Tetbury

When Prince Charles and Princess Diana made their home at Highgrove House in Tetbury, the town was elevated to country-wide, if not world-wide fame. It was said that he adored the countryside and all its pursuits; that she was a London girl who felt stifled in the country.

Certainly, they became familiar figures in the area, and tourism increased many-fold, despite the fact that Highgrove House is rarely open to the public.

In recent years, however, Prince Charles's farming aspirations have come to fruition, and his organic Duchy range promises the best, and most delicious, of produce. The gardens, too, are famed, and local knowledgeable guides take groups around.

But even before the Royal seal of approval, there was much in Tetbury to draw the crowds. It's a town that's never lost touch with its past, the most wonderful demonstration of this being the annual Woolsack races.

Despite the utter madness of this ancient tradition, it never fails to draw the crowds - or, surprisingly, the competitors. Relay teams have to race up and down Gumstool Hill, one of the steepest in Gloucestershire, carrying 50-pound woolsacks.

It's exhausting, even to watch, so it's fortunate that a point in the road outside the Crown Inn marks the finishing line. Gumstool, by the way, is named after the "ducking stools" which once were used to punish unfortunates in the town.

In a vault underneath lie several of the Saunderses late of this parish; particulars the Last Day will disclose This wonderful inscription on a tablet at Tetbury's St Mary's Church is just one of the treasures to be found in this, one of the most important of the wool towns. It refers to a family who lived at Upton Grove in Tetbury Upton.

Despite the family's reticence on the subject, we do know that Samuel Saunders was partly responsible for rebuilding the church between 1776 and 1781. You can still see its original 18th Century brass chandeliers, each with 36 lights. Designed by Francis Hiorn from Warwick, it was one of the earliest Gothic Revival churches in the country.

St Mary's is said to have the fourth highest tower in England and certainly, at 186 feet, it encourages visitors to crane their necks upwards.

Tetbury was an important wool and market town as early as the 13th Century. But by the early 17th Century, it had really made its mark - wool and yarn from the town were said to be "inferior to none in England". In the same century, a fine Market House was built in the middle of the town.

As you gaze at its stone pillars, it's easy to picture the scene so long ago, when fleeces were weighed and sold there.

From the Market House, Chipping - an Old English work for market - Lane leads to The Chipping via Chipping Steps. This medieval cobbled stairway used to be the site for the Mop Fairs, and the pretty houses that line it seem little changed over the years.

Just out of Tetbury is Chavenage House, a grand Elizabethan mansion built in an "E" shape in Cotswold stone.

The front is little changed since the wings and porch were added by Edward Stephens in 1576. The present owners, the Lowsley-Williams, are connected to the original Stephens family by marriage.

They will be forgiving, I'm sure, if the sad story of Nathaniel Stephens, local MP, were retold. Stephens was in a dreadful position; the King, Charles I, was under arrest, and the crowds were baying for his execution.

Stephens's worst fears were realised when a visitor was announced. "The Commissary-General is here to see you, my lord," a servant announced. It was Henry Ireton, son-in-law to Oliver Cromwell. He brought with him a document for the lawful execution of the monarch - and he was wanting to leave with Stephens's signature on it.

Just what threats, cajoling, and persuading were used will never quite be known. But Ireton left, triumphant, with the fate of the King sealed. And Stephens sat, bewildered, his name hardly dry on the document, wondering what had possessed him to sign away the life of Charles I.

A month after the King was beheaded, on January 31, 1649, Stephens succumbed to a chill. Finally, on May 2, he died, tormented and repentant of his part in the execution.

As his grieving family gathered to pay their last respects, the last awful scene of this particular story was enacted. All those present suddenly heard hoofbeats and, wondering at this unexpected visitor, turned to see a richly-decorated coach pull up the drive, drawn by black horses.

To their utter horror, it had arrived for none other than their late lord and master. As it pulled up, Nathaniel Stephens, still in his death shroud, walked from the manor to the coach. As he got in, the driver prepared to depart - a headless driver, in royal clothing, wearing the order of the Garter on his leg.

As the coach left, it burst into flames, and disappeared.

And it is said that every Lord of Chavenage who dies within the manor, will depart in the self-same way.

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