Paris, New York, Chipping Campden: the surprising musical and literary heritage of a small Cotswolds town

To spend time in this town of honeyed stone is to belong to some unending melody.

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May in Chipping Campden. Unlike April in Paris, or autumn in New York, nobody has mythologised it in song. There’s no need. To spend time in this town of honeyed stone, in the most beautiful month of the year, is to belong to some unending melody, a very English melody that offers fragments of Mays past, and hints of Mays to come.

Situated on the north-eastern fringe of the Cotswolds, where Gloucestershire shakes hands with Worcestershire, Warwickshire and Oxfordshire, Campden is almost a dream of rural England. With its noble High Street, and the magnificent Norman church of St James’, this may be the best-known small town in England. Not village, mind: Henry II confirmed its charter in 1170.

Although Cheltenham and Stratford-upon-Avon are a bus ride away it appears self-sufficient. You could dine out every day for a fortnight and not go to the same place twice, so plentiful are the local pubs. There is a fine vintners, Robert Welch’s original cutlery shop, and a second-hand bookshop in Sheep Street (a clue to the source of the town’s prosperity) that will keep browsers happy for hours. St James’ even has its own peregrine falcon, living in the bell tower.

Bob Willis, the great fast bowler, used to visit Campden the evening before he went on tour with England’s cricketers. He would pop into the Lygon Arms, and drain a few beakers of Old Hooky, to remind himself of what he was representing when he was overseas. Sentimental? Only if you have never been to this beguiling town.

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In May, for the past 18 years, Campden has made itself a town of music. Charlie Bennett, the local wine merchant, had studied piano at the Royal College of Music before returning home, by way of Australia, and used his contacts in the musical world to establish a festival that has developed into a two-week event of international quality.

Alfred Brendel played here in 2008, the year that great pianist retired from the concert platform. Paul Lewis, one of his favoured pupils, is now the festival’s patron. This week, on his birthday, he performed Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations. “I was born at ten to nine in the evening,” he joked, “so I aged a year tonight!” Earlier this month, Lewis made his debut with the Berlin Philharmonic in a concert conducted by the 90-year-old Bernard Haitink, who was in the audience here. He has just moved to Ebrington, two miles up the road.

The Diabelli could hardly fail to stand out. Nor could Imogen Cooper, Henning Kraggerud and Adrian Brendel in Beethoven’s “Archduke” piano trio; nor Roderick Williams singing Schubert’s Schwanengesang. At such times the listener is reminded of Wordsworth’s “thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears”.

But the most affecting performance may have been the Takács Quartet, accompanied by Garrick Ohlsson, in Elgar’s autumnal piano quintet. Here was an ensemble founded in Budapest, and now based in Colorado, playing a work composed 100 years ago, in the ruins of the First World War, by a man born 40 miles away, across the Vale of Evesham. Local voices always travel further than so-called international ones. They just acquire different accents.

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The town also has a literary festival. In recent years the speakers have included Max Hastings, William Boyd, Alan Johnson, Michael Billington and John Sutherland. The town has its own Nobel laureate, too. Kazuo Ishiguro, who keeps a house here, made an appearance in 2018.

Melissa Harrison, whose novel of Thirties Suffolk, All Among The Barley, is becoming the sleeper hit of the year, shared thoughts at the 2019 festival about “the state of England”. Alan Rusbridger, another local resident, and Ed Vulliamy spoke about the changing nature of news coverage and the capacity of music to change the world.

Then the Glee Club convened. With Rusbridger on piano, Charlie Bennett on guitar, and Charlie’s son William on bass, Vulliamy launched into “Mr Tambourine Man”, every verse of the song, not just the bit about a magic swirling ship. Dylan, in truth, probably changed the world rather less than George Formby. So much for the counterculture.

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Another Nobel laureate has a Campden connection. TS Eliot visited the town in 1934 and, out walking one day, wandered into the walled garden at Norton House, on the road to Mickleton. “Burnt Norton”, with its evocation of time and memory, became the first part of his Four Quartets.

People arrive from all corners of the globe to see the place where the poet sensed “the deception of the thrush”. Off I trotted at first light to recite the poem in the grounds that inspired it.

You feel a bit of a fool, reading aloud, surrounded by cattle awaiting their morning feed, but it had to be done. I have now read three of the four poems in situ, at Burnt Norton, East Coker and Little Gidding. Only “The Dry Salvages”, off Cape Ann in Massachusetts, remains. In time (the subject of Eliot’s meditation) it will be done, and the fire and the rose will be one.

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Next week the music-lovers will have slipped away, but they will still keep coming to this wonderful place, particularly from across the channel. You hear a lot of French spoken in Campden. In their eyes it must appear typically “English”.

If it’s English eccentricity they’re after they won’t have long to wait. On 31 May the townsfolk gather on Dover’s Hill to celebrate Robert Dover’s Cotswold Olimpick Games. They’ve been doing this sort of thing since 1612, so they should have got the hang of it by now, though 400 years in a town such as this marks you down as nothing more than a cheeky new bug. 

Michael Henderson is a writer on sport and culture

This article appears in the 24 May 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit earthquake