Lying east of Gloucester and west of Oxford, Burford is a popular destination for tourists and sightseers alike. Known as the “Gateway to the Cotswolds”, it is a haven for those who love browsing amongst antique shops, stopping for tea in the high street, or generally just exploring this historic market town. Visitors come from all over the world to appreciate the old stone and Tudor and Georgian fronted houses, as well as the iconic medieval bridge. Burford has an extensive history that dates back to Anglo-Saxon times, and did you know, is home to England’s oldest pharmacy; a chemist since the early 18th Century! The town has also played host to some pretty important historical visitors in the past, you can stay in a hotel frequented by King Charles and Nell Gwynn and dine where Nelson dined.
Burford is situated on a hill, and is traversed by the River Windrush. It is thought to take its name from a combination of two words ‘burh’ meaning defended town, and ‘ford’ meaning river crossing. In the 8th century, the area of the Midlands in which Burford was situated was known as Mercia, although this ended in 752AD at Battle-Edge when King Ethelblad was defeated. Burford started as an agricultural village, but was the first Cotswold village to be given a market charter in the early 12th century; this meant it now had the right to hold markets. Like many settlements in the area, this charter changed the face of the village as traders now visited and the population quickly grew to 1,000. Burford had now acquired ‘town’ status, and as traders came in, additional facilities and services began to grow. Hotels and rooms to rent became more widespread - in particular what were known as ‘burgage’ properties; typically houses with a small frontage that were situated on long and narrow plots of land. Look carefully in the town today and you’ll see several examples of this style.
The most well known church in Burford is perhaps St John the Baptist which originally dated from the 12th Century although heavily restored during medieval times. In fact, Burford boasts great examples of the typical architecture from several different periods of time; from the mosaic Roman remains situated in the town’s chapel, to the medieval buildings that dot the town’s high street. The most noticeable example of the latter is The Tolsey; built in the 14th century, this is located on the high street and is raised on wooden timbers that allowed wool traders to gather underneath. Today it houses a local museum. Turn off the High Street at Lawrence Lane past the old Burford Grammar School to Church Green with its row of almshouses, erected in 1457. Similarly, nearby you’ll find the old priory, formerly a Benedictine monastery and renowned for being the place in which Charles II and his mistress Nell Gwynn conducted their affair; their resulting son became, in due course, the first Earl of Burford.
Burford also featured in the English Civil War. There was a particularly unsavoury episode in which renegade army troops (known as “Levellers”) mutinied in Salisbury, then marched to Burford to join fellow minded comrades where they rested up before the onward march. Numbering 340 in total, things took a bad turn on May 14th 1649 when army leaders Oliver Cromwell and Sir Thomas Fairfax captured them in the church. Three were executed the next day; the church wall still holds bullet holes as a grisly reminder.
Elizabethan times offered Burford real prosperity as revenues from wool and sheep, as well as agriculture and related trades, grew steadily. By the eighteenth century it had become a flourishing commercial centre – wool may have become less crucial but other trades increased; not least the leather tanning and working practices dating from the 12th Century. It was also an important coaching centre – at one time over 40 coaches a day passed through, stopping at one of the many inns. The combination of this and excellent grain crops nearby resulted in a prolific brewing trade as well.
Burford was by now firmly established as a vital trading base for buyers and sellers, but this status was dealt a potentially huge blow in the 19th century when a proposed Victorian railway through the town was in fact diverted and built near the town of Charlbury. There was a significant dip in commercial activity as a result, but the advent of the motor car and personal travel saw Burford grow once more into the position it holds today. Although relatively diminutive, Burford’s seat at the table is now assured as a crucial part of Cotswold and Oxfordshire history.