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Winchcombe Wonders

A.Burchard marvels at a place where the High Street is alive and thriving. crack

At first sight Winchcombe seems like a chocolate-box Cotswold village. Sudeley castle is admittedly a bit of a scene stealer, but there is much more to Winchcombe than meets the eye. And a lot of it happened a long time ago. The nice man who helped me find the bus stop asked, ‘Have you been round our church?’ I had been taking photographs of the tower with its superb golden weather cock. ‘If you go round the back,’ he continued, ‘you‘ll see the holes in the church wall from the musket shots of Cromwell’s men.’ He spoke as though it had all happened yesterday. I had actually come to St. Peter’s Church to photograph the spectacular stained glass windows and to take a look at Catherine of Aragon’s altar cloth which dates from the time when she stayed at Sudeley. The castle was a Royalist stronghold during Cromwell’s time. When the latter captured the Royalists they were brought to the church, stood against the church wall and shot. Not exactly how God wants a church to be used. It all happened in 1643 so I suppose Cromwell had an excuse in his bid to create a new social order.

Luckily Winchcombe is a wholly peaceful place today. This is how towns looked before chain stores, brash bars and fast, bad food obliterated small traders. In Winchcombe people are very friendly and take time to chat in the street and in the shops. In the butchers Pilcher Newman the banter between customers and the butcher with his big smile gives the impression that here is one big happy family. Amazingly, with all the talk about the death of Britain’s High Streets, Winchcombe’s town centre is alive and well. Lined up are the butcher, offering special sausages and even rabbit, a dentist; Winchcombe Flowers has expanded to stock a choice of original gifts. Ace Hardware is all that a hardware shop should be. I found items I’d spent weeks looking for in Cheltenham and Simon Booth gave me good advice on baking forms. A few doors along you can have your hair done or get your eyes tested. Round the corner there is Norths bakery. Mememe sells the most glamorous dresses. If you’re a creative dresser and into vintage there is Just In further down the street. Antique shops also have a strong presence here, so no one who loves a bit of patina will need to search far and wide for something unique. Sue and Chris Hook at Abbey Kitchens, although specialised in high quality kitchen design, offer a delightful collection of decorations for the home in one of the loveliest buildings in town. In North Street Phoenix Books, a proper and independent bookshop is tailor-made for the community. Choosing a book here feels like a real treat.

There are plenty of places to have a bite to eat. Although the pretty, award winning Juri’s seems an inviting place, I personally find the welcome not very welcoming. I have been there several times and the owners seem so tense I feel uncomfortable. Smiles are hard to come by. The owners scurry about as if they had trouble keeping up. But my main gripe is the totally inadequate toilet. The single toilet, though clean, is in a garden hut at the end of a path! Quaint though it seems, it is extremely unpleasant to get to it in the pouring rain. When several people need to use it they have to queue in the rain or dash back and forth for shelter. Surely in 2011 a restaurant should have an ‘indoor’ toilet?

The new, or nearly new kid on the block is the new Food Fanantics which has moved across the road in North Street. It is run by Martin Williams who has a hotel background. Over the years he had a firmly established client base in his tiny, much appreciated delicatessen across the road. It was a bold move. The new premises are much larger. Now there are eight tables at the front where one can enjoy the excellent fare. Before Martin opened I was little worried that his wonderful deli would be pushed to the back. Not so. Scrumptious pies, a choice of salamis and cooked meats and a selection of about thirty cheeses, many of them local, battle for space. Martin himself, three men and one woman were very busy. There is a great choice of teas, condiments, drinks and fresh vegetables and breads. I even spotted some edible flowers. Martin’s café too seems to have hit the ground running and I was lucky to bag a table, even though it was nearly 2pm. ‘We were really busy at lunch,’ said Martin as I chose a perfect Ciabatta bread and French salami. He made me the freshest little side salad this side of the Channel with a fruity balsamic dressing. I couldn’t help wishing that he had opened his deli and café in Cheltenham (any chance, Martin?) If I could find a tiny fault with one aspect of the café - it could do with some extra, strategically placed spot-lighting. But this takes nothing away from the excellent quality of the foods on offer and the friendly, knowledgable service.

On the Winchcombe cultural front there is the Winchcombe Folk and Police Museum which is quaint and a treat for any age. The Railway Museum is a real one-off. Among the clucking chickens and a garden growing wild, exhibits from the once thriving railways have been accumulated here. Most of the museum is out of doors, so a rainy day is not ideal for a visit (check website for opening times). Winchcombe’s history runs deep; one should spend time here. The church has bewitching Victorian stained glass windows. Other surprises from further back in time are remnants of a Roman villa, a 2000 year-old Roman mosaics hidden in a shelter and a fascinating Monk’s Tale of “Kingly” little St. Kenelm being butchered by his sister. Secrets abound. (google Local History Winchcombe). When you walk in Humblebee Woods nearby you won’t be surprised that Tolkien was inspired to write Lord of the Rings after walking there. Talking to people around town Sudeley Castle seems strangely aloof from Winchcombe, doing its own thing concerts and fairs, which is a shame.

Winchcombe now carries the label of Walkers are Welcome and proudly calls itself The Walking Capital of the Cotswolds which is good for all the independent businesses. Walkers are enchanted by the extraordinary beauty of the surroundings and the many footpaths coming down from the hills into town.

On Monday 29 August 2011 the Winchcombe Country Show will take place (entrance only £3). Among the many entertainments on offer will be a Novelty Dog Show which will include prizes for the dog with the waggiest tail and the most appealing eyes. So if you have a mutt, why not enter him/her and have some fun.