Stow-on-the-Wold, straddling the Roman Fosse Way in the heart of the Cotswolds, is considered by many to be a jewel of Gloucestershire charm; all honeyed stone, prissy cafes and quaint antique shops nestled next to vendors of high-priced posh tat: faux amusant cushions, £200 rubber boots and gnarly rural kit that looks as if it has purpose but bearing price tags that will forever consign it to ostentatious display in a second homers weekend cottage. Mind you, not everyone is suckered by Stow’s outward charm, A.A Gill, the deliciously acerbic restaurant reviewer and penner of bon mots described it as "catastrophically ghastly" and "the worst place in the world,” in his excellent book The Angry Island (2005) and in doing so incurred the tepid ire of the town’s mayor.
Architecturally it is undeniably beautiful with many of the buildings dating (and often predating) the Civil War in which Stow was a Royalist stronghold and the locale for many battles. There are mullion windows aplenty, little alleyways that tempt you to explore ever onwards and the sharp eyed visitor will notice names and dates carved into lintels and stonework, defacement so old and of such quality of ‘penmanship’ that there ought to be an entirely separate name for such antique graffitos.
Being stuck on top of an 800-foot hill, the eponymous ‘wold’, affords it glorious views of the surrounding arable land and woods and doubtless made it a highly defensible position when the Cromwellian Roundheads came a-calling. But these days, although the enemy comes in a different form, the town behaves as history has taught it, locking and shuttering doors and windows, literally shutting up shop and repelling all-comers. And never more than when the annual horse fair comes to town.
Stow has a history of fairs. In 1330, Edward III set up an annual market in August. Edward IV replaced this in 1476 with two 5-day fairs and yet another in October on the feast of St Edward the Confessor (the saint associated with the town). The aim of these was to establish Stow as a place of commerce and to level out the unpredictability of passing trade.
As the fairs grew, the town became more prosperous. While traders who had dealt solely in livestock started to deal in other goods it was the wool trade that underpinned the town’s income, 20,000 sheep changing hands at one 19th century fair. The aforementioned alleyways, known as "tures," that run between the buildings of Stow into the market square, used to herd sheep from surrounding holding pens and fields into the square to be sold.
As the wool trade declined, people began to trade in horses, a practice which continues today and which reveals the lurking fear and ugliness that seeps through the place.
Twice a year in field just 5 minutes walk from the main square a gathering of clans occurs. Travellers, Roma - I am loathe to write ‘Gypsies’ having been taught by a true Roma that that word is the equivalent of the N-word in such circles – gather for two main reasons, to trade bloodstock and to present their marriageable children to each other in the hope that good matches may be made. The huge field becomes alive with a multi-generational conclave of folk from all parts of the UK. Some have traditional caravans, beautifully painted wooden-wheeled, horse drawn affairs with immaculate interiors revealing wood-burning, pot-bellied stoves and intricately painted ceilings like mobile Michelangelo’s. Some have state-of-the-art trucks and cars that haul chromed and honed modern mobile homes with interiors that would shame many a suburban drawing room. The comfortingly atavistic smell of wood smoke wafts across the place. Fires everywhere are straddled by great iron tripods from which blackened stew pots and kettles are suspended on chains, steaming away with a meal or a brew. Small children skittle around, the girls like little meringues in layers of white or cream netting with twists of ribbon at their throats or laced through their hair, the boys smartly elegant in mini tweed jackets and trews, shined boots and with errant hair lines cow-licked into place. The teens favour more defiant dress, young women this year in a uniform of tight jeans, lycra micro skirts and day-glo, fluorescent pink or lime green crop tops; tanned midriffs, arms and shoulders bared to maximum effect and with the most spectacular two-tone suede boots, gravity testing stilleto-ed shoes blinged to the max with sparkling rhinestones or, when the new shoes hurt, bare feet. Teen lads move around in packs, effortlessly James Dean cool in tight t-shirts (often even with a cigarette packet tucked in the sleeve), tighter jeans and yet tighter muscles testifying to a life spent working with horses, bareknuckle fighting and just, well, just being cool.
Parents and grandparents have the look of those who have lived lives on the outside, in all senses. Weathered and well fed, the men have hands that look as if manually wrenching a living from a recalcitrant life has been their lot while the women veer from exuding a wiry energy to extruding from clothing two sizes shy of flattering. They all are cautious and guarded, perhaps used to insults and rejection, but friendly. A cheery “good morning’ is reciprocated here, a question is politely answered there. A request to take a photo is met with a smiling “Go on help yourself’ or ‘Of course you can fella.” There is no sense of threat, no background radiation of suppressed or impending violence, none of the angst that the good burghers of Stow had warned me about. Just hard-working, hard-living people gathered for trade and exchange, graciously putting up with the hordes of rubbernecking tourists, here to take pictures, buy souvenirs and absorb a little of a lifestyle largely gone and increasing vilified.
Mind you this isn’t all bucolic rural charm. The caged cocks with the huge, vicious-looking spurs weren’t there for food. The dogs tied up around the perimeter, guarding the caravans and possessions, weren’t called Muffy and certainly weren’t over-fed, over-pampered pooches. Doubtless after the sun goes down and the drinking starts, things warm up. My guide told me tales of knife fights and mortal stabbings. The police presence in the town was as overt as in a Trafalgar Square university fee demo. To be fair, the stabbing had been some years ago and the constabulary was charm personified but you take the point.
And therein lies the rub. Given that Stow-on-the-Wold’s fame and fortune is historically based on such fairs, you might imagine that the residents would welcome those who attract coach loads of incomers into their curio shops and cafes, hostels and hostelries; that Stow would know which side its bread is buttered on. Sadly not. The general air when the fair’s in town is that ‘people from off’ are coming and it’s time to shut up shop. One of the big hotels in the square literally barricades its doors. Many small businesses clear the stock from view and close for the duration. An unattractive haughtiness descends upon some of the permanent residents. There is sneering at some of the dress sense on display, a general unfriendliness, an overt snobbery directed at the descendents of the very folk who helped make Stow what it is today by those who are living on the fat that previous generations of those ‘people from off’ helped to create.
I was told a story that a former Lord of the Manor was so against the whole affair he prevented it from happening at all in Stow’s domain during his tenure. I heard also that while the very field in which the fair takes place is owned outright by the travelers, bought by them to protect their right to convene in the face of fierce local opposition, they are oddly – and unfairly – prevented from actually setting up there, on their own land, until immediately beforehand, thereby forcing them to make do in the verges of local lanes until the appointed hour when they can gain access.
Of course there is bound to be partisanship in such situations, but it strikes this correspondent that when so much legislation is created to ensure parity, fairness and equality in a nation that historically prides itself on diversity and offering a warm welcome to the oppressed, dispossessed and downtrodden, there is a small corner of our national psyche that is blind to that which is before eyes, a band of folk who choose an alternative lifestyle that brings colour, heritage and a tang of smokey authenticity and that stems our relentless fall into a homogenised blandness.
There is an unattributed couplet “Stow on the Wold where the wind blows cold and the cooks can’t roast their dinners.” It could easily describe the welcome the town offers and may come from a rhyme about Brill in Buckinghamshire that runs:
At Brill on the hill
The wind blows shrill
The cooks no meat can dress
The wind blows cold
I know no more than this.
I know that that Stow’s cutesy charm hides a darker, unattractive streak and that - as my Grandmother used to say in another context - it is “all fur coat and no knickers.’ Not much good when the wind’s even colder than the welcome then.