Bourton-on-the-Water is one of Britain’s honeypot villages. Situated in the Cotswolds, a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty that straddles five counties (Gloucestershire, Oxfordshire, Warwickshire, Wiltshire and Worcestershire), Bourton-on-the-Water’s main claim to fame is that it is a very pretty village surrounded by lots of other very pretty villages. Perhaps ‘honeypot’ is an archaic term and we should now refer to these places as Instagram fodder. Looking through my old copy of ‘The Shell Book of English Villages’ and my even older copy of ‘English Villages and Hamlets’ by Humphrey Pakington (1945 edition), neither has anything particularly illuminating to say about Bourton-on-the-Water other than – well, it is extremely attractive. And you cannot argue with that.
Bourton-on-the-Water is quite a large place – almost a town – and mostly perfectly ordinary. However, at its centre is the exceptional High Street, with a wide green flanked on the south-west by the crystal-clear River Windrush bubbling alongside it. Pakington suggests that the water is so shallow that the ducks can only paddle – and that is certainly what many of the younger visitors do. Spanning the river are five picturesque stone bridges, dating from the 17th to the 20th centuries, four of which are pedestrian only. The path that runs alongside the river is fronted by tempting little shops, charming houses and alluring pubs and restaurants, all constructed of the golden, Jurassic, limestone for which the Cotswolds is renowned. You can’t get much more picture-postcard than this.
The combination of buildings and water inspired some fan of hyperbole long ago to refer to Bourton as ‘the Venice of the Cotswolds’ – and the title stuck. It is somewhat of a misnomer, if only because there are no gondolas – or gondoliers. Oh, and it doesn’t look much like Venice. Apart from that, I’m sure it helped no end with marketing, though Bourton-on-the-Water does not need much in the way of promotion these days. When the ABAB team arrived for a brief visit and overnight stay, the place was mobbed with tourists of all shapes, sizes, ages and origins. There was even a brass band playing on the green. Naturally, it took a while to realise it all hadn’t been arranged in our honour. Still, the band was excellent, the sun was shining, there was a festive air and our fellow sightseers were generally civilised; so it was quite pleasant, if somewhat crowded.
Once you have exhausted dipping in and out of souvenir shops, sucking ice cream and supping a pint by the river whilst watching the world – or a good proportion of it – go by (almost guaranteed to keep me happy for several hours), you may start getting restless. For people like you, there are several other Things To Do in Bourton. These include a motor museum, which has an excellent reputation, and Birdland, which is somewhere that keeps birds. The thing we had come to see, however, was the model village.
Now, Bourton-on-the-Water’s Model Village is unusual in many ways. Firstly, it is a replica of the village it is located in; not all model villages are. You could say it is a model village of a model village. Anyway, it was the brainchild of Mr and Mrs C A Morris, who owned the Old New Inn at Bourton during the 1930s. Leisure motoring was taking off and they wanted something to attract day visitors. So, possibly inspired by Bekonscot in Beaconsfield, which opened in 1929 and claims to be the world’s oldest model village, they meticulously measured Bourton’s buildings and streets, enlisted the help of six local craftsmen, and set about replicating Bourton-on-the-Water at 1/9th scale in their back garden. Why 1/9?” I don’t know – but if anyone does, please enlighten the rest of us. A Bit About Britain likes to address the burning issues of the day.
A second, uncommon, feature of Bourton’s model village is that, rather than being created by model-makers, it was built by professional tradesmen who were used to working with normal-sized materials. Here, they created a beautiful miniature version of their village using authentic Cotswold limestone, tiny slates and other materials. The detail is exquisite, right down to delicate window tracery in the church, the Windrush flowing through and bonsaied plants in the gardens. The parish church of St Lawrence, with its distinctive domed tower, and the Baptist Chapel each have faithfully reproduced interiors. To cap it all, in 2013 Bourton-on-the-Water’s model village was awarded listed status, just like more than 100 of the real, full-sized, buildings in the village, the oldest of which date from the 17th century. The model took just four years to complete, from 1936-40, but was first opened in 1937, to celebrate the Coronation of King George VI. Having worked on many real-life projects, I would say that was an achievement. I guess the builders weren’t constantly disappearing to work on another model village and the client couldn’t keep changing their mind about the design, because it was what it was. The model hasn’t altered much in the passing years, because its subject hasn’t – though signs are faithfully replaced when shops and so on change names.
A team of stonemasons was at work on maintenance and restoration when we went round and it was fascinating to watch them. They worked from a block and skilfully cut away into it, etching out the details of stonework, doorways and other features. Naturally, the model village includes a model of itself and, presumably, a model inside that and so on until it is so small it cannot be seen by the naked eye.
The model village, and the Old New Inn, stayed in the Morris family until 1999 and has only had two owners since. If you stay in the Inn, as we did (it’s excellent, by the way), you get free entry into the model village – which also includes a couple of other interesting miniature exhibitions. I have to say that the whole place is charming, as are the people who run it.
Turning back to the full-sized village, if you want to take uncluttered photos of places like Bourton-on-the-Water, the only time to do so is early in the morning – or, possibly, out of season. Accordingly, I prematurely hauled my protesting and still slumbering carcass out of bed and set off with my trusty Instamatic. I was amused to see others doing the same, a feature of our times, for sure. Also abroad at that hour was a team of industrious street cleaners whose equipment included a large, shiny, truck with seriously big brushes and lots of flashing, amber, lights. The local authority obviously takes its tourism revenue very seriously – quite rightly – and goes out of its way to present the place at its very best for the next batch of visitors. In truth, I hadn’t spotted a great deal of litter anyway, despite the crowds of the previous day.
There is a good selection of places to eat in Bourton. We dined at The Old Manse Hotel, a riverside establishment that promised decent ale and appetising fare. I did wonder whether visitor numbers were exceptional when so many items seemed to be off the menu, but what was left was acceptable, without being earth-moving, the surroundings were lovely and the beer was good. However, I do find it puzzling that some places in Britain struggle with basic customer service. Let’s face it; customer service is not rocket science. Yet, after a perfectly pleasant experience to that point, when we ordered coffee at the end of our meal we were told we could not have any “because the machine had been turned off”. Now, within reason, I would expect coffee to be available to diners until they had finished dining. But, anyway, this was only 9.30 in the evening. We could have had dessert, so the refrigerator and microwave were still working, thank God; but coffee was too difficult. I asked the waiter whether the tea machine had been switched off too and, with no trace of humour, he confirmed that it had. Pillock.
With the focus on its appearance, guidebooks do not talk much about Bourton-on-the-Water’s history. Prehistoric remains are common in the area and there was an encampment on the edge of the modern village. Later, the Romans built a camp near a crossing over the Windrush and the Fosse Way, which linked Exeter and Lincoln and lies under the modern A429 in these parts. The parish church of St Lawrence is believed to be built on the site of a Roman temple and there was a Saxon church there in the 8th century. The name, Bourton, is Saxon. In the 1640s, the Rector of Bourton-on-the-Water was a Thomas Temple who was also chaplain to the Royal household and tutor to the Royal Princes. Charles I visited several times, including during the Civil War, in 1644. The Battle of Stow-on-the-Wold took place just four miles along the Fosse Way, in 1646. Unlike Charles I, Thomas Temple survived the war. The King’s son, Charles II, made him Bishop of Bristol after the Restoration.
Every August Bank Holiday Monday for about 70 years, a less than serious football match has taken place in the river, with two very wet teams from Bourton Rovers FC competing in front of hundreds of spectators. That would be worth seeing.
Finally, I have learned that the actor Wilfrid Hyde-White (1903-91), probably best known for playing Colonel Pickering in the 1964 musical ‘My Fair Lady’, was born in Bourton-on-the-Water and is buried there.
So now you know
More information from Bourton-on-the-Water’s website.
And here is the website for the Old New Inn and the Model Village.