The Cotswolds, those rolling, dry-stone-walled hills about two hours northwest of London, are rightly regarded as quintessential England.
Ancient villages built from the local, soft, honey-coloured limestonesuch as Broadway, Chipping Campden and Stow-in-the-Wold are world famous. But there is a price to
pay for world fame. Sometimes that great photograph of the antiquated inn can’t be taken. There are just too many tour buses in the way.
However, undiscovered Cotswold villages, with true local character, still exist. Examples are: Stanton, Snowshill, Bisley and Bretforton. The last lies between the town of Evesham and the steep western edge of the Cotswold Hills where much of the local, honey-coloured stone is quarried.
The documented history of Bretforton dates back over 1,200 years to a Saxon deed of 714 AD. The Saxons called the village Brotforton, meaning “The ford with planks”, possibly a reference to a ford with a footbridge along side of it.
The two focal points of Bretforton are Saint Leonard’s, the parish church, and the pub, the Fleece Inn.
The church is the oldest building in Bretforton, the original stonework dating from the 12th-century. The chancel was probably built between 1282 and 1295. The transept chapels were completed in the 14th-century, along with the west wall, which was probably rebuilt to replace an earlier wall. The north wall of the north aisle was rebuilt in the 15th-century along with the tower, although the internal stone of the latter appears to be earlier.
Interesting sculptures in the church include some that are clearly of Celtic significance, but their relationship to the Christian church is a mystery. Of uncertain date is the remarkable piece of sculpture representing the legend of St. Margaret. She was swallowed by a dragon, but clung fast to her staff bearing a cross, which split the dragon and the saint emerged unharmed.
Outside the church the gargoyled waterspouts of the tower consist of three shaped as demons, bat-like with their claws, wings and crumpled faces. Inexplicably, the gargoyle on the SE corner is a lion.
The Fleece remained a farmhouse until 1848 when Henry Byrd, whose family had occupied it for 400 years, sold the farmland and procured a license to sell beer and cider. Until well into this century, both brews were produced in the back kitchen.
Henry Byrd’s great-granddaughter, Lola Taplin, ran the Fleece single-handedly for the last 30 years of her life. She died in 1977 at the age of 83, leaving the Fleece to the National Trust on the condition that it would continue to be run as an unspoilt country pub. The interior remains very much as it was during the 1800s.
There are three principal rooms at the Fleece, the Brewhouse, the Pewter Room and Dugout. Artefacts in the Brewhouse include the wooden malt shovel hanging by the fireplace and the harvest barrels on the main ceiling beam. The latter were used to take cider to the workers in the fields during harvest time. Also hanging from the beam are fine examples of early pub measures in brass and copper. During Queen Victoria’s reign strict laws were passed regulating the quantities of liquor served in licensed premises. This collection carries the Victorian calibrations, stamped to verify accuracy.
The repeated chalking of the joints over hundreds of years to ward off witches and evil spirits produced indentations in the flagstones of the Brewhouse. All entries to the home had to be protected. Charms were hung over doors and windows and each day circles were chalked on the hearth to prevent entry via the chimney. Circles, which have no corners in which evil spirits can hide, have always had mystical significance and are also symbolic of the “all seeing eye.”
Opening off the Brewhouse is the Dugout. Originally the farmhouse pantry, it contains a coffin-like table with a hinged lid. Dough would be placed inside the table, free from draughts, to rise before being baked into bread.
The Pewter Room houses an extensive hoard of pewter that local legend claims was left by Oliver Cromwell in exchange for gold and silver plate taken to pay the parliamentary armies.
Originally the Pewter Room was the farm kitchen and several large roasting spits hang over the fireplace, together with the pan used to catch the fat dripping from the meat. These spits would rest in the dog irons on either side of the grate. The clockwork jacks which rotated the spits were stolen when Lola Taplin died. The small boxes of various shapes were used to store candles. In the back of the settle are two small compartments where shoes could be kept warm and dry.
In the grounds of the Fleece stands a large round stone, a relic from an early cider press. There are also several “straddle” stones. These mushroom-shaped stones are common throughout the Cotswolds and were used to support platforms on which grain was stored. The overhang of the mushroom prevented rats and other vermin from reaching the food.
The Fleece is a full-service public house serving complete meals and snacks with an extensive wine list and a good selection of local cider and real ales. For more information about the Fleece, check the pub’s website at http://www.thefleeceinn.co.uk.