“Chippy” for short, Chipping Norton is a classic Cotswold market town, with monuments and houses made from the trademark yellowy limestone.
The town has long ties to the woollen trade.
The striking Church of St Mary is a wool church, reflecting the wealth of Medieval wool merchants whose memorials decorate the church’s north aisle.
A Victorian landmark for Chipping Norton is the Bliss Tweed Mill, built to process this wool and looking more palatial than any factory has a right to be.
And true to the Cotswolds, Chipping Norton has a rather exclusive reputation helped in part by the Chipping Norton set, a cabal of local movers and shakers, with former PM David Cameron and newspaper editor Rebekah Brooks in their ranks.
1. The Cotswolds
If you had to pick a patch of the country epitomising the English countryside, the Cotswolds would be up there.
This is a limestone escarpment, protected as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, with a rippling green landscape of rolling hills, scarps, limestone plateaus and valleys.
Embedded in this landscape are villages and towns built from the underlying oolitic limestone, which has a mesmeric yellowy tone that can vary from place to place.
Chipping Norton is one such town, and as we’ll see the local countryside yields stately homes, gardens and captivating prehistoric monuments.
2. Rollright Stones
On the Oxfordshire-Warwickshire border there are three mysterious stone monuments dating back as old as five millennia.
The Rollright Stones span roughly 2,000 years of development from the Neolithic to the Bronze Age.
Their names alone – the Whispering Knights burial chamber, the King’s Men stone circle and the King Stone – are taken from folklore, and stories about a king and his knights turned to stone by a witch.
The earliest monument is the Whispering Knights, a portal dolmen, while the image most often associated with Rollright is the King’s Men Stone Circle, 33 metres in diameter and comprising 77 individual stones.
Then, 76 metres from the circle is the King Stone, a lone monolith 2.6 metres and mooted as an astrological marker.
The Rollright Stones still capture people’s imaginations and are a pilgrimage site for Contemporary Pagans.
3. Church of St Mary
Chipping Norton’s parish church is a mix of different Medieval Gothic styles, from Early English in the 12th century to Gothic Survival some 500 years later.
Founded in the 1100s, the Church of St Mary was reworked and enlarged over the next few hundred years.
There are some fragments from that first 12th-century building in the west wall of the nave, which mostly dates to around 1585. The chancel and aisles show evidence of reconstruction from the 13th and 14th century.
As for monuments, look for the Renaissance alabaster chest tombs to Thomas Rickardes (d.1570) and his wife on the north aisle, which also has brasses, mostly from the 15th century commemorating Chipping Norton’s wealthy wool merchants.
The font is 14th-century, with blind traceried panels, while the church’s lovely stained glass is all 19th-century.
4. Bliss Tweed Mill
Cutting a dominant figure on the west side of town, this Grade II* monument looks more like an Italianate palace than a factory.
Dating to 1872 and built to manufacture fine tweed cloth from local wool, the Bliss Tweed Mill’s only giveaway is its colossal chimney, but even this is designed like a Tuscan column and emanates from a dome.
At the corners of this five-storey building, made from the unmistakable local limestone are balustraded towers crested with stone urns.
The mill closed in 1980 and within a few years had been turned into apartments.
5. Chipping Norton Museum
Open Monday to Saturday, this independent museum is on the first floor of the Chipping Norton Co-op Society on the High Street, dating from the 1880s.
The small but well-curated exhibition covers the town’s past, starting in prehistory, and with artefacts excavated close by from Roman and Saxon times.
There’s a very detailed display of vintage farming equipment, a hands-on exhibition with a kitchen from the interwar period, lots of black and white photography and a rare collection of more than 2,000 postcards depicting the town and its surroundings.
At nos. 1-4 on Church Street, Chipping Norton’s almshouses are almost as they were when founded in 1640 by the Puritan, Henry Cornish, save for some 19th-century adjustments.
Cornish was part of the first corporation in charge of Chipping Norton, and had 12 children, but none lived beyond their 30s and ten died in childhood.
There’s a memorial brass on the south wall St Mary’s for one son, also Henry, who died at just nine.
The absence of an heir might explain the generosity behind the Almshouses.
These were intended for eight widows, and Cornish would recognise their elongated chimneys and mullioned windows, although eight snug dwellings have since been converted to four.
7. Town Hall
After the Municipal Corporations Act of 1835 Chipping Norton became a borough and so built itself a Neoclassical town hall in 1843. This solemn porticoed building holds sway at the bottom end of the High Street.
The Town Hall filled all sort of roles in its time.
There was a jail here with four cells, while the arches underneath (now filled in) held a butter and poultry market.
The Town Hall also weighed coal, hosted live entertainment, and served as a corn exchange on Wednesdays.
Still owned by the council, this monument is now hired out for weddings and meetings.
Containing council offices and Chipping Norton tourist information point, this building just off the high street is among the oldest in Chipping Norton.
In the early 16th century the Guildhall was made up of three bays, with a further two added in the 18th century and another arriving to the north in the 19th century.
It’s not hard to see which parts are older, as the 16th-century portion has mullioned windows and Tudor arches.
The doorway on the east front has chamfered jambs and quatrefoils carved into its spandrels.
9. The Theatre Chipping Norton
Both a producing and receiving theatre, this venue is a former Salvation Army citadel.
The building dates from 1888 and its past was forgotten after a few decades as a furniture warehouse.
In 1968 it was “rediscovered” and within a few years work had begun on turning the building into a theatre, which opened in 1975. On a typical night there might be a play (produced locally or on tour), stand-up comedians, a children’s show, live music, a movie (new releases) or screening from a famous cultural institution like National Theatre.
The theatre is also an anchor for the Chipping Norton Literary Festival in late-April, staging readings, talks and writers’ workshops.
10. Chastleton House
A Jacobean wonder, Chastleton House was part of the village, and made use of local amenities like the fishpond, bakehouse and laundry, which would otherwise have been part of a property of this scale.
The National Trust has worked to conserve the house as it was when it was occupied, rather than restore it.
Among the many things to savour are the Renaissance-style Great Chamber, with fine panelling and roundels on the frieze representing the twelve prophets of the Old Testament and the twelve Prophetesses of Antiquity.
The Long Gallery (22 metres) has a barrel vaulted ceiling, while you have to take a close look at the 16th-century tapestry in the Middle Chamber and the Juxon Bible, carried by Bishop Juxon at Charles I’s execution.
The gardens are Grade II listed, and shine for their kitchen garden, topiary in the Best Garden and a mulberry tree believed to be more than 400 years old.
11. Batsford Arboretum
Algernon Freeman-Mitford, the 1st Baron Redesdale (1837-1916) was a widely travelled diplomat, and when he inherited the Batsford Park estate in 1886 he set about planting Japanese and Chinese trees that he had collected.
The arboretum is in 55 acres, growing around 2,900 trees, a large portion of which are Japanese pines, maples and magnolias.
Among these is the national collection for sakura, Japanese flowering cherries, which put on an unforgettable spectacle when they bloom in the last couple of weeks of April (weather-permitting). Slightly earlier, the daffodils are an annual highlight, as is the handkerchief tree in May, while the wildflower meadows come into their own in high summer.
The stylish Garden Terrace Cafe is a great place to finish up; it’s above the arboretum’s own garden centre.
12. The Lido
Back in the 1960s Chipping Norton’s inhabitants started raising funds for an outdoor pool, and this opened in 1970. The Lido is just the place as any to while away a summer afternoon with your family.
The pool is 25 metres and benefits bored children in the summer holidays as much as early-morning swimmers out for some exercise.
In 2010 photovoltaic cells were fitted on the roofs, powering the lido and its amenities in summer, and providing income when the pool is closed in the winter.
There’s a well-tended lawn and picnic tables next to the pool, as well as a cafe so you won’t even have to bring a picnic.
13. Heythrop Zoological Gardens
Not a zoo in the traditional sense, Heythrop Zoological Gardens is an animal training centre, supplying animals for movies, commercials, television, music videos, photo shoots, CGI, theatre and much more.
And while you can’t just show up for a visit, Heythrop does arrange private animal encounters.
You can meet trained foxes, skunks, squirrel monkeys, ravens, penguins and wolves, and come to feed penguins.
On three days in September Heythrop also opens up to the public for open days, when the zoo’s staff give training demonstrations and talks.
14. Station Mill Antiques Centre
No well-heeled country town would be complete without an antiques centre, and the one on Station Road in Chipping Norton has more than 80 dealers under one roof.
Over two levels and with a total floor space of 11,000 square metres, Station Mill has a bit of everything, from all sorts of collectibles to furniture, ceramics, kitchenalia, jewellery, vintage signage, clocks, light fittings and all manner of eccentric finds.
The centre is open seven days a week and has clued-up staff able to point you in the right direction.
15. Fairytale Farm
Like a small theme park, Fairytale Farm is a kids’ attraction across six zones.
The stars of the show are the farm’s animals, ranging from familiar farmyard friends like donkeys, sheep (lambs in season), goats, pigs and ponies, to a few more exotic species like rheas and alpacas.
On the Rabbit Walk little ones will be able to interact with sociable rabbits and guinea pigs.
Fairytale Farm’s animal paddocks are joined by different zones themed on fairytales.
The Enchanted Walk has a street occupied by characters like Little Red Riding Hood and Goldilocks, as well as activity panels, animatronics, a sensory garden and “dancing fountains”. There’s also a garden based on Snow White in Jack’s Yard, while Huff and Puff is an adventure playground with a model combine harvester and a bowling alley.