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Witney? Blankets, of course

blankethallFor hundreds of years, if you asked: ‘Witney?’… The answer was invariably ‘Blankets, of course!’. And Witney’s famous woollen blankets kept people warm from the Great Plains of North America to the frozen wastes of Outer Mongolia. No one really knows why weaving began in Witney, but there were large numbers of local sheep, and the River Windrush supplied the finishing water, and perhaps the rest was happenstance. Who knows?

Certainly, by the late 17th century, there were 150 looms in the town, and 3000 people employed spinning, and twisting yarn, and weaving and washing and finishing blankets. Busy times, and Witney prospered, but even as the town prospered, whisper it soft, but unscrupulous chaps were coming in and selling under-weight and substandard blankets.

A few dozen honest weavers got together and, in 1711, Queen Anne gave a charter to their new trade association: ‘The Company of Witney Weavers’. By 1721, they had built their new Hall at 100 High Street, and for over 120 years, every blanket woven in the town came to the Hall to be weighed and measured and authenticated, and upstairs in the Great Room the Company set the Rules for the Trade.

After 1845, when hand-looms had given way to the industrial might of the new mills full of power-looms, there was no longer a requirement for co-operative quality control, and the redundant Blanket Hall became variously a brewery, a lemonade factory, engineering workshop, office of births marriages and deaths, dancing school, and latterly, a distinguished gentleman’s house. During most of its history, the Hall was also the only secular meeting-place in Witney, and is where many of the town’s public meetings took place, the death of monarchs solemnly commemorated and the birth of princes celebrated with great feasts. In the 18th Century, the Hall housed the town’s fire pump.

In 2015, the Hall reopened its doors to visitors revealing this illustrious past and to offer woollen blankets and throws, coffee, pies and much more. From the outside the baroque frontage does not give much away as to what lies inside. But as you step through the big green double doors, you are welcomed by the sight and slight residual lanolin scent of all the (English-woven) woollen blankets and scarves on the shelves. Go further, and find our Pie Shop with its famous pies and platters, as well as tea, coffee and cakes. We are licenced, so wine and Blanket Hall Beer are always available too. And a beautiful surprise, our garden provides a tranquil space to enjoy a cup of coffee or some lunch while passing the time of day next to the River Windrush.

All parts of the Hall, including the 18th century Great Room upstairs, are available for hire; for details, contact me at eleanor@blankethall.co.uk

Eleanor Martin

August – September 2018