Clearing the Streets of Oxford

From the earliest days of the universities, there have been tensions between Oxford’s ‘Town & Gown’, the term used to describe the non-academics and scholars.  In the 1300’s  there were two days of rioting after two students complained of the quality of the local ale leaving many killed.  Not all altercations have ended in bloodshed and it was a general consensus to improve access into the town that the Covered Market was created.  The design was to be of the highest standard (by John Gwynn, designer of the Magdalen Bridge) although today it is all too easy not to notice the craftsmanship of the building.

In 1771 an Act was passed to rid the streets of food stalls and by 1774 the market had opened for business.  Originally, twenty butcher’s shops and stalls were built, swiftly followed by a further twenty.  Today, 240 years later,  meat and poultry are still sold there with fruit and vegetables alongside clothing, footwear and jewellery.  Numerous cafes feed and water students, residents and tourists alike, fortunately no longer causing riots.

In recent times there has been a controversial increase in rent which has allegedly caused some businesses to close.  However, despite the present recession, the market is thriving although, in true market tradition, it is always possible to find a bargain there.

After the enclosed and bustling avenues of the market it is refreshing to step into the open air once more and to take in the sights and sounds of the city.  Surrounded by the historic colleges with their splendid architecture it is all too easy to forget that the market has played an important role in shaping the town.  It has a fascinating story of its own to tell.


Information about visiting the market, its present traders and its illustrious past can be found on it’s website.  Click this link here to find out more.

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Behind the Scenes at ChipLitFest

It hardly seems possible that a week has passed since the Chipping Norton Literary Festival (or ChipLitFest as it is affectionately called) took place.  For four days the small, market town situated on the edge of the Cotswolds hosted eighty of the best authors to be found anywhere – a remarkable feat for a festival still in its infancy.

A quiet back street in the centre of Chipping Norton

For the eleven of us on the committee the past year has been an endless round of meetings, venues to be visited, volunteers to be found and co-ordinated, emails to be sent, publishers and agents to be contacted and authors to be booked.  Fortunately, our meetings have always been enjoyable and any stress negated by copious amounts of food, wine  and strong coffee.  These are an absolute necessity for none of the committee receive any payment whatsoever so meetings have to be fitted around busy work schedules in the evenings.  Perhaps if we had ever worked out how much the meetings cost the individuals hosting them there would have been a mass resignation.

The information point in the market place

The first two days of the festival are focused on children with authors visiting all of the local schools, speaking and reading and encouraging them to become better readers and writers.  The story writing competition was well supported; the winning entries can be read by clicking here.

Mountaineer Nick Bullock and explorer Jason Lewis discuss their exploits with Sue Cook

The authors and patrons were guests of honour at a reception held in the town centre on Friday evening and gave them the chance to network and to meet the committee and sponsors in a relaxed and informal way.  My role in the festival has been  Author Liaison so I was especially keen to speak with as many of them as possible – it was good  to be finally able to meet face to face after many weeks of messages and telephone conversations.  The following evening myself and Merilyn Davies, the children’s programme co-ordinator, hosted a dinner for the authors and, as many events had taken place by then, we were all realising just how successful the festival was becoming.

At the reception our designated charity Storybook Dads gave a short explanation of their amazing work inside some of the UK’s toughest jails.  Their film was uplifting and heart-breaking all at the same time and it was wonderful that the festival was able to present a cheque to them for five hundred pounds.  They are now out in Afghanistan too, helping servicemen keep in touch with their children.  A short video montage of their work can be seen here.

Sharon Berry, founder of Storybook Dads, talks to author Clive Aslet about their work

It wasn’t just the committee that welcomed our guests for the whole town has taken the festival to its heart: the local window cleaners had put up yards of bunting, shops and cafes were offering special promotions and the farmer’s market was held over two days instead of the usual one day. Festival goers were appreciative of this and with warm, spring sunshine finally making an appearance the atmosphere was electric.

One of the drawbacks of being involved in putting on an event – and I wouldn’t have changed places for a second – is that there is little time for us to actually see any of the talks or workshops.  However, I did manage to sneak into a few places to take a quick photograph or two.

Julian Fellowes meeting festival goers and signing books after his Downton Abbey talk


Both the local and the national press came to town too.  David Freeman, past presenter of Sky television’s The Book Show, was busy interviewing and filming authors.  I, too, was interviewed by him about my forthcoming book Why Can’t My Garden Look Like That? published next month.

David Freeman being filmed during an author interview

The festival ended on Sunday evening and we all returned home utterly exhausted.  This state of affairs didn’t last long for within twenty-four hours emails from the committee were pouring into the inbox discussing how well it went and how we could make 2014’s even better.  Even more gratifying were the huge number from the authors, volunteers and public saying how much they had enjoyed it and asking for the dates of the next one.  So here it is:

Chipping Norton Literary Festival 2014 – April 24-27

If you want to take part or visit follow the information on the links to the websites: ChipLitFest, Facebook or Twitter

The actress, Lalla Ward, caught having a quiet moment at the Chipping Norton Literary Festival

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The Roman Mosaics of Cirencester

The making of mosaic patterns is often associated with the Romans although the earliest known examples pre-date them to 3000BC.  Associated with many cultures, mosaic artists still flourish today, an unbroken tradition of five thousand years.

The Hunting Dogs mosaic: head of Oceanus  2nd century AD

In Britain, one of the finest collections of early mosaics can be found in the Cotswold town of Cirencester, situated 93 miles west of London.  With a population of 18000, it is one of the larger hubs in the Cotswolds yet has maintained a lot of its old charm for there are still many independent shops as well as the usual High Street chain stores.

History oozes from the very fabric of Cirencester: home to the the oldest agricultural college (Royal Agricultural College) in the English speaking world, founded in 1845; it is also home to the oldest polo club in England (Cirencester Park Polo Club) which was founded in 1894.  The charter for the market, still held twice weekly, was first mentioned in the Domesday Book in 1086.

The Hunting Dogs mosaic:  Sea Leopard   3rd century AD

However, when the words Cirencester and history are linked together it is the Romans that predominate for their town, Corinium – now modern day Cirencester – was the second most important city in Britain.  Corinium lay at the centre of their great road network where Akeman Street,  Ermine Street and the Fosse Way all meet, still busy roads today.  There are still the remains of a number of  their villas in the region that are possible to explore.

The great Roman ampitheatre here was also the second largest in the country with tiered wooden seating for eight thousand spectators.  Today, all that remains are a series of banks and ditches, still impressive and well worth visiting.

The Seasons mosaic:  2nd century AD   Actaeon being attacked by his own hunting dogs

If there is not a huge amount to see of the original splendour of the ampitheatre, you will not be disappointed by a trip to the town’s Corinium Museum which has recently been extended and refurbished making it one of the best museums in the country.  The museum holds over one and a half million artefacts but the most impressive of all of their exhibits have to be the Roman mosaics.

The Seasons mosaic: 2nd century AD

The Seasons  is one of the most impressive mosaics in Britain, discovered in Cirencester in 1849, with pictures of goddesses depicting spring, summer and autumn.  Winter is missing.  In the museum the floor has been laid in an area reproducing a room in a Roman villa.

Detail from the Hare mosaic, 4th century AD

The hare is frequently used in Celtic art and fables but was rarely used by the Romans, making this central motif of the mosaic floor unique.  If you click on the photo above to enlarge it, you will see that there have been shards of green glass laid into the hare’s back.

Detail from the Hare mosaic, 4th century AD

The Hare mosaic, 4th century AD

The museum does not just hold Roman aretfacts, it also covers finds from pre-history as well as more recent times such as Saxon brooches and a large hoard of coins dating back to the English civil war, subjects of a later post.  The Cirencester Museum is really worth making the effort to visit – you can find out more details by visiting their website, here.

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Deddington Christmas Farmer’s Market

Deddington, lies to the east of the Cotswolds and is an old coaching town, although only the size of a large village by modern standards. The golden ironstone buildings have a solidity that makes them neither quaint or especially pretty, unlike our limestone ones. However, they do have real charm and character. And most important of all, they hold a regular farmer’s market, reputed to be one of the best in England.

In this week of climate change summits in Copenhagen, there is something rather special in buying produce that is grown locally. The beef for sale from this farm in Duns Tew has travelled less than five miles from village to market. Not only that, but it looks so much nicer than the racks of clinically presented supermarket meat. Why eat meat from, say, Argentina, when you can look at the cattle grazing in fields nearby?
Crowds throng the produce stalls – the queue for bread so long that neither the purchase of some home baking or a photograph was possible. A gap at the cheese stall meant that tastings and subsequent purchases were more easily made. And despite the pushing and jostling, being Christmas, the mood was relaxed and vibrant for a market is a place to meet and chat with old friends as well as make purchases.

The church, which dates from the 13th century, dominates the market place and is itself busy selling cups of tea and homemade cakes. But when the hustle and bustle gets all too much there are quiet alleyways that you can slip into, away from the crowds. One day, I shall have to return and explore Deddington further, for it is a fascinating place.

Star shaped almond biscuits from the ladies in the church, buffalo cheese from Somerset, beef from Duns Tew and eggs from another nearby farm made our purchases of the day. The bowl of satsumas were also locally produced – grown in a client’s orangery which we created earlier this year. The holidays are going to be a great time of good and local feasting….


Postscript: I am ashamed to say I ate all of the biscuits already, they were so delicious. I knew it was a mistake to try one.

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