From the Daily Telegraph, 29th May 1999
High up in the Cotswolds, the swooningly beautiful Stow-on-the-Wold is beginning to change. As the tourists file in this Bank Holiday weekend and locals head for the new our-of-town supermarket, Stow - once a thriving market town and meeting place for the local community - is in danger of turning into Britains first pastiche town, worthy of a theme park.
Pictures: Eleanor Bentall
At 800ft above sea level, the exceptionally pretty former market town of Stow-on-the-Wold in Gloucestershire is the highest in the Cotswolds. Despite the warm glow of the honey-coloured stone houses which line the streets and the square, there are times when a piercing wind can bring tears to the eyes.
An 18th-century joke had it that the town had no earth or fire but plenty of wind. "Stow -on-the-Wold where the wind blows cold," goes an old saying. But as Stow prepares to enter the new Millennium, its community faces a more chilling possibility: that of a town slowly turning into a gigantic Disney-style parody of itself. Ladies and gentlemen as you step off the coach this Bank Holiday weekend, you will see that we have arrived in the quaint little attraction of VillageWorld.
The idea may sound fanciful - but it is not as fanciful as all that. If the balance between those who live and work in the community and tourists becomes too one-sided in favour of the tourists - as it now appears to be doing, with an estimated 500,000 a year passing through - then Stow will, quite soon, simply become a pastiche of itself. A very beautiful place, perhaps one of the most beautiful in England, yet lacking both heart and soul. It will serve not much more of a purpose, in fact, than the "theme" villages built for visitors to places such as Disney World where families pay for a days pass to stroll around, shop in Ye Olde stores and watch small-time actors playing traditional bit parts such as the blacksmith. It is an eerie idea.
But how did this nightmare possibility ever hove into view at all? It is not merely a case of overwhelming tourist trade, filling the place with twee gift shops and driving up local business rates; nor even of wealthy Londoners using the area as a weekend getaway, thus putting property prices into orbit; but a rather more insidious economic factor that has crept in.
For this is also, in part, a story of how a community reacts when an out-of-town supermarket moves into the area. Stow (which currently has a population of 2,400) grew up at the crossing of the ancient Jurassic Way and the Saltway and later the Roman Fosseway. Then, during the Middle Ages, the wool trade became so crucial to the country's ecomony that Stow established itself as one of Englands leading market towns.
And there it stayed. Admittedly, like many Cotswolds towns over the past 25 years, the focus of Stows economy shifted away from its traditional role as a supplier for the farming community. to a supplier of antiques. Though these are aimed essentially at those visiting from outside the town, the towns heart remained intact.
Then, 10 years ago, came the first sign of another seismic economic shift which threatened even that. A scheme to build a new out-of-town Tesco was proposed. The first propaganda salvo calculated to win over local hearts and minds was a charming leaflet which read: "A small food store for Stow-on-theWold", underneath which was a pleasing illustration of a basket Full of fruit and vegetables. It looked as innocent as a Harvest Festival service sheet. After much to-ing and fro-ing, which ended in a public inquiry, Tescos application to build a superstore just outside the town was successful. Eighteen months ago, the building went up.
And 18 months on, we begin to see what has happened. A Stow butchers business and a fruit and vegetable shop have closed already. They were not the only ones in the town (Lambournes the butcher is still there). But the talk among local tradesfolk is anxious.
"The Tesco really affects everybody," says Hugh Calvert, the owner of the "Family Newsagent" in the high street. "I havent got anything against them personally and I know that time has got to move on - but why do they feel like they have to be everywhere?"
Judy Shaw of Smalleys, the general store, has also noted changes in the towns shopping habits. Weve been here for 20 years and there have certainly been fewer people in the shop recently. Its hard to tell whether that is because of Tesco or the general dip in shoppers. One thing we have been forced to do is diversify. We now do film developing and weve started selling lots of seeds for the American tourists who like to take flowers home."
Helen Finlay. manageress of Mabys. the Stow deli, is more forthright We have had a really bad year and can only assume that Tesco is the reason. she says. "We really don't see as many people down here as we once did. Everyone is complaining that business is not good and we are no different.
"Where we are lucky is that we do some specialist foods that Tesco doesn't sell but because the grocers had to close, the knock-on effect is that people go to Tesco to get their veg and then end up buying everything else there."
Michael Sharpe. the owner of Lynncraft in the centre of Stow, is very anxious. His shop sells walking sticks, flat caps, fleeces and rather frumpy dresses. Mr Sharpe is a former secretary on Stows Chamber of Commerce and was a big noise in the battle against Tesco. He has since resigned from the Chamber as a protest against the supermarket group being allowed to join.
"Tesco will alter the style of the village and this is one of the points I made at the public inquiry." Mr Sharpe says. "The square will no longer be a meeting place for the community and that is already being seen. Food shops have already closed."
What particularly perturbs him is what he sees as the disintegration of a close-knit country community.
"Ten years ago, you could go to the newsagent to get your newspaper and meet half a dozen people, but not now, he says. "If you live around here. it should he that youre not really bothered it youre deprived of record shops, superstores, cinemas or things like that. If you wanted all that, you wouldn't come to live in the country.
Mr Sharpe does not blame the slow transmogrification of the town solely on Tesco, though. Scotts of Stow, the highly advertised and very well-known gadget shop, is also a factor. "Scotts attracts a large number of people to the town but they 're not the right sort of people." he says.
"People go there for their aluminium carving boards which theyve seen in a glossy brochure and then they go home. And we also have all these gifty-style shops now that sell electric underpants and things. They are not shops which the average person in the community wants or needs."
The fact that Stow is a conservation area and that the site of the new Tesco is a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty were other factors that caused concern.
"Several planning applications for the area had been turned down before" says Mr Sharpe. "the problem now is how do you stop anything else going up? Tesco sets a precedent
"The next thing we will see is applications for developments next to Tesco. The farmers will be sitting there looking at what is going on with great interest. Eventually there will be ribbon development and then the village will have gone completely."
It would not be right to level all the blame for the precarious state of Stows community spirit at the door of Tesco. The strenuous efforts by local councils, businesses and the tourist board in continuing their promotion of the Cotswolds as a place to visit is an important factor too.
It was ever thus. In 1899 a local historian called W Bartlett published a short collection of poems about Stow, "in the hope that the many visitors who are attracted during the Summer Season may carry a copy away as an interesting souvenir". One goes:
"Beautiful for situation / Where the healthful breezes blow Who shall estimate the glories / Of the ancient town of Stow?"
However Jenny Simpson, a Senior Information Assistant at the Tourist Information Office, has seen an acceleration in the last few years. My parents lived in the Cotswolds all their lives she says. I recently found an old book in their house that made reference in 1927 to the Cotswolds being a big tourist destination and it doesnt seem to have stopped.
Ive been working here for 11 years. In that time the number of coaches has gone up by more and more each year and the great increase in antiques shops has definitely altered the basis of the area.
Yet Mrs Simpson is hopeful that, despite being under threat, the town and community in which she grew up can be saved.
"I sit on the St Edwards Hall Committee which deals with issues affecting the people who live in Stow" she says, "and I believe that there is still a heart here, although I dont know whether the heart between commerce and the residents is as it should be.
"You can still find community spirit here," she says. "If anyone in the village is poorly, there will be care for them and if there is anyone with a need, I like to think they will be helped."
However, it will be difficult for future generations to maintain Mrs Simpsons sanguine view of the community.
"House prices have shot up so much that my children cant afford to buy a house here," she says. "And my husband and son were both employed in farming, but there arent many jobs left in that any more. When we moved here 20 years ago, nine people were employed on one farm and now they need only two. Most of the jobs are now in the tourist industry, in the gift shops and the tea rooms."
There are others in Stow who believe that although the original community may have eroded. a new community should be fostered.
"People come to look at the town," says George Hope, landlord of The Talbot inn, which was first established in 1714, "and theres nothing really to do apart from look at antiques and look at other tourists.
"But there is an antiques industry beyond the shop fronts. There are 50 shops and behind those there are the restorers, those travelling over the world to buy antiques. Then there is the packing and shipping. It is the biggest industry here. This square is full of cars every day, except perhaps Christmas Day, from nine in the morning to six at night with people largely coming to the antiques shops.
"I suppose there are some locals who come in for the banks or the pharmacy" he adds. "Weve got an excellent delicatessen here and theres still a florist. Weve still got some village shops, although we have lost a couple, which is a tragedy."
Mr Hopes belief that there is still a resident community in Stow is backed up by what he sees in his pub: "Four fifths of my customers are locals," he says, "not just people from Stow but those in the smaller villages around here too. In the morning all the old ladies come in here for their coffee and they sec somebody walk by and theyll bang on the window and their friends will pop in.
"Small communities are always under threat, he adds, "but the biggest threat to the life and times of Stow-on-the-Wold is not Tesco, its gift shops pandering to the coach traffic. Gift shops take over shops that could be proper shops serving our community because property owners go for high rents which only gift shops can afford. We used to have a proper little sweet shop here with jars of humbugs and chocolate-coated raisins and thats now a gift shop. There is not a governing body to stop the advancement of gift shops. Even in tiny places the rent is getting on for £20,000 a year."
The ultimate threat to Stow is already evident in the (much less pretty) nearby town of Bourton-on-the-Water.
"Theyve completely succumbed to the tourists with their birdland and miniature village and motor museum." says Mr Hope. "And they get hordes of coaches which destroy the place. It cannot function as a proper town.
"Most of the antiques dealers here have come in from outside and bought their money and their expertise which is vital. The tourists dont bring anything."
I was not allowed to speak to the manager of the Stow-on-Ihe-Wold Tesco when I visited because he had not been given "media training". But Tesco spokesman Nicole Lander is very polite.
"We spent four months researching the site," she says, "and from this it was evident that people were driving many miles to other stores, so we identified a trading opportunity.
"There was a support group in the town made up of people who felt that Stow offered nothing unless you were rich or American," she adds, "and some locals campaigned for the store. We move with society and we innovate but at the end of the day people have the ability to choose."
Miss Lander concedes that the site was an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, but insists that it was the only place where the store could go.
"If we could have found somewhere else, we would have definitely gone there," she says. "But we did cut into the hillside and have developed an exceptionally good site. It is a beautiful store and we are very proud of it.
"There was an artist who was using the site, and we gave him some money so he could move and carry on working elsewhere. Everybody employed in the store is local."
Miss Lander does not readily acknowledge the effect Tesco has on the town. "I would be immensely surprised if we had any effect on the shops in Stow," she says. "We are actually in competition with our other stores. If anything, we stop people driving away from Stow. We want the shops of Stow to trade alongside us. We all have a responsibility, were not mindless automatons."
It remains to be seen if the shops of Stow can continue to trade successfully alongside a supermarket. It is all too easy to foresee a future of lines of wee gifte shoppes, filled with tea-towels and ashtrays aimed at Elmer and Emmy-Lou.
It is also horribly easy to imagine the day arriving when all the roads that lead to the place are fitted with a new generation of toll booths charging visitors to see the village.
"I suppose a dreadful picture of the future can be painted where Stow is just an attraction," says Mrs Simpson. "I think the Cotswolds District Council is trying very hard for it not to happen, but when it comes down to private enterprise, if there are enough people wanting to invest in Stow as just place for coach parties, then it will happen."
Perhaps there will be a village section in the Millennium Dome to preserve the concept for posterity while a monorail is built to carry visitors above the chilly streets of Stow.
"Beautiful for situation / Where the healthful breezes blow / Who shall estimate the authentic glories / Of the ancient town of Stow?"
Rather a lot of us, it seems. And are these the glories that we are really all searching for?