Undiscovered Britain: Heart of England – The Industrious Cotswolds
To celebrate the launch of the 2016 Best Loved Hotel & Travel Guide, we are pleased to bring you a series of stories on Undiscovered Britain by leading travel writers.
The Industrious Cotswolds by Harriet O’Brien
Historical re-enactment has nothing on this, I’ve timewarped into the genuine article. Stepping through an open doorway on the first floor of an old silk mill in Chipping Campden, I’m suddenly in a 1902 silversmiths’ workshop.
The beams are darkened with soot and almost every inch of wall space is fabulously cluttered with hammers,
mallets, anvils and more. Other than a clock and an anachronistic radio (a large, 1950s model), there’s not a machine in sight. Two men are pummelling and shaping pieces of silver at wonderfully worn work benches, a third stands in a canopied section (they call it the forge, I’m later told) where he fires a gas torch at a delicate-looking bowl-in-the-making.
David Hart finishes manipulating the heated metal, wipes his hands and ushers me further into the studio – which is freely open to all visitors. “Our filing system,” he laughs as I peer quizzically at bundles of curled papers on skewers hanging from the ceiling. He shows me a photograph, taken in about 1904 and revealing the workshop much as it is today, only tidier and featuring 12 silversmiths.
David is the third generation of the family line of silversmiths here – with his son William and nephew Julian working alongside. They continue quite some legacy. In 1902, architect, designer and socialist Charles Robert Ashbee brought his branch of the Arts and Crafts
Movement to the old silk mill, setting up the silver section in this room. Ashbee relocated from industrial London to offer his workers a better life in the country. Among them was David’s grandfather, George Hart. David tells me that sadly Ashbee’s enterprise, The Guild and School of Handicrafts, failed by 1908. But George subsequently made a great go of the silversmith workshop.
So Ashbee’s vision was by no means lost. Today, the silk mill remains very much an arts and crafts centre, with stone carver, woodturner, jeweller and others. What might appear as just a pleasant place to pick up an unusual souvenir to the many visitors who are drawn to the Cotswolds’ quintessential rural idyll, is, in fact, continuing a little-known artisan tradition at the heart of the English countryside.
I stroll through Chipping Campden’s honeystone streets to find out more. At Court Barn, once a threshing centre and now home to an Arts and Crafts museum, I learn about bookbinder Katharine Adams, woodcarver Alec Miller, stained-glass artist Paul Woodroffe and others who also came to this handsome town. They may be part of its history, but this postcard-pretty place retains its integrity as a proper, working town complete with butcher, baker and at Hart’s, a candlestick maker.
Hart Gold and Silversmiths: www.hartsilversmiths.co.uk
Court Barn: www.courtbarn.org.uk
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Harriet O’Brien is an award-winning journalist and author, and writes regularly on the Cotswolds for the Daily Telegraph.