Chipping Norton Bliss

Chipping Norton, my local town, is something of an anomaly in the Cotswolds.  It’s very much a working town whereas many of the Cotswold centres of commerce rely heavily upon tourism for their trade.  Politically, it is a Labour enclave surrounded by the most conservative and Conservative Tory constituencies.  Environmentally it differs too – Its common land – wide, green, open public spaces held for posterity – reach deep into the town centre: it is not unusual to see cattle grazing within a few hundred yards of the main shopping streets.  The Common also frames Chipping Norton’s most iconic and photographed view, the Bliss Tweed Mill.  Seen in its peaceful setting today it is difficult to remember that its history has been quite turbulent.

Bliss Tweed Mill today viewed from across the Common

In the early hours of Wednesday 7th February 1872 fire was discovered on the fourth floor of the mill.  By the time the blaze was brought under control the whole building had been destroyed along with the livelihoods of the workforce.  The calamity for the town was so great that it was reported in the national press, the Manchester Evening News claiming that the flames were so fierce that “the fire was visible in the [city of] Oxford, a distance of twenty miles from the scene of the catastrophe.”  By Friday the press reported that three lives had been lost and three hundred made unemployed.  The Bicester Herald gave even more detail: “the fire was discovered by a farm servant around five o’clock in the morning…while a number of men were endeavouring to rescue some books and papers a wall fell, and three of them were killed and several others severely injured.”  The article describes how the relatively new, six storey building collapsed and the losses estimated to be £70-100,000, a vast sum in those days. It also reported with restrained understatement that the fire “created the greatest excitement.” 

The inquest into the deaths of the three men took place in the town at the Fox and Hounds Inn two days later, on Friday 9th.  They were named as Thomas Cook, aged 35 and married, Thomas Peachey, aged 25 and married, and Richard Boscott, a twenty-year-old single man.  Although the cause of their death was known the jurors had to ascertain whether they had been instructed to enter the building.  It confirmed that they and others had entered an office situated away from the fire to rescue papers when the mill wall collapsed onto the roof of the office and crushing the men who were unaware of the danger.  Several witnesses told of their own miraculous escape from the collapse, the noise of which was heard five miles away.  One, James Compton, told how his hat was knocked off his head by flying debris but he remained unhurt.  It was found that there had been no instruction to enter and as no one person could be held culpable for the fire, the verdict was “accidental death.”   The newspapers continued to report daily noting that the first Wednesday market day after the fire, the town was far busier than normal due to the large numbers of visitors, reaching several thousand, walking to the mill to view its smouldering ruins.

Three men were killed when the mill wall collapsed

Fifteen months later in July 1873, William Bliss, the owner of the tweed mill was able to address his workers and thank them for all their hard work and co-operation over what had been a very challenging time for everyone.  The new mill, the present building, was built although wouldn’t be in full production for several more weeks.  However, he was able to announce cessation of night work; permission for twenty-four-hour cloth production had been sought and granted by the Factory Inspectorate.  He was able to claim that “we may boast of having one of the handsomest and most complete mills in the Kingdom” and, indeed, it was.  Out of the ashes had grown a mill building more akin to a country house in appearance.

No wonder they were proud! Looking more like a stately home than a working tweed mill

Designed by the architect George Woodhouse, the main building – the spinning house – was five stories high and faced with local limestone.  With its roof surrounded by stone balustrades and the corners of the building topped with stone urns it looked every part the grand residence.  Of special pride was the tall chimney built above the circular steam powerhouse.  Now a local landmark, it rises as a Tuscan column out of a domed cupola to a height of 165feet (50m).  Now a listed (protected) building by HistoricEngland (who aren’t known for their hyperbole), they describe it both as “an exceptional design” and “a remarkable opulent design in a park-like setting.”

No detail was too costly to add to the building
Soaring to a height of 165feet the chimney has become a local landmark

The buildings interior was, and still is, equally impressive with its high ceilings and architectural features.  Cast iron columns support the vaulted brick ceilings, held with remarkable grace.  Even the spiral staircases built into the corners of the building have a balance of style and functionality that is beautiful in its simplicity.

Despite its grandeur and the enthusiasm of the workforce for their new building more trouble arose over the years. By 1889 complaints were being made about the pollution of the millpond both by the growing towns sewage being discharged into the river and the effluent from the mills dye tanks.  It was claimed that when the millpond had been emptied the stench was overpowering.  Ten years later water issues arose again; this time there being a shortage of water supplying the town’s growing population.  As a result, piped water was only available for three hours a day and the mill only able to work two days out of six. 

130 years ago complaints were made about the pollution of the millpond. Now it’s crystal-clear.

The most disruptive problem for the mill arose when just before Christmas 1913 part of the workforce came out on strike.  A local branch of the Workers’ Union had been formed a few weeks earlier and when several men joined, they were promptly fired.  The strikers marched through the town where they were addressed by their leader.  He advised them on how to conduct themselves: no fighting or bad language, no alcohol, just light-hearted singing and a little banter was all that was needed.  As with all strikes, the good humour didn’t last long and there were prosecutions for intimidation of non-striking workers.  During the spring of 1914, concerts were being given in the Town Hall and donations requested in aid of the Strike Hardship Fund.  Eighteen months after the strike had begun, it ended, broken by the steadfastness of the mill’s management.  The 160 now impoverished workers who had remained on strike became officially unemployed and had to seek work elsewhere.

The newspapers followed every detail of the strike

With the advent of World War One later that year, the nation had new concerns.  The war, as it happens, also helped the mill recover from the effects of the strike as large orders from the army for khaki cloth were received.  Finally, in 1980, the mill closed permanently and a few years later converted into luxury apartments.  Although the looms have now been silent for over forty years, Bliss Tweed is remembered as being at the forefront of British woven cloths.

The weaving sheds
Bliss Tweed Mill samples [Source: Pinterest – Oxfordshire in 50 Objects]

References

British Newspaper Archive: Manchester Evening News, Bicester Herald, Gloucestershire Chronicle, Oxford Weekly News, Oxford Times

Wikipedia

Pinterest: Oxfordshire in 50 Objects

Chipping Norton – One Week To Go!



Chipping Norton, one of the gateway towns of the Cotswolds often gets overlooked on the tourist trail.  It is not surprising in some ways for many of the region’s towns and villages look as if they have come straight off the lid of a chocolate box – all golden, mellow stone crouched under a heavy hat of deep thatch, devoid of much of twenty-first century life.  Chipping Norton – or Chippy as it is affectionately known by the locals – is different: a bustling, working town full of people going about their everyday lives , whether shopping or working.

Look beyond the modern shop fronts and traffic and you find a gem of a town; raise your eyes for every building has a different façade and, yes, they too are built from Cotswold stone.  Explore the side streets and you find almshouses and a magnificent church and both the 16th century Guildhall and the Town Hall are as glorious a building as you will see anywhere.  Bliss Mill,  a former tweed mill now converted to flats, is surrounded by common land that reaches into the heart of the town.

Chippy is a busy place socially too and for a small town with a population of only 6000 there is always something taking place.  Perhaps one of the most ambitious of recent events is the Chipping Norton Literary Festival (ChipLitFest), the first of which was held last year to great acclaim.  This year it is bigger than ever and starts in just seven days time on the 18th April and continuing throughout the weekend.

 

Because the town is so small, the festival is held in numerous venues.  It is fortunate to have an award winning theatre to stage larger events and an award winning bookshop, Jaffe & Neale, that holds workshops – and sells the most delicious coffee and cakes.  It seems everyone is involved in one way or another: the Chequers pub, the Blue Boar Inn, the Crown & Cushion Hotel, the Vintage Sports Car Club, the local churches, the library; even the shoe shop is hosting a children’s event.  Incidentally, there are free things going on for youngsters all weekend and the festivals designated charity this year is Storybook Dads, which connects prisoners with their families through books and reading.

So who is coming to the festival? There is an amazing choice of eighty authors so there is bound to be someone to interest everybody.  Sir Julian Fellowes of Downton Abbey fame will be there; Fern Britton will be talking about her latest book – and perhaps her experience in Strictly Come Dancing.  For detective novel buffs, Mark Billingham will be discussing murder with Val McDermid, Stuart MacBride and Martyn Waites.  Did you see the film We Need to Talk About Kevin?  Author Lionel Shriver will be discussing her new book, Big Brother, which tackles the subject of obesity.  For foodies, Xanthe Clay, Henrietta Green and William Sitwell ask “are we a nation of food fashionistas?”

Prue Leith – one of our Festival patrons

Two events that especially appeal to me are Ursula Buchan’s talk ‘How England’s Gardeners Fought the Second World War’ and the Extreme Travel team of Nick Bullock and Jason Lewis discuss their adventures with Sue Cook.  Jason, incidentally, has just been recognised by the Guinness Book of Records as the first person to circumnavigate the world using only human power and described by the Daily Mail as “the most remarkable adventurer in the world today.”

Sue Cook, another of our Patrons

One of the especial pleasures of coming to the festival is that because both the town and the venues are small, you are able to be close to the authors, to chat with them and to get them to sign your books.  You can also meet me (!) for, as Facebook followers of this blog know, I am part of the organising committee.  ChipLitFest also has a Facebook page or follow them on Twitter.

Tickets for all of these events are selling fast and for more information about them and the other authors and host of workshops visit the festival’s website by clicking here.

I look forward to seeing you at the Chipping Norton Literary Festival, 18th-21st April – do come and say ‘hello’.

all photos, apart from Bliss Mill, from the ChipLitFest website

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Three Very Special Cotswold Reasons….

If you could only choose three things to demonstrate why you love a place, what would they be? This is the tricky question that is being asked by The Guardian in conjunction with enjoyEngland, the English tourist authority ( http://www.guardian.co.uk/enjoy-england ). Well, here are mine:

1. Space and Peace. I know this is technically two reasons but they are so interlinked that, in my mind, they only count as one. Besides, that way I can cram in an extra reason without appearing to cheat too much. The flat topped, rolling limestone hills that make up the Cotswolds offer far reaching views to the vales beyond. They free the mind and let the spirit wander – a rare occurrance in the busy world we all inhabit. This view looks north over glorious country to the Vale of Evesham and just invites you to start walking towards a distant goal.

The King’s Men stone circle forms part of the Rollright Stones and have been a meeting place since they were set here 4,500 years ago. In early morning light they appear mysterious and brooding but when the sun strikes them their colours and markings are awe inspiring. Rest here a while, at a time when you can be alone, for the feeling of peace is palpable.

And give back to the soil an offering, (when we have taken so much away), as others have done from the beginnings of time and continue to do so. Single flowers placed at the centre of the circle have a calm simplicity…

2. Nature. It is impossible not to be aware of nature in the Cotswolds, whether it is the magnificence of old trees, the deer crossing roads in front of you or the cloud formations of our large skyscapes. This ancient ash tree has watched centuries of agricultural change take place and, despite modern farming practice, still stands proud in a hedgerow dividing wheatfields.

Deer are common throughout the Cotswolds. Roe and the introduced Muntjac are frequently seen but perhaps the prettiest, when in their spotted summer coats, are the Fallow.
There are some exotic surprises too! A macaw outside a garage in Charlbury and
alpaca seem to be everywhere
.
3. History. The Cotswolds are steeped in history and it is the history of wealth and the power it brings. Sheep – or more accurately, their wool – were the originators of this wealth and the region still has a higher population of sheep to humans. But how to illustrate this when there is so much scope to choose from? Bliss Mill, in Chipping Norton, is now converted to luxury apartments but, for most of its time, produced some of the finest tweeds in Britain.
The churches of the Cotswolds were also a by-product of wool – the wealth it created is often shown by their huge size in proportion to the numbers of the local population. The photos below were also taken in Chipping Norton.

So, come and visit the Cotswolds and decide for yourself. And, in the meantime, select three things that make your special place, special.

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