Cotswold Heritage: Fairford

From Cotswold sheep to Cruise missiles, the history of this splendid market town has been chronicled in a new book full of enthralling pictures.By June Lewis

Now and then Fairford becomes the focus of attention - often locally, sometimes nationally, and every now and then internationally. Now, this month, it is internationally as all roads lead to Fairford to marvel at the aeronautical wonders of the world as aircraft fly in and over and round about from all corners of the globe at the Royal International Air Tattoo over the weekend of 14-15 July on the airbase built in 1943 in readiness for the D-Day campaign and Arnhem landings; the runway was extended to become the test base of Concorde in the Seventies. Now, as a NATO base, Fairford has had its share of national publicity and controversial attention, but the attractions of the Air Tattoo are very much designed to be of interest to all the family - and the families come in their thousands to what has now become the largest air show of its kind in the world.

World famous, too, and attracting visitors to the old market town itself is the only complete set of medieval stained glass windows to survive in their entirety, endowed by the wealthy wool merchant, John Tame, who rebuilt the church of St Mary in the fifteenth century. Next month lumbering engines, vintage and veteran vehicles and thousands of enthusiasts will be heading to Fairford Park for the annual Steam Rally after a summer of weekends filled with school and church fetes and fairs and the Fairford Festival.

Local activities keep the community integrated and interested in a wide ranging number of clubs and societies, and knit the folk together to preserve the amenities dear to them and their way of life without compromising the historic heart and spirit of the place to improvements to meet the demands of a twenty-first society.

At the topographical and social centre is the Market Place and broad High Street, reflecting the ancient roots of Fairford as a market town dating back to the twelfth century with fine, mainly Georgian frontages to the shops and houses - a sweeping architectural statement of how the small town adapted to meet the coaching era and the increased trade it generated. Situated on a main thoroughfare, as early chroniclers recorded, Fairford was a major posting town on the Gloucester to London coach routes, with the ancient Welsh Way and Salt Way used by drovers moving sheep and cattle to the main markets. The west side of the Market Place is flanked by the Bull Hotel which originated as a Tudor merchants hall, incorporating the half- timbered former George Inn, now the Post Office. Leading from the Market Place, a high wall secludes Fairford House from view, on the site of the family home of the Tames who rebuilt the church in what was then the contemporary Perpendicular style from the profits of the flourishing wool trade. Between the two, standing square in splendid stone symmetry is the old Fairford Free School, later named Farmor's School, perpetuating the name of its chief benefactor, Elizabeth Farmor, and opened in 1738 for 'sixty poor boys of the parish'.

Farmor's School outgrew its original home after education became a national issue and successive Education Acts made it compulsory. From an all-age school it eventually became the Secondary School for the town and some dozen neighbouring villages and moved to a new building in the Park in 1961 on the site of the old mansion - once home to the Barker family, of which Elizabeth Farmor was a member.

It is the old school building that is now the focus of local attention. After four decades serving the town as a youth centre and meeting rooms for various groups under the auspices of the county council, the building was recently bought jointly by the church and the town council for Fairford - thus saving another precious part of our heritage from commercial development.

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It is the close ties of the coming of education to the town from those early days through the foresight of the Ladies of the Manor, and the historic building of architectural merit in which it developed that has become the town's major project, earning it a substantial grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund. The recently formed Fairford History Society has been instrumental in stimulating and promoting renewed interest in local history and the community as a whole are supportive of the ambitious scheme to adapt and refurbish the old building to accommodate the needs of all age activity, making it into a true community centre. Central to the remit of obtaining the national grant, the history of the coming of education to Fairford is being presented in October in a modern interpretation entitled 'Lizzie Farmor's Edifying Circus' in which there is a great deal of community input and participation.

As part of the community play project, Fairford History Society has just published a collection of photographs, funded by a Local Heritage Initiative grant, illustrating the changing face of the town, with particular emphasis on the dramatic moves in educational methods and scope. By judicious pairing of present day views of places and people with those of yesteryear, selected from the extensive archive of Edwin Cuss, whose exhibitions of local pictures and postcards are always well attended and appreciated, this is, in itself, of immense historical significance as a visual record of a rich heritage.

Historic moments are captured in such pictures as the visit of Queen Mary in 1922 who 'spent more than half an hour in the church. The windows were described to her by the Vicar and she seemed most interested'. Of a vastly different regal race is a feather head-dressed Indian Chief entering the church in 1997, watched by the Vicar of Fairford, the Bishop of Gloucester, our Town Crier and a BBC cameraman. Doctors, divided in time by a century, but united by their obvious love of stylish motor cars; pubs and chapels and the railway station that are no more; the poignant picture of the bugler from Fairford Silver Band playing the Last Post as a crowd gathered outside the much loved Cottage Hospital as it closed its doors to in-patients and minor injuries services after serving the town for 119 years, and rare pictures of school inside the classroom all make up life as it was in this small Cotswold town.

Not all is consigned to the history book, however, there are telling shots of folks in festive mood, and instances of how little the centre of the town has changed and, certainly, how strong the community spirit of Fairford is now as it was then.


Fairford Now and Then is published by Fairford History Society and available in Fairford at Coln Bookshop, St Mary's Church or by contacting FHS through their website; e-mail address:




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