Here’s a town that’s an idyllic cocktail, of stunning Cotswold soothing stoniness, and yet reviled by much of Oxfordshire as its ‘chav’ town. It fuses its two images with attention to detail embodied by its shopping centre –


It even has a canal, with a lock and everything, that goes through the middle of the pedestrianised shopping centre.



Travelling at one mile an hour on a pretty green canal boat past WH Smiths in Banbury is such a splendidly pointless activity that everyone should be made to it once, like a pilgrimage.

But it’s also famous for its role in a nursery rhyme, on account of Banbury Cross not quite rhyming with riding a white horse.

But Banbury is much more than this, which is why it doesn’t make a scene about its place in the rhyme. Apart from this statue in the middle of the town



And tiny references to it in the museum, such as here


And here


They hardly mention it.

But Banbury has much more to offer than this. For example there’s the beautiful scent, mentioned recently on the BBC news website –

“A bad smell in Banbury will be discussed at a public meeting this week after residents kicked up a stink. Pam Driscoll, who lives nearby, described it like a ‘tomcat had sprayed’ saying: ‘It really reeks. It makes your throat sore; it makes your eyes water’.

Not everyone agrees, and on a forum called ‘Trucknet’ for lorry drivers, one of them wrote “My favourite smells on the road are the Weetabix factory on the A14, and a smell from Banbury that I’m not sure what it is.”

But Banbury has a rebellious tradition, in the heart of sixteenth century rebellion, when small farmers and tradesmen rejected the religion that justified a natural hierarchy, for a Puritan one that insisted we are all equal before GOD.

Out of context this can sometimes appear to be slightly mental, such as when Banbury’s Puritan preacher was in full preaching flow as a fire began to destroy the town, and proclaimed “The fire rides in triumph due to God’s displeasure for our sinners.”

In his defence, by sinners he meant the nobility rather than gays, as suggested by a certain UKIP councillor, though while he may be excused from homophobia it would be hard to back him up on grounds of rational thought.

Banbury was so gripped by Puritanism a poem of the time went “To Banbury came I, O prophane one, where I saw a Puritan hanging a cat on a Monday, for killing a mouse on a Sunday.”

However smug the Puritans were, and if they had a flaw it is that they could be a little Puritan at times, there’s no doubting their selfless commitment. Oliver Cromwell once boasted (I think at the battle of Cropredy Bridge, just next to Banbury, though I’m not sure)  “Our army has the virtues of prayer, godliness, integrity, solemnity and honesty, whereas the King’s army can offer only vice, drinking and wenching.”

Surely at least a few Puritan soldiers must have heard that speech and gone “Really? Do you mind all that much if I swap sides, just for a weekend.”

Something must remain of these fiery times. There’s the Cromwell pub, a huge stone hostelry in the centre of town, though remembering him with a pub suggests maybe they haven’t grasped all the Puritan’s policies. And the football team is known as the Puritans. Presumably when they’re in a huddle at the start of the game the captain reminds them “Remember, our side has the virtues of prayer and godliness, whereas Aylsebury Rovers can offer only vice, drinking and wenching.”

But not in Banbury, which is now relegated in the league of politically important towns behind Chipping Norton, home to such nationally important statespeople as David Cameron, Rebekah Brooks and Jeremy Clarkson.

But the Cotswolds is never one-dimensional, so author Dominic Sandbrook, who lives in Chipping Norton, wrote in reply to someone who suggested it was power-hungry, amoral and louche,

“You want louche? Try Stow-on-the-Wold. Amoral? Then go to Bourton-on-the-Water. Power-hungry? You don’t know power-hungry until you’ve been to Moreton-on-the-Marsh.”


At first glance Didcot isn’t easy to love.




In a way it’s Oxfordshire’s grubby neighbour, and you can imagine Abingdon pops round at the weekend to say “Would you mind popping down to Berkshire for the night, only we’ve some very important guests coming round and they’d rather not hear your racket.”

But one of the most lovable sides of Didcot is that so many people love it. Local historians wrote a book called “A History of the Railway in Didcot”, and while it’s marvellous that anyone should write a book with that title, even better is that the opening line reads “This book is in no way a history of the railway in Didcot.”

Even that was trumped, when I mentioned in the show that I’d come across a book called “The Long Years of Obscurity. A History of Didcot, Volume One – to 1841.”

I asked if it was possible that anyone had ever read that, presumably thinking ‘I prefer the obscure years of Didcot. 1841-1867 Didcot is a bit too pacy for me’. And someone called out that they were reading it at the moment, and even said “Is that the one by BF Lingham”, which it is, unless there are two book called “The Long Years of Obscurity. A History of Didcot, Volume One – to 1841.” And the two authors are no doubt bitter rivals, like the two groups that still go under the name of Bucks Fizz.

Didcot is fascinating because it was created by the railway, as a site for a junction between the line to the west of England and one heading to the Midlands. Hundreds of labourers arrived in the 1840s to build the junction, and this didn’t endear the place to travellers.

A chap called JE Vincent, in ‘The Highways and Byways of Berkshire’, wrote “Except for some mining villages in South Wales, there is nowhere as bare and depressing as Didcot. Its scenery is as dreary and monotonous as anywhere, and it is unlikely to become a popular resort, as it is so ugly.”

All these years later it’s reputation hasn’t improved. One of the messages I was sent on twitter read “You can always tell on a train to Oxford who’s from Didcot, from their morose demeanour.”

It also turns out there was once a character in Eastenders who ‘confessed’ to being from Didcot. That isn’t flattering, to be considered a subject of trauma in Eastenders, presumably with dialogue that went “We’ve gotta talk.”

“What is it doll?”

“Look, this ain’t gonna be easy, but I’ll come aht wiv it, I’m from Didcot.”

“Oh no, that explains your morose demeanour you slag.”

But Didcot isn’t morose. Despite it appearing to be a cluster of houses nestled beneath the cooling towers of a power station, as it’s been built as the set for a remake of The Hills Have Eyes, it seems to be one of the cheeriest towns in the country. Comics love playing there, and the local pride embodied in the books about the place was matched once by someone calling out to me “I can’t believe you haven’t mentioned this was where someone first marketed watercress.”

So I’d vote for Didcot to be made capital of Oxfordshire, maybe by royal decree, though from the other messages I was sent on twitter, maybe not everyone would agree.

Dylan Mitchell wrote “It wasn’t originally meant to have a train station, but the snobby twats in Abingdon didn’t want one.”

Alphonso Mango added “When I lived in Abingdon 30 years ago, Didcot was rumoured to have the highest per capita STD infection in UK.”

Noposhsports said “The locals think the power station is actually a dragon.”

Then the comic Paul Sinha informed me “I have frequently taken my boyfriend up the Didcot Parkway,” before a local person, Alan Flanagan, completed the comment with a perfect Didcot outlook, asking “Did you Park and Ride?”

Bless Didcot, I say.


Ivybridge is as aptly named a place as you’re likely to find in South Devon.

Because its main bridge is covered in ivy. This displays an almost Germanic level of linguistic efficiency, as if Birmingham was called Unfathomableunderpasses or Grantham was named Dragonbirth.



But Ivybridge has other charms. As well as streams and hills that smell of wet grass even when it’s not rained for a year, it has a slightly industrial corner, with a couple of pubs that seem like on certain nights they can be heard in Plymouth. And it has a boast, which several people mentioned and is also on its website. It goes “Ivybridge was recently the fastest growing town in Europe.

I considered this claim as I was walking down its High Street, and took this photo, to confirm it is indeed a place that’s hurtling towards the size and bustling chaos of Tokyo.


Even when you go out of the centre of town, as much as a whole mile away from the High Street, there are still the sprawling shanty towns you find in any rapidly growing city, and the residents of this ghetto permitted me to take this picture there.




As you would expect, Ivybridge’s stunning growth has become a magnet for youth, and some days there are as many as five young people seen in the city centre, with their youthful catchphrase ‘we got on the wrong bus, we meant to go to Plymouth’.

Inevitably this has led to an increase in crime, which is why the police station has a charming notice on the door that says “There is no reception at this police station. Access is by appointment only.”

This is a much more efficient method of policing than the normal one, as you can book an appointment for when you think you’re going to be burgled, saving time all round.


Amongst its other boasts are that “Ivybridge has ‘Walkers are Welcome’ status”, which is such an improvement on the old system in which they’d shoot the bastards with an arrow.

The ‘Community of Ivybridge’ project informs us “Ivybridge now has apopulation of 15,000, brought about by this rapid growth and change in population. The town council held an open day, unfortunately only one person turned up and they were not from our town.

But despite all this, I shall always remember Ivybridge because I was there on the night Crystal Palace were playing Liverpool. It was the first home game I’d missing for seven months, and didn’t seem to matter all that much, as Palace were safe from relegation. It did matter to Liverpool though, as they need to win to still have a good chance of winning the Premier League.

Palace were at the end of an unimaginably glorious season, predicted by everyone to come bottom but finishing in eleventh place, and every home game was played through a volcanic roar, borne of a combination of jubilation and disbelief.

During the interval I put my radio on, to hear Palace were 3-0 down, and the commentators were suggesting Liverpool should try and score six or seven. I turned it off so I could concentrate on writing bits for the second half. But when I turned it back on it was 3-1, then it became 3-2.

A lad from the theatre popped in to say we were ready for the second half, so I waited at the side of the stage, radio pressed against my ear, and as I was about to go on I heard a shrieking voice squeal ‘And it’s 3-3’.

I walked on, and could only splutter ‘Palace have come back from 3-0 down to Liverpool’, and to my delight a good section of the audience gasped. I said “I can pretend to concentrate on the show but we all know we’d all be living a lie”, so I fetched the radio and placed it next to the microphone, just in time for the full time whistle to go, completing what is now hailed as one of the greatest ever nights at Selhurst Park.

So I will be forever grateful to Ivybridge, for being not only a delightful town prone to absurd exaggeration about its status, but also for indulging my emotions regarding easily the fastest rising football club in the history of the universe.

Much Wenlock

It doesn’t matter how meticulously you travel round Britain, carefully picking off every single town, you’ll still to be sent to places that make you think ‘where the bloody hell’s that’?
It turns out Much Wenlock is in Shropshire, but not the bit of Shropshire you go to every day like Nantwich, it’s past Telford and down a lot of lanes, and no one has ever said about Much Wenlock ‘you can’t miss it’.
It’s a place of such size, it has a sign telling you how many shops it’s got.


There must be people who live there who assume this is normal for every town, and as you approach Berlin there’s a sign that says “24,540 quality shops.”
As there are ‘only’ or ‘blimey as many as’ 30 shops, depending on perspective, they have to cover all the essentials between them, which must be why almost all of them sell jars of chutney with pieces of cloth wrapped round the lid.
There is a square, that has a plaque informing you “This square highlights Much Wenlock’s modern status as a tourist destination.”


And it’s hard to believe so much can be packed into one square that will attract the modern tourist. You can spend a morning admiring the clock, then in the afternoon enjoy one of over three quality benches, before going on a stroll to admire a different face of the clock.
Another claim made by the tourist website says “It’s possible to do all your weekly shopping here, although sadly there is only one remaining blacksmith.”
So if your weekly shop includes two sets of horseshoes, each made by separate blacksmiths, it’s not quite true that it’s possible at all is it?
Much Wenlock seems to combine its idyllic setting and quaintness, with an attitude that it’s not going to creep and fawn over you. The Guild Hall boasts a collection of Tudor paintings, but when I tried to go in, a man with a bdge told me he was shutting early and shut a vast wooden door on me, before closing nine or ten vast bolts, as if he was worried I might try to scale the place with an army of Saxons.
But Much Wenlock has had an immense global on the life of almost everyone in the world.

Because a Victorian Much Wenlockian, called William Penny Brookes, in the spirit of self-improvement of the time, organised an early version of the Olympic Games there.


It’s hard to imagine how you could have an Olympics in a place of this size, as the 200 metres would involve three laps of the entire town, and the discus would almost certainly go through someone’s window.
But the events were so successful they attracted athletes from around the country, and only a few of the sports, such as wife-carrying, seeming a bit dated.
They then came to the attention of Pierre de Coubertin, who met Brookes, and they discussed setting an international Olympic Games on the Much Wenlock model. In honour of this, the mascot for the London Olympics was called Wenlock, and one day it’s hoped the modern Olympic Games could almost reach the size of the event that took place in Shropshire.



I’m sure everyone in the world is as ridiculously fascinated by the quirks of towns as I am, so here are the tales of my most recent journey around Britain. Because Captain Scott and Marco Polo may have got about a bit, but they never went to Much Wenlock or Coalville did they?


The first night of my latest tour was in Cranleigh, between Guildford and Horsham in Surrey, that claims to be the ‘largest village in England’.



As a village it’s a perfect, with parish notice boards and a community notice board in the High Street and it’s probably permanently ‘in bloom’, and you can get tea and scones but not a kebab, and half way through my scone, I noticed a man of about seventy with a very straight back, making tutting noises while reading a newspaper. Eventually he harrumphed, which is to say he didn’t make a harrumph noise, he actually said “Harumph”, and disgustedly put the paper down. Then said out loud to the room “Hah. The Daily Mirror, I might have known.”

That’s how perfect a village Cranleigh is.

But its finest qualities, like anywhere that perfect, are its glorious imperfections. For example, the BBC website reported recently “Smash-and-grab raid at Cranleigh furriers. A large quantity of fur clothing has been stolen from a specialist retailer in the second such raid in four months.”

This seems a fitting heist for Britain’s largest village, and the Town Guild is probably delighted that local thieves have the taste to rob fur and not hold up an off licence like the common Labour-voting villains you get in Woking.

More impressively, there are one or two hotels in the village, and one of them has as scathing a set of reviews on Trip Advisor as you can imagine, culminating in this splendid prose: “Stayed here for one night on business as everywhere else in Cranleigh area was fully booked. Well, no wonder. It was a dirty, dank and smelly room, the sheets had a blood stain on them and there were pubic hairs in the sink.”

The big issue currently agitating the village, I was told by everyone I spoke to, was the opening of a branch of Betfred in the High Street. I can only imagine this was done as a joke, as no one would dare be seen going in, and in any case Betfred would have to train the locals, such as the man with the straight back, to shout ‘GO ON GO ON GO ON GO ON BAAAA FUCKING NAG’ then screw up the betting slip and complain ‘That’s the tip from the Daily Mirror, I might have known’.

And Cranleigh has a hidden radical past. According to ‘The History of Cranleigh’, In 1829 the villages around Guildford such as Cranleigh witnessed the spread of riotous marches and destruction of machinery. The mill at Allbury was burned to the ground.”

Then in 1838 “A great many of the labouring men are apt to get drunk. They go into the street and do things they are ashamed of and fall out of the wagon and sometimes kill themselves.”

But their finest moment was maybe in the weeks prior to the 2012 Olympics, when the nearby roads were set to stage part of the road cycling event. Because the local paper had to report that, to the village’s shame, this graffiti appeared one morning on the route –


The crime was seen as so serious it attracted the following comments on the paper’s website:

Great! Now I know what I have to do get some of the local roads resurfaced, although I’m sure my artistic talents don’t match up to those in the picture!



Right now I’m actually welling up slightly at the sheer level of patriotism and national pride shown here for the 2012 Olympic Games. The artist’s daring juxtaposition of raw human sexuality and the thrill of competitive sport implores all of us to look deep within ourselves. Stevie Wonder


Note to Surrey Police: This was definitely done by a man. If a woman had done this it would have been much smaller!

Mike B, Epsom


In any case, it seems to me the whole raison d’etre of Cranleigh is founded on a marvellous fraud, as it’s only the largest village in England because they’ve called themselves a village. There’s no definitive way of telling one from the other, so Manchester could declare itself a village and Cranleigh’s claim would be in ruins.


Among the comments sent to me about Cranleigh on twitter were –

“Cranleigh wants to be Godalming, but it doesn’t know how.” Sadly I lost the name of the person who sent that, then


“For bonfire night they have a torch lit “march” down the Main Street. It looks like they are going to start burning crosses.” From Martyn Hutchby


“Snotty public school. Played S African side at rugby. RFU sent black referee. Look on SA faces when he set scrum priceless.” From Charlie Addiman.


And “Massive local scandal, Bet Fred opened in the high street, locals fuming it was not sushi bar.” From Richard Hillery.