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Banbury: Who’s Riding to Which Cross?

by nycdeb on November 10th, 2015 · 3 Comments ·

Tell someone you live in Banbury & they’ll start reciting:

Ride a cock-horse to Banbury Cross,
To see a fine lady upon a white horse;
Rings on her fingers and bells on her toes,
And she shall have music wherever she goes.

Considering how well-known that little ditty is you’d think we’d know a lot about its origins but we don’t. We don’t know

  • which cross they are talking about
  • who is riding to that cross
  • how many versions of the rhyme there are
  • when the rhyme first showed up
  • what they meant by cock-horse
  • how the frog fits in

There are quite likely people who have studied this whole thing in depth and can talk for hours about the origins and meaning of it all. To normal, everyday people (like me and I suspect, you) the information seems inconsistent and like many questions involving oral traditions of this type -definitive answers are lost in time. So what do we have? Thanks to those people who did all the studying – we have informed guesses. So let’s get to guessing.


The age of the rhyme itself is open to some questions but from a historical fashionista point of view “bells on her toes” hints at medieval origins. If we assume that is the case, there were three crosses in Banbury at the time, none of which were called The Banbury Cross. There was the High cross (also known as the Market Cross since that is where it stood), the Bread Cross and the White Cross.

The Fine Lady's bell-adorned toes. Photo by dungeekin.

The Fine Lady’s bell-adorned toes. Photo by dungeekin.

Most people agree “Banbury Cross” refers to the High Cross as it was the most centrally located. The High Cross was destroyed in a frenzy of puritan zeal in 1600 (an incident that inspired scenes in Ben Jonson’s Bartholomew Fair) and the other two crosses met similar fates. But Banbury isn’t without its cross – it’s just not in the same place. Why the Victorians decided to put the new cross in a whole new place I cannot say but it seems peevish to complain. At least they put up a replacement cross which is more than can be said for those who destroyed the first one who were ordered to do so but never did.


So, thanks Victorians, even if you made some odd choices – and not just about the location. Apparently some of them weren’t sure a cross was a good idea and thought a drinking fountain would be more useful. Rather than settle the matter one way or another, they fitted the cross with a water tap (which has now been removed). The original position of the High Cross is marked by a plaque in the market square.

There is a school of thought that says Banbury Cross doesn’t refer to an actual Cross at all but rather a crossroads. The basis for this is that Banbury sits at the point where two very important and ancient roads – The Salt Way and the Jurassic Way – cross. Location is everything. It’s true now and it was true then.


Which way? Salt Way! Photo by dungeekin.

So – we kind of, sort of, think we know which cross is the Banbury Cross but then there’s this woman.


Surely, you say to yourself, we must know who she is – I mean, how many women with bells on their toes were roaming the countryside on a white horse? Well, I can’t speak to the white horse business but back in the day, it was all the rage to have bells on your shoes so that doesn’t really help narrow down the field.


The Fine Lady and her Horse. The statue has stood facing the cross since 2005. Photo by dungeekin.

The truth is – we don’t know who the Fine Lady was and what’s more, the rhyme didn’t ALWAYS refer to “a fine lady.” There are early versions of the ditty that mention an “old lady” – the fine (or sometimes Fyne) lady coming in later. Sometimes it is even spelled ‘Fiennes’ lady (referring to Celia Fiennes, family connection of the Fiennes of Banbury and Broughton Castles). Maybe someone was trying to butter up the Fiennes but Celia was most definitely NOT the lady originally referred to. We know this she wasn’t born until 62 years after the cross had been destroyed.  That’s the thing about the Fiennes family though. They are threaded through Banbury history. Much like location, they are here now and they were here then. They are a whole story in themselves. But another time. Let’s get back to the “Lady.”

The last and most unlikely theory about the identity of the Fine Lady is that she was Lady Godiva – but that’s even more of a stretch than Celia since no one can find a connection to Banbury and that well known equestrian.


Speaking of things equestrian – let’s turn our attention to the Cock-horse. “Ride a cock-horse to Banbury Cross”, we are told. Which I’m sure we’d be happy to do if we knew exactly what this potentially medieval poem meant. We know what it means NOW – it’s a child’s toy – but cock-horse meant several things before the 16th century, such as an extra horse added to a team to assist over rough terrain or to get a heavy load uphill. If the rhyme is really medieval, might cock-horse have meant “take the extra horse?” Of course, by the time the rhyme was being produced consistently, cock-horse meant a rocking horse or more often, a hobby horse. Banbury has wholly embraced the hobby horse option and holds an annual Hobby Horse Festival with many people dressing up as hobby horses or, in some cases, as the Fine Lady. There are also floral installations in the shape of Hobby Horses surrounding the current Banbury Cross.


Not ALL the questions I’ve got about the Fine Lady/ Banbury Cross are of ‘olde’ origin. Some are fairly recent. You see, there was a statue of the fine lady unveiled in 2005. She sits atop her handsome steed, looking toward the current Banbury Cross. She’s got flowers in her hair and – yes, indeed, bells on her toes. The observant visitor will also notice that just under the horse’s hoof, there sits a frog.


Then there’s this frog. I love the frog. He’s so random. Photo by dungeekin.

Now, wait – I know what you’re about to say. You’re going to say that there is no frog in the nursery rhyme. You’re right, there isn’t. There is no frog mentioned in the original rhyme, or indeed in any version of the rhyme – but there it sits, as a nearby plaque explains, representing ‘metamorphosis and the ongoing cycle of nature and community.’

What the plaque doesn’t explain (nor does anyone else) is what ‘metamorphosis and the ongoing cycle of nature and community’ has to do with the Fine Lady, the Banbury Cross or Banbury overall. After much research, I posit that this might be a reference to the number of times Banbury has had to pick itself up and rebuild throughout its history. There was a large and devastating fire across a good part of central Banbury in 1628 that destroyed about a third of the houses in town. There was massive rebuilding and repair done after both sieges at Banbury Castle during the Civil War. The air raids of World War Two weren’t as destructive as the Germans had intended but damage was certainly done, yet Banbury did what Banbury always does – picked up the pieces, patched the holes and moved on.

So, while I can’t say any of this is DEFINITE – I think we can call them reasonable and informed guesses about the mysteries of the Banbury Cross and its rhyme. I feel much more informed every time I walk by the Lady. I hope you do too.

→ 3 CommentsTags: Banbury

BOO! Haunted Banbury

by nycdeb on October 31st, 2015 · No Comments ·

It’s Halloween and while I know you’re probably madly rushing around putting finishing touches on costumes or exerting massive self-control to keep from eating all that candy you’ve purchased, let’s take a minute for a ghost story – or two! Ghost are always fun and Banbury has two that I know of.

Seventeenth-century Whately Hall has the usual charm and historic touches you would expect from a building or its age but it’s also got hidden staircases (found behind a cupboard door during a renovation in 1965) and priest holes (in room 52, also known as known as the ‘Fathers Dyneing Room’ in case you wanted to check it out in person). Another hidden staircase is said to lead from that hole into the room below (Room 20). The priest (it was usually priests using priest holes) could then flee out by means of the Harness Room or go further down into the cellars where they could access a maze of tunnels under the streets of Banbury itself.


If hidden staircases and priest holes weren’t enough, Whatley Hall has a GHOST! Yes, the ghost of Father Bernard. Though having a ghost pop out at you is no doubt a shock, Father Bernard is not supposed to be especially scary. He is said to hum, chuckle and smile as he moves briskly about the place, usually on the stairs or in the garden.

He’s not the only ghost in town, however. The Olde Reindeer Inn is said to have one as well. It makes sense. It’s one of the older buildings in Banbury and alleged to have been the Banbury headquarters for Cromwell early in the Civil War (handy for the siege of Banbury Castle as it is was right down the street).


Their ghost is a Cavalier (which fits in nicely with the history of the place). The ghost is reported to appear, complete with plumed hat and lace ruffles, both on the upper floors and in the Globe Room. No word on whether he is as jolly as Father Bernard.

→ No CommentsTags: Banbury

Banbury’s Independent (Shop) Spirit

by nycdeb on April 21st, 2015 · 3 Comments ·

The weather was too nice to stay inside today so I went out along the canal into town – took some pics, made some purchases along the way.

One of the things we like best about Banbury is that while it is well-supplied with the usual big name chains, there are also a great many independent shops – and offering a wide range of goods. What this means is that yes, I can go and pick up my contacts at Boots, or check out the sales at Debenhams but I can also treat myself (and others) to “won’t see everywhere else” handbags, toys, gifts and books, etc.

One of the other things we love about where we live? The fact that I can follow the canal from very near home all the way into town.



One a day like today (it was gorgeous out – far too nice to stay indoors), the walk is delightful. Later on in the summer, the walk is also awash in blackberries so it is delightful AND delicious.

Town, once I arrived, was looking bright and crisp.


And the  bunting has gone up in prep for the Old Town Spring Party (May 2 for those who’d like to check it out).


One of the places I never miss during a stroll around town is White Lion Shopping Walk – home to two of my favourite shops, Books and Ink Bookstore and Frogabilia. It is also home, as one might guess from the name, a white lion.


The best thing about the white lion? The pink tongue.


But I was going to talk about shops wasn’t I? Specifically a couple of independents I tend to frequent and one brand-spanking new one where I scored some awesome scarves. First, there is Books and Ink Bookshop and there are few things in life that make me happier than a bookstore. As it happens, Banbury has a few but I am partial to used bookstores and this is a great one. Today what delighted me most was actually in the window.


Poor Tubby, my heart goes out to him. But he’ll show them. He’ll end up an internet billionaire, buy up all their businesses and have the last laugh. Go forth, Tubby and conquer.

The other shop with windows that are a frequent delight is (also delightfully named) Frogabilia, right across from Books and Ink. These are art deco, vintage finds that haven’t ever seen the inside of a big name chain shop. These are from a time when objects were expected to be useful and beautiful. Today, the object that stopped me dead in my tracks was this:


I’ve always adored Alice in Wonderland chess sets so when I saw this at Frogabilia I was WAY TOO EXCITED. Then I saw that it was reserved already and that was very sad.  Is it any surprise then that I needed something to cheer myself up? A little retail therapy, as it were. And so I went off to see the newest shop in town – BlueBird!  BlueBird is the new women’s accessories shop (from the same people who run Fifth Corner around – well, around the corner from BlueBird. In any case, now that BlueBird has opened, it’s going to tax my willpower a lot.


I am a scarf fanatic, the handbags are gorgeous and best of all, not the same ones you see just everywhere. There’s a real effort at curating a unique collection and it shows.


And in case you were wondering, I did manage to cheer myself up – I scored two fantastic scarves that I will doubtless wear so often during Spring and Summer that everyone in town will be sick of the sight of them. But tough. I love them!


Eventually I had to go home and get some work done – but as the weather improves and I can make my strolls along the canal more frequent (I used to walk along the East River and the Hudson 4 or 5 times a week all Spring and Summer when I lived in Manhattan), I’ll make sure to highlight some of the other shops and restaurants that contribute to Banbury’s independent (shops) spirit.

Related Links

  • Banbury’s Culinary Surroundings: (April 16th, 2015): Exploring the gastronomic pleasures – cookery schools, food festivals, artisan shops and food tours – found in Banbury itself or within no more than an hour’s travel time.
  • Spring has Sprung in Banbury!  (April 12th, 2015):  According to Tennyson, ‘In the Spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love’ – and that’s as may be but come Spring, this girl’s fancy turns to long walks, farmer’s markets, the garden and cheese.
  • Festive, Foodie Banbury (December 6th, 2014): It’s holiday time and a whole SLEW of new eateries have opened up in Banbury to keep everyone’s energy levels up for the last push to Christmas
  • Banbury’s Foodie Landscape (Nov 16 2014): One of the things we most love doing here in TransAtlantic Towers (as I always did back in NYC), is a bit of culinary exploring…
  • Grabbing a Bite in Banbury (April 14, 2015): In Banbury, a store front showing signs of activity is quite likely to be – well just about anything food related.
  • Bakergirl Bakehouse in Banbury:  Today’s culinary jaunt was to Bakergirl, an artisan bakehouse just outside Banbury.

→ 3 CommentsTags: Banbury · shopping

Spring has Sprung in Banbury!

by nycdeb on April 12th, 2015 · 2 Comments ·

According to Tennyson, ‘In the Spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love’ – and that’s as may be but come Spring, this girl’s fancy turns to long walks, farmer’s markets, the garden and cheese.  At TransAtlantic Towers, we can tell that Spring has sprung because we have been replanting beds in the garden. Behold!


Between that, the fruit trees – we now have five! – and the “herb potting” marathon we have planned for next weekend, I feel very seasonal. Spring planting in NYC was more a case of sweeping the balcony off, cleaning the chairs and moving the jade plants back outside. Not that there’s anything wrong with that – it was a lovely spot, as you can see below, and I enjoyed it thoroughly.


I do miss having jade plants but we just do not have the right window for them here for wintering.

Another thing I miss about NYC in Spring – the ‘long walks’ season along the river. And when I say long, I mean long. It was not unknown for me to go from 72nd & 1st over to 110 & West End then turn down along the River to the Village all in one go. Still, plenty of walks around here – more rural than urban, of course but no complaints there.  I have a lovely canal to walk along here in Banbury.


In theory, I could follow the canal and walk from here in Banbury to Oxford though I think that’s a bit far even for me. I’ll break it into sections, thanks very much and tackle it that way. Luckily, walking is a bit thing around here and the local council even produces a set of scenic walk brochure/maps for some of the more popular ones. So does the Walking in Oxfordshire website. All downloadable and free!

Spring is also when I once more became a frequenter of those staples of the Manhattan street scene – I love  the ‘one of a kind’ or ‘not often seen’ items you get at the outdoor markets. One of my favorite regular days out when in NYC is the Union Square market – the best place to get apples in all of Manhattan – or (if I can’t be bothered to go that far) the St. Stephen’s Market up on 82nd.


Luckily, Banbury comes up trumps for me there as well.  The canal walk will wait until we’ve had a few more days of good weather so the footpath can dry out a bit more but the weekly markets are only a short, dry stroll away.

Banbury has two markets – the Banbury charter market on Thursdays and Saturdays then the farmer’s market on the first Friday of every month. Both markets take place in – wait for it – the Market Place. There’s also an additional antiques market that runs along side the charter market on the 2nd Thursday of each month.  I’d also seen news that an artisan cheesemonger would have a stall for the first time. I love living in a place where the word cheese monger in in common usage. And so as this past Thursday was a 2nd Thursday and the weather was fine, I figured it was worth a wander in.

And I was right! I mean look at that fruit and veg!




I also scored the most amazing pair of cheeses from Curds & Whey, the cheesemongers. Well, they were amazing and so are these cheese: a black truffle cheese and an extremely mature gouda. That black truffle cheese is going to be made into an extra special risotto tonight.


Rather than rush immediately home with my score, I also decided to check out the antiques market and see what the percentage of antique to junktique they had. And by saying so – I am in NO WAY dismissing junktique items as worthy. Some of my favorite things are such things. “Junktique’ – by my definition – is that which is old, vintage-y and/or perhaps something someone else would have just tossed. Not garbage by any means – just not ACTUALLY antiques. And I have to say, I saw quite a lot of things I might have picked up if I wasn’t walking home with two ENORMOUS wedges of cheese and a tiger bread baguette (and let me give a two thumbs up to Isla Jane Bakery for that AMAZING bread) .



There will more on the delights of Spring in Banbury to come but that will have to wait – for I have some cheese to indulge in.

→ 2 CommentsTags: Banbury · Life in the UK · shopping · walks

New York City World Fairs

by nycdeb on April 7th, 2015 · 1 Comment ·

New York City has hosted two (well, three if you are fussy) World’s Fairs – an April historical highlight in both cases.


The first opened on April 30, 1939 and the other one on April 22, 1964. Both took place in Flushing Meadows Corona Park (can I get a big whoop whoop for the borough of Queens!). There was a third fair – earlier than both of these and held before the whole “World’s Fair” moniker came into common usage. It kicked off in July 1853 and was held in what these days is Bryant Park in Manhattan. Much smaller and not really in the same league at all.

This gives you an idea of the look and feel they were going for in 1939


It was in 1964 that the iconic globe went up


Each World’s Fair has a theme and the theme in 1964 was “Peace Through Understanding” – and the flag of many nations were everywhere as were visitors from all over the globe. Lots of opportunity for cross border understanding. The exhibits themselves however were dominated by American corporations showing off their latest and greatest which was less about peace and more about “LOOK AT WHAT WE’VE GOT TO SELL YOU” – which you could convince yourself was in line with the dedication of the fair, “Man’s Achievement on a Shrinking Globe in an Expanding Universe.”


As of right now, there are no more World’s Fairs (now called Expos) scheduled for New York. But you never know … they come up every five years or so and no decision has been made for the ones post-2020.

→ 1 CommentTags: historical gotham