diamond geezer

 Wednesday, January 25, 2023

Gadabout: BANBURY

For my first long distance jaunt of 2023 I've been to north Oxfordshire to the market town of Banbury. To help you get your bearings, Banbury sits about halfway between Oxford and Coventry and is the only major town for miles. It also sits astride four important north-south connections - the River Cherwell, the Oxford Canal, the railway and the M40. It's best known for a nursery rhyme but it's not all cock horses, the town has many other fine features. I set myself a quest to find seven of them. [Visit Banbury] [6 photos]

Ride a cock-horse to Banbury Cross,
To see a fine lady upon a white horse,
With rings on her fingers and bells on her toes,
She shall have music wherever she goes
Quest 1 - find Banbury Cross

Banbury once had three crosses - the High Cross (in West Bar), the Bread Cross (on the High Street) and the Market Cross (in Cornhill). It's not known which of these was being referred to in the nursery rhyme. More awkwardly all three crosses were destroyed by puritans in the early 1600s, the local population being a joylessly religious bunch several decades before the rest of the country got to live under Cromwell's rule. It took until 1859 for the town to build a replacement cross, a 16m spire to celebrate the marriage of Queen Victoria's eldest daughter. Just don't expect to get up close because it sits in the middle of a small roundabout at the top of the High Street.

Check the neighbouring street corner, however, and you'll find a rather nice statue of a woman on horseback. It's official name is The Fine Lady Upon A White Horse Statue and it was unveiled in 2005 by... who else?... the Princess Royal. Visually the horse is very much black because the statue's in bronze, but if you read the nursery rhyme inscribed around the sides of the plinth the correct colour should be evident. Rings and bells are present in the appropriate anatomical locations. Look out too for a beaming solar face on the side of a nearby metal planter, the Sun being the centrepiece of Banbury's coat of arms.

Quest 2 - find Banbury's Grade I listed building

That'd be St Mary's church which you can't miss because its classical domed tower soars above most rooftops. It would have been the oldest building in town except parishioners knocked down the original in the 1790s and built this extraordinary confection instead. A ring of decorated pillars supports a central dome above a huge open space with excellent lines of sight ("a circle within an octagon within a square"), all beautifully painted and lit with sparkling chandeliers. Behind the altar is a gilded apse and round the walls are gorgeous stained glass windows depicting parables and the life of Christ which look modern but are actually Victorian. No other 18th century English parish church is larger.

I had trouble getting in thanks to a set of automatic doors triggered by movement sensors, one of which doesn't currently work. I had to be rescued by one of the volunteers on duty who led me inside and proceeded to enthuse about his very favourite building. I don't think they get that many visitors, indeed on a frosty Tuesday in January I was likely Banbury's sole tourist, so I was treated almost like royalty as I made positive noises about the place. It was a socially awkward but utterly charming encounter, and I left with an undeserved free gift and no chance to say a proper thankyou.

Quest 3 - find a Banbury Cake

The town's culinary speciality is the Banbury cake, a sweet pastry first recorded in the Tudor times. Some would argue it's very very much like an Eccles cake, being filled with currants, mixed peel and sugar, but it's usually more oval in shape and tends to contain a dash of rum. For over three centuries you could buy a batch at The Original Cake Shop in Parsons Street but postwar redevelopment thoughtlessly demolished that, thereby making my quest much harder. I assumed Banbury would have at least one independent bakery somewhere and set out to explore the central streets and back alleys. I found a lot of tasteful shops dotted round what was clearly a historic street pattern - yes, very nice - but only found cafes and a Greggs (and a heck of a lot of barbers shops), so absolutely zero luck on the Banbury cake front, dammit.

Quest 4 - find Banbury Castle

No chance. Banbury's concentric pentagonal castle led a fairly quiet life until it found itself in the thick of the English Civil War. The Battle of Edgehill was fought a few miles away in 1642 and the castle duly found itself under siege from Royalist forces. A couple of years later sides had switched and it was the Parliamentarians trying to get in, which they eventually managed when they came back two years later. After the war the castle was deliberately demolished to prevent it becoming a flashpoint ever again, and its stone was used to help rebuild the town centre which had suffered somewhat. So it's all gone.

Head to Castle Street today and you'll find a lacklustre landscape of car parks and access roads plus the backside of the Castle Quay shopping centre. This was the town's attempt to modernise itself in the 1970s, a triangular mall retaining one dramatic historic facade which now conceals multiple generic high street brands behind. Unfortunately the lead tenant was Debenhams and they shut up shop in 2021, then last year H&M pulled out and the eastern end now has a tumbleweed quality. The rest's doing alright though, including Lock 29 which is Banbury's first attempt at streetfood/craftbeer relevance.

Quest 5 - find Banbury Museum

Often town museums are housed in historic buildings, of which Banbury has plenty, but this one's in a grey box erected by the canal in 2002. You can enter direct from Spiceball Park Road (yes, the town's largest park has a really odd name) but better to enter from the shopping centre (via what counts as a tourist information centre but is really a gift shop), then up onto a bridge that doubles as an observation gallery (telling the story of the waterway below). That's a lift bridge down there (which passing narrowboaters still need to shift) and alongside is Tooley's Boatyard (which is much older than its ridged glasshouse structure suggests).

If you want to see the museum's current Star Wars exhibition that's £7.50 and if you just want the town's history that's upstairs and free. Banbury has quite a backstory from agricultural centre to Civil War hotspot to cloth-making hub. In the 18th century the town was known for plush, a shaggy worsted fabric, several examples of which are on display. Banbury's post-agricultural recession was lifted in the 20th century by the arrival of the Northern Aluminium Company, later Alcan, and in the 1960s Bird's Custard shifted down from Birmingham. Today it's the convenience of the M40 bringing prosperity, mostly thanks to logistics hubs fed by articulated lorries, and a circuit of the museum won't take long but it's nicely done.

Quest 6 - find a nice cup of coffee

Hands up, I don't drink coffee but I do adore the smell. Hurrah then that Banbury contains the world's largest coffee-processing facility, or at least it did in 1964 when the Bird's move took place. Today it's owned by Jacobs Douwe Egberts and continues to belch a lot of steam into the air over Ruscote Avenue. I got fairly close and can confirm that the delights of ground beans reached my nostrils, although it wasn't as strong as I'd hoped and I was more impressed to be gazing at the epicurean temple that once churned out Angel Delight.

Quest 7 - find western Europe's largest cattle market

Again no chance, sorry. The megasized market by the station opened in the 1920s and continued to thrive thanks to Banbury's extensive arable hinterland until 1998 when mad cow disease made it uneconomic. Today the site's covered by modern housing, a primary school and a mosque, of which only the latter has any architectural interest. Officially the cattle market was in Grimsbury, not Banbury, along with everywhere else to the east of the Cherwell. I walked too many of Grimsbury's streets all the way out to the border with Northamptonshire because I had time to waste before my train left, and then I thought I'd give my Banbury cake quest one last try.

Quest 3 again - find a Banbury Cake

I had ten spare minutes so I nipped back into the Tourist Information Centre and asked whether Banbury still had any independent bakeries. Well there's erm well no, said the nice lady, I don't think we do. But if it's Banbury cakes you want then we sell them here, look, in packets of three, as manufactured by a descendent of the original bakery dynasty. So I handed over £3.50 for a trio of properly homemade fruity parcels and gobbled one down before I got back to the station. I can see where the Eccles cake reference comes from but this was a bit lighter and a bit sweeter, and hell yes I am very much looking forward to eating my two remaining souvenirs of a spicy little gadabout.

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