Hook Norton is known around the world for its beer, but this edge-of-Cotswolds village offers many fascinating stories that take in the ‘Oxfordshire pyramids’, early madhouses as well as a fine Victorian brewery building and a lovely 15th-century church. It’s also an excellent stop-off between tourist hotspots Blenheim Palace and Stratford-upon-Avon, with great pubs as well as the famous brewery all offering a chance to rest and imbibe.
1 The Victorian brewery
‘Hooky’ beer was brewed in the village from 1856, and was soon available by the jugful from an unofficial pub. The ale still pours from a wonderful Victorian building that has hardly changed in 120 years, from where shire horses continue to haul local deliveries. There’s an excellent café and the Brewery tour (with sampling!) is fun.
2 Impressive towers
It’s worth walking to the edge of the village on the road towards Swerford to see massive stone pillars that once supported a railway line that ran to Wales. The towers were built by an army of ‘navies’ who camped in the fields and occasionally rioted over pay disputes. The whole job took four years and the soaring solid columns were christened ‘the pyramids of Oxfordshire’.
3 Stories of the quarries
The railway used to cart the local ironstone to Welsh furnaces. Hooky’s now-green fields were once grey with dust and the huge scars of the large-scale quarrying around the village are still evident. A set of kilns to bake stone to produce more easily transported powder made this rural village an unlikely industrial centre as smoking, stinking clouds rose from the ovens.
4 Adam, Eve and a fire cart
Just inside Hooky’s St Peter’s mostly 15th-century church is a beautifully carved Norman font decorated with astrological signs and a touching image of Adam resting on his spade while Eve reaches for an apple. The church is also home to a very smart blue and red 1735 fire cart. This isn’t as bizarre as you might think, for from early times fire-fighting equipment, such as leather buckets and hooks for removing thatch, was often stored in church towers as they were safe and central.
5 A tolerant village
The village became a mecca for non-Conformism from 1644 after the creation of a Baptist chapel. This may have been partly due to its isolated location, plus it was an ‘open’ village with both a lord of the manor and the church, so some religious dissent was tolerated. Worshippers would ride here from as far afield as Stow-on-the-Wold.
6 Henry VIII’s trip
After Henry VIII chopped off the head of Hooky’s manorial lord in 1513, he gave the role to his old drinking pal Charles Brandon, but they fell out. Consequently, Henry demanded repayment of some debts but Brandon pleaded poverty as he had spent £1500 improving the local royal park deer hunt. Park Road, which wraps around the east side of the village, is so-named because it led to the ancient hunting site that Henry inspected. He wasn’t impressed - but Brandon escaped the axe.
7 Crazy stories
From 1725 Hooky had a private asylum and, from 1835, a second ‘madhouse’ was built housing 90 patients who worked on land known as ‘Madman’s Yard’. Such establishments were rarities in Oxfordshire at the time and reinforced the local joke that if you had something wrong in your head, Hooky was the place to be.
8 Intriguing architecture
Many stone houses from the 18th century survive in the village, including some with an unusual space-saving staircase behind a curved wall that projects onto the street. These are called caracoles and they were probably all the work of the same enterprising builder who perfected the technique in the village.
9 Pathway to the past
Hooky was bigger than local rivals such as Chipping Norton at the time of the Domesday Book but it didn’t develop a large market and so was left behind as its neighbours grew into towns. The result is that you can still wander narrow pathways and enjoy the layout of a medieval village where barns and orchards stood among houses in the days before enclosures created large farms.
10 Award winner
Hooky is big news in the ecological world. The village won a European award in 2016 for its work with renewable energy and hums with projects involving solar energy, community car hire and an oil-buying consortium. Communal gardens offer free herbs and vegetables, while pigs are farmed on a community smallholding. You can spot the evidence around the village and even sample the fare!
Hook Norton walking tours
I hope you are keen to explore Hook Norton and/or other Cotswold locations: