2:39pm Thursday 23rd November 2006 in Town Guides
When Laurie Lee wrote of his childhood in the Slad Valley, just outside Stroud, he immortalised this corner of England, and brought it to the attention of the wider world. People have continued to flock here ever since.
Life has changed dramatically since Cider with Rosie was written. Stroud is no longer an isolated little area, trapped by its own five valleys. Nor are its people the same, unsophisticated gentlefolk who once went about their hand-to-mouth existence, eking out a living in the woods and fields of the Cotswolds.
But, mercifully, the countryside which surrounded them has changed little. It can still draw gasps of admiration from visiting tourists. And even its own folk, returning from a journey elsewhere, will feel a quickening of the pulse as they approach their unique landscape once again.
The town of Stroud is a fascinating melting pot of people. You might have thought it a backwater, content with a rural existence against a backdrop of lovely Cotswold hills. Not a bit of it. New ideas flourish in Stroud. If you want organic food, a farmers' market, alternative therapies, a flourishing Green Party, then look no further. Yet side by side with these practitioners of the most up-to-date of ideals, live the traditionalists who inhabit the many grand houses built with wool-trade money, and who practise the most ingrained of country pursuits.
The wool trade in Stroud was already well established in the Middle Ages. Hills filled with fleecy sheep, and the abundance of local streams, made Stroud an ideal location for processing wool. Stroudwater scarlet, a lovely rich dye, became famous throughout Europe for military uniforms. It was an industry that brought riches to the area - followed by depressions too in the 1830s and 1870s when many mills had to close. Their sheer size has made them difficult buildings to convert from their former use - and some were demolished - but others have been given a new lease of life. Most notable, perhaps, is Ebley Mill, which now houses Stroud District Council.
As you wander through Stroud, you can see for yourself how the old and the new happily co-exist. A good place to start is the railway station, where you will see the goods shed built by Isambard Kingdom Brunel.
Carrying on the railway connection, it was one of Stroud's most famous citizens - the Rev W V Audrey - who wrote the Thomas the Tank Engine books. Written for his son, Christopher, they rank among the most well-loved children's tales in the world. Mr Audrey lived the life of a quiet clergyman, despite his success, at his home in Rodborough, on the outskirts of Stroud. There is a special Thomas the Tank stained glass window at Rodborough church.
Wandering up Russell Street, from the station, you'll see Sim's clock, with its four faces, built in 1920. Behind lie the neoclassical Subscription Rooms, dating back to 1833, which now house the Tourist Information Bureau. Beside them is the fine Congregational Chapel, making an interesting group of buildings.
In the High Street, one of Stroud's many cafes, Withey's Yard can be found, which affords a pretty view of St Lawrence's Church. Buried in the churchyard is Lieutenant Joseph Delmont, killed in the last fatal duel to take place in Britain, in 1807. Further up the High Street is The Cross, the site of the former Cornmarket. Here is a dedication to Stroud's former prosperity - a sculpture of a ram with a bolt of cloth and a waterwheel.
The Shambles, once the town's meat market, still thrives. The old Town Hall, built in 1594, can be found here. Other notable buildings include the School of Science and Art in Lansdown, with its busts of Faraday, Huxley, Kelvin, Barry, Rosetti, Leighton and Turner.
As you leave Stroud, you may very well bump into George Holloway, a Victorian philanthropist and MP, whose statue stands just before the railway bridge at Rowcroft. Nowadays, you're likely to see Katie Fforde, the best-selling novelist, opening charity events. She has once again put the town on the international map, by including it in her popular romantic tales.
There are few better places to view the town's history though, than in the Museum in Stratford Park. Here you can see the world-famous Orpheus mosaic, a relic of the Roman occupation, the 1890's "Dursley Pedersen" bicycle, and the world's first lawnmower.
Stroud's past is rich and varied, but if you're interested in the present and all Stroud has to offer, don't forget to buy a copy of the Stroud News & Journal. It may surprise you with news from a Cotswold town that is far from sleepy. If any town is fast tunnelling its way into the 21st Century, you can be sure it's Stroud.