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Cowley House
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There is a local rhyme which goes: "Stow-on-the-Wold, where the wind blows cold". Stow is at a high point of the Cotswold plateau, 700 feet above sea level, and visitors are recommended to spend a week acclimatising before venturing out into the market square. If you feel faint after inquiring about the price of a Jacobean oak refectory table that is more likely to be caused by the price than a lack of oxygen. Visitors from the Andes can of course dispense with high-altitude precautions, but should be seated when inquiring about oak tables.

Stow is a major centre for English antiques and has a concentration of shops which compares well with any antiques centre in the UK. The economic recession over the last few years has hit the UK antiques trade hard and there are fewer antique businesses than there were five years ago, when it was difficult to find a shop in Stow selling anything other than antiques, but antiques still dominate. Many of the Cotswold towns have a concentration of antique shops - Tetbury is a good example - but Stow is the largest, and antique lovers will find it easy to spend several hours browsing.

With antiques and tourism added to the normal commerce of an important market town, Stow is an amazingly busy place. You can tell it has always been an amazingly busy place from the size of the market square, which was used to host huge sheep fairs. For centuries the town has been the site of annual horse fairs, and Gypsies still attend in large numbers to buy and sell. It was an important coach stop and has some ancient coaching inns. The King's Arms (above, right) claims to have had King Charles as a guest at the time of the Battle of Naseby, and the Royalist Hotel has had timbers carbon-dated to 987 A.D. and is believed to be the oldest inn in England.

I have trouble with the idea of a 1000 year-old pub. One expects churches to be loved and revered and preserved for centuries, and guidebooks make a great fuss over surviving Anglo-Saxon churches, but it comes as a surprise to discover how many buildings in the Cotswolds are still being used for the purpose for which they were built after several hundred years of continuous use. I had a similar reaction when I saw the huge abbey tithe barn in Frocester - "This is a 13th. C medieval barn," I thought, "You can't park a tractor in here!"

But you can, and the farmer does, and it is the fact that there isn't a glass case built around the past that makes it accessible and tangible and helps one to realise that we aren't a special generation set apart from others. We will leave our scuff-marks with all the rest, and the buildings will still be used in centuries to come, serving beer or storing hay just as they did when Vikings were sailing up the Severn in longships.

The Church of St Edward was built between the 11th and the 15th centuries. It stands on the site of the original Saxon church, believed to have been of wood. The tower, completed in 1447, is 88 feet (26.8 metres) high and houses the heaviest peal of bells, eight in all, in Gloucestershire. A clock with chimes has existed there since 1580. The present clock was made in 1926. The painting of the Crucifixion in the south aisle was painted by Gaspar de Craeyer (1582-1669), a contemporary of Reubens and Van Dyck. Many features of this outstanding Cotswold Church may be attributed to the town's prosperity as a centre of the wool trade.