Tewkesbury - My Favourite Town

by John Moore (1966)

I still see my beloved Tewkesbury through the eyes of childhood, for I was born there and grew up there, and “belonged” there by the time I was about ten years old.

When I say I belonged I mean that I was called John by most of the tradesmen and by all the little ragamuffin alley kids and the town’s four bobbies and the boatmen on the river and the blackfaced chimney-sweeper and the white-speckled workers from the Mill and the parson and the curate and the local drunks and even the hopeless, helpless unemployed men who stood all day with their hands in their pockets at the Cross.

My earliest Tewkesbury memory is of the huge meadow called the Ham.   It lies close against the town, and is bounded by the rivers. I see it all golden with buttercups which gilded my bare knees and my shorts as I walked among them.   I see the Abbey Tower, golden, too, with the reflection of a sunset.  From the tower I hear the pealing of what I then called (as Tewkesbury folks called them) Tabby Bells.

If you were playing cricket on the town ground during a bell ringers’ practice the sound was simply terrifying.   Each peal came like a crack of doom from the mighty tower whose shadow lay dark across the green turf.   Batsmen, fielders, bowlers were suddenly diminished, were little marionettes performing.   Even if you yelled “Howzatl” at the top of your voice the umpire had to shake his head, because he couldn’t hear you.

That great foursquare Norman tower was with you wherever you went, round about Tewkesbury. You saw it in proportion from a little tump or mound, called the Mythe Tute, where I used to go in search of woad.

The Red Cliff, just below that tump, was the only place in Britain where the plant still grew wild, and with which the Ancient Britons, to the wonderment of Julius Caesar, used to paint themselves blue.  As a small boy I naturally wanted to paint myself blue like the Ancient Britons, so I scrambled up the Red Cliff to the top of the strangely named Tute.

From there I looked down upon the sprawling, higgledy-piggledy, unplanned country town – a bit of a hole in the middle of it, which was the cattle market – the flour mills by the river, the barges tied up alongside them – the black-and-white houses and the little shops nestling round about the Abbey rather like chickens round a mother hen.

And over all the great Tower looming. Seen from above – from that little hill on the outskirts – Tewkesbury was a rabbit-warren of a town. Scores of small, narrow alleys ran between the main streets.

As a small rabbit I knew my way about the warren.   Tudor House, where we lived, looked across the broad high Street at other beautiful houses that had dark alley-entrances between them.   The inhabitants of these alleys used to come out into the street at evening, like rabbits out of their holes. The older ones gossiped or disputed, and on Saturdays after closing-time sometimes came to blows.

The younger ones played, and you could tell the seasons by their games: marbles, hoops, tipcat, tops, hopscotch.   Each had its appointed season, just as pheasants or grouse do.

It was safe to play in the streets then.   There were cars, of course, but they were few and far between.   The one I remember best was an electric one, owned by an invalid lady with waxen cheeks. It went as silently as a ghost car, and she who sat motionless in the rear-seat seemed herself to belong to the Shades.

Amid the squalor and the loveliness, immediately opposite our house, was a tiny fishing-tackle shop which advertised livebait, worms, maggots, and waspgrubs.   I used to trot across the street and  buy a whole half-pint of wriggling maggots for only a penny.

I had learnt to fish in the two rivers, Severn and Avon, which with their tributary streams knot themselves about the town.   Before long I learnt to swim too and to row a boat, paddle a canoe and sail a dinghy.   Sometimes in winter the floods came up and turned Tewkesbury into an island.   When I was fifteen there was a tremendous flood.  I sailed my little boat the “Bobcat,” over the fields that no longer had hedges, and circumnavigated Tewkesbury till at last I went aground in what was called the Bloody Meadow.

This was the field where the great slaughter took place, after the Battle of Tewkesbury in 1471.   A signpost pointed to it, just south of the town:  To the Bloody Meadow. The field fascinated me, because I knew a good deal about the Wars of the Roses, and the decisive Battle of Tewkesbury, even when I was in my early teens.   There was a little, perky, inquisitive, finch-like Rate Collector, called Bertie Gray, who had taught himself English history, Latin, Greek, and incidentally had read the whole of Shakespeare many times, in between collecting rates.   (This is the kind of unexpected thing which happens in towns like Tewkesbury.)

This strange and delightful creature took me under his wing and made me see the battle through his eyes:  the Yorkist cavalry thundering down the hill, Queen Margaret’s men breaking and running before the force of the charge – but where can they run to? Rivers everywhere at their back; so they run willy-nilly into the angle where the rivers meet and then they are in a trap.   Down goes the Red Rose of Lancaster:  “Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this sun of York.”

Bertie Gray in his squeaky voice quoted the Shakespeare lines as we stood upon the Bloody  Meadow one misty September evening when I was imagining shapes looming through the mist, the horsemen, the fleeing foot-soldiers and the slashing swords.

History wasn’t simply something that happened long ago.   It was all round me and I had for the first time, a sense of its continuity as I saw the Abbey tower, heart-lifting as always, that rose out of the mist a quarter of a mile away.   Yorkist and Lancastrian men have lifted their eyes to that huge landmark from the blood-spattered field between the rivers, where three thousand Lancastrians were slain and Queen Margaret’s son, the Prince of Wales, was taken prisoner and put to death.

He is buried in the Abbey, not far from where his slayer lies, that treacherous Clarence who is supposed to have been “drowned in a butt of Malmsey wine.”  Even as a boy I used to wander alone in the dim-lit Abbey (not unduly awed by it, confident that I “belonged”) and look at the exquisite, airy little chapels and chantries which are built round the East End as memorials to the great folk who are buried there.

I was delighted by the high-sounding names of these Barons who mad and unmade our Kings:  Warwick and Beauchamp, Despencer and de Clare. Gilbert de Clare was one of the signatories to Magna Carta. His memorial tablet makes the proud boast in Latin: “Magna Carta is law.   Let the King beware.” As for Richard Beauchamp, he was one of that band of brothers who fought at Agincourt;  and his wife Isabella le Despencer put up to his memory the finest chapel of all, surrounded by pierced stonework as delicate as old lace.   There’s a lock of her auburn hair preserved in the Abbey, and it’s as bright today as it must have been more than five hundred years ago, when she was a girl.
But my favourite tomb of all was that of Clarence.   You lit a taper, pulled up a heavy grating, and went down some steps into a dark, musty smelling, mosquito pinging vault where Clarence’s skull grinned at you from a glass case, and his bones lay in disorder, mixed up with those belonging to his wife.

Bertie Gray used; to tell me: “Now read Richard III; and remember that Tewkesbury’s only thirty miles from Stratford.   Shakespeare must have come here before he wrote that play.   He must have stood where you’re standing.”
Then he’d quote to me the awful passage where Clarence, imprisoned in the Tower, imagines he sees the ghost of Edward: I dreamed I saw A shadow like an Angel, with bright hair Dabbled in blood; and he shriek’d out aloud, Clarence is come – false, fleeting, perjur’d Clarence, That stabb’d me in the field by Tewkesbury.

That is by no means the only time Shakespeare mentions my native town.   Falstaff says of Poins:  “His wit’s as thick as Tewkesbury mustard.”  And Bertie Gray told me that his father could remember the little factory where they made the mustard. It was in one of the backstreets beside the river, where there are still some odd little factories – the last time I walked down there one was making toy balloons, another potato crisps, another egg whisks, and a fourth spare parts for bicycles.

That was seven or eight years ago. Until the middle 1950’s Tewkesbury remained much the same as I knew it as a boy and indeed as Shakespeare must have known it: a beautiful, exciting, unplanned muddle of a country town, in which Tudor half-timbering was mixed up with Georgian brickwork, and there lay behind the facade of the fine main streets a confusion, of crooked lanes and cavernous alleys, ram¬shackle workshops, lovely riverside cottages, warehouses with barges tied up alongside.

But after the Second World War the town began to clear its slums, and much loveliness as well as much squalor inevitably disappeared. Suburbs and housing estates crept out and into the fat green meadows where the Hereford cattle used to graze.   Today there is talk of Tewkesbury doubling its population, even trebling it, within ten or twenty years.

I hope it doesn’t, because I think it would lose much of its unique character if it grew too fast.   Also I think that there is much to be said for small towns, though the bureaucrats insist that they are “uneconomic,” by which they mean that the rates of a small town will not support a large number of officials in the condition to which they are accustomed. But leaving aside the officials’ inconvenience, I think the best sort of town to live in is one of about five thousand people; where your fellow citizens possess faces and you feel you belong among them – you have a face for them as each of them has for you.

With luck, perhaps, the floods which from time to time still turn Tewkesbury into an island will limit its expansion.   If so this precious place which holds so much of our history may preserve its character, even in a swiftly-changing England.
Meanwhile the expansion goes on.   There is a largish suburb which its builders did me the honour of calling Elmbury, after the book in which I told of my Tewkesbury boyhood and under the invented name of “Elmbury” made a portrait of my native Gloucestershire town.

At first it was rather exciting to have a big housing estate named after my book;  but nowadays people often ask me why on earth I named the book after a housing estate – and if anybody cares about the matter at all in a hundred years’ time, I am sure this will become the accepted theory!

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