citizens, who owed the Lord of the Manor, and strangers who incurred tolls at the fairs, paid them here. The houses opposite date from the same time and the design conforms to the law made in the reign of Richard I that the lower story of all houses was to be of stone, while the upper story was principally constructed of wood, mortised and tenoned and held together by oak pegs.

Most of Burford’s antique shops line High Street, known locally as The High, which runs up the hill to the A40. On the right going up the hill I found Jonathan Fyson Antiques, five showrooms packed with interesting pieces, as well as 19th century glass decanters and sets of drinking glasses, finger bowls, rinsers, and other tableware. In the center sat a George II mahogany butler’s tray holding ten mid-19th-century carafes with gilt and enameled crests.

Further up on the left side of the street is Manfred Schotten Antiques. I’m not much of a sportsman, but even I found this shop, filled with vintage and antique sporting equipment and collectibles, fascinating.. Upon entering this historic timber-framed building, rows of venerable cricket bats, putters and drivers, sticks and rackets, greeted me. Along with them, Schotten has displayed the trophies that have been hard fought for—carved salmon and silver cups taking their rightful place among the bronze golfers and tennis ceramics. I just had to try the feel of an 18-foot antique salmon rod and imagine it bending under the strain of a freshly run Wye fish.

Further on, a shop run by David Pickup, fronted by a handsome Georgian facade, contained furniture from the workshops of the best cabinetmakers of the 18th and 19th centuries. I noticed excellent examples of pieces from the Arts and Crafts movement of the late 19th and early 20th century, such as a pair of high-backed ladder armchairs designed by Ernest Gimson.

Still on the left higher up I discovered Swan Gallery Antiques. The building boasts a wealth of original features including Gothic arches, built-in cupboards and beams. In this shop, I found rich tapestries, paintings, delft ware, Mason’s ironstone and Staffordshire pottery. But the emphasis here was on fine period country furniture--farmhouse tables, dressers, lowboys, and side tables. The proprietor, Dominic Pratt, is a trained artist and sculptor.

Even though some shops sported high prices, they contained a rich treasure of English history, which their proprietors were glad to explain. I noticed that those with the Cotswold Trade Association logo in their shop windows guarantee that whatever they sell is exactly what it says on the tag. But their prices reflect that guarantee. On the other hand, it can be worth it.

I also noticed many items in need of repair. This is typical, as the English tend to buy their antiques this way and restore them later as a hobby. Often, I was able to get a better price on an item because it needed a small repair or two.

Off to the Fair
And then there’s all the fun of the fair--all sorts, antiques fairs, antiques and collectors fairs, fine art and antiques fairs, collectors fairs and markets. There’s no simple way to distinguish between which is what. The names are often alike but what's to be found inside isn’t.

Two major antiques fairs are held in the Cotswold annually—The South Cotswold Antique Fair, held in mid-August and late December at the Westonbirt School, Tetbury, and The North Cotswolds Antiques Fair, held mid-July at Stanway House, near Winchcombe, both in Gloucestershire. Stanway House is where Alexander Selkirk, the real Robinson Crusoe, lived after his adventure. For those who prefer rural antiques, there’s also the Cotswold Oak and Country Antiques Fair held at Chavenage House in Tetbury.
 

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