Chipping Norton: the town that moved up the hill
Updated: Aug 16, 2020
‘Chippy’, as locals call it, was born at the foot of the valley as a Saxon settlement. The Normans built a fortification whose earthworks (the bailey) were once topped by a wooden castle (the motte). They then started a market on the hill above from 1223 and the town climbed upwards to serve it. Here's a stroll through some stories about Chipping Norton that form part of my regular town walk.
Near the castle site is the ‘wool church’ St Mary’s, whose tower has a gruesome story. Not everybody liked the new church service rules in 1549. Among the clergy who refused to use them was local vicar Henry Joyce. But his rebellion was stamped out and poor Reverend Joyce was hung in chains from the tower of St Mary’s on the Wednesday market day. At least, that was the sentence – no one knows for sure if it was carried out.
The porch of this church is one of only three in England that is hexagonal, and its ceiling has some lovely carvings, including a witty image of a sheep chasing a wolf.
Near the church is a row of almshouses, paid for by Henry Cornish in 1640 that has become a bit of a maths puzzle: how does eight become four and nine? Count the chimneys and doors. There are eight front doors, but the number of homes halved to four during refurbishment. A greater mystery is the nine chimneys: one is fake because benefactor Mr Cornish seemed to think the roofline looked better that way.
Chippy’s tallest building is surprisingly hard to spot because it lies in the valley west of the town. Bliss Mill is a massive tweed mill built in 1872. Apparently architect George Woodhouse was attempting a ‘French chateau’ style but the towering chimney and dome looks more like a giant sink plunger. The mill was run by the Bliss family, who made cloth in Chippy for 150 years – in 1877, their mills wove 25,000 yards of tweed in a week. In 1917, eight-year old Olive Wainwright was dubbed ‘the youngest lady steeplejack in England’, when she followed her steeplejack father to the top of the chimney.
Chippy provides two unlikely footnotes in musical history. In the early 1970s, rock drummer Keith Moon of The Who used to sit in the bar of the Crown and Cushion hotel complaining loudly about the owner … who happened to be him! Across town the site of an old school was a recording studio between 1972 and 1999. Radiohead and Status Quo laid down tracks here, but it wasn’t all rock: pop classics that first echoed on these walls include ‘Too Shiny Shy’ by Kajagoogoo, and ‘Bye, Bye, Baby (Baby Goodbye)’ by tartan clad popsters the Bay City Rollers.
An ongoing mystery in Chippy is who ties the knitted wool creations on railings, lampposts and door knobs. The town has its own ‘yarn bomber’ who secretly attaches different designs throughout the year, such as woollen poppies on Armistice Day, or bright orange pumpkins at Halloween.
Guided walking tours around Chipping Norton
See the Chipping Norton town walks page for more information about my regular walking tours around the town.
Offbeat Cotswolds: the book
Read more about Chipping Norton in my 144 page book Offbeat Cotswolds, a wander along the byways of the beautiful Cotswolds taking in 400 surprising sites and strange tales.