Where history weaves seamlessly with modern charm, Witney is a lesser-known gem that offers the warmest of welcomes and deserves a prominent spot on the Cotswold map

It’s a welcoming community that has been keeping folk warm for decades. So, it’s no surprise that Witney’s wish for 2024 is to embrace new visitors and give them a heartening and memorable day out.

Historically, the Oxfordshire town is famous for its well-loved hardwearing woven blankets. The Blanket Hall is testament to the dedicated weavers who laid the foundations for the town’s future some 300 years ago. Today, Witney’s stunning architecture, attractive high street, beautiful surrounding countryside, plethora of interesting shops and businesses and free parking makes it an alluring place to visit.

And as I discovered on my most recent trip, there is a definite Witney warmth that is intricately woven into this unique community. Working together so the town thrives for the good of all, is part of its DNA. That pioneering, entrepreneurial spirit, and tradition of good governance evident all those years ago, is still as strong today.

I feel like I am in a Back to the Future movie as I have arranged to meet Rob Steere, manager of the Woolgate Shopping Centre at the Clock Tower. Ironically the 24-unit shopping centre was built around the same time as the famous film, but neither of us have a Marty McFly red puffer jacket or skateboard.

Great British Life: Rob Steere, centre manager for the Woolgate (c) Tracy SpiersRob Steere, centre manager for the Woolgate (c) Tracy Spiers

Many towns have plaques marking the lives of famous people, but not many have one dedicated to a local planner, namely Barrie (Ben) Webster, one of the team who created Woolgate in 1987.

A lot has happened in 37 years, so maybe part of looking ahead to 2024 is about looking back at the past too. This feature therefore comes with a mix of nostalgia and the joys of remembering as well as an air of optimism especially from the local independent traders who have formed firm friendships within the Witney community.

‘We are surprised at how few people know about what is here. My New Year wish is that more people wake up and realise what a fine town Witney is. With the pandemic behind us, what we have brought back is the sense of social togetherness. At 11am in the morning, there are always people gathering, greeting one another, and meeting for coffee. You don’t always see that,’ says Rob.

Great British Life: Gary Smith, owner of Truck (c) Tracy SpiersGary Smith, owner of Truck (c) Tracy Spiers

One two-floor store which is intergenerational is Truck, which sells new and pre-owned CD and Vinyl as well as offering vinyl and hi-fi care. This summer marks its 20th anniversary and owner Gary Smith, who also has a sister shop in Oxford, intends to celebrate. He also hosts gigs in Oxford, Bristol, and Leicester, supporting big names and local bands.

‘The great thing about music is that it draws all ages. We have teenagers as well as people in their 70s and 80s. We have lots of loyal customers, who are very friendly and have an eclectic taste in music. I guess it is the gift that keeps on giving,’ says Gary.

‘We are always innovating and will be putting a new system in the New Year to help power our website. We are always getting fantastic additions that boost our second-hand vinyl collection which runs into thousands,’ he adds.

His colleague, guitarist Jon Davies admits he enjoys the town’s atmosphere.

‘We have a very vibrant music scene and all sorts of musical styles. Witney has its own vibe. It’s not Oxford, it’s not Swindon. It’s got its own thing going on. It has great restaurants; pubs and we are very spoiled. It is a very supportive community.’

Great British Life: Kim Cook and Debbie Hackett (c) Tracy SpiersKim Cook and Debbie Hackett (c) Tracy Spiers

Sisters Kim Cook and Debbie Hackett have run The Shake Shop in Witney High Street for the past 13 years. If there is one shop that triggers memories, it’s a sweet shop, where the young and young-at-heart are united over a love for a chocolate lime, gobstopper or rhubarb and custard. In winter months, I always assume it is Granny’s herbal sweets or chocolate orange which are favourites, but I am soon put right.

‘We find it is coconut mushrooms, chocolate Brazil nuts, sugared almonds and Turkish delight that are the winter favourites, and we also box up packs of different types of liquorice for presents,’ says Debbie.

‘The blue mice, in fact anything blue, flies off the shelf,’ she adds. I recall my own daughters’ quest for the blue tongue treatment and passion for anything extra sour so they could laugh at their siblings’ reaction. The Shake Shop, which serves milkshakes, smoothies, sweets, and ice creams and has an upstairs seating area where customers can enjoy using the juke box, is a popular venue. It even provides treats for dogs and cats.

So, what is their New Year wish for Witney?

‘It would be good to have a few more independent shops and we would love to see the shopping centre full. As for us, our wish is that we can keep going and people maintain their sweet tooth for a very long time!’ says Kim.

Great British Life: Elisabeta Zakolli, senior bakery manager of Witney’s branch of GAIL’s Bakery (c) Tracy SpiersElisabeta Zakolli, senior bakery manager of Witney’s branch of GAIL’s Bakery (c) Tracy Spiers

One of Witney’s newest arrivals is GAIL’s Bakery in the Market Square, which opened in October and serves artisan sourdough breads – including honey, almond and walnut, and sour cherry and almond – as well as pastries, sandwiches and cakes, and speciality coffees. The vibe inside echoes the Witney vibe Jon Davies describes. It’s vibrant and friendly.

‘Witney is wonderful. We have been so welcomed here,’ says senior bakery manager Elisabeta Zakolli. ‘It is so different to London, people come in and have the time to share each other’s company and enjoy our products. GAIL’s is a neighbourhood bakery, and we try and cater to what each community needs. Our wish is that people embrace that idea of neighbourhood and come together, spend time with one another over good food and coffee.’

There is so much to enjoy in Witney. Located on the River Windrush, Witney is one of Oxfordshire’s largest market towns and much of its architecture reflects the past prosperity of the woollen trade, including the 17th century Butter Cross and church of St Mary the Virgin with its 150ft spire. Witney Lake and Meadows is a 37-hectare Country Park, offering a beautiful recreation area for ramblers, runners, dog-walkers and families enjoying picnics in warmer seasons. As well as the volunteer-run Witney and District Museum, which tells the rich history of Witney’s wool trade, and the impressive Blanket Hall, there is also Cogges, an historic farm with its stunning Manor House, walled kitchen garden, orchard, adventure play, friendly animal residents and 17 acres of open space.

Great British Life: Richard Martin, director of Witney Blanket Hall (c) Tracy SpiersRichard Martin, director of Witney Blanket Hall (c) Tracy Spiers

Richard Martin is a partner at Cotswold Woollen Weavers, and a director of Witney Blanket Hall, which was built in 1721 by the Company of Blanket Makers. For more than 120 years, every blanket woven in Witney came to the hall to be weighed and measured and upstairs in the Great Room, rules for the trade were set by the Company. It is a fabulous place to visit as it provides a glimpse into Witney’s illustrious past as well as opportunity to buy a woollen throw, enjoy a coffee, pie or cider and beer.

‘Witney is such a great town; visitors to the Blanket Hall are forever telling us that they had not realised what a fantastic town it is to explore, and they wonder why more isn’t done to sing its praises,’ says Richard, who is also Chair of Witney Chamber of Commerce.

‘Most chamber members would love to see the County Council change its mind, and properly re-open the High Street to traffic again. Of course, there’s lots of improvements that can be made too, but towns need bustle! And apart from that, Witney really is a delightful town for visitors, we have free car parking, a busy high street, and lots of historic courtyards and alleyways to explore. Let’s make 2024 the year we say loudly and clearly: ‘Welcome to Witney!’”

Great British Life: Jennifer Harrison, co-owner of SOTA Gallery (c) Tracy SpiersJennifer Harrison, co-owner of SOTA Gallery (c) Tracy Spiers

In one of those charming pedestrian walks is SOTA Gallery in Langdale Court, owned by landscape artist Jennifer Harrison and husband Andrew, a wood sculptor. As well as providing a fabulous showcase for more than 100 talented British and Oxfordshire artists, they also run Witney Framing. This independent gallery with its high ceiling is a feast of colour and talent and boasts one of the best ceramic collections from 30 different potters. It’s ever changing and certainly eye-catching with its delightful mix of styles and artistic disciplines.

‘Witney is finding its way on the tourist map and in the past few years we have had a lot more visitors. Some admit they have stumbled across Witney and hadn’t realised how lovely it is and want to come back. My New Year wish is that we put Witney firmly on that map even more so that more people come and visit us,’ says Jennifer.

In another courtyard, at the other end of town is The Shop Witney, in Marriotts Walk, off Welch Way. It first opened in 2019 as a three-month pop-up shop but is now a permanent store offering shop space for 85 local sellers. Store manager Ryan Nicholswood like many other artists can sell his work here.

Great British Life: Ryan Nicholswood, store manager for The Shop Witney with his work, Explore The Spectrum (c) Tracy SpiersRyan Nicholswood, store manager for The Shop Witney with his work, Explore The Spectrum (c) Tracy Spiers

‘My New Year wish is that there is more help for small businesses. It is what Witney needs,’ says Ryan. ‘Here we can offer a platform for others to show and sell their work and we have recently helped two teenagers who have started up their own businesses. It would be great if more opportunities could be given to promote the work of local people.’

Whilst Witney does have leading brands and High Street shops which attracts shoppers, it has a fabulous range of local independent businesses, which offer that personal service and are experts in their field.

Bakers Butchers Ltd in Market Square has been serving the locals since 1981. This prize-winning traditional family butchers shop not only sell fresh local meats from a 30-mile radius, but freshly baked baguettes with homemade fillings, homemade scotch eggs, faggots, local honey, a selection of cheeses and eggs. Staff also supply local pubs, hotels, and restaurants.

Great British Life: Billy Rideout with a photo of his younger self helping Donald Baker, founder of Bakers Butchers (c) Tracy SpiersBilly Rideout with a photo of his younger self helping Donald Baker, founder of Bakers Butchers (c) Tracy Spiers

Billy Rideout and his son John are both directors of the company along with founder Donald Baker and enjoy their daily banter with the locals.

‘Witney is a great old fashioned market town. We love the personal touch and the fact that we know our customers by name, and they know us. Our turn-over continues to get better year after year so our wish is that it continues and we pick up even more customers,’ they tell me.

Lucy Park opened Cotswold Emporium, which sells second-hand furniture, vintage, collectables, antiques and household items, in July 2020. Based in Langdale Gate, Lucy calls it Witney's version of an Aladdin’s cave as it is a treasure trove of fabulous items.

Great British Life:  Lucy Park, owner of Cotswold Emporium (c) Tracy Spiers Lucy Park, owner of Cotswold Emporium (c) Tracy Spiers

‘I love Witney mainly because of the people. I have made so many friends by having this shop,’ admits Lucy.

‘Over the past year or so, with fuel, gas and electric bills going up, it has hit people financially, so my New Year’s wish is for an easier time for all.’

I wish I have more time to potter around this Oxfordshire town so that is perhaps my New Year wish to come back without a time limit and no agenda. This latest visit however captures a snapshot of Witney’s wonderful community spirit. Witney deserves to be noticed. It has a great history thanks to the legacy of the weavers of old, but it also has a great future. So perhaps that is the next adventure for my trusted DeLorean.