Shipston on Stour: Festival Town

  • Shipston on Stour
  • Shipston on Stour
  • Shipston on Stour
  • Shipston on Stour The George Hotel
  • Shipston on Stour

Mail on Sunday journalist and Shipston resident/enthusiast William Trevethick celebrates the town’s festive spirit

Could the fact that Shipston regularly scores high on the lists of best and happiest places to live in the UK be connected to the residents’ sense of fun?

This little market town, nestling in South Warwickshire between the stunning beauty of the North Cotswolds and the historic importance of Stratford upon Avon, has a long and packed calendar of yearly festivals, fetes and fairs starting in early spring and continuing through to December. The town likes to party!

And in between the well-publicised and planned major events, there is always something smaller going on. Usually there’s live music at one or other of the local pubs. In summer beware the Bladder Man – Morris dancers regularly play in the High Street. Should you be looking for a quiet drink in the pubs around Christmas time you are very likely to find yourself caught up in one of the ancient and traditional Mummers plays that tour the area.

If you are very lucky you may find yourself in a packed bar with young Shakespearean actors in period costume mingling with customers and randomly reciting from the Bard’s work, bringing theatrical art and performance to the people in the highly popular way it has been done for nearly four centuries.

And if you fancy something light-hearted, well, what could be more quintessential and eccentrically English than duck racing in the River Stour in August? It’s like a highly sophisticated version of Pooh sticks going under the historic bridge, using yellow plastic ducks. Locals and visitors alike sponsor each Day-Glo contestant in a chaotic float down from the Old Mill’s water race to a natural fish pool. There are cash prizes for winners and money raised goes towards the Angling Club’s Fish’n’Frolics event – another of the town’s festivals.

But if you want to plan a trip to the town and be a bit more organised, than you must pick up the calendar.

May is considered the start of the extended festival season in the town. Shipston is a corruption of the old English word Scepwaeisctune meaning Sheep Wash Town, and the clue to the town’s origin is in the name. Legend has it that sheep from Wales were driven into the Stour and ‘washed’ before being run into the market down the traditional alleyways you can still use to this day.

Since the first foot-weary and surprised ewe was dunked in the Stour’s cool waters, sheep have been very important to the town. The whole history of the community was built on sheep meat, leather, wool, oil, carpets and tapestry, so it is no surprise to find this blessed farm animal celebrated in the first major festival of Shipston’s calendar – the Wool Fair, on May Bank Holiday.

It takes place over a three-day woolly weekend, when the town centre is closed to traffic and retailers open for trade. Of course there are stalls with local produce, local gins on sale, arts and crafts, proper hog roasts, hoggit rolls and barbecued lamb. There is live music and free entertainment, raffles and demonstrations. But the stars of the show are the sheep.

There are rare breeds, popular breeds, lambs, all scrupulously cared for under strict DEFRA and veterinary rules and all close enough to pet. This attracts professionals from across the world, and one of the big draws is to watch international seasoned shepherds sheer sheep in keenly contested contests – using ancient and modern equipment.

The following month sees the now-famed Shipston Proms fortnight. This is what it says on the tin – a fortnight of live music in and around the town, culminating in a free open air concert on the first Saturday of July. This family friendly event welcomes a couple of thousand good natured and jolly concert goers, entertained by a series of live performances ranging from the winners of competitions held earlier in the fortnight through to the headline band. Previous years saw Dr Feelgood and the Animals, this year it was Laurence Jones, a local Shipston man now nationally recognised as a blues rock guitarist.

Building up to the Last Night, music events take place at lunchtimes, afternoons and evenings in pubs, schools, churches and halls in the town and surrounding villages. Whatever style of music you like, from folk through to choirs, rock to school recitals, you will find it during this fortnight. Don’t miss the town’s brass band concert. The band has been a major fixture of the town since 1912, and has a history as colourful as it’s performances!

Just a month after the Last Night of the Proms comes Fish’n’Frolics. The great duck race at the start of August heralds the approach of the event and the festival itself is a three-day spectacular over the Bank Holiday weekend.

It is one of Shipston’s newest festivals but its instant popularity caught even the angling club organisers by surprise. Anglers from all over the country come for a weekend of free live entertainment, to taste the local food from the stalls, visit the craft stalls and, of course, for the angling in the club’s three pools. Again it is a firmly family friendly event, and experienced local fishermen run free courses for children, to teach casting techniques and angling skills.

This year the much-anticipated September Food Festival is taking a break, but that does not leave the town bereft in the autumn season of mist and mellow fruitfulness. Retailers and businesses have come together under the ‘Totally Locally’ banner to promote local commerce and local products.

Throughout the year they put on themed markets – including in September. These markets feature local products and the always popular Buskers in the Bury, but don’t require the town centre to be closed. The stalls are set up in the Market Place and the bottom end of Sheep Street – the Bury is the cut joining the two.

October sees the second of two Mop Fairs during the year, traditionally designed to ‘mop up’ apprentices seeking employment and employers looking for youngsters, now more akin to a fun fair. November is respectfully kept for Remembrance Day, a big date in the town’s calendar.

Not many places put on a major outdoor event in winter, but Shipston’s residents don’t let longer nights and a drop in temperature spoil their fun. Other places may have a ceremony of switching on the Christmas lights – Shipston holds a Victorian Evening, complete with stalls, many people dressing in Victorian clothes, switching on the Christmas lights and turning on the Tree of Life. This is a big Christmas tree swathed in lights, each one sponsored by somebody in memory of someone dear. Speak to the Rotary Club if you would like to sponsor a light this year.

So is Shipston the best or the happiest place to live in the UK? It’s certainly one of the most fun places to live – all year round!

Quick Calendar

May:               Italian market

                       Craft market

                       Wool Fair

June:              Mop Fair

                       Proms fortnight

July:                Last Night of the Proms

August:           Fish’n’Frolics

September:    Food Festival

                       Totally Locally market

October:         Mop Fair

                       French market

November:     Remembrance Parade

December:     Victorian Evening

William Trevethick

Chinese-speaking William ‘Trev’ Trevethick, 62, was born in Ghana, West Africa, and has worked in Europe, Africa and the Far East. He trained as a journalist in 1975 and works for The Mail on Sunday. He also runs his own business, Fleet Street Professionals Ltd, which ‘does anything to do with words’, including helping authors through the development, editing and production process of book publishing. He lives in Shipston, where he is chairman of the Shipston and District Tourism Group and a founder member of Shakespeare’s England, the regional body representing tourism. Contact: trevw@fsprofessionals.com