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Mar 24 2016

The Historic Wool Town of the Cotswolds: Northleach


One weekend, a few months ago, I headed off in the car, not really sure where I would end up.  I had Gloucester in mind, so that’s the direction I headed in from Oxford.  I had thought of booking accommodation in Gloucester, but I held off.  I mean, if I can travel around foreign countries without booking accommodation in advance and unable to speak the language then I can certainly do it in the UK, especially when I have a car, and I’m within a couple of hours drive from home.

I left early on Saturday morning and, on the way, I spotted a sign for a town I had thought of visiting before.  I didn’t go the first time because the road was closed off due to some event.  This time, the road was open, so I decided to make a pit stop.  I’m so glad I did.  It turned out to be a gorgeous Cotswolds town called Northleach.  The reason that prompted me to visit was the sign for a historic wool church.  I mean, what’s all that about?  I was about to find out.

The Importance of the Wool Trade to Northleach The Historic Wool Church of Northleach


I wandered into the grounds first before continuing on into the church of St Peter and St Paul.  Apparently, it is often referred to as ‘The Cathedral of the Cotswolds’.  Having seen it, I can understand why.  It’s a magnificent church and, certainly, not what you would expect from a small town, like Northleach.  The church of St Peter and St Paul was larger than I thought it would be, and it seemed odd to have such a big church in a tiny town.  The church was built from the money made by the town’s wealthy wool traders from 14th to 16th century.  It just shows how much wealth resulted from the wool trade.  In medieval times, the best wool in Europe came from England, and the best wool in England came from the Cotswolds.  Cotswolds wool was synonymous with quality.  If you wander into the church, you will see brass floor panels which has images of the church’s benefactors, the woolmen of Northleach.


Northleach Before and After the Wool Trade


Way before the boom of the wool trade, Northleach benefited from its location.  Salt was transported by horse in AD 300, and the Salt Way route happened to pass through the town.  Centuries later, in the 18th century, during the age of horse-drawn carriages, Northleach was the perfect place to change horses and for passengers to get refreshments.  Once railways took over as the main mode of transportation, Northleach began to decline because of the lack of passing trade.  That continued until motor cars increased in popularity, which meant people started passing through the town once again on a regular basis.  The small town was unable to cope with the increasing numbers of through traffic, so a bypass was built in the 1980s.  This had a negative effect on the town because people were driving past rather than through the town, just as I did the first time round.

The Old Prison The Old Prison, Northleach

What I didn’t realise until my second visit is that there is an old prison just outside the town.  I only spotted it by accident, as I was driving past.  Curiosity caused me to stop.  I’m glad I did because it was interesting to walk around the old prison., which was designed and used to hold petty criminals.  By all accounts, it was a pretty grim place.  In 18th century, the prison was reformed to improve security, health, and to segregate prisoners by sex and category.  Although it was downgraded in later years, it was used right up until the 1970s.

It’s the only prison I know where you can go in for coffee and cake and are free to leave at any time.

My Thoughts 

As I wandered around the town, stopping for a cuppa to warm myself up by a log burner on a crisp, winter’s day, I found it hard to imagine that what is now a sleepy town was once a thriving market town and one of extreme wealth and importance during medieval times.

Northleach is a lovely little town in the Cotswolds that isn’t overrun with tourists.  It’s a quiet, laid-back, pretty town that is off the beaten track.  It’s definitely worth taking a detour into this cute, historic, interesting market town to discover it for yourself.


You can see on the map where Northleach is in comparison to the surrounding major cities and towns.

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About the author

Teresa Keane

Teresa has been to almost 60 countries. She started travelling independently at the age of 38 when she gave up her job, rented out her house, put her possessions in storage and spent a year travelling the world. It changed her life. She now creates, publishes, & promotes online travel content and is an experienced freelance trainer & EFL teacher.

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