My Favourite places: Esther Lafferty, Festival Director Ox Artweeks
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Esther Lafferty is Festival Director for Oxfordshire Artweeks which runs until 26 May. With nearly 500 artists taking part in this year’s event, Esther has more opportunity than most to discover the corners, nooks and crannies of the county. Away from her job, she enjoys considerable cake consumption (well, she said it!) and lives in Kingston Bagpuize with her husband and three children. Here are her favourite places.
Normally an undiscovered backwater, this a pretty Victorian estate village tucked away of the beaten track has several racing stables in and around the village, most of which use the Downs for gallops, and visiting it feels like a step back in time. You can clamber amongst the millenium stone circle set as a sundial in woodland on a hill affording lovely views, or stroll along the nearby lakeside to see the Baroque Georgian Manor which houses one of the country’s finest examples of an Imperial staircase. And no visit would be complete without sampling the cake in the little Bistro. This week, however, for Oxfordshire Artweeks the village has been subsumed with sculpture and other art.
Illustration: Sculpture by Dawn Benson for Art in Ardington
A shady glade bursting with bluebells sits atop a hill just north of Faringdon where my children go to school: it’s the site of a circular Iron Age hill fort and thought to be the place where King Arthur defeated the Anglo-Saxons in the Battle of Badon Hill. There’s acres of wood to explore and trees to climb, and beneath the tranquil National Trust canopy, there’s a hive of activity with ramblers, dog-walkers, mountain bikers and the lesser-spotted mountain-boarders who use the steep slopes for fast downhill action, with jumps and other stunts that are a thrill to watch. If your family is moaning about another walk to work off that Sunday roast, it’s an exciting diversion from natural history!
Illustration: Badbury’s Bluebell Woods by Oxfordshire Artweeks artist Stuart Roper
The Trout at Tadpole Bridge
A gastro-pub par excellence on the banks of the Thames by a pretty Cotswold stone bridge, this is one of my favourite spots in Oxfordshire, whether whiling away a summer afternoon in the riverside garden watching the boats drift by, or even stripping under the willow for a quick dip in the water when the sun’s at its brightest (though this isn’t condoned by the pub who rightly think that swimming and alcoholic beverages don’t mix well), or hunkering down beside the roaring fire of a cold evening to escape West Oxfordshire’s winter weather. Head downstream along the Thames path and you’ll find the Chimney Meadows nature reserve and Duxford Ford, a magnificent place for children to play in age-old fashion, or take a kayak instead as we like to do, and feel hidden from the rest of the world as you paddle down a passage of Robin Hood green.
Illustration: Thames Willow by Oxfordshire Artweeks artist Jane Tomlinson
Abingdon Town Hall
It’s the pride of the historical market town of Abingdon-on-Thames, standing tall for the last 250 years in the market square, steeped in local heritage and now housing a museum on the first floor and cafe in the cellar! Possibly the most striking town hall in all England, and beautifully flood lit at night, every so often allows visitors to see the town and the river from its roof. There’s also a charming tradition that on royal occasions hundreds of currant buns are thrown from its height into the awaiting crowd below. At these times Abingdon market square is choc-a-bloc with people and probably umbrellas (do you remember the downpour for the Jubilee celebrations?) but the rest of the time it’s wonderful for people watching over a cookie and a cup of coffee.
Illustration: Abingdon Town Hall by Oxfordshire Artweeks artist Wendy Skinner Smith
White Horse Hill
Carved into the chalk hillside south of Uffington, an ancient White Horse of Uffington is windswept and mysterious, and standing at his side, the whole of Oxfordshire rolls out beneath your feet. It’s the perfect place for quiet contemplation, to fly a kite, to recover if you’ve cycled up it, or for a spot of paragliding if you’re that way inclined.
They say that on the mound beneath St George slew the dragon and the hill is named Dragon Hill to commemorate the event. Head to the bottom for something tall and cool Woolstone’s thatched White Horse, the 16th century inn where I first met my husband. (Yes, he’s tall and cool.)
View from White Horse Hill by Oxfordshire Artweeks artist Anna Dillon
The Story Museum
Hidden down a twisty backstreet opposite the grandeur of Christchurch College, there’s a fairy-tale space with a gothic red brick front, behind which the old post office buildings lie. And if you head through the big wooden doors, you enter a secret quadrangle where the magic of children’s literature is coming alive in big airy rooms for future generations. Just open to the public, with a café and a shop, there’s currently an exhibition showing the children’s authors of today as the favourite characters of their own childhood, and lots more is yet to come.
Illustration: Katrice Horsley as Mary Poppins by Cambridge Jones, at The Story Museum