Bices­ter

Tracy Spiers sends a post­card from this his­toric Ox­ford­shire town

Cotswold Life - - CONTENTS -

La­bel lovers and shop­ping en­thu­si­asts will prob­a­bly know this place for its mod­ern re­tail out­let, but Bices­ter is an his­toric Ox­ford­shire mar­ket town where Oliver Cromwell once played a game of mar­bles. Recorded in the Domes­day Book, Bices­ter has a rich past re­lat­ing to sheep, horses, leather work­ing, lace mak­ing and mil­i­tary. It’s a treat to visit some­where new, and so it is with a first-time vis­i­tor’s per­spec­tive this post­card is writ­ten. It also comes with a spe­cial cre­ative twist as I have my equally fun-lov­ing sis­ter with me in Bices­ter. And armed with a pur­ple Santa hat on a hot Au­tum­nal day, we cause a few smiles. TRACY SPIERS

With the end­ing ‘ces­ter’ we re­alise there must be a Ro­man con­nec­tion to this town. The straight road lead­ing into Bices­ter pro­vides a clue. Read­ing up, we dis­cover that there was a Ro­man set­tle­ment of Alch­ester, just two miles away where ar­chae­ol­o­gists have ex­ca­vated a tomb­stone that com­mem­o­rated the life of a re­tired le­gionary.

We start our post­card in the older part of town in Sheep Street, which as the name in­di­cates, con­nects Bices­ter to its agri­cul­tural roots. The first mar­ket was granted in 1239 and through­out the cen­turies, Bices­ter built on this tra­di­tion. Sheep Street was es­tab­lished 300 years ago to ac­com­mo­date the an­i­mals brought into town. It still hosts a mar­ket on Fri­day and is now a main shop­ping street. Here we find some in­de­pen­dents who are try­ing to find their own niche in the mar­ket. Kim is drawn to the Gent’s Groom­room, owned by Emma Field­ing, who opened it in Fe­bru­ary. “This used to be our bar­ber shop but we ran out of space. We moved the bar­ber shop to a big­ger space but we loved this Grade II listed build­ing and didn’t want to let it go.” The bar­ber shop she refers to is

award-win­ning Andy’s Bar­ber Shop. Ex­clu­sively for men, the groom room is Ox­ford­shire’s first groom­ing sa­lon and of­fers a range of treat­ments in­clud­ing fa­cials, pedi­cures, wax­ing and sports mas­sage. It suits the needs of “the smart, more re­fined Gen­tle­man” and sells ex­clu­sive shav­ing cream and other prod­ucts from Geo. F. Trumper. As it is a fes­tive post­card, Kim con­sid­ers buy­ing her other half a voucher for Christ­mas.

Sharp eyes and in­quis­i­tive­ness leads us through an al­ley­way to the un­usu­ally whacky court­yard of Fre­quently Asked Ques­tions, a bar with a bar­ber shop owned by Marc Sylvester. It’s a won­der­ful ex­am­ple of up­cy­cling, with both the ex­te­rior and in­te­rior kit­ted out with fa­mil­iar ob­jects used in a fresh way. “In­side the bar we have used the seats from an old bus, the lights come from a fac­tory in Birm­ing­ham, whilst out­side we have made a sofa by cut­ting a sec­tion out of a bath and cre­ated a fence us­ing ten­nis rack­ets,” ex­plains Marc. As for the cock­tails, many of them are de­vised by three gentle­men who work for Marc. This de­light­fully quirky bar opened at the end of sum­mer and is a sis­ter to a lit­tle bar in Ban­bury called Also Known As.

At the heart of Bices­ter’s me­di­ae­val cen­tre in Church Street is St Ed­burg’s Church where we meet li­censed lay min­is­ter Christo­pher Young who tells us about its mixed ar­chi­tec­tural and so­cial his­tory. “It’s a beau­ti­ful church. There’s been a church on site since the 9th cen­tury. The old­est part of the cur­rent build­ing dates back to the 11th or 12th cen­tury and it has grown since then. I love its sense of spa­cious­ness and light which is fab­u­lous.” Ac­cord­ing to some his­to­ri­ans, a tri­an­gu­lar arch­way set in the north wall of the cur­rent nave, is

thought to be part of the orig­i­nal Saxon Church. Christo­pher tells us about the great storm of 1765 which dam­aged the church. “Light­ning struck the tower and the force of the blast was enough to blow out the glass in the win­dows.” Ac­cord­ing to the church guide we pick up, there is only one me­di­ae­val stained glass win­dow re­main­ing from that 18th cen­tury storm. One win­dow to also note is the Burne Jones win­dow, made by Wil­liam Mor­ris & Co. to a de­sign by Ed­ward Burne Jones, de­pict­ing the fig­ures of Hope, Faith and Char­ity.

‘As we walk through town, we ad­mire the ar­chi­tec­tural di­ver­sity – an im­pres­sive set of is­land build­ings built by wealthy towns­peo­ple in the 16th and 17th cen­turies’

As we walk through town, Kim and I ad­mire the ar­chi­tec­tural di­ver­sity. In Mar­ket Square - which is a tri­an­gle - there is an im­pres­sive set of is­land build­ings built by wealthy towns­peo­ple in the 16th and 17th cen­turies. We take note of Bices­ter House, first built in 1582 by John Coker as the Manor House. Re­built in 1780 and 1820, the house re­mained the home of the Coker fam­ily un­til 1978.

Look­ing onto the town ‘tri­an­gle,’ is Stans­field and Hoole, an in­de­pen­dent lounge-style cafe serv­ing ar­ti­san cof­fees, teas, fresh sand­wiches, cream teas and cakes. David Hoole is an ex­cel­lent host and shares his vi­sion for the busi­ness which he runs with hus­band graphic de­signer Tim Stans­field. “We wanted peo­ple to come in, sit down and chill as if they were en­ter­ing our liv­ing room. We have had cats, dogs, even rab­bits – in fact cus­tomers can bring any an­i­mal in as long as they don’t go near the kitchen. We sup­port the work of lo­cal artists so all the pic­tures you see on the walls are done by the lo­cal art com­mu­nity. There isn’t a lot of wall space for artists in Bices­ter and we found there is a high de­mand for it. We are booked up un­til May next year,” says David. He also shares an in­ter­est­ing nugget of his­tory and it ex­plains why the prop­erty is called Cromwell House. “Oliver Cromwell stayed up­stairs and he ap­par­ently played mar­bles in the door­way and the

rules were that who­ever hit the wall first, won the game.” As we look out onto the square, which is full of cars, David also says that plans are on the cards to turn it into foot­fall only so it would recre­ate the look in the days’ pre-car.

One date to clock is Satur­day De­cem­ber 1st which is the Christ­mas Lights switch on. There will be a Christ­mas mar­ket man­aged by the lo­cal com­mu­nity group, Onebices­ter, as well as ac­tiv­i­ties tak­ing place in Mar­ket Square through­out the day with the of­fi­cial switch on at 6pm.

Whilst we con­cen­trate on the ‘old’ Bices­ter, we can’t ig­nore the grow­ing pop­u­lar­ity of its mod­ern “Bices­ter Vil­lage” shop­ping out­let. It re­minds me of en­ter­ing a film set of an Amer­i­can film. It even has its own rail­way sta­tion and Kim charms a chauf­feur and has a ride in one of the spe­cial vil­lage ve­hi­cles. We en­ter the re­tail world where we’re over­whelmed by more than 100 stores sell­ing in­ter­na­tional and Bri­tish lux­ury goods in­clud­ing ex­quis­ite items for the home; shoes, jew­ellery, high-end fash­ion and a plethora of restau­rants, cof­fee shops and street food. Not­ing the num­bers of shop­pers and the even larger num­ber of bags laden with shoes, clothes and other things, I can only imag­ine the amount of money spent here. I do buy one Christ­mas present, and have a taste of ve­gan ice cream be­fore en­joy­ing a latte from Ar­ti­san Oliphant’s Ice Cream stand, served by friendly Cather­ine Walsh.

We take a short walk from town into Garth Park. It has a stun­ning band­stand and beau­ti­ful grounds. The day we visit, there isn’t a cloud in the sky and we en­joy eat­ing our lunch out­side – wish­ing we were a lit­tle bit younger so we can play in the chil­dren’s play­ground as we used to. In the park, we come across a sculp­ture that cel­e­brates Bices­ter’s crafts his­tory. Its ti­tle In the Mak­ing, sug­gests that whilst cre­ated ob­jects are im­por­tant, the ‘mak­ing process’ it­self may be even more so. It also im­plies that Bices­ter is an on-go­ing, un­fin­ished thing with a life of its own – which we see in the town as it em­braces growth and change: Bices­ter-in-the-mak­ing. At var­i­ous times in Bices­ter’s his­tory it was a place where the ar­ti­san and craftsper­son were seen at work on their sad­dlery, lace mak­ing, sack weav­ing, rope mak­ing, wool comb­ing, bronze cast­ing and brick mak­ing. The tools of the trade were as im­por­tant as the hands that used them, and so they are in­te­gral to the col­lec­tion of ob­jects here. The sculp­ture was made and cast in bronze by lo­cal artists He­len & Wes­ley Ja­cobs with the as­sis­tance of their de­part­ment at Pan­golin Edi­tions sculp­ture foundry.

Be­fore we leave we try and find Bices­ter Her­itage, the UK’S first busi­ness cam­pus ded­i­cated to his­toric mo­tor­ing and avi­a­tion. It is based at the UK’S best­p­re­served WW2 RAF bomber sta­tion, the for­mer RAF Bices­ter. Some­how, we miss it and in­stead come across for­mer air­men’s quar­ters at the site in Cavers­field, across the road from the RAF Bices­ter air­field. I’m in­trigued by a Sec­ond World War bunker, orig­i­nally built to with­stand a bomb­ing, gas or chem­i­cal at­tack, but now trans­formed into a pair of lux­ury homes.

It’s been a fas­ci­nat­ing first visit to this town and to­day’s out­ing will go down in our mem­ory book as the Sis­ter Bices­ter trip.

‘The day we visit, there isn’t a cloud in the sky’

www.sted­burgschurch.org www.gents­groom­room.co.uk www.bices­ter.gov.uk www.eco­bices­ter.org.uk www.bices­ter.gov.uk/garth-house­garth-park/ www.bices­ter­vil­lage.com

Kim out­side St Ed­burg’s Church, Bices­ter

Play­ing Spi­der-mum in Garth Park

The King’s Arms, Bices­ter

In­side Fre­quently Asked Ques­tions, a bar and bar­ber shop

Gent’s Groom Room, Bices­ter

Great sign in Bices­ter

David Hoole, co-owner of Stans­field and Hoole

Garth Park

Kim out­side the cafe at Garth Park

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