Banbury’s Old Town extends from the heart of Banbury’s Market Place, through Parsons Street, encompassing the Lanes in Church Lane and White Lion Walk, then into North Bar, Horse Fair, Banbury Cross, South Bar, and back through the High Street. It includes a large selection of fine restaurants and bars, cinema and hotels.
The wide selection of independent shops offers an altogether relaxing shopping experience in comparison with the modern Castle Quay shopping centre and high street names. On offer are traditional tea shops, a family butchers, a tobacconist and Oxfordshire’s only comic book store.
A bit of history
As you’d expect from Banbury’s history, The Old Town is home to some fantastic pubs and inns, most notably Ye Olde Reine Deer in Parsons Street, which has been a pub since the 16th century, and was originally a bakery. The atmospheric inn is of great local historic importance; Oliver Cromwell held court in the pub during the 1644-6 sieges of Banbury Castle (once situated where the Castle Quay Shopping Centre now lies) during the Civil Wars.
The Whately Hall Hotel on Horse Fair is another building with an interesting history. It was built in the 17th century and was originally called ‘The Three Tuns Inn’. James II stayed there in 1687, and a secret passage led from his room to an old tunnel system where Catholic priests would hide whenever Catholic persecutors arrived. It is said that one of these priests, overcome with fear, fell dead at the bottom of the stairs, and that his ghost haunted the passageways from then on. You can still stay in the room occupied by James II, but the last sighting of the ghost seems to have been about 100 years ago. Try it if you dare!
Another old hotel is the Unicorn on the Market Square. Even older than the Whately, it was the town’s main tavern during the reign of King Charles II.
Most people are familiar with the old nursery rhyme ‘A fyne lady upon a cock horse’ but its origins are unclear. It was known by at least 1760, and may have referred to the High Cross, or the Market Cross, which used to be situated close to the Market Place and used for public proclamations. However, there was also the Bread Cross, associated with the distribution of bread to the poor, and the White Cross, about which little is known. All three crosses were destroyed in 1600. The ‘fyne lady’ of the rhyme may have been a member of the Fiennes family, and were the ancestors of the current owner of Broughton Castle nearby. The current cross at the centre of the roundabout between South Bar and Horse Fair, is a much later construction, built in 1859 to celebrate the marriage of Queen Victoria’s daughter. The lovely statue of the ‘Fyne Lady’ on the corner of West Bar was unveiled in 2005 by Princess Anne.
Banbury is also famous for its ‘Banbury cakes’, which are sold by several local bakeries and restaurants. They have been made to a secret recipe since at least the 16th century, and are similar to Eccles cakes, with a spicy fruit filling, and flat pastry case. As well as its cakes, Banbury traded in wool, ale and cheese for many centuries.
The Old Town still retains much of the atmosphere and character of historic Banbury, and is very much worth a wander round whilst visiting its pubs and cafes.