Until recently, Chipping Norton’s main claim to fame was that it’s the highest town in Oxfordshire. Oh, and that Jeremy Clarkson can often be spotted shopping in the high street.
But that’s all changed in recent times. Chipping Norton, known fondly to locals as Chippy, has suddenly hit the headlines for the powerful people who have weekend places in its environs. Dubbed the Chipping Norton Set, they live in stunning Cotswold villages, where front doors are painted that chic sludgy green colour and pubs have gastronomic menus to rival the very best London restaurants.
David Cameron has a farmhouse five miles from Chippy, Rupert Murdoch’s daughter Elisabeth and her PR husband Matthew Freud own the gorgeous Burford Priory and controversial News International boss Rebekah Brooks and her racehorse trainer husband Charlie have a converted barn somewhere near Churchill. Meanwhile Blur’s bass guitarist, Alex James, has a farm at Kingham and Kate Moss is a bit further afield in Southrop.
I know Chippy well and apart from its brilliant independent bookshop, Jaffe and Neale, it’s a perfectly ordinary market town. It’s got a small Sainsbury’s, a WH Smith’s and lots of antique shops, but nothing very exciting to write home about. Venture a few miles into the wilds of the countryside (see above) though and you’re in a different world. Driving between villages, along sun-lit lanes lined with clouds of cow parsley and immaculately kept dry stone walls, you suddenly spot huge gates opening on to leafy, gravelled drives. Occasionally the gates will open and a sleek four by four will whoosh past.
The smart crowd do their shopping at Daylesford Organic Farmshop, just off the road to Stow-on-the-Wold. With its yoga studio, spa and stylish restaurant, some critics reckon it’s a bit like stumbling across Harvey Nichols in the middle of the Cotswolds. Gwyneth Paltrow, Kate Moss and Kate Winslet are all said to be fans, though along with the superstars in dark glasses you see locals picking up a loaf of freshly-made soda bread or a modest wedge of organic cheddar. When I pop in I buy a takeaway latte in a recycled paper cup for £2 and some chilled pea and mint soup for £3.95 – all absolutely delicious. If I was a member of the Chipping Norton Set, I reckon I’d be there all the time.
PS: If anyone offers you a ticket to see Betrayal at London’s Comedy Theatre, don’t think twice about it. The new production of Harold Pinter’s classic play, starring Kristin Scott Thomas, Douglas Henshall and Ben Miles, is touching, witty and brilliantly acted. Written 33 years ago, it still seems fresh and insightful.