Fairford

First published in Town guides by

John Tame knew he had a lot to be thankful for. He, like many other Cotswold merchants, had grown rich, thanks to the fleecy sheep that roamed the local hillsides. His town of Fairford was at the centre of this industry, and John Tame's wealth was such that many could only dream of.

He thanked God regularly for his good fortune. But he needed a more lasting symbol of his gratitude to his creator - something that would last far beyond his own lifetime.

John Tame went straight to the top in his bid to create something of beauty. He went to the reigning King - Henry VII - himself. The result was a complete rebuild of the church of St Mary the Blessed Virgin, the outstanding feature of which was a set of stained-glass windows. Some say that King Henry himself donated them.

Certainly, John Tame was a favourite of royal court. Others say that John Tame commissioned the windows which were made by the King's master glass painter, Barnard Flower, whose work features in Westminster Abbey.

One thing is clear - the 28 windows are an outstanding work of art, and are the only complete set of medieval windows to survive in the British Isles. They cover 2,000 square feet, and tell the story of Christianity, earning them the name "the poor man's Bible". They were admired by rich men too - Henry VIII himself praised them when he stayed with the Tame family in 1520.

But while visitors stop and stare at this pure beauty, they can also enjoy a chuckle at other features in the church. Up on the parapet, a jester stares down at them. In a tortuous position, he looks over his shoulder, in mid-act of clambering up the outside of the building. He is one of many carvings which enliven the outside of the church.

Inside the chancel, meanwhile, 14 misericords show some very earthy scenes. In one, a woman clubs a dog who is stealing from her cooking pot. While medieval craftsmen were renowned for their skill and piety, they were not without a sense of humour, and these seats show just how in-touch they were with the everyday lives of worshippers.

John Tame's gravestone, along with his wife's and son's are set into the floor of the church.

Fairford itself is a large town, a stop on the old stagecoach route beside the River Coln. It can boast some attractive buildings in its Market Place, though others have disappeared over the years.

Perhaps the best-known of these losses is that of Fairford Park, a mansion begun in 1661, and demolished in the 1950s. Sir John Soane carried out alterations to it in 1789, but luckily some of his work was saved. His staircase was moved to Corsham, and a fireplace is now in the Victoria and Albert Museum, along with a piece of wallpaper from around 1740. A school now stands on its site.

Fairford is now as well known for its airbase as it is for its history. From here it has played a part in many world affairs, and been at the centre of more than one resounding political controversy.

Like the church within its midst, Fairford is a place to admire and to wonder at, but it has its fun sides too. As you walk around, looking at its merits, don't miss its quirks. For they reveal the human side to a town, that means you will leave with a chuckle.

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