Along the Stour

PUBLISHED: 11:04 05 January 2011 | UPDATED: 17:15 20 February 2013

Mike Ashley (Joint Curator of Shipston and District Local History Society Museum), Shipston.

Mike Ashley (Joint Curator of Shipston and District Local History Society Museum), Shipston.

The River Stour wends its way from Shipston to the Avon just short of Stratford. Richard Shurey followed the river visiting some of the prettiest villages in the county on the way.

The River Stour, one of six rivers of the same name in this country, wends a twisting and unhurried way through a broad green valley to be swallowed up by the waters of the Avon not far from Stratford. There is a waterway called the Stor (a tributary of the Elbe in Germany) and another, the Stura, in Italy, so we can surmise (as it was recorded as the Stur in our country between 704 and 988) that the name was given to us by our Continental friends in Saxon times. One record suggests Stour means a strong powerful river. Our Stour rises some five miles from Banbury, inconspicuously in meadows as though shy to show its true face.

Shipston (from Sheeps Town) is a rather unusual town for our country as it was a planned market town attached to the south of an old farming village. Part of this planning included the crossing place of the Stour with the construction in 1280 of the bridge over the Stour to replace the ford. The bridge that we see today has cutwaters that have resisted the flow of the river for over 300 years.
A major problem is that the river does flood from this point. Three years ago a great amount of water entered the town and some businesses have never recovered from the damage that ensued.
Shipston is one of the few rural towns with a lady town crier. Marian Ladd tells that it was at the towns Wool Fair last year that she decided on the spot to enter (and win!) the competition to find a new crier the post had been vacant for ten years. I see the appointment as a great honour, she told me. I saw her in her smart red outfit and tricorn hat ringing her bell and projecting her message so clearly which shows her pride and enthusiasm for the traditional post.
I had a long chat with Mike Ashby who set up the fascinating Museum by his premises in Sheep Street. Mike is a mine of information and eager to point out the wonderful features and history of the town. I was particularly intrigued by the oldest photo of the town. Dated 1860 one could see that many of the buildings could be still be identified after one and a half centuries!
Wool, as with so many other places hereabouts, brought prosperity to Shipston and once had one of the greatest sheep markets in the land. John Hart, who lived in the hills at Lark Stoke a couple of centuries ago, was a noted wool merchant and has a marble bust in the church. Another local dealer and wool stapler was William Sheldon. He sent his son Ralph to the Continent to learn the art of weaving and in 1561 (with the help of Flemish weavers) he and Richard Hicks set up a weaving industry a mile from Shipston at Barcheston. There is pride in the town as is evident with its Better Welcome Programme to encourage longer stays by visitors and to admire the public art by local artists. Look out for Jude Tuckers sheep sculpture and Ros Ingrams Heritage plaques.
When the Romans left our shores Roman artifacts are in the museum the area was part of the Kingdom of Mercia (and also part of the parish of Tredington). These lands were given to the Bishop of Worcester by Uhtred, the Anglo Saxon Lord of the Manor. This resulted in Shipston becoming a Worcestershire island in Warwickshire. The peculiarity was rectified in 1931 and Shipston became part of Warkwickshire.
The town sits astride the busy road to Oxford. It was thought that the construction of the M40 might have taken all the heavy traffic to the south but noisy vehicles still trundle past buildings that were fashioned in quieter and less hasty days. The Georgian places display the simple elegance of that architectural period and we can admire the bold patterned framework of the Horseshoes Inn.
I think the joy of Shipston is the old market square with (in this age of chain stores) delightful and thriving small businesses including several butchers. However, things may be changing there is a large former factory site on the Campden Road and it is inevitable that the huge supermarket chains have their eyes on it. Already protest groups are marshalling their troops! On the Saturday morning I was here the place was busy and residents (and the local councillor) indicated how much they enjoyed the convenient mixture of shops in streets where there was a delicious mlange of building styles.
The current mayor when I called was Alan Noyce. He has been in Shipston for almost half a century and loves the place. He has seen how the town has grown to the present around 5,000; he admires how the reputation of the two schools has grown but laments the lack of employment prospects.
In the main road the parish church gazes down on the traffic a place of worship has been here since the 11th century. It started as a chapel of ease so the residents did not have to travel the couple of miles to Tredington to worship. The building had to be extended over the centuries to accommodate the rising population but the only surviving part from medieval times is the sturdy tower.
A few steps away is the library which is housed in a stone building (dated 1685) that was once one of the two Quaker meeting places in the town.
We must journey on but before that mention must be made of a handful of other buildings in this fascinating town. Off Darlingscote Road is a reminder of rural England in the early 19th century the economic situation was dire and in 1837 a large workhouse was constructed. It still stands but is empty and looking sad awaiting development. Then there are the several old inns that tell that they flourished in the coaching era. But we must journey on.

A twist of the river and we pass Fell Mill this shows the association with the old wool manufacturing trade or felling then through two pineapple-topped gateposts we cross a classical bridge. This is so treasured and is protected from the thieving of its stones by microchips!
We reach Honington. This is a place so trim one thinks twice about walking on the grass of the green. There is a lane that leads to the big house that Pevsner called a gem of a late 17th century house. It was built by a London merchant (Sir Henry Parker) in 1682 and is now the home of the Wiggin family. The associated church has richly carved furniture, and a macabre monument.

Back over the river and along the main road is Tredington where the massive 15th century spire points heavenwards as a beacon. Holes studded with lead in the church door are reputed to be from the muskets of the Roundheads when they were scrapping with the Royalists. The Stour nudges the houses, a couple of which were once working mills.
There once were shops the butcher and baker; the wheelwright and blacksmith served the horses; there was a general store and post office. There was an ancient Rectory which a writer begged his readers not to be dazzled with the glory. Now sadly all have gone and we can only admire the beauty of the greens and houses.

The Romans Fosse Way bypassed Tredington but half a mile along the straight highway the Avon is crossed to Halford. There is a new featureless bridge but the pensioned off arches of the narrow medieval bridge are alongside. It is said there is evidence of damage done in the Civil War. But it is difficult to know where the ruined stones were. At the start of the village is the imposing building of the Halford Bridge Inn, once called The Bell. The little triangular village green is overlooked by the Church dedicated to Saint Mary which has fine work of the Norman masons. On the plaque on the green we are reminded that in 1995 we recorded fifty years of peace there is certainly peace in this village in 2010.

Newbold on Stour
Not far along the A3400 Newbold on Stour is reached. We had to remember in the days before postcodes to always add on Stouras there is another Newbold in the county. Some say the character of the place was changed when a large estate of new houses (which added a third
to the population of the old village) was allowed by the planners. Perhaps the enlarged village meant the villagers escaped the recent post office cull. But the owner of the mill now a fine house was concerned about the flooding of the river perhaps caused by many houses being built on the Avon and the lack of dredging of the river. But one sensed he loved the tranquility of the place viewing the deer, the kingfishers and wild fowl.

Ettington Park
The river flows through the beautiful lands of Ettington Park Hotel. Here the staff gave me an eleven page history of the magnificent building with chateau roofs that pierce the English sky. The story of the place and the owners (the Shirley family) is so interesting perhaps the Editor will allow me to compose a future piece (and tell you of some of the facts such as the claim of the Shirleys being the oldest family in the land!).

Talton Mill
A few reed-covered banks and (after passing the far from the coast Sea Scouts Headquarters) we are at Talton Mill. There is sadly no trace now of the building last worked in 1936 but here Mark Holberton runs a popular business of Home Grown, Home Reared , Home Cooked Produce. The mill was once owned by Talton House who used a hydraulic ram to push water up the hill. Mark also pointed out the ivy-covered building from which electricity made by the fast flowing waters was conveyed to the
Shirleys mansion.

Past the away from it all hamlet of Crimscote is Alderminster. This is an estate village of Alscot Park. The estate includes The Bell that recently introduced its own beer,Alscot Ale.
At the far end of the village is a signed footpath that leads to Whitchurch. For perhaps half a century after the footbridge over the Avon was lost in floods we can again (over a new bridge) cross the river. Whitchurch has a church in the fields on a site that may have had a place of worship in
Saxon times.
The Alscot Estate also covers the large area that in wartime from 1941 to 1945 was an RAF aerodrome for Officer training on Wellington bombers. The Avon nudges Atherstone village. (Again the on Stour is necessary with another Atherstone in the county.) When cracks appeared in the church building of 1876 a few decades ago it ceased to be a consecrated place of worship.

Preston on Stour
A pathway over pastures hugs the riverbank to another Alscot Park estate village. Preston on Stour seems to be a very lively community with plenty going on in the refurbished village hall. The place has retained its shop and post office. Nina Harding is the postmistress and enterprisingly offers refreshments to travellers along the Shakespeare Way. Her carpenter husband Warren recently canoed down the difficult river route from Preston to Stratford. The church of St Mary was remodelled by James West in the middle of the 18th century in a Gothic style to match his mansion in Alscot Park.

Clifford Chambers
The river downstream divides to form a narrow wooded island and we reach Clifford Chambers. It was at the mill here that after the Second World War the Hungarian Tibor Reich settled to produce a unique furnishing fabric that was used on great liners like the QE II and in Coventry Cathedral. Around the area are the premises of a pre-school. When I enquired of a young lady about the river, ask Bob Jones
she said.
Bob explains the mill was recorded as a flour mill in the Domesday Survey of 1086. It became an iron forge over time finally in 1850. He points out that there may have been lock gates and a brook alongside the Avon was perhaps navigable to convey iron ingots.
The Avon flows by the village church dedicated to Saint Helen. Alongside is the timbered Rectory. It was owned by a John Shakespeare and was said to have been visited by the Bard some say he was even born here! Another wonderful building in the village is the Manor House designed by Lutyens about 1918. (The village belonged to the Manor until the early 1950s.)
A final few twists and turns and the waters of the Stour slip quietly into the ripples of the Avon as stealthily as they started in the low hills of north Oxfordshire. The river has seen many changes but still presents a fascinating kaleidoscope of the south lands of the county.

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