Anglotopia Day 19 – the Cotswolds
“I am excessively fond of a cottage; there is always so much comfort, so much elegance about them. And I protest, if I had any money to spare, I should buy a little land and build one myself, within a short distance of London, where I might drive myself down at any time, and collect a few friends about me and be happy. I advise everybody who is going to build, to build a cottage.” – Robert Ferrars to Elinor Dashwood, Sense and Sensibility
I would have to agree, of course, and nowhere else in England are cottages more likely to be thought of as a miraculous and wonderful thing as in the Cotswolds.
Let me start by saying that the hectic day began without the sort of tranquility which the lazy streams and curling strands of ivy in the Cotswolds invite. I had planned on going with a tour group, and that meant an early collection time from where I was staying, as it was about a two hour drive out to the picaresque region. I am not excessively fond of most organized tours, complete with massive bus, too many people, and being shuffled like sheep everywhere on a schedule.
I was picked up on time at a nearby hotel, but this bus merely did a pump and dump and let us off at Victoria Coach Station. Despite the seemingly British custom of queueing and being organized in a crisis, I could have sworn that the new site of Bedlam was merely disguised as a coach station.
I was not caffeinated enough for the roaring hoard of people near the coach exits, waving their tickets, shouting, and in general, enjoying the way they blocked others’ views of the signage or getting out of the doors.
The thought of running away seemed like a good one at that point.
When my bus was called, the crowd surged forward, but I have to say – at least our tour bus seemed quite quiet and restful after the mass chaos inside the coach station.
First fun fact of the day – the name Cotswolds derives from “cots”, or sheep enclosure/fence, and “wolds” – hills. So, basically, the region is one “hill-holding-in-sheep” place. Man, I love me some old English with a dash and sprinkle of Anglo and Saxon thrown in. I tried to look this up later, and Cotswolds has a lot of etymology surrounding its name and origins. If I just called the area, “sheepie holders”, that sounds kind of rude, to be honest.
I watched as we wove our way through the morning streets of London, finally putting the city behind us as wide green fields and red poppies started to appear. We skirted the outer limits of Oxford, then ambled through a field for a bit until we arrived at our first stop, a happy little place named Burford. Burford had a lovely wide main street, loads of tea shops and cafes, a nice, twisty waterway that ran along the side of town named the River Windrush. Terribly idyllic, I say.
My interest was piqued by the old church steeple, so I ventured inside St. John the Baptist Church. The one time wealth of the town was built on wool – there are many, many sheepies still loitering in the countryside of the Cotswolds – and it was pretty evident by the beauty of the church that people probably tithed a good deal back in the day. A
Also, St. John the Baptist Church has a curious baptismal font with a name carved on it by a prisoner of Cromwell’s held at the church. From what I remember, he – and a few others, I suspect – tried to turn tail during the English Civil War. However, they were unsuccessful, and the man whose name appears on the baptismal font – well, he was forced to watch the executions of his comrades before going the same way himself, I’m sure.
There is also an old plaque in there to one of Henry VIII’s barbers. Perhaps a surgeon or doctor, too? Strangely, according to our tour guide, it was one of the first depictions of American Indians in English art. Curious, indeed.
The best part of Burford, other than its loveliness and position as the southern gateway to the Cotswolds region, is the seemingly tipsy houses along the main streets. With all the settling of the homes over the past few centuries, some of them are at quite a tilt. It made me wonder if you can tell you’re drunk in Burford when the houses appear to be standing straight.
From Burford, we motored along to the equally charming town of Bibury. Here, we paused to eat lunch at The Swan, a restaurant and bar near the Bibury Trout Farm. One of the regional specialities is fresh water trout, so I chose that for my meal option, and I have to say – excellent.
In Bibury, the Arlington Row houses – perhaps the most photographed and picaresque cottages in England – stand as a testament to good preservation work – and a lot of tourism. It’s nigh impossible to get a clear photograph of the houses without someone or another popping in their head. The stone houses are as beautiful as cottages can get, however, what with thick local stone shielding the inhabitants from view, beveled windows, creeping ivy, and sweet-blooming roses clinging to the walls. I suppose they look as cottage ought to be – or, at least, how films portray them, however romantic a view of living in an old cottage might be.
Also in Bibury are remnants of the trades of bygone times – wool, and to an extent, corn. An old corn mill sits near The Swan, pretty defunct now but no less beautiful.
After Bibury, we descended upon Burton-on-the-Water, a Venice of sorts in the Cotswolds. The same River Windrush ambles lazily through the town, and a series of low footbridges frame the shadows of the water and the trees. There are many shops and cafes here, of course, catering to the weekending and tourist crowd. A quick walk past the perfumery – where the Queen herself get some of her perfumes – gave me the chance to catch a hint of flowers on the breeze before I continued on and explored some of the side streets.
Lastly, we stopped at the famous Stow-on-the-Wold, a once important market town for sheep and wool trade. It is located on the Roman road, The Fosse Way, which we drove along to reach the town. It was here that I learned that “wold” means “hill”, and that Stow was meant to be a sacred place where a hermit once lived. So, the town name meant something along the lines of Holy Place Hill. Stow-on-the-Wold sounds charmingly romantic, like a fairy tale place.
And, as with any self-respecting beautiful, wool-trading town in the Cotswolds, the lovely St. Edward’s Church looked silent and stoic as ever. Also, the church features a very curious doorway out near the graveyard, a medieval-looking door with two massive yew trees standing guard beside it. You judge whether or not the general claim is true – that J.R.R. Tolkien used this door as inspiration for the Hobbit’s home.
In Stow-on-the-Wold, the local pub called The Porch House claims to be the oldest pub in England. It has all the appearance of being that old, especially if you look closely at the special markings on the large fireplace. They were meant to protect against witches – which brings me to my next film quote, and I’m sure you can anticipate this one:
“We found a witch! May we burn her!?” – villager crowd
“I’m not a witch! I’m not a witch!” – woman-dressed-as-witch
“But you are dressed as one!”
“They dressed me as one!”
“And this isn’t my nose. It’s a false one!”
“Well?” – knight/magistrate
“Well, we did do the nose. And the hat.” – crowd …
“What makes you think she’s a witch?” – knight
“Well, she turned me into a newt …” – John Cleese’s character
“A newt?!” – knight
“I got better.”
So damn classic, that Monty Python is.
Though I’m fairly certain I’d be branded as a witch back in the Xth century, what with my being single, having smart-aleck, sarcastic opinions, and preference for trousers over skirts, I was at least able to have myself a decent snakebite at The Porch House, all the while soaking in the atmosphere of the low-beamed ceilings, rough old fireplaces, and dark, dusty interiors. Not bad dust, mind you, but the kind of dull, dusty, partially lit place that recalled many a medieval evenings on ale benders and talking of traitorous things in low whispers in the back corners.
Or, perhaps, pointing the finger at the next witch victim?
The Cotswolds definitely shouldn’t be missed, and while I would have loved to explore more towns and on my own terms, the tour was informative, interesting, and gave a goodly bit of time in each town. I would enjoy going back, I think, perhaps with a small tour group into different towns. However, our guide was very knowledgable, and I loved the legends, the history, and the perhaps “somewhat” true stories of language origins. Most of what I learned I tried to recount in this post.
Honestly, that’s why I love history and visiting some offbeat places – the richness of the human tapestry of stories is vast and moving. I find things like the baptismal font, Hobbit door, and language origins interesting, and yeah, if that makes me a nerd, I wear it proudly. I wouldn’t have known these things off hand without doing a great deal of pre-reading, and while I don’t necessarily object to that, having an engaging and knowledgeable tour guide makes all the difference.
On our way back to London, I learned that England still employs approximately 1,000 thatchers to look after the beautiful thatched roofs of houses around the country. Also, I heard that the origin of the “cock-and-bull story” came from the days of carriage houses and pubs, when a story would begin at The Cock, a pub on one part of the road, and by the time it reached The Bull, the story would be so exaggerated as to become a “cock-and-bull story”, meaning, a story that is made up or unreliably exaggerated.
Ah, the things you learn whilst on tours …