Unwrecked England: Bampton, Oxfordshire

Swooping down from Buckland to Tadpole Bridge, the upper reaches of the Thames vale spreads flat and willowy, to low horizons ahead. Over Meadow and ShillBrooks and past the cricket pitch the pale gold stone village of Bampton begins along the slow curve of Buckland Road. The Gables, a grand Arts and Crafts house secreting an earlier one behind, stretches along the roadside and opposite there is a pretty early Georgian cottage with a shell hood over its front door. The road widens into the triangular Market Square where a towering plane tree stands in the middle beside the Italianate looking Town Hall. The scale of everything  in Bampton is modest and utterly satisfactory: its small, well to do Georgian houses and cottages around Lavender Square and along the High street have names like The Elms or Prospect House and everywhere you look  seems to be the perfect setting for a Miss Marple novel. Even the butcher’s on Bridge Street (whose sausages were recently voted the best inBritain), has its original old shop windows.

Bampton calls itself a village but in fact it was once a  market town known as Bampton in the Bush, because of its inaccessibility up until the seventeenth century. I walked up Church View and found the great  golden parish church of St Mary with its crisply carved Norman doorways and a thirteenth century buttressed spire which soars 170 foot into the sky and used to act as a beacon to lost travelers. Each buttress is pinnacled at its base by an apostle in flowing drapery. (One of them fell off in the 1990s and now sits inside the church). The graveyard contains grand lichen speckled table tombs and around it is a reserved and peaceful cathedral close in miniature. This quiet backwater is famous now for its starring background role in the TV series Downton Abbey. There are unadulterated Georgian houses along a little road called Landells, a handsome rectory  and a beautiful seventeenth century deanery  which was once the summer residence of the Deans of Exeter. But the star of the show is the old Grammar school founded in 1635 by a prosperous wool merchant called Robert Veysey. It now serves as one of the best small town libraries in the land with its pale lofty, lavender painted school room. It was packed with local children when I went to read one of my father’s poems there as part of their moving and impressive demonstration against an imminent axing by the government.

The manor house just north  of the church is set in an enormous lake of mauve crocuses and yellow aconites which have spread into a solid mass since they were first planted fifty years ago. On Bampton’s  western outskirts Weald Manor’s 1730 beauty is  half hidden behind high walls and across the road from it a track leads over a field to the romantic vestiges of Bampton  Castle, and  a straggle of stone barns. All around are the remnants of a large moat encircling  the Earl of Pembroke’s ancient domain, crenellated in 1315. Only a bit of curtilage wall and a  beautiful gatehouse remain, secreted behind a modest Victorian house and looking out  across meadows to the spirit-lifting spire of St Mary’s.

Bampton’s most celebrated sons are its Morris dancers who were much praised by Cecil Sharp. The pre Christian tradition of Morris Dancing  has been  established here for centuries and the town boasts three teams. On the Spring bank holiday  you can see what scholars call “Cotswold Morris” performed in front of many of the older houses all over  town. Wearing black hats trimmed with flowers the men dress in white, bells strapped to their shins and dance to a fiddle player, waving their handkerchiefs. There is a traditional fool known as the “squire” and a “sword bearer” who holds a fertility cake on his sword and distributes it to bystanders.

 

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