The bustle of Casterbridge is part of the charm of Thomas Hardy’s work.
He sums up a little market town with the most perfect attention to detail: we first see it from a bird’s eye view and come closer, and closer, until we are gazing at paraphernalia in the shop windows.
In Casterbridge High Street, Hardy says, there were “timber houses with overhanging stories, whose small-paned lattices were screened by dimity curtains on a drawing string, and under whose bargeboards old cobwebs waved in the breeze.
“There were houses of brick-nogging, which derived their chief support from those adjoining. There were slate roofs patched with tiles, and tiled roofs patched with slate, with occasionally a roof of thatch.”
Casterbridge is part of Hardy’s Wessex, a long way from the Berkshire countryside. Yet somehow, one market town in Berkshire has managed to save many of its buildings. And in doing so it has retained a Casterbridge-like charm.
Don’t get me wrong. It has multi storey car parks and chain stores, and modern life flows through it as life always has. It has long been a prosperous place.
But somehow, where others have razed their history to the ground, Newbury, in Berkshire, has kept its old buildings standing.
So park in the multi storey, and file out through the brand new shopping centre towards the High Street and you will come face to face with the profile of a building which has been there for almost 500 years.
It is the gable end of a house. It was clearly a very old house, and mediaeval. It adjoins Marks and Spencer’s: and it bears an inscription.
This is a town which remembers its heroes. Jack O’ Newbury – John Winchcombe – started off as a monk-novice far away in Gloucestershire but it did not suit him, the story goes. He joined a band of players which came to Newbury Market, and soon made himself useful in the cloth trade, the principle trade in the town.
Apprenticed to a worthy cloth merchant, when the businessman died, Jack married the merchant’s now wealthy widow. A pamphleteer got hold of Jack’s story and turned the whole thing into an earthy romance, highlighting the fiery relationship of the pair. Indeed, we can still see the window through which an irate Jack is said to have admonished his wife in the early hours of the morning, when she returned after a day out with her girlfriends.
The townspeople have held fast to their clothmaking heritage, and painstakingly catalogued their lore. They relished the day mill owner John Coxeter made a daring bet: that, with the aid of the new cloth-making machinery available in the brave new era of 1811, he could shear the wool from the back of a sheep and have it made into a coat in just 24 hours.
Two sheep arrived at nearby Greenham Mill, at 5am on June 25th, 1811.
And that night, Coxeter sat down to dinner, having been applauded by a crowd of 5,000 locals, in a glorious blue coat which is now a treasured possession of the town’s museum.
The buildings are breathtaking, just standing there because they always have: an Old Cloth Hall dating from 1627; and the granary, built to store grain at the time of Charles II with an incredible overhanging timber balcony; the coaching inns which retain the space for stagecoaches, though only their ghosts frequent Newbury theses days. Once Newbury was on two of the most significant coaching routes in the country, relegated to the status of backwater by the Great Western Railway.
The town has the self-effacing pragmatism of a farmer.
Yet here is the spirit of Casterbridge, many years on, preserved if you will but slip off the M4 to explore.