TRAVEL3 March 2024

Take a trip to...Stow-on-the-Wold

WORDS BY Katie Jarvis

We meet Ben Eddolls, the Mayor of Stow-on-the-Wold, a ceremonial role that also involves chairing the town council. He takes us through what is special about this Cotswolds town.

Ben, what makes Stow-on-the-Wold a top town?

We’re literally a top town. At 800ft up, we’re the highest town in the Cotswolds. I grew up on a little farm in the Thames Valley, near Lechlade, and I’ve seen plenty of other small market towns wither. But there’s something about Stow – and I can’t quite put my finger on it – that means it’s thriving. For one thing, we’ve excellent pubs and hotels offering places to be sociable as well as some very fine cuisine.

What do you value about living in Stow?

I’m a country bumpkin so I like the countryside: the slower pace of life; the lack of crime. But I also find the people very interesting. They’re an eclectic mix here. You might think, ‘Lots of them are retired’, which is true. But you get chatting, find out what they’ve done in life, and you realise there’s nothing boring about them at all.

What would you recommend for children?

The rugby club brought me to Stow. It’s fantastic. Founded in 1879, we’re very fortunate that (thanks to far-sightedness) we bought the club grounds in the 1970s. The then-club chairman, John Wright – a larger than life character – and the local bank manager had a meeting with an agent, who said to John, ‘I don’t know why you’re here. The club can’t afford to buy these grounds.’

The bank manager said, ‘Oh, yes, they can!’ and wrote a cheque out there and then: a loan that we paid back. That was in the days when a bank manager had clout.

Nowadays, we have a very vibrant club: 350 junior players, men’s and women’s teams.

Rugby is very good for children: you might be playing with a multi-millionaire, but it doesn’t matter. Everything comes down to a level playing-field on that pitch. Plus, you need total respect for the referee - and you need to get along with people. It’s rough-and-tumble on the pitch; but, when you’re off it, you make some very good friends with your opponents.

We’ve got people who come from London to their country cottage out here specifically to put the kids into the rugby club.

Name the best things to do for free in Stow…

To start with, I’d say: walk round the unique medieval town square. Whenever I come back home after being away, I make a point of driving through because it is lovely. We’ve photographs taken over 100 years ago and you wouldn’t see any difference other than cars. Then there are all the independent shops: it’s becoming a little bit of a mecca.

I’d also recommend having a look at the church [St Edward’s] with its ‘Tolkien’ door. There are two yew trees either side: it was supposed to be JRR Tolkien’s inspiration for the Doors of Durin. The doorway appears in one of the Lord of the Rings films, and visitors come from all over to see it.

Best walk in and around Stow?

There are lots. The Cotswold Way and the Monarch’s Way [long distance footpaths] come down through the town. There are also walks around local villages, including one that takes in Donnington Brewery! Our Visitor Information Centre [in the library, Market Square] can supply a walks leaflet.

It’s interesting to stroll around the town itself. When wool was king, there was a massive market in the centre, where something like 20,000 sheep would be sold. They’d use the town’s narrow alleyways – known as tures – as makeshift sheep pens.

Which are your favourite town festivals?

A big event is the Christmas Tree Festival, where businesses, schools, clubs and associations each decorate a tree, all of which are sold off for charity. There’s a competition for best tree, and the themes people choose are really good fun. There’s a café called the Hive, which put bees all over theirs. Stow Motor Club made a Peugeot in a Pear Tree, and the allotment association used vegetables as decorations.

We have a particularly good bonfire night, which attracts as many as 3,000 people. It’s held on the cricket field where – in daylight – there are the most fantast views looking towards Lower Swell and the Cotswold hills beyond.

If you could go back in time…

Going bac­k 60 years or so­­­, Stow was an impoverished town. I own a building company, and I can see signs of that lack of money just by looking at some of the work done here. They’d sell their Cotswold stone slates, for example, and put a very much cheaper substitute on. But if you go back further - say to the 1850s when the church was remodelled - that would be interesting because there was a lot of money coming in. If I went back in time, I’d want to be the right side of the money!

Nowadays, of course, Stow is once again the place to be. Certainly, it doesn’t do any harm to have Daylesford just down the road and Soho Farmhouse more or less on the doorstep.