Philately gets you everywhere

Not just a pretty face, Painswick Post Office earns its stamp of approval, writes Simon Calder
Click to follow
The Independent Travel
Among main roads, the A46 is a heavyweight: it begins in the city of Bath and bisects Britain on a long, winding course to Grimsby. But its finest moment occurs in a corner of the Cotswolds, when it assumes the identity of New Street, Painswick.

If you are not familiar with the crumbly old village of 3,000 souls, assess this stamp of approval for Painswick: "One of the pleasantest places in the world". That wasn't the lady who runs the tourist desk in the village library - it was George III, who was especially fond of the Cotswold stone quarried hereabouts.

In the 200 years since he said that, the raw, rough rock that is Painswick's motif has mellowed to the texture of icing on a sponge, spooned on and baked to the shade of honey. Posing cutely on a curving hillside, Painswick meets all the criteria for an archetypal Cotswold village. Yet it possesses qualities well beyond the merely picturesque.

That odd-house-out on New Street, for a start.

By the year 1478, the local squire Pain Fitzjohn had already donated his name to the village, before falling in battle against the Welsh. Columbus had yet to venture to the Americas, and the postcode "GL6 6XH" was still 500 year away from being coined. But in that year the bold, half-timbers of Westhaven House took shape. The first-class residence is now better known as Painswick Post Office, and is celebrated on a stamp issued this week. The honour was bestowed because it is England's first post office, in the sense that it occupies an older building than any other.

Like the postcode, the new stamp (above, left) barely does the place justice. The real thing (above, right) is much less orderly than its depiction, with overflowing window boxes spilling scarlet, white and purple blooms from beneath prim white frames. Above the porch, blackened beams writhe beneath the weight of the roof and the years. Sharp angles with a hint of wigwam about them hoist the eye upwards, to the Norwich Union firemark on the broadest cross-beam. In the days before Postman Pat and Fireman Sam were public concerns, these devices indicated which buildings were worth saving.

Inside, the shop is a pleasing muddle of stonework, stationery and sweets. A giant version of the new stamp takes pride of place, with a note that the Royal Mail will be visiting next Tuesday in order to process first- day covers. This week is one for the album in Painswick; the village festival takes place today and tomorrow.

The next attraction to get sorted in Painswick is the fairest churchyard in the Cotswolds. The sheep which speckled the hillsides of Gloucestershire produced the finest English wool, which for a few centuries made Painswick's wool merchants among the wealthiest people in Britain. They ensured their interment was of the highest calibre by commissioning increasingly elaborate (and competitive) memorials in the grassy acre surrounding St Mary's Church.

A bestilted cottage totters above the lych gate into the churchyard. Bowing to pass beneath it, you emerge amid a rural jostle. One component is a forest of masonry, resembling a haul of treasure chests spiked with a few stray pyramids. The other competitor is a consortium of yew trees, precisely 99 of them, standing in neat ranks but occasionally melting into each other to form voluminous barricades of the deepest green, separating the tombs of local grandees such as William Hogg, a Gratuitous Preacher who died in 1800: "It is incredible the sums of money he expended in charity", asserts his headstone.

Despite the decline in wool, money has not forsaken Painswick altogether. Any cyclist feels intimidated by kerb-to-kerb Rovers, of the Land and Range varieties. The price tags at the Fiery Beacon art gallery address themselves to the sorts of well-heeled folk who dine at the Country Elephant, next to the post office. But the latest addition to the catering repertoire, Bertram's ("a cafe with rooms" across from the church) charged me only a fiver for a chicken baguette that seemed to contain an entire bird, accompanied by a wheelbarrow's worth of chips and a gallon of tea.

Even allowing for refined good looks befitting an English rose, the village sustains an improbable range of restaurants and tea rooms. The reason Painswick appears on so many mental maps lies hidden a little to the north, around Buenos Ayres.

This, as you may gauge from the spelling, is not the Argentinian capital. It is the name chosen for what is now Painswick House by its creator, Charles Hyett, who moved here for the "good airs". What could be just another pretentious pile belonging to the minor aristocracy is transformed by the grounds around it. During the brief English flowering of Rococo in the 1740s, Mr Hyett imported the asymmetric aspirations of the European movement and planted them in his garden. The curves of paths and pools are assigned into a swooping gully, with the only flat patch devoted to a bowling green. Odd little outbuildings pop up, mimicking the Orient; they serve as eccentricities around which the visitor swirls. After a couple of hours in this most verdant of follies, you need another cup of tea.

Across from the churchyard, the village cascades towards the Painswick Valley, which proceeds to lilt in an entrancingly pretty fashion towards Stroud. You topple down Stepping Stone Lane and clamber up the other side to the Painswick Old Road, clinging like a contour high above the valley. This used to be a Via Regia, a royal way. Last Wednesday, as bees idly batted from one flower to the next, and the heavy summer air whispered through overgrown grass, you could find yourself in complete agreement with George III. Yet Prince Charles, a resident of nearby Highgrove, could be drawn into a battle to preserve his ancestor's vision. The local council wants to sprinkle more than a thousand new homes along the valley. As Duff Hart-Davis has reported in these pages, plans for the development are alarmingly advanced.

In Stroud, you re-join the A46 and re-enter the real world: one in which the town's stout redbrick Post Office has been closed down. Plainly, it wasn't pretty enough.

Painswick Post Office is open 9am-1pm and 2-5.30pm, but closed on Wednesday and Saturday afternoons and all day on Sunday. Painswick Rococo Garden (01452 813204) opens 11am-5pm - daily in August, then Wednesdays to Sundays until the end of November.

The Painswick Local History Society publishes, `Painswick: Time Chart of a Cotswold Village' by Carl Moreland, FRGS, available locally for pounds 5.95.