Hunting for Antiques and History in the Cotswolds

The Lovely Village of Burford Has Plenty of Both

© Ferne Arfin

The Cotswolds are rich territory for antiques shopping. While on the hunt for collectibles, I discovered that the pretty Cotswolds village of Burford has a rich vein of colorful history as well.

The signs of two big antique shops, facing each other across the A40 about halfway between Oxford and Cheltenham, were impossible to ignore. I can't resist a mooch around a big, dusty antiques barn, so swinging round the next junction, I made my way back to the Burford Roundabout for some serious antiquing.

Gateway Antiques, off the eastbound carriageway, specializes in 17th to 20th century English and European furniture - big wooden chests, tables, desks and bookcases - and, with some 8,000 square feet, claims to be the largest antiques shop in the Cotswolds. If you're not partial to "used" furniture, they'll make you identical reproductions for about five times the price. Crossing the highway (which necessitated a loop around the roundabout), I found the Burford Antiques Centre a bit less grand and the man minding the shopfloor a bit less chatty, but the stock was otherwise similar.

Not quite the messy browse I was after.

So I headed off the main road to the village High Street where Antiques @ The George was exactly what I was looking for. Books, antique glassware, jewelry, collectible postcards, brass and copper wares, silver, pottery, porcelain, teddy bears, medals, farm tools, treen ware and lots more goodies to examine, consider and bargain over are crammed into every available space over three floors - plus landings, nooks and crannies - of a half-timbered, former 15th century coaching inn.

Once voted one of the UK's top 50 antiques centers, The George is home to dozens of dealers who are happy to let you browse in peace for hours.

When it was a hotel, the innkeepers at the George were equally discreet. That's probably why it was often the setting for one of history's great dalliances.

Royal Hanky Panky at the George

In the 17th century, King Charles II and his favorite mistress, Nell Gwynn, regularly stayed at the George when attending the Burford Races. It's possible that Nell's oldest and only surviving son by the king, was conceived there. Why else, when Charles first acknowledged Charles Beauclerk (pronounced Bo-clare) as his own, did he bestow the title Earl of Burford? And, when the king was in residence at Windsor Castle, Nell and her son occupied a house on Church Street, just beyond the castle walls. A tunnel may once have connected this house to the castle. Nell, with the king's permission, named her Windsor dwelling Burford House.

Diarist Samuel Pepys, who was an admirer of Nell Gwynn and wrote approvingly of her talents as a comedy actress, also stayed at The George. He apparently etched some graffiti on a window which the eagle-eyed may still be able to find.

The Levellers

Not all of Burford's historic stories are as romantic. Another group of visitors to the village, known as the Levellers, met a more tragic ending.

After the English Civil War, Oliver Cromwell dispatched the Parliamentary Army to Ireland. In May, 1649, 800 troopers, angry at not being paid before embarking for Ireland and at lack of democratic reforms in the government, mutinied and marched west to join other sympathetic groups.

They stopped to rest at Burford where the local commander had promised to hold off attacking until their grievances were discussed.

Instead, he betrayed them and, with Cromwell and several thousand horseman, marched on the town, capturing more than 300 of the mutineers. The prisoners were locked into the parish church and three of their leaders were executed in the churchyard.

If you visit St John the Baptist church, on the Church Green east of the High Street, look for the plaque commemorating the event and memorializing the three who were executed. You'll also find that one of the imprisoned Levellers carved his name onto the 14th century font. Though extensively rebuilt, parts of the church date from the 12th century and the site may have been used for pre-Christian worship -- a stone in the south wall of the tower has pagan carvings from the first or early second century.

If You Go

Shop: The High Street has a good variety of shops and galleries selling country clothing, jewelry, books, toys, local crafts and gourmet foods. It's particularly known for antiques. In addition to the shops mentioned above, try Jonathan Fyson, 50-52 High St., English and Continental furniture, porcelains, mirrors, prints, glasses, tableware and jewelry; or Manfred Schotten Antiques, 109 High Street, sporting memorabilia and antique games equipment.

Eat: The village has several historic inns and pubs with menus ranging from gourmet gastropub to traditional fare. For a quick snack or a light meal, try Huffkins, 96/98 High Street, next to The George. It's a casual tearoom and coffee shop next to an artisan bakery of the same name. I tried a generous serving of mushrooms on toast that was simple and perfect. At the bottom of the High Street, Mrs. Bumbles Delicatessan at 31 Lower High Street is full of delicious smells and everything you need for a picnic beside the River Windrush - cheeses, local meats, breads and baked goods and a good selection of wines. Try the cupcakes.

Stay: This is luxury getaway and short break land. Two hotels we've especially liked nearby are The Old Swan and Minster Mill in Minster Lovell (Read a review of the Old Swan and Minster Mill) and Ellenborough Park Hotel and Spa, near Cheltenham (Read a review of Ellenborough Park). Or play city mouse country mouse with an urban stay at The Oxford Castle Hotel(Read a review of the Oxford Castle Hotel).

See and Do:

  • Take in a racing meet at Cheltenham Racecourse.
  • Visit Blenheim Palace, birthplace of Winston Churchill and home of the Dukes of Marlborough since the 17th century.
  • Visit the haunted ruins of Minster Lovell Hall.
  • Take a walking tour of Oxford.


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