A walk through history

It all started with a sheep. Not any old sheep, but a breed with extra-long scraggly strands of wool ideal for spinning into fine clothes to keep rich people warm in England’s cold, damp climate.

The Cotswold lion.

Lucky me sighting a Cotswold Lion!

In the 1400s, this prized sheep bred in the Cotswold hills spawned a thriving wool trade that brought fantastic wealth to local towns for centuries. Rich merchants gave generously to their communities, even financing “wool” churches like St. James in Chipping Campden.

High Street at dusk

The distinctive buildings in the town’s handsome, well-preserved high street were originally constructed of wood. As their owners grew wealthier, the facades were covered or replaced with honeyed gold oolitic limestone quarried nearby. The word “chipping” comes from the old English word for market or marketplace. The parking lot in the town square was once a sheep market, said local historian Tim Sexton, manager of the Chipping Campden Information Centre, who took me on a walking tour one morning to test information for a new audio guide. I gathered enough information to fill a book!

Architectural beauty is just one of Chipping Campden’s many charms. As well as being the starting point of the 160-km walking trail the Cotswold Way, the town of 2,000 is known for its gardens. Colourful blooms glow from every yard and peek over walls. A, stone archway leads into the Ernest Wilson Memorial Garden, filled with exotic species collected by the botanist on his travels to China and Japan in the early 1900s.

Sexton explained that CC was the heart of the Arts and Crafts movement. In 1902 architect CR Ashbee, inspired by designer William Morris, leased the former silk spinning mill on Sheep Street and brought in 50 craftsmen and their families from the Guild of Handicraft in London’s East End to practice their trades in the fresh country air. Conceived as an antidote to the machinery of the Industrial Revolution, this select group hand-crafted beautiful pieces from an earlier age, creating jewelry, furniture, stained glass, printing, embroidery and much more. Unfortunately Ashbee’s beautiful dream collapsed by 1908, sending many back to London.

One silversmith who stayed behind was George Hart, born in 1882. In his Silk Mill studio, frozen in time, his grandson David along with his son and nephew still create fine silver pieces. David even found showed me a photo of a cross commissioned by Toronto’s St. James cathedral in the 1920s. After hearing his story and seeing the family’s work I was so star-struck I didn’t even take a photo. Anyone is welcome to visit the Mill’s studios, then wander over to the Court Barn Museum to see more locally-made crafts.

As we strolled through town, Sexton pointed out details that should make his audio guide a hit with visitors. I’d never have noticed the sundials gracing the front door of seven houses on the main street, for example, or known that author Graham Greene wrote his first successful novel, Stamboul Train, in 1931 while living in a local thatched cottage.

In St. James church, with its imposing square tower, don’t miss the East Window, a First World War memorial pieced together in 1925 from more than 10,000 pieces of stained glass weighing 2 tons.

Sexton pulled back a red rug in front of the alter to reveal a brass memorial to wool merchant William Grevel and his wife. Grevel’s home, the oldest and finest on the High Street, is distinguished by its wide windows.

Near the alter, politician and philanthropist Sir Baptist Hicks and his wife Elizabeth lie carved in marble atop an elaborate canopied tomb. Apparently the many buttons on Elizabeth’s dress illustrate the couple’s wealth.

Hicks was responsible for the rather fanciful market hall on CC’s main street, sadly unused today as the floor is too uneven, and a row of 12 almhouses for the poor still used as apartments. Behind the church is a fine stone gatehouse that once led to Hicks’ palatial home, Campden House, finished in 1615 and burned to the ground in 1945 by Royalist troops. The few buildings that remain on the site, now a green park dotted with sheep, give a hint of its splendour.

After lunch, Sexton recommended I walk around the southern edge of Chipping Campden to check out the thatched cottages. I made it as far as the Campden House grounds, missed a gate on the map and realized I was lost. Again.

I decided to keep walking on the narrow path through farmer’s fields and see where I ended up. Ahead of me, however, were two large dogs that didn’t seem keen to see me. Just then their owner appeared, a well-tanned woman pushing a wheelbarrow. I asked if the path would get me back to town or should I retrace my steps. She said I could certainly go back, or keep to the right over THERE (hands vaguely indicating the direction) and visit Broad Campden. On such a beautiful blue-sky day with nothing to do, why not!

Minutes later I came upon a field of red poppies in full bloom with chatty skylarks hiding among them. An older couple was just returning from the hamlet so of course we had to stop and chat.

“Were you thinking of going to the pub?” asked the tall lean man, dapper in his straw hat.

“I might feel like it by the time I get there,” I replied.

“Too bad,” he said, “it’s closed today!”

They both agreed I should continue walking to see Broad Campden’s fine homes at least. Without a map I wasn’t feeling terribly confident. No problem, they said. Just turn left at the puddle, watch for a gate with a string to tie it closed and walk uphill through the apple orchard.

“You can’t miss it!”

Though it hadn’t rained for two days, there was the puddle as advertised. And a gate tied with a blue string, and an old apple and cherry orchard.

From there it was an easy walk into the village, where the homes and gardens were truly spectacular.

Now what? I found a sign for Chipping Campden, pointing 1 1/4 miles down the road so decided to follow it. Between the lack of sidewalks and Porsches whizzing by at full speed it was nerve-wracking. Fortunately a few minutes later I came upon St. Michael’s Church and the Quaker meeting house the couple had mentioned. Though I never found the closed pub, I did find a sign for the footpath to CC and a local woman to get me there. She started out with detailed directions, go through this gate, turn here, but seeing my worried face she gave up, raised both arms and said “It’s Over There. When you get close just look for the church tower. “

Off I went, occasionally plowing through bush when the path threatened to disappear. As I reached the poppies, St. James’ tower came into view. Easy! Just then the young woman reappeared from the other direction and waved. Back through the gates I went to the sheep pasture at Campden House then back into town as if I’d never left.

Outside my hotel, I found the older couple getting set to drive back home to Broadway in the other direction. They said they’d moved to the Cotswolds from Yorkshire and had been out on one of their favourite walks when we met. Both are members of the local art society. Jeff said he’s painted landscapes “forever” but only of places he’d seen himself, not like those other artists who paint far-away lands. His wife smiled, she’d heard it before but so obviously adored him.

Another splendid day in this AONB – Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. After visiting other Cotswold towns I appreciated Chipping Campden even more. Though there were plenty of tourists wandering around, the town maintained its authentic feel and never felt touristy. Except, that is, for the ice cream aimed at pandemic pooches.


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