A day out in Shipston-on-Stour
- Credit: Tracy Spiers
Tracy Spiers explores Shipston-on-Stour, from its wonderful woollen past to its perfectly progressive present day
Put a woollen item in too-hot-a-wash, then it has a habit of shrinking as the fibres become meshed tightly together. There’s no doubt that many Cotswold towns have been through hot water of late. And yet, for the self-contained Warwickshire town of Shipston-on-Stour, it has proved that the community is resilient and the fibres that knit it together are tight and strong. This town – full of independent shops, with an action-packed all-year activity programme, with clubs galore for all tastes and ages – is far from shrinking. It is moving into an era of expansion and has grown by a third. But, whilst new blood is coursing through its veins, those who know and celebrate its wonderful woollen past are determined to keep that story alive for future generations.
It’s hoped that, by the end of July, Shipston will have a new permanent museum, fulfilling a long-held dream by the late Mike Ashley, who faithfully saved local artefacts over the years to share the story of Shipston with both locals and visitors. Those artefacts along with other important objects and documents will be displayed in their new home at Old Clark House, a building owned by the town council but leased to Museum trustees for a peppercorn rent. The Museum will be open from mid-Spring to mid-autumn.
‘Our history is very important,’ says trustee Martin Russell. ‘It goes back a long way, as far back as the 8th century, with our very name Shipston, originating from the Anglo Saxon, Scepwaescetun, which means sheep-wash settlement. It was in the River Stour where the sheep, brought to town by farmers from the surrounding hills, would be washed, ready for shearing.
‘Shipston has a rich history, but it is also a forward-thinking town. It built a church in the churchyard against the wishes of the bishop, which caused a few riots. It is a town that has exercised a firm grip when it has wanted to,’ he adds.
Once the Museum is up and running, it is hoped that Shipston-on-Stour and District Local History Society will be relaunched, having been dormant for a while.
‘Upstairs in the museum there will be a permanent display in the centre of the room, with six boards and cabinets which will cover the history of the valley since early times. Around the outside will be other displays which will change, so people have new things to see each time they come. Our first displays will be about the local agriculture, and brewing and pubs in the area. For a small town, we had a large number of pubs,’ says Martin.
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That sense of hospitality and hearty acceptance for visitors is evident today. There are still a good number of pubs, but with an equal choice of teashops, coffee shops and restaurants in modern-day Shipston. My mum Jan and I meet new town mayor Marianne Westwood in The George Townhouse on Shipston’s high street, named ‘best pub in Warwickshire’ as part of the 2022 National Pub & Bar Awards. We meet in The Snug, a cosy corner in the pub, where we find out more about this hardworking close-knit community.
Our conversation quickly turns to the town’s rich woollen heritage.
‘We wouldn’t be here without the wool, and we have a lot of coaching inns which are the furniture of the town,’ says Marianne.
‘Shipston is growing. It has grown by about a third, which is why the Museum is so important. The history links into the community, if the people are aware of their history, it brings a sense of ownership and respect for their town. With so many new people coming into the town, it is vital that they know about its history so it can be kept alive. It’s about sharing stories.’
For 11 years, the town’s heritage was celebrated through the successful Shipston Wool Fair, which raised awareness of the links with the wool industry and local farming community. The community event provided local craftspeople with a platform to show their traditional skills and sell their wares. But, due to logistics and specialist skills in putting on such an event, as well as growing restrictions regarding supervising live animals in the streets, the Wool Fair committee made a unanimous decision not to continue.
‘I want to pay tribute to the committee and the late Angela Noyce, a former mayor, who initially had the idea,’ says Marianne. ‘The committee felt very strongly that they didn’t want to go backwards and put on a smaller event and instead wanted to end on a high.
‘The town council wants to put up sheep-related name plaques in town, as well as acknowledging key figures who have played a key role in the community.’
Today Marianne says that, whilst sheep and yarn are still important, Shipston is more of a knitting and crochet town. An active group do yarnbombing to celebrate special occasions, such as the Queen’s Jubilee, and will also be creating sunflowers to raise awareness of the Sunflowers Suicide Support charity.
As Marianne takes on the role of mayor, there are a few projects she is passionate about. The mayor’s charity is the Shipston Health and Wellbeing Fund.
She has just joined The Human Library, whereby people are ‘human books’ on loan to readers for a chat. It challenges stereotypes and prejudices through dialogue, and expands understanding.
‘I have become a book called ‘Disabled’, which means I can talk about my disability and answer the questions whoever I am lent to. I would like to see The Human Library extend into Shipston as part of the health and wellbeing of the town.
I would also like to set up a death café in Shipston and give people an opportunity to talk about death, because it is sometimes a taboo subject,’ she says.
‘Every mayor brings a different flavour. I was brought up in a non-judgmental home, and this experience has led me to believe that kindness is key, so my hope for the town is that it is a safe, kind and accepting place,’ says Marianne.
Town clerk Helen Morgan agrees that Shipston is a vibrant town, and she enjoys being an active member of the community.
‘I love Shipston, the people – there is always something going on and the community spirit is second to none, and there are endless social groups to join,’ she says.
Whilst relatively small, the town centre is packed full of thriving independent and family-run shops. Some, such as the men’s clothes shop E.H. Spencer, has been in the town for 120 years. Having not visited since 2018, Mum and I are pleased to see some familiar faces, like Sarah Smith who is shop-floor supervisor in Taste of the Country, which sells a wonderful selection of foods, particularly cheeses and home baked products and coffee.
‘The street we are in is such a lovely street,’ explains Sarah. ‘What lockdown did was really cement the camaraderie amongst the businesses in our town. We helped each other survive, and it has made relationships between the shops stronger.
‘There is a great mix of demographic with younger families and the older generation in our little town, and somehow it works. I do hope that people realise what is on their doorstep with the rising living costs.’
Opposite is The Cotswold Butcher, which has won awards for its sausages. Here, we chat to Nikki Craig, who testifies to the community support. She too hopes people will continue to shop local. Meanwhile, we meet the new young owners of Time in Hand, clock and watch specialists Julian Grozavescu and Adrian Sirbu.
‘We took over the business in December 2019,’ says watchmaker Adrian, ‘so it has been quite difficult, but we worked hard and kept afloat and have taken on a 19-year-old apprentice, and we hope to be here for at least another 45 years.’
A new addition to town is MadMolly, named after the owner’s two daughters Madeleine and Molly. This family businesses, specialising in good quality gifts for all ages and occasions, has had an online presence for 14 years, but locals and visitors are now enjoying browsing and buying from this delightful shop. Ali Bowman, who has been working in retail for 35 years, says MadMolly has been well received.
‘We have been getting a lot of visitors in, which is great. Shipston has a good number of independent shops, is welcoming and very friendly. I love Shipston. I hope people will keep supporting their local shops,’ says Ali.
As I stated at the beginning, whilst the town has been through hot water, the business and local community has come out more closely knitted and stronger. It has, by tradition, been a town that has been able to celebrate in style. In the past celebrations have been held for coronations, monarch’s birthdays and anniversaries, annual mop fairs and ox-roasts. From June 10-25, the town enjoyed a fortnight of live jazz, folk, blues, rock, and classical music, known as The Shipston Proms, which culminates with everyone gathering for the last night to listen to amazing bands and celebrate the history of Shipston’s hospitality with a glass of cheer on Market Place.
Eight years ago, Totally Locally Shipston set up to encourage people to re-assess what is on their doorstep and use local shops, whilst helping businesses to look at their suppliers, and start looking at ways to work together.
Whilst the Wool Fair may no longer be on the social calendar, the wool history will live on metaphorically and historically thanks to those who share Shipston’s story, as well of, of course, the new museum. Before I leave to drive to my hometown of Stroud, which has its own unique woollen heritage, I find a cute sheep in one of Shipston’s beautiful buildings, the old Baptist Chapel, which acts as an extended showroom for The Richard Harvey Collection.
As I chat to staff here, they agree that more people now consider Shipston as a destination point and are always pleasantly surprised by what they find here. This small yet growing town may be close-knit but, in my experience, it always expands to welcome those visiting or those who are considering it as a place to make home.