Stow-On-The-Wold

First published in Town guides by

One Christmas Eve, a small gypsy caravan struggled through snow-filled lanes, almost obscured by the flakes that were still falling, as it made its way towards Stow-on-the-Wold.

The travelling occupants of this beautiful, but flimsy, caravan, knew that they wouldn't be the first if they froze to death in the blizzards on this high road from Burford. A group of soldiers had died in the same spot in the 19th Century - and who knew if this little family would be the next victims of this unforgiving winter road?

As darkness fell, the father of the family tried to urge his old horse on. They were all cold and tired, and he could feel his faithful nag struggling. Suddenly, there was a sickening lurch, and the caravan fell into a ditch, almost obscured by the snow which surrounded it.

Sighing a heart-felt sigh, the gypsy tried to keep his voice calm. "We'll have our supper," he told his little family, "and try to move on in the morning."

They ate the small provisions they had, and tried, despite their chattering teeth, to get some sleep. Suddenly, as the storm died down for a second, they heard a faint mewing. "Don't open the door!" the father desperately cautioned, but his son was too quick for him. Attracted by the sounds of the animal, the small boy threw open the caravan door and, as quick as a flash, picked up a little white kitten that lay outside.

The mother instantly screamed. White cats mean death to gypsies. But the boy would not be moved. "It will die if we throw it out on a night like this," he said, gently stroking its damp, cold fur.

As he cuddled it, gradually warming it, the family suddenly remembered what night it was - Christmas Eve, when all animals are granted the gift of speech. And as they stared, the cat got up onto its paws, and spoke. "Listen to the church bells, and listen to the birds. Follow them, and you shall be safe!"

At that same moment, there came the song of birds, clear as a bell, winging their way to Stow church.

With a cry of triumph, the gypsy and his sons pulled the caravan to safety, and followed the sound. Soon, they got to Stow, and to safety.

As they arrived, and were welcomed by a friendly farmer, they searched for the little white kitten. But there was no sign of it.

Was it a kitten? Or was it, as legend has it, a fallen angel, doing good deeds in the hope of getting back to heaven?

Standing at 800 feet above sea level, Stow-on-the-Wold is the highest of the Cotswold towns. Why else would it be mentioned in the rhyme, "Stow-on-the-Wold, where the winds blow cold"? No wonder the poor gypsies were nearly caught out.

Perhaps they were making their way to the town for one of the fairs that were held twice-yearly. In 1724, Daniel Defoe mentioned one of these sheep fairs which was held in the Market Square, where 20,000 sheep were sold. Later, they were replaced by horse fairs, which only finished in the 1980s.

The town's past, as with so many Cotswold spots, is inextricably linked with the wool industry. Sheep Street and Shepherds Way are two of the small reminders of this.

But because of its defensive position, it's also well linked with military endeavours. It was an important spot during the English Civil War. During one of the last battles, held on a hilltop near the town, some of the defeated Royalists managed to make their way to Stow's church - St Edward's.

The stragglers who didn't make it in time were slaughtered in the streets and, according to local lore, ducks bathed in the blood which subsequently flowed. There's still a grave to a loyalist officer, Captain Keyte, to be seen in the church.

St Edward's Church is named after the King Edward who was cruelly cut down at Corfe Caste by his stepmother Elfrida.

It contains a famous 17th Century Crucifixion painting by Gaspard de Craeyer of Antwerp. As you look at the churchyard, take note of the wonderful tombs of former merchants, with their wool bales still well preserved atop.

Another relic from Stow's past is to be found to the left of the entrance to the Talbot Hotel. It's a small brass box, marked "For Corn Returns". Here, farmers would post samples of their corn, to be tested at the Talbot when it was a corn exchange.

At Stow's centre is a Market Cross, a symbol of the town's former importance. Nowadays, it doesn't so much draw traders as tourists who love to wander its history-laden streets, now possessed of a more genteel air. It really is a lovely place to explore, with its unusual and one-off shops.

Some meander along, scraping together a living, while others have branched out into huge success. Most people will have heard of Scotts of Stow, whose culinary equipment complements many a kitchen.

Their original shop is to be found among these streets.

So if you're after a real piece of history, or a state-of-the-art ice cream maker, you might just find it here. But put together all the ingredients of this town, and you have a recipe for a wonderful day out - one of the truly high spots of the Cotswolds.

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