Wealth from Wool
Nestled in the rolling hills of the north Cotswolds, Chipping Norton is well-known as an historic market town. The manor of Norton originated in the Anglo-Saxon period, and is mentioned in the Domesday Book. The town is known to have received its market charter in 1204, from which it gained the appellation Chipping, from the Old English for market (cíeping).
By the 14th and 15th centuries, in common with many towns in north Oxfordshire, the town was a wealthy outpost of the wool trade. Much of the church was rebuilt in the 15th century with bequests derived from wealthy wool merchants. In the late 17th and early 18th centuries there was significant gentrification and rebuilding in Chipping Norton, with many structures being built in the Baroque style, influenced by nearby Blenheim Palace and Heythrop Park.
By the 19th century the town had become known as a centre for the production of tweed, thanks to the presence of the Bliss Tweed Mill. This palatial mill structure was re-built in 1872 after a substantial fire destroyed the previous Lower Mill. It is still providing a notable major landmark when approaching the town from the west. The Bliss family became the town’s largest employer and were the local benefactors of a great deal of local building work. Today the town is known for its picturesque market place, and continues to provide a popular trading place, with its market still taking place weekly.
Recent focus on buildings
Several books on the social and local history of Chipping Norton have been published over the years, but little is known about the buildings of the town. The burgage plots of the early town plan are still evident, though few are accessible (being in private ownership and having been gradually built over). Little study has been made of their history or that of the buildings that sit on them.
During 2012, three keen local enthusiasts of historic architecture (John Marshall, Victoria Hubbard and Jan Cliffe), set up the Chipping Norton Buildings Record, with a view to recording as many of the town’s older buildings as possible. They were later joined by Paul Clark from the Oxfordshire Buildings Record, and by Dr Adrienne Rosen, who undertook documentary research. The Chipping Norton Historical Research Group, of which Jan and Adrienne are founder members, had been transcribing wills and collecting a wealth of information since 2002. This information has proved invaluable to the project.
During October 2013 an application to take part in Historic England’s Early Fabric in Historic Towns project was submitted and agreed. The duration of the project was to be two years. This provided the finance to support those working on the project, funding for publication, and additional money to enable a programme of dendrochronological dating to be carried out on some of the buildings of the town.
Objectives for the project were established, including:
- to improve understanding of the morphology and development of the town plan
- to investigate the architectural evolution of the town’s buildings
- to identify early plan forms of houses, shops and inns
- to understand the dates when various vernacular details of materials, carpentry, fenestration, architectural decoration, fixtures and fittings were introduced
- to convey the results of this research to a wider audience.
Surveying the fabric
The study of the town aimed to include as many buildings as possible, and to identify any earlier structures that might be standing hidden behind later facades. To achieve this the survey was broken down into levels.
First of all each area of the town was subject to a ‘level 1’ or street survey. Each area in the historic core of the town was surveyed to investigate its streetscape. Each building was examined, taking into account such matters as roof coverings and chimneys; fenestration, doorways, and facade detailing; evidence for internal plan form, cellars and rear access. The level 1 surveys encouraged a more intense look at each and every building. Often a small clue would spark an interest. Local knowledge helped a great deal, as an ordinary-looking facade would occasionally hide a gem of a building.
Following this a ‘level 2’ or brief survey of the interiors of selected buildings was undertaken, partly to assess the potential for a more detailed analysis. Finally, these ‘level 3’ or full surveys were undertaken. These included measured drawings, building analysis, assessment of documentary evidence and the preparation of a report of findings.
Every aspect of these detailed surveys has proved invaluable. The documentary evidence has often supported or discounted theories regarding possible building dates. The measured surveys have occasionally brought anomalies to light which had not previously been obvious. Some of the more complex buildings required numerous visits; this is where good relationships with the owner/occupiers have been essential.
The two years have now passed, and the project has gone from strength to strength. Enthusiasm for the project from those who live and work in these buildings has been a source of great pleasure to the team and without the co-operation of the many owners and tenants who offered their buildings to be surveyed the project would not have achieved its aims.
One of the objectives was to investigate the morphology of the town’s development and the layout of its burgage plots. Here, Dr Antonia Catchpole was commissioned to offer her suggestions as to when the market place was laid out. No documents relating to the town’s foundation exist, but from the plot dimensions Antonia concluded Chipping Norton in its current form was laid out in the mid- to late-12th century. The charter of 1204 for the annual fair would indicate Chipping Norton was thriving by this time.
Part of the funding from Historic England was aimed at providing scientific dating evidence for some of the buildings. Dr Martin Bridge has undertaken dendrochronological research on a selection of those structures which contained suitable timbers. The final reports are pending, though two buildings which were suspected to be medieval have indeed been dated to the mid-15th century.
The outcomes from the research so far are being analysed with the aim of producing a book for sale locally and an article for the national journal Vernacular Architecture. Reports on individual buildings will be deposited in the Oxfordshire Historic Environment Record.
Celebrating medieval origins
One of the joys of the project has been its ability to reveal to owners and occupiers how old their properties may be. Internal features such as beams are the perfect resource to use when explaining how a building is dated.
It has been a pleasure to watch owners’ delight and sometimes surprise, particularly when informed that they are using a medieval building. It is quite exhilarating to watch the change in opinion that results, the suddenly enhanced understanding, appreciation and sense of a building’s value.
The project has been a celebration of these buildings in their own right, as well as of the setting of the market town. We hope the enthusiasm and deepened understanding it has created will help to ensure Chipping Norton’s heritage assets ‒ be they buildings, decorative features or the streetscape of the town itself ‒ are nurtured and retained.
Victoria Hubbard, MSc worked for many years running her busy, locally-based business before undertaking a Masters degree in Historic Conservation, after which she became one of the founder members of the Chipping Norton Buildings Record. She is now the project co-ordinator for the Early English Fabric Project.
Also of interest...
This page outlines Historic England’s programme of projects looking at early urban buildings and provides details of projects currently being funded.