Charlbury curiosities

Prime Minister David Cameron is MP for the Witney constituency, which includes Charlbury; his house is just a few miles away in the hamlet of Dean. He is said to have remarked: "I love coming to Charlbury, because everyone in Westminster can be telling me how great I am, then I come here and everyone tells me exactly what I'm doing wrong."

Author and Oxford academic J.R.R. Tolkien was a frequent visitor. In the 1950s, he once overheard the landlord of the Bell complaining about its brewery owners and wishing he could buy out the lease. Flush with earnings from The Lord of the Rings, he told the unhappy tenant "I might be able to help you there, you know." The landlord, not knowing who Tolkien was, appraised this slightly shabby academic and sniffily replied "Oh no, I don't think you can." (The Bell has sometimes been rumoured to be the model for the Prancing Pony in Bree, but to be fair, many other pubs also claim that accolade.)

Charlbury's train service today is invaluable but unimaginative, with London in one direction, Worcester in the other. In the 1980s, though, visitors to Birmingham New Street would have been bemused to see the station displays proclaiming an InterCity train, final destination Charlbury. The train actually followed a loop via Oxford, Charlbury, Worcester and back to Birmingham again, but was advertised for Charlbury in case passengers unwittingly boarded a long-way-round journey.

Charlbury hit the headlines in 2008 when bellringer Tony Merry was caught in a bell rope, lifted high off the ground then unceremoniously deposited on the bell chamber. With no room on the spiral staircase for a stretcher, the Fire Brigade were called to lower him via an never-before-used emergency trapdoor. The Daily Telegraph's genius headline was "Ding dong Dr Merry on high".

Former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams has a house in the town and has sometimes been seen at St Mary's. A nervous trainee priest from Oxford travelled to Charlbury to deliver his first sermon; just before the service began, he was informed by his friend "Oh, and the Archbishop's in the congregation today." Shrugging it off as a joke, he was terrified to see it was actually true.

The modern Wychwood Fair is an annual celebration of local craftsmanship and has taken place near Charlbury several times. The original Wychwood Fair, however, began as a Methodist ‘picnic’ in 1796 at Newhill Plain, a clearing in the centre of what is now the Cornbury Park estate. The annual event soon grew out of control: "because the Forest was extra-parochial, and therefore outside the jurisdication of the parish constables, the fair was known by locals as the place to settle scores, with fights a regular occurrence in the darkening evening light". The fair was banned many times in subsequent years and took place for the last time in 1856. Today's event is rather more respectable.

The man widely credited with originating the Northern Soul scene, Roger Eagle, spent some of his earliest years in Charlbury during the Second World War (his mother Dorothy Eagle worked for Oxford University Press, and co-edited the Oxford Literary Guide to the British Isles). Roger Eagle was resident DJ at Manchester's legendary Twisted Wheel club, before going on to found Eric's in Liverpool (haunt of the young Julian Cope and Holly Johnson) and to manage Mick Hucknall. Eagle remembered Charlbury as having "a lot of tanks in the streets" and "the country lanes jammed up with boxes of ammunition".

Broadcaster Michael Palin sought literary inspiration in Charlbury, and stayed at the Bell Hotel in the winter of 1977 while writing his first novel. On 25 November he wrote in his diary: "I lunched in the bar of the Bell for the first time – an agreeable stone-flagged floor, beams and a big open fireplace. It pleased me to think that nearly a third (for that is the extent of my achievement this week) of the book was written directly above this room" (see his Diaries 1969–1979: The Python Years, published by Weidenfeld and Nicolson). By coincidence Michael Palin’s former publisher, Geoffrey Strachan, also lives in the town.

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