Moreton-in-Marsh, Gloucestershire

"Moreton-in-Marsh is a Cotswold beauty with a glorious main street of golden stone houses with back lanes running off."Photography by Mark Child

"Moreton-in-Marsh is a Cotswold beauty with a glorious main street of golden stone houses with back lanes running off."

This was how journalist Caroline McGhie portrayed this historic bustling town in the Weekend Telegraph Property Section earlier this year. She was seeking out the country's top 50 best small market towns. Moreton-in-Marsh made the top ten as it effortlessly fitted the following description:

"Britain's finest country towns sparkle like precious stones in the property market; beacons of prosperity, enterprise and aspiration. They are the setting for some of our most unusual shops, our greatest novels, our agricultural highs and lows. They are the heartbeat of the countryside."

Strategically located at the head of the Evenlode valley on the Fosse Way, Moreton-in-Marsh is referred to in tourist guides as the "most accessible of all the Cotswold towns." Well placed for the old coaching route from London to Worcester, it once thrived as a stopping place for stagecoaches, in particular The Redesdale Arms and The White Hart Royal. East of the town, for 12 centuries, the Four Shire Stone has marked the old meeting place of Gloucestershire, Warwickshire, Worcestershire and Oxfordshire. Currently only three still meet here. Worcestershire is further west. But at the annual Moreton Show, a horse and agricultural show held annually on the first Saturday in September, crowds gather from across the counties to celebrate past and present farming life. 

Moreton also has one of the country's earliest railway stations. Stratford-Moreton Tramway opened in 1826 and the London-Oxford-Worcester main line followed in 1853. Today it attracts commuters using the local station for a 90-minute journey into London.

Saxon in origin, Moreton is over a thousand years old. It was given to Deerhurst monastery near Tewkesbury in the 9th century; seized by the Earls of Mercia, and fell into King Edward the Confessor' hands. He included it in the endowment of his new Westminster Abbey in 1065 and until the mid 19th century, it remained one of the Abbey's most westerly possessions. The name "Moreton" derives from "Farmstead on the Moor," while the suffix "in Marsh" is because the town sits on flat, poorly drained, boulder clay and gravel. St David's Church marks the centre of the original settlement, still known as "Old Town." 

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There is however strong evidence of an early Roman military camp, built in 43-50AD during the conquest of Britain. Today's Moreton-in-Marsh owes its present form to Richard of Barking, a 13th century Abbot of Westminster. He built the new town of Moreton, with its wide street along the Fosse Way in the late 1220's.

During the Civil War, the town became a centre for the Royalist cavalry. On his final march from Oxford in 1644, King Charles I took refuge at the White Hart Royal and in 1637 granted a charter for the market. This is still vibrant every Tuesday, has over 200 stalls and is a place where locals "can buy everything from slippers to saucissons."

One tourist guide warns: "If your idea of an ideal Cotswold experience is to slowly wander round quiet Cotswold streets, you had better avoid Moreton on market day."

Wool and cloth-making were Moreton's source of income during the medieval years. It's why the high street has so many elegant 18th century inns and houses. The Redesdale Market Hall is a distinctive Victorian Tudor-style building, designed by Sir Earnest George. Built from local honey-coloured limestone, it's named after the Redesdales, a wealthy local family from Batsford House, who were town benefactors. St David's parish church, originally a chapel of ease for Bourton-on-the-Hill, was rebuilt in medieval style in 1858.

Moreton's oldest building is probably the 16th century Curfew Tower. Until 1860, the bell was rung nightly to remind people of the risk of fire at night and reportedly once guided home a Sir Robert Fry, lost in the fog. He donated money for its upkeep in gratitude. On the wall under the Curfew Tower, an old wooden notice displays the tolls required for setting up a market stall in Moreton.

Today, the town has a fine selection of small independent shops, specialist delis, teashops, restaurants, antiques and art galleries. Its exceptional Cotswold architecture and history draw both visitors and settlers. In the housing market's more buoyant years, new development in keeping with Moreton's traditionally unique style, has attracted newcomers. But modern-day Moreton hasn't been without its struggles. Last year's unprecedented floods dampened many town centre businesses, the local primary school, surgery and well-known Manor House Hotel. Now back on its feet, Moreton remains essentially an authentic down-to-earth working town with up-market Cotswold connections and special attributes.

It's home to the Fire Service College, the largest training centre of its kind in Europe and is responsible for providing leadership, management and advanced operational training courses for senior fire officers. Its history dates back to 1941, when it was originally used as a flight training station for RAF Bomber Command during World War II. This is recorded in the Wellington Aviation and Art Museum, dedicated to those who served at, or who passed through, RAF Moreton-in-Marsh. It's a haven for war enthusiasts for its memorabilia including paintings, prints, models and aircraft history

Moreton also attracts opera enthusiasts thanks to Longborough Festival Opera which presents high-quality opera in the Cotswolds. Highlights from 2009's festival programme (June 10 - July 22) include The Marriage of Figaro and A Midsummer Night's Dream, Carmen and a Young Artists production of La Boheme as well as two fund-raising concerts.

Another jewel in Moreton's crown is Batsford Arboretum, one of Britain's largest private tree and shrub collections, planted in the 1880's by Lord Redesdale, after his return from a posting in Tokyo. Open February to November, the 55-acre site has a stunning array of rare bulbs, magnolia, flowering cherries, Autumn maples, the "handkerchief tree" in Spring, as well as a waterfall, stream, cave and garden sculptures. Next door in Batsford Park, the Cotswold Falconry Centre is home to a variety of birds of prey, including falcons, hawks, eagles, owls, vultures, caracara, kites and secretary birds.

Other attractions around Moreton-in-Marsh, include the National Trust-owned Chastleton House with its typical Elizabethan and Jacobean garden layout. A unique 400-year-old time capsule, built next to a 12th century parish church, the house contains rare tapestries, portraits, furniture and textiles. Another exciting landmark, the "onion-domed" Sezincote House, is an Indian-style country house with a fascinating garden landscape, combining fine Mongul-style architecture and Taj Mahal-like features. It inspired John Betjeman's famous poem "Summoned by Bells."

According to local research, Moreton also has an extraordinary number of ghosts. Dame Creswycke apparently haunts the Manor House Hotel; Redesdale Arms Hotel has ghostly footsteps; an ethereal male appears at the White Hart Royal Hotel; a poltergeist called Fred haunts the Black Bear Inn and a "hugging" ghost roams the Bell Inn! Leamington House visitors have also been recently overcome by a strong and sudden smell of orange blossom.

So it seems there's more to Moreton than meets the eye. Celia Fiennes, a 17th century writer, in compiling her travel notes, referred to it as a "little neate stone built towne with good innes for the traveller". Many of those coaching inns, like The Redesdale Arms Hotel and The White Hart Royal still provide traditional comforts. No doubt Miss Fiennes would have agreed with 21st century writers in officially recognising Moreton-in-Marsh as one of the country's top 10 market towns.

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