Just a short walk along the Cotswold Way from Winchcombe brings you to one of the finest Neolithic remains in Britain, Belas Knap burial chamber. Belas Knap was built about 3000 BC as a many-chambered tomb. When the site was excavated in 1863, 38 skeletons were found. The Romans explored the possibilities of Winchcombe and called it a “fat-valley”. building at least three villas in the neighbourhood
Sudeley Castle on the edge of the town was first mentioned in the reign of Ethelred the Unready (986-1016). It was rebuilt in the 15th century, and then attacked, besieged and finally ‘slighted’ or rendered uninhabitable and undefensible.
Nearby is St Kenelm's Well, commemorating a 9th century martyr. The story goes that the boy king Kenelm was murdered by his sister in 819 AD. When the men bearing the body stopped here to rest, they set down Kenelm's coffin and a spring gushed forth from the ground and as his sister was watching his funeral her eyes dropped out. The waters of Kenelm's Well were reputed to have healing properties.
Just a mile from Winchcombe are the ruins of Hailes Abbey. A Cistercian foundation where pilgrims flocked to worship at the shrine of the boy-king St Kenelm. At one time Hailes was one of the most popular pilgrimage centres in Britain. So popular was the abbey to medieval pilgrims that the Prior of Hailes built a hotel to house the richer visitors. This hotel lives on as The George Hotel. The building itself has been altered several times, but still retains an open gallery over the courtyard. The abbey also claimed to possess a phial of Christ's blood. After the Dissolution of the Monasteries destroyed the Abbey, the "blood" was revealed to be a mixture of saffron and honey.
The closure of the Abbey in 1539 brought great distress to the town: merchants lost the custom of the pilgrims and the poor no longer received their 'doles' from the monks.
The towns-people tried an unusual remedy for their economic plight: they began to grow the newly popular tobacco plant.
It was first cultivated in this parish, after its introduction into England, in 1583, and it proved, a considerable source of profit to the inhabitants, till the trade was placed under restrictions. The cultivation was first prohibited during the Commonwealth, and various acts were passed in the reign of Charles II. for the same purpose. Among the king's pamphlets in the British Museum is a tract entitled "Harry Hangman's Honour, or Glostershire Hangman's Request to the Smokers and Tobacconists of London" dated June 11th, 1655. The author writes:
"The very planting of tobacco hath proved the decay of my trade, for since it hath been planted in Glostershire, especially at Winchcomb, my trade hath proved nothing worth. Then 'twas a merry world with me, for indeed before tobacco was there planted, there being no kind of trade to employ men, and very small tillage, necessity compelled poor men to stand my friends by stealing of sheep and other cattel, breaking of hedges, robbing of orchards, and what not."
Healthy profits were made until 1670 when Parliament banned the home-grown weed in favour of imports from the struggling American colony of Virginia.
It was mentioned in the Diary of Samuel Pepys in September 1667
19th. Up, and all the morning at the office. At noon home to dinner, W. Hewer and I and my wife, when comes my cozen, Kate Joyce, and an aunt of ours, Lettice, formerly Haynes, and now Howlett, come to town to see her friends, and also Sarah Kite, with her little boy in her armes, a very pretty little boy. She tells me how the lifeguard, which we thought a little while since was sent down into the country about some insurrection, was sent to Winchcombe, to spoil the tobacco there, which it seems the people there do plant contrary to law, and have always done, and still been under force and danger of having it spoiled, as it hath been oftentimes, and yet they will continue to plant it. The place, she says, is a miserable poor place. They gone, I to the office, where all the afternoon very busy, and at night, when my eyes were weary of the light, I and my wife to walk in the garden, and then home to supper and pipe, and then to bed.
By 1791 a scathing report described the town as;
“a populous town, but carries on very little trade, owing in a great measure to the bandits of the road in its vicinity, which are by far the worst in the country. The inhabitants formerly planted tobacco here to very good account, till they were refrained in the 12th of Charles II. After which the town by little and little decayed, and now generally poor, and the very sites of its ancient magnificent buildings are levelled and ploughed up. Not the least vestige now remains of all its former grandeur.”
Various experiments in industry during the 18th century helped Winchcombe somewhat, and the proximity of the fruit growers and the energetic smallholder's of Evesham further stimulated the placid life in the place.
The great House for Winchcombe, Sudeley Castle, lay in ruins for almost 200 years following its ‘slighting’ at the end of the Civil War. Although the estate generated a revenue the house was uninhabitable. In 1810 the Pitt family sold the ruins and 60 acres to the Duke of Buckingham, who used the ruined area for stabling and the land for grazing horses. During this time part of the fabric was turned into a public house.
In 1837 two brothers, John and William Dent, bought the house in two separate lots - the estate from the Pitt family and the castle and adjacent land from the Duke of Buckingham. The Dent brothers set about major restoration and reconstruction work. Parts of the original buildings were incorporated into the new house and the ruins beyond repair were left as majestic impressions of the past.
In 1855 John Coucher Dent married Emma Brocklehurst and the property has remained in the family to the present day. They continued sumptuous and tasteful renovations throughout the 19th century.
Winchcomb in 1838
Winchcomb, a market-town 14 miles north-east of Gloucester, is beautifully situated at the base of several hills, having the little river Isbourne, an affluent of the Upper Avon, flowing through it. This place is of great antiquity, and was once of considerable importance ; being anciently the site of a castle and of a mitred abbey sufficiently large for the accommodation of 300 Benedictine monks. Every trace of these buildings has been long destroyed. The town at present principally consists of two streets intersecting each other ; the houses are mostly low and are built of stone. The church is a fine Gothic building, with an embattled tower at the west end, opening by an arch into the nave ; part of it was built in the reign of Henry VI, by the abbot William Winchcomb. The workhouse is an old irregular building. There is an endowed grammar-school, three charity schools, and an almshouse. It is said that Winchcomb was the first place where tobacco was grown in this country, and, before the cultivation to any extent was prohibited in England, it was noted for its plantations. The number of inhabitants in 1831 was 2,514, and the number of houses 539.
Other Descriptions of Winchcombe