Essential town tours: Historic Bishop's Stortford, Hertfordshire
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Recorded in the Domesday Book, Bishop’s Stortford seamlessly blends rich history with contemporary living. Take a tour of the buzzing market town with Gillian Thornton.
The Romans certainly knew a strategic location when they saw it, especially one that provided a river crossing. So it’s no surprise to learn that their roads to Verulamium met at a ford on the waterway we now know as the Stort. And the bishops? That was a matter of medieval asset building.
Sometime around 1060, the town and its traditional Norman motte defence - Waytemore Castle - were sold to the Bishop of London, the name gradually morphing from Bishop’s Esterteferd (named after a prominent local family) to the Domesday Book listing of Storteford.
Today, Hertfordshire’s most-easterly town openly displays its layers of history, from Roman artefacts in the museum to the grassy riverside ‘motte’, its historic malting industry to its strategic position on the mail coach routes to London. Trade prospered with the opening of the Stort Navigation to London in 1769 and the Corn Exchange on Market Square in 1826. Today, Bishop’s Stortford is an attractive home base for many a London commuter.
Start your visit at the Tourist Information Office to pick up the six free Town Trail leaflets, including a fun one for children. Each trail takes up to an hour at a leisurely pace and themes include Historical Architecture, Castle Mound, and Shopping & Entertainment.
Behind the information office rises the spire of St Michael’s church, visible from all over town; push the door and step inside to see fine stained glass and just enjoy the tranquillity. Then maybe head down Bridge Street to Sworder’s Field to find Castle Mound as well as play areas and sports facilities for all ages.
The Stort meanders through this town centre park, bordered by Waterside Stortford, a three-and-a-half mile path for walkers and cyclists – ask for Town Trail 5. This precious chalk stream supports a wide range of flora and fauna from reed warblers and kingfishers to water voles and dragonfly.
Cross the river at The Maltings or head down South Street from Marketplace to South Mill Arts Centre. Here you can take in a show, relax over coffee and scrumptious cake or visit the two floors of the family-friendly museum.
Cecil Rhodes, founder of Rhodesia, was born on this site in 1853, the son of the local vicar. A fascinating display includes an assessment of this ‘complicated character’, from the colonising of Africa to the philanthropy of his international Rhodes Scholarship programme. Discover too the story of Stortford’s other famous son, gin distiller and philanthropist Walter Gilbey.
And don’t miss the concert posters in the foyer from the 1960s when bands playing the then Rhodes Centre included Billy J Kramer and the Dakotas, The Animals, Cream, and The Who. All for as little as eight shillings (or 40p!) a ticket.
Bishop’s Stortford market was first recorded in 1346 and market stalls still tempt customers every Thursday and Saturday in North Street and Market Square, Potter Street and South Street. Pick up local produce and handmade products from the Farmers and Crafts Market on North Street on the first Saturday of each month, except January and August.
Everything from everyday essentials to speciality purchases is in one compact retail area spreading out from Market Square and including Jackson Square shopping centre, home to over 45 shops. And for household and garden needs, head to the historic timbered premises and malthouse of Coopers of Stortford on Bridge Street.
North Street offers a number of independent retailers such as the flagship Fordes Home store, which opened last year selling cushions and tableware, bed linen and artificial flowers. Across the road, Edwards Interiors has been offering a high quality soft furnishings service for more than 30 years. Father and daughter team Philip and Claire are experts in curtains, carpets, wallpaper and upholstery.
Something to wear? Find fashion brands for men and women behind the distinctive white frontage of Aristocrat at The Chantry on Hadham Road. And maybe scoop a bargain at the Friends Dress Agency in North Street, a little shop stocking big-name preloved designer wear.
Another pre-loved gem is Xupes, stocking high-end watches, jewellery and handbags. It's at Wickham Hall on the outskirts of town in a converted 18th century barn, the shopping-business complex is also home to the lovely Rosy Lea Tearoom.
Ladies needing a perfect fit for weddings and other special occasions will find it in Florence Walk where Olivia Van der Horst offers both fine alterations and bespoke dressmaking. Style-conscious men can order one piece or a whole new wardrobe from designer and tailor Alexandra Wood on High Street.
Flowers for the occasion? Try Stock Florist in Florence Walk or Blush Flower Hut at The Maltings on South Mill Road.
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Philip Edwards, owner of Edwards Interiors, North Street
‘There’s always a buzz in the centre of Bishop’s Stortford and I love working out of this historic building, which was a brewery office before becoming a bank. When I first stepped through the door in autumn 1993, the sun was pouring through the tall windows and I knew immediately that it would make the perfect showroom for fabulous fabrics and soft furnishings.
'Despite the devastation caused to the town centre during the pandemic by shop closures and online trading, our town centre now appears almost undamaged. People here really appreciate the way that quality independents have battled through and interesting new businesses are now filling empty shops. Florence Walk is a good example with great shops and an excellent café.’
Food & drink
As an ancient brewery town, Bishop’s Stortford has always had an abundance of pubs and restaurants. The George Hotel on the corner of North Street and Market Place is a former coaching inn visited by Charles I in 1629. Look out for the black and white facades of The Black Lion on Bridge Street, dating from the 16th century, and The Boar’s Head on High Street with its medieval doorway.
Buy wine and cheese at The Bishop’s Cave on North Street or sit down with a glass of your favourite vintage and a plate of assorted cheese or charcuterie. Or for coffee and something sweet, try Pasticceria Italiana and Caffeeinn in nearby Florence Walk.
Take a seat at Nostimo Delicatessen on Market Sqaure for breakfast and hot soups, paninis and salads. Then pop next door to Humphreys Butchers and Dorringtons bakery for fresh food to take home.
Meeting friends? Locals love Pircio, a family-run restaurant serving Italian and Turkish cuisine in the atmospheric surroundings of the old Drill Hall behind the Corn Exchange. Eat inside the high-ceilinged interior or outside on the terrace.
From Market Square, Potter Street leads into South Street, home to a mix of high street retailers as well as coffee shops such as Chateau Café, South Street Pantry and Rindio café and delicatessen. If you’ve a four-legged companion in tow, Peach in Church Street is the pooch-friendly place for brunch and speciality burgers.