Chipping Norton: The Town that Moved Up Hill

Chipping Norton Town Hall

Chippy, as locals call it, is one of the highest towns in the Cotswolds, but this was not always the case.

It began down in the valley of the River Glyme – the earthworks of the Norman castle built to keep the locals in order are still there. But the local lord William FitzAlan had ambitions to make the town a major centre, so he built a huge market square (bigger than area it covers today) up the hill.

Alley way in Chipping Norton

Houses were built to surround the market space, and the long, narrow alleyways behind them remain, showing that these were burgage plots: long, narrow sites that gave every shop a window onto the High Street – this is the origin of the phrase ‘window shopping’.

The medieval buildings around the market place benefitted from a makeover after 1704. The construction of Blenheim Palace down the road made the ornate baroque style fashionable, and lots of Chippy’s main buildings got a makeover with smooth-stoned, symmetrical frontages.

Bliss Mill

However, cattle, horses and sheep were still sold here, as well as wool, which led to the development of the town’s weaving industry and the building of the iconic Bliss Mill. The Bliss family played a huge role in the development of Chippy before they hit hard times and sold up in 1895.

The new management pushed down wages and resisted the rise of the workers’ rights movement. This led to a strike that is famous in trade union history, and one of Chippy’s alarmingly regular ‘riots’ as 50 policeman were needed to hold back picketing strikers when their fellow workers headed to do a shift at the mill.

Bliss Mill, Chipping Norton
Bliss Mill dates from 1872. Its distinctive chimney has been likened to a sink plunger!

Town Hall

Another uprising led to the 1845 trial of a policeman called Charles Knott who was over eager in calming down a belligerent pub customer, bashing him over the head with his cosh. The poor chap was flung into a cell underneath the new Town Hall. When they opened up the next day, he was dead. The policeman was found ‘not guilty’ because his victim, rather conveniently, was found to have an unusually thin skull.

Chipping Norton Town Hall
Mr Slatter, the pub brawler who got bashed over the head, was kept in the cells here in the newly built Town Hall.

Rock ‘n’ Roll

There were 20 coachhouses in Chippy at one time, giving customers and horses a welcome respite from the bumpy roads. When rail took over, many continued as pubs, and legendary drummer with The Who, Keith Moon, briefly owned one here from 1970

Many of his mates from the music industry would have been the other side of the bar, for the town had a recording studio from 1972 to 1997. Its walls echoes to hits such as ‘Bye Bye Baby’ from the Bay City Rollers, ‘Too Shy’ by Kajagoogoo, and ‘Baker Street’ by Gerry Rafferty.
Today the town is a hidden gem in the Cotswolds, with independent shops, a wonderful ‘Woolgothic’ church, and a terrific theatre that lives in an old Salvation Army chapel and puts on one of the top pantomimes in the country every year.
… Oh yes it does!

A bit about the author

Sean Callery runs regular walking tours of Chipping Norton through his Offbeat Cotswolds guiding operation ( www.offbeatcotswolds.com ).
He is a Blue Badge Guide for the Heart of England.

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