Northleach Information and History

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Northleach Information and History

Despite its size, Northleach is actually a town. There are Cotswold villages which are larger than Northleach and there may be towns which are smaller than Northleach.

Towns like Northleach, Stow-on-the-Wold, Burford and Lechlade were laid out as towns in about 1200 AD. Northleach town was built to the east and north of the Church. To the south of the Church was a pre-Norman hamlet with two mills and this hamlet was incorporated into the Town by the 14th century. The Church remained outside the town.

From about 780AD, the land around Northleach was owned by The Abbey of Gloucester and they decided to build a town here shaped like a "Y" lying on its side. The town was built on the north of the Lecce (or Leece) a Saxon name for stream; and so it was called Northleach.

The Northleach Town Charter

Northleach sign in the Market Place  

King Henry III granted Northleach a charter in 1227 allowing a weekly market to be held, and also an annual fair to be staged on the vigil of the feast and the morrow of St Peter and St Paul. The Charter Fair is still to this day an annual event in the Northleach's calendar, being held on the last Saturday in June, being the closest weekend to the feast day of St Peter, on the 29th of June.

The market itself is long gone. Its officials are still appointed though at the annual ceremony of the Court Leet, in November, which celebrates the origins of local democracy in our land.

Each year a new High Bailiff is elected (these days it is only an honorary position) by a jury of local men, as he would have been in the Middle Ages. The annual Court Leet is a special occasion in Northleach, as it is one of only a handful of Leets in the country that have an unbroken record of meeting through the centuries, to this day.

The Wool Trade

In common with many towns in the Cotswolds such as Cirencester and Burford, the wool trade plays an important part in the history of Northleach. From 1340 - 1540 top quality wool from the local Cotswold Lion sheep was exported to Europe and the export of wool to the continent was a prime source of income for the Crown.

The woolmen of Northleach were John Tayler, William Midwinter and Thomas and John Fortey. Wool merchants had become some of the wealthiest men in the country and in common with many other Cotswold towns those involved in the wool trade poured much of their money back into their town. In Northleach, the wool merchants restored the parish church of St Peter and St Paul to such a magnificent state that it became known unofficially as the 'Cathedral of the Cotswolds'. It is a particularly fine example of the region's Perpendicular style (others include the church in Cirencester), and contains a wealth of features, including a handsome porch, regarded by many as one of the best in the country. Brasses in the church remain as tribute to the generosity of these medieval wool merchants.

The Coaching Town of Northleach

In the eighteenth century Northleach became a convenient coaching stop en route from London to Gloucester and provided the weary traveller a welcome beer and a change of horses.

  A number of old coaching inns still stand in Northleach to this day. The Sherborne Arms, the Red Lion, the Wheatsheaf are all still public houses. And others such as the Old Kings Head, Tudor House and the Union Hotel have seen a change of use over the years.

Around 1790, a prison was built to the west of Northleach by Sir George Onesipherous Paul. It was a great advance on the other prisons of the time and became a blueprint for others both here and in America. In recent times the prison building was to house a Museum of Rural Life and a remarkable and historic collection of agricultural machinery. This has now closed down.

** News ** - Plans to re-open - See the Northleach news page

  The prison building in Nortleach was to become the Museum of Rural Life

The coming of the railways in Victorian times took over from the coaching trade, but the railways never came to Northleach which caused the town to suffer compared with other in the area where the railways did arrive.

Northleach went into a period of decline at the beginning of the twentieth century and it is even said that grass grew down the middle of the High Street! Many of the properties were vacant and in a state of disrepair. In the 10 years preceding the second world war the Northleach had the lowest building rate in Gloucestershire.

In the second half of the 20th century, the rise of the motor car was bring about a change in fortunes and brought passing trade back to Northleach. Shops and services in the Market Place once again prospered and it became a modern day coaching stop, but this time the "coaches" were modern day cars rather that the horse drawn coaches that had brought trade before.

The increase in traffic thorough Northleach (including large heavy goods vehicles that would have dwarfed even the largest of the old coaches that would have passed through the town years before) caused various problems and accidents. The main A40 from London to the West was still running through a small town that was struggling to cope with the amount and size of modern day traffic.

In 1984 Northleach finally saw traffic through the town reduced when the town by-pass which was opened. But as a knock on, this affected local traders, who had previously relied on the passing trade which was now being diverted around the town.

Another knock on effect of the by-pass was that land either side of the High Street was released for the building of new houses. Almost nothing had been built since the construction of the Walton Estate in the nineteen-fifties, but now new estates blossomed around the perimeter of the town; eventually pushing its boundaries. Over the next ten years Northleach grew by 50%.

There had been a Grammar School in Northleach since 1557, but in the 1980's the Westwoods Grammar School, which was built in 1930, closed and the cottage hospital was closed down at the same time despite great local opposition.

Modern Day Northleach

Northleach will probably never be a bustling honey pot tourist trap like Bourton on the Water or Stow-on-the-Wold, but the shops and services now serve a thriving local community and Northleach has become a desirable place to live (possibly because of the very fact that it isn't over-run with tourists. Those that do discover Northleach will probably appreciate it even more as a result!
The town is popular with walkers who can easily reach close by villages like Hampnett and Farmington before returning to explore Northleach itself.
Source : and other Cotswold web sites