When you think of the Cotswolds, what springs to mind? Narrow streets and market squares, perhaps. Certainly the architecture; that distinctive stone and roof tiled look, with mullioned windows and studded wooden doors. Perhaps you are even considering a more contemporary feel with green-painted window frames and brushed silver metalwork. Whatever you are currently envisaging, you will find it all in the historic market town of Stow-On-The-Wold.
‘Stow on the Wold, where the wind blows cold’ is an old rhyme that was used to describe the town. It is 800 feet above sea level - so perhaps quite exposed to the elements - and there is evidence of settlement dating back to the Bronze Age when a fort was sited on the hilltop. Although strategically important for a time, the Romans deemed it surplus to requirements and it was removed during the construction of their new highway; the Fosseway. History does not record if a CPO was required; one senses not.
This new road formed a crossroads where travellers and traders could stop, barter goods and rest. It is thought that Stow (originally called Edwardstow) was officially founded in the 11th century, and established at the natural junction where the six main roads meet in the middle of the town. This became the foundations for the market town that Stow would later become.
The well-known landmark of St Edward’s Church, with its distinctive bell tower, played a central role within the Battle of Stow on the Wold during the English Civil War. In 1646 the last battle of the war took place one mile north of the town. After initial royalist success, the superiority of Cromwell’s parliamentary forces overwhelmed and routed their foe. Fleeing the field, the royalists made a fighting retreat to the streets of Stow, culminating in surrender in the market square. Many dead and wounded lay in the streets, and legend has it that ducks bathed in pools of blood on what later became Digbeth Street, meaning ‘duck’s bath’.
This market square is one of Stow’s main features, and was the centre of the Cotswold’s sheep market where as many as 20,000 sheep could change hands at one time! Much of Stow’s historic architecture owes its place to these old markets; for example, the cramped alleys leading off the market square were built intentionally to funnel the sheep as a way of counting and controlling them. Markets have taken place in Stow since 1107 when the town was granted a charter by King Henry II.
Stow has retained many old historic buildings with the Royalist Hotel reputedly the oldest inn in England, dating back to 987AD. Inside you’ll see a medieval fireplace that shows off several ‘witch’s marks’, used to ward off evil spells. Also still in the square are the ancient penal stocks, used to publicly humiliate criminals.
Social changes in the town saw the building of the Union workhouse in Union Street and the Victorian Gothic Police Station in 1878. A new gas works at the bottom of Park Street initially provided some heating and street lighting, and then in the 1930s it was finally connected to the mains supply.
Today of course there are more vehicles and less animals, and antique and gift shops have taken over from trading of wool and cattle, but many features remain unchanged. The market square is a testament to the importance of traders to the town, and you can still see old town houses dotted along the High Street. The inns, tea rooms, galleries and restaurants are historic reminders of Cotswold architecture, whilst the church remains a solemn witness to lives lost.