CHIPPING NORTON - or
"Chippy" as we call it in these parts - is still a real town - not yet entirely
a tourist place. Its not pretty in the way that Broadway is pretty, or smart like
Stow-on-the-Wold. But those of us who live here like it this way. As someone memorably
observed, "Chippy" has the last fish and chip shop for 30 miles in the
Cheltenham direction. "Chippy" is still the kind of town with "real"
shops where the lady in the bank is the wife of the hairdresser who is the brother of your
builder. "Chippy" is geographically mixed up. Move twenty miles in any direction
and you know exactly where you are - the Midlands, the South West, the Home Counties or
the South of England. But "Chippy" itself is not truly in any of one of these
regions - marooned on its North Oxfordshire ridge in a kind of windy no-man's land.
Certainly the weather comes from all directions.
"Chippy" can be schizophrenic. Our last MP was elected as a Conservative and
switched sides...and didn't stay to face the music. Our District Councillors have usually
been Labour or Independent but a local stalwart like Mike Howes can get elected - despite
his Tory Party label. No stereotypes here! Perhaps "Chippy's" quirkiness is
characterised by the fact that one acknowledged -albeit ageing - icon of Britain's
"yoof" culture lives in an exquisite Georgian house on the edge of town - and
failed to scandalise anyone when he imported a huge American fighter plane to decorate his
front drive. "Live and let live" also seems to be the principle that allows
Brecht and Christmas Pantos to happily co-exist at the "Chippy" theatre.
Until not too long ago
"Chippy" - apart from being a small market town - had a real industrial base in
wool and tweed production but the impressive Victorian Bliss Tweed Mill is now
converted into flats - although its chimney remains the main landmark and signature of the
town. Furniture manufacture survives and Parker Knoll's factory seems to be thriving.
"Chippy" remains a Co-op stronghold. They have deep roots in the town and still
own a sizeable chunk of the Market Square. A couple of years ago they made a huge
investment by undertaking a really impressive and sympathetic conversion of some of their
old Market Square buildings into a modern department store retaining the original
facades."Chippy" still has its own mayor and its own town council - a hangover
from some mediaeval charter. "Chippy" is probably like the East End of London
used to be - hanging on Canute-like in the face of encroaching gentility. It
certainly makes an interesting place to run an art gallery.
"Chippy" has a lot to offer urban refugees. After all,
its not very far from Oxford. Charlbury is only an hour from Paddington. We are slap
in the middle of an area of outstanding beauty. "Chippy" is chocabloc with
lovely Georgian houses and little mews terraces. The "wool church" has a truly
magnificent nave and clerestory. We have a stunning 200-seat theatre, which Tamara Malcolm
has fought tenaciously to keep going since it was created from the old Salvation Army
hall. The Theatre has an amazingly wide-ranging programme of touring productions
throughout the year. It also has a delightful art gallery and crafts shop. There is a
bookshop in town which is so expertly run that it always seems to have exactly what you're
looking for (and recently guaranteed a continued - and hopefully prosperous - existence by
its new owner Patrick Neale).
Harpers is a
do-it-yourself shop that comes as a revelation to weekending Londoners. There are two real
butchers, two bakers who sell "real" bread, a marvellous delicatessen and a
Farmers Market. There are a dozen excellent antique shops. Restaurants come and
go... on its day the Anarkali is one of the best Indians you will find. But times are
changing......Bliss Mill, the 30's cinema, the old telephone exchange, most of the town's
garages and the local workhouse have all been converted into expensive flats and houses.
Our old open air swimming pool is going the same way. A very stylish multi-million
pound Leisure Centre is now in business. The listed Lutyens-style old Post Office has
become the headquarters of the Vintage Car Society. "Chippy" is the home
of the Benetton Grand Prix racing team. The Business Park is booming and seems to be full
of IT-type companies.
a gem of a place. Worth catching while it stays real. But perhaps its too late and the
moment has already past. What else to make of the big article in the September 2001
edition of "The Tatler" (no less). Having proclaimed Oxfordshire as the
"sexiest county in Britain" us locals were startled to read that the
"hottest spot is West Oxfordshire - in particular between Chipping Norton and
Blenheim" and worse..."One eminent local described Chippy as the county's
G-spot". Much more garbage like that and it really will be time to run up the white
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