A postcard from Burford

Burford, Oxfordshire

Burford, Oxfordshire - Credit: Archant

It’s one of the country’s prettiest medieval towns and I can see why the likes of Lord Nelson enjoyed dining here. Burford is quite simply beautiful. Set on the River Windrush, it became a wealthy wool centre and is now a honeypot for visitors

Burford, Oxfordshire

Burford, Oxfordshire - Credit: Archant

Famous for its broad main street and impressive timeless old houses, cottages and shops, it’s easy to imagine being back in Tudor times whilst enjoying the modern comforts of the 21st century. Burford has numerous alleyways and side streets to explore and a plethora of independent shops and galleries to discover. I took my lovely mum Jan with me to visit this Cotswold gem and we couldn’t have chosen a better place to while away a few hours in the gorgeous sunshine. Although personally I could quite happily have dived into the River Windrush with the ducks to cool off!

• The entry into Burford is quite stunning. Not surprising then that the town is often referred to as The Gateway to the Cotswolds, because its cottages and buildings have the wow factor in terms of architectural prowess.

Warwick Hall Cafe

Warwick Hall Cafe - Credit: Archant

• One of the plus points of Burford, is that both on-street parking and car parks are free. It certainly has one of the most attractive car parks I have seen. Not many can boast a picturesque backdrop of St John the Baptist Church, whilst an elegant swan swims along the River Windrush, alongside its fellow ducks.

• First stop is to see the church. As we approach we pass the Almshouses on Church Green, built in 1450 and still in use today. In the churchyard, we take note of the ‘bale tombs,’ so named due to their fluted and rounded tops. Mainly 17th and 18th century, they are unique to this part of the Cotswolds and serve as a reminder of the wool trade even though they are not connected with it. Inside the church are many interesting treasures including reminders of Oliver Cromwell’s imprisonment and execution of the Levellers; tombs of notable Burford residents, a four-centred arch window of Tudor times and a Norman doorway with chevrons and animal beak heads. According to historian Simon Jenkins, St John the Baptist is one of the 1,000 best churches in England and is a legacy from Burford’s medieval wealth of the wool period. Artist L.S. Lowry did a painting of the church in 1949.

• A stone’s throw away is The Warwick Hall, an ambitious redevelopment project which supports the expanding church ministry and hosts a café as well as providing multi-purpose venue hire. Now the winner of 11 architectural and community usage awards, this hall is a major community asset to the town. I can’t resist sitting in a deckchair in the outside garden and pretend to be on holiday for a few precious moments as I soak up the sun’s rays. I interrupt two ladies, Beryl Holton and Andrea Jackson, as they chat over coffee, to ask them about Burford and this new facility in particular. “We always come here now and it has become our favourite place to meet for coffee and a catch up. Burford has such a mix of lovely shops, which are mostly independent, the car parks are free and this café is an added bonus,” they tell me. Open every day offering a range of delicious, locally sourced, fresh seasonal foods, the café provides quiches, deli platters, salads, sandwiches, homemade cakes and afternoon teas.

The oldest chemist in England

The oldest chemist in England - Credit: Archant

• I soon find out who is responsible for such excellent catering when I pop into Mrs Bumbles, owned by Sally Colter. Her deli counter is full of meats, cheeses, homemade pies and savouries. There’s a big focus on award-winning coffees and teas, homemade jams, pickles and chutneys and they make some of the best sausage rolls in the Cotswolds. I can’t resist trying some delicious dipping oils – or cream balsams to be correct – especially the date and fig, and cranberry flavours. Sally, originally from Manchester, says she feels at home in Burford. “I love the sense of community. It’s more friendly than Manchester. A lot of people have moved into Burford and as a result they make an effort and continue to make the effort.” Mrs Bumbles is also the place to buy tickets for live events at Warwick Hall, including Lionel Richie and Adele tribute acts on Saturday, June 30 and Saturday, July 30, respectively.

• Burford incidentally derives its name from two old English words ‘burh’ meaning fortified town and ‘ford,’ the crossing of a river. According to history guides, the town was probably founded as an Anglo-Saxon fortified settlement in about 750AD to protect the ford over the River Windrush. An Act by Edward II in 1322 allowed tolls to be charged for using the bridge and repairing it. Beyond the bridge on the hill is Westhall Hill Manor, originally a farming community. To find out more about Burford and its rich history, the best place to go is the Visitor Information Centre. Here I chat with Alison Hughes and find out about key buildings and personalities who have visited the town over the years. I buy a Burford Trail and read up on Nell Gwyne, the orange seller turned actress who became the mistress of King Charles II. She visited Burford several times with Charles and stayed in the George Hotel, which is now an antique centre. Another character of note is Christopher Kempster who made a fortune by providing Burford stone, masons and carvers for the rebuilding of London after the Great Fire of 1666. He also helped build much of the Great dome of St Paul’s Cathedral, whilst his son built the clock tower.

The view from the medieval bridge of the River Windrush

The view from the medieval bridge of the River Windrush - Credit: Archant

• More than 900 years ago town merchants were granted a charter to hold their own markets, a tradition that has been upheld and developed to the present day. We miss it today, but it is well worth visiting on market day.

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• Pop into Madhatter Bookshop, a delightful independent booksellers which supports local authors and inspires visitors to enjoy escaping in a good book. The owners also love hats and the way British hat makers continue to dazzle on the world stage. As part of On Form, an exciting sculpture show at nearby Asthall Manor from June 10 until July 8, Madhatter Bookshop will be based in the manor’s swimming pool hut with a pop-up shop selling books on sculpture, creativity, gardening, nature, philosophy, the Mitfords and other subjects that feel at ease here.

• Also on Burford High Street is England’s oldest chemist. The building was built as an inn in 1401, but since 1734 it’s been a chemist. Inside are original cabinets, complete with their faded labels and traditional glass bottles, known as carboys. Chemist Cedric Reavley, who is also a minister at St John the Baptist, says this September is a significant milestone in his family history. One hundred years ago his grandfather Robert Reavley bought the pharmacy. Cedric qualified in 1974 and ran the shop alongside his mother, before taking over.

• All the High Street shops in Burford are independent which makes it a great place to shop for locals and visitors alike. I pop into Oxford Brush Company, which sells over 900 different brushes – the country’s only shop dedicated wholly to brushes. Founded in 2011, this shop is the company’s head office and flagship store and provides brushes to suit all needs whether it for hair, floors, nails, pets, keyboards, decanters or for scraping mud off boots. Each brush is beautifully crafted from wood and has purpose, style and is of the highest quality. Vegan brushes are also on sale here.

The Tolsey Museum

The Tolsey Museum - Credit: Archant

• Another place to celebrate craftsmanship is the Tolsey Museum, an early Tudor building on stone pillars. Years ago wool merchants met in the open space underneath to conduct their trading transactions. Climb the stairs and there are two small rooms of exhibits full of artefacts which tell stories about the people who lived here and key trades that once flourished, from bell-founding, brewing, leatherworking, clarinet making and building. Chris Walker, Chairman of The Tolsey Museum Committee gives us a personal tour and a fascinating overview of Burford’s colourful past. He shows us a leaded bronze mortar made by Edward Neale for Francis Keble of Burford; maces, seals, the Burgess’ Roll, dating back to 1605 and an impressive dolls house, furnished in style of the Jane Austen period and modelled on the Great House on Witney Street, made by a group of people from Burford in 1939. The museum is open from April to October, afternoons Tuesday to Sunday.

• Burford is also an excellent place for art, antiques and dining. There’s the Stone Gallery and Brian Sinfield Gallery for starters and we are spoilt for choice as to where to get a bite to eat. There are lots of wonderful little side streets to explore where one can find the town’s old pubs, tea and antique shops. As it is such a lovely day, we enjoy a cappuccino in the sunny courtyard of the The Bull Hotel. A number of its hotel rooms have four-poster beds and all have history, including the Trafalgar Suite, named after the visit of Horatio Nelson with Lady Hamilton in 1802. We find another beautiful courtyard at The Lamb Inn in Sheep Street, which is Burford’s oldest inn. Here we pick up a classic Cotswold Walk guide, a five-mile route which starts at The Lamb and ends in the High Street.

• Before we wander back to the car park, we walk over the three-arched medieval bridge and look over at the River Windrush. Walk past the Weavers’, built by successful mercer Simon Wisdom (1510-1585), who was instrumental in founding Burford Grammar School in 1571. The Charter of the school is still in existence and its founding is celebrated each year in the autumn when a Charter Day Service is held, attended by the whole school. We pop back into Mrs Bumbles to buy a chilli Scotch egg each and take it back to the car park and enjoy eating them watching the swan and ducks. As I relish this quiet sunny moment, I dream of taking a dip in the river before getting back into a hot car.

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