|Subject: Cotswolds Travelogue (long)|
I just came back from 9 days in the Cotswolds area, England. Here is my travelogue of this vacation, hoping that it can be interesting for some of you, or at least not boring.
Ciao from outrageously hot and humid Italy, Leonardo Besana in Brianza
Introduction and DAY 1
Brochures about the Cotswolds area of England had been piling on my desktop as early as 1991. At that time my daughter was 2, so the project of renting a cottage in that gorgeous region was delayed and never resumed until earlier this year.
The Cotswolds ( "wold" means "hill") rise from the flat plain of western England in Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire; that is a couple of hours drive west of London.
It was a rich area well before the industrial revolution ( at the times of Shakespeare, indeed), thanks to the wool from local flocks of sheep , so industrialization didn't change significantly the peaceful rural life of its villages. Many of these have huge and rich "wool churches", i.e. churches built with the revenue from wool business , in XV-XVI centuries
This area of is often cited as home of the quintessential english countryside landscape; its villages, built in a local mellow colored stone, attract hordes of travellers, at least from what is told in the tourist office brochures and websites. One website is bilingual, english and japanese, and I happened to read an article that warned to skip the most renowned villages, in order to stay away from the busloads of toursists from the whole world.
As a matter of fact, during our visit in the last week of June, nothing of that sort ever occured to us: parking was always easy and strolling around very pleasant.
We stayed in a cottage that we rented through a well working website, reservation and payment went smoothly, and the actual condition of the unit fit the description given on the website.
It was part of a converted barn in a very rural setting, yet less than 2 mile from the center of Cheltenham, a city of 90,000 that the english seem to be very proud of, calling it "the only english regent spa town".
This didn't impress us a lot, for the typical XVIIIth century architecture, with crescent shaped rows of white houses is rather "cold" as we say in italian ( I hope one may guess what I mean) , and indeed these buildings are now in rather poor condition ; this applies also to the Great Pump Room, a neoclassic pavillion that used to be the heart of heyday spa. One street in the central district boasts cariatides
(actually from a later time then the real neoclassic period) between shop windows. Cheltenham is a city with a lot of lawns and trees , which is so different from most italian towns that this was enough to give us a good impression. We chose not to give it further time after our first morning there ( a sunday morning spent looking for a catholic church ; nobody seemed to ever have heard of it. I want to point out that the official tourist websites , not only in Englnd but generally speaking, usually give no information at all on religious services of the main religions).
This was a rather rainy sunday, not heavy rain but gray sky for the whole day with several short showers; in the afternoon we began our exploration of the Cotswolds heading south to Painswick. This "mountain" village is cited as one that has admiringly preserved its traditional look.
It's famous for the yard of the village church , were 99 yew trees are planted among the ancient tombs. They never could plant the 100th, because the devil would tear one down and bring the total back to 99. To put it straight, yew trees have the power of making me immediately sad, the (then closed) church is rather gloomy, and the whole village was deserted The houses there are built in a gray unassuming stone, not in the famous Cotswolds mellow stone. Nobody hangin' around, the local museum closed , so we were a trifle disappointed, and we picked up our car making for Gloucester, the regional capital. This town hasa a majestic cathedral, but we couldn't get into the church because a ceremony was on, and immediately after it closed down ( at 6 p.m.). The outside of the chuech is worth the diversion, however. The old port, which is the farthest inland port of England, has been refurbished and its docks converted, alas there's only one rather shabby shopping center and again we didn't have an impression of a lively place.
So our first day in England risked to put us in a blue mood. But luckily enough the remainder of the vacation didn't follow the same tune.
We delayed our visit to other parts of the Cotswolds ( maybe for fear of a replica of the first day), and decided to head south to visit Glastonbury. This town is the site of an Abbey where King Arthur was buried, so the legend says, and Joseph of Arimatea
Delivered here the Holy Graal. My daughter did the King Arthur story in english this year at school, so she deserved this.
When we were very near Glastonbury, which lies about 90 miles south of Cheltenham, my wife asked to deviate from our planned itinerary " to have a look at the sea". So we found ourselves in Weston-super Mare, a coastal resort town that I was not really willing to see, in fear that it could bring my blue mood down below zero. Instead, it proved a very rewarding visit. We couldn't properly spot the sea, because of the low tide (of a type you could never find in the Mediterranean, and hadn't we already seen the Atlantic tides in Normandy, we would be really striked by it). But the air was so crisp, actually a gusty stimulating wind, the sky so blue, and the seafront so neat, with a series of Victorian style homes that make it so english, that we were very pleased by the diversion. A toll road took us to a nearby long beautiful beach,were we walked in the wind, imagining how it could be when the water should come back.
In Glastonbury, we really loved the ruined abbey and the well maintained lawns and gardens. We didn't have time to visit the Holy Graal well, were a hawthorn tree grew up in the place were Joseph of Arimatea threw its stick, a tree that flourishes every Christmas and every May,nor the Glastonbury Tor, a hill overlooking the town which is said to have a staircase built into it and to irradiate magical powers.
We had a simple hearty lunch in a local pub. Pub food proved good and inexpensive throughout the week ( one-course lunch and drink for 3 at 22-25 GBP) , we never needed to go to a restaurant. ( actually I have special dietary requirements so I had dinner at home and steak for lunch every single day). An important rock festival was scheduled for the next week in town, and the guys already hanging around were something to be seen.
The rest of the afternoon was devoted to shopping. A couple of miles south of Glastonbury the famous Clarks brand of shoemakers, built a nice village-like shopping center aptly named Clarks Village. International and english brands of garments and not only garments are sold at real outlet prices. These kind of places are the high points of interest for my daugher and this was not the only one we visited in the week..
On our way back "home" we swept through the center of Bristol, just to have a glimpse of its reconverted port ( decidely brighter and more lively than Gloucester's), without stopping because it was late.
Next morning we chose to have a half -day break from the fast pace of this vacation and while my family stayed at home I went to a supermarket to buy our groceries.
The array of food on sale was remarkable, and I noticed that only a small portion of fruits and vegetables came from UK, while the rest was from such far away places like Zambia ( green beans) or USA ( strawberries). The quality of most food on sale is very good indeed. English milk is the best milk I ever tasted ( and I tasted swiss, american, danish, swedish and so on). The same applies to meat, with british steaks on the same level with those in the U.S.
In the afternoon we statrted our capsule tour of the Cotswolds proper, which took 1 and ½ days, with a visit to Sudeley Castle, www.sudeleycastle.co.uk which is reached via the ascent to Cleeve hill, a western rim ( escarpment) of the Cotswolds hills that overlooks the city of Cheltenham. The ascent is by what actually looks like a mountain road, and soon we were in the village of Winchcombe, where this castle lies from the middle age. It used to be the home of the last wife of Henry the VIII, the only one who survived him. But what's most interesting is that as soon as you pass the first gate you're in a real paradise of a park. One wouldn't get annoyed here in the past times, whether he liked hunting, riding, walking, whatever you name, and the same applies to our days, too. The castle boasts some beautiful paintings, furniture, and the formal gardens, like the queen's garden ( alas borded by a double row of yews) are nice, but what is really breathtaking is the park that surrounds the property. Exceptionally good-smelling old english roses are all around and were also on sale at the gift shop being that week " Rose Week ".
Our next stop was in the village of Broadway. As you step from the parking through a short alley onto the main road ( the broad way after which the village is named) you really have understood what is a Cotswold village. The quietly ascending large road is an interminable series of delicious gardens, shops ,cottages all in one colour : the real one and only Cotswolds mellow yellow. We had tea in a tea room ( service less than average, quality of tea and apple tarts not so outstanding, but after all we were in a very touristy place.), and strolled up and down the main street with beautiful vistas on both sides. We also did some satisfying shopping ( a handbag fro my wife and some fine toiletries). We then reached the parking and drove through a series of ups and downs on gentle slopes, through forests and fields, to Moreton-in-Marsh and Stow-on-the- Wold ( yes, village names are part of the fun in England). The latter place is the main market town of the Cotswolds and it sits majestically on a hill; since it was already 6.30 p.m. everithing had closed down but we appreciated a short walk in the remarkable central square. Before going home we made for two of the most breathtaking villages we had the chance of visiting in our tour. Through extraordinarily narrow roads we came to Upper Slaughter and Lower Slaughter (I told you that names are part of the fun). Here you'll find no restaurant or bar or shop or other tourist trap ( each of the villages has a nice hotel, anyway). They're small and exceptionally cozy, very different and rivalling in beauty. We managed to visit both village churches and they're simple but worth the visit, very well maintained, with funny kneeling cushions ( I hope such a definition makes sense in english.) hand embroidered by the villagers; evidently everyone has his or her own place in the church. While Upper S. is all ups and downs, Lower S. is flat and has a lovely canal making a semicircle around it. Really enchanting. Of course my digital camera battery went on vacation just before we arrived in these villages.
The next morning our programme read : a walk in the woods (from the famous Bill Bryson novel). We didn't choose a very demanding walk, because we are not trained, but it was a satisfying and varied one. Our starting point was the village of Adelstrop. This consists of maybe 50 cottages with no special feature ( which means very nice anyway in these sutrroundings). We left our car at the village hall ( small donation suggested), and headed gently uphill through a varied rural landscape that gave us the chance of seeing horses and cows at pasture, a ruined old barn beyond which the vista was very ample,with Stow-on-the-Wold in the distance; then,after a steep ascent , smack dab in the middle of a incredibly yellow rape ( cole) field, and onto a majestic tree-lined driveway that leads to Chastleton Estate, an ancient noble mansion built in 1607-12 in Jacobean style. This is a National Trust property, but unluckily closed to the public at the time of our visit. The way back from Chastleton to the village is through fields and small woods. A very pleasant walk, especially in the first half.
For lunch we headed to Bourton-on-the Water, a most popular destination for day's outings and actually choked full of groups of tourists. The low quality of shops also reflects this. The place would be pleasant without alll those tourists. Next was another much visited village, Bibury, on the river Coln, another tourist trap. It is famous because of Arlington Row, a row of cottages ( previously sheepfolds, then used as residence and workshops for wool weavers, we're talking of the XIVth century) that is obviously very interesting. But the rest of the village is not so rewarding, at least to me, although William Morris named it the most beutiful village of England. All you can see is a museum-shop ( more shop than museum) full of souvenirs and average craftwork, and a trout farm ( we didn't buy a ticket for the visit, but I don't expect it may be really interesting).
Last stop was the town of Cirencester, one of the most important in the region, a roman town as important as London in roman times, and now still a remarkable place for the church of St. John the Baptist, and especially for an outstanding park, spanned by 8-mile Broad Avenue . Also the central square and the surrounding streets make a beautiful, compact city center, retaining its ancient charm.
This day was devoted to the town of Oxford, of which I will say nothing because I think it's very well known. It kept its promises, that's all.
In the afternoon we visited Blenheim Palace park. This is the most splendid creation of Lancelot "Capability" Brown, the master gardener of the XVIII century who indeed made a revolution in the art of gardening, ferrying it from the formal, geometrical gardens of the past, to the quintessential english landscaped gardens. The
Palace was home of the Dukes of Marlbourough and the last famous owner there was Winston Churchill who rests in peace in a nearby village. We had no time to visit the Palace nor the formal gardens,and I hasten to say that entrance fees are outrageously expensive ( 7,50 GBP per carload just for the park), so we had a quick tour of the park which is breathtaking from the very moment you cross the gate and look at the gigantic palace in the distance of what has been labelled as the most beautiful landscape of England, and I'm sure it may be.
After that I had to indulge again the other two thirds of the family with a visit to a huge shopping/outlet center, a rather famous one , named "Bicester Village". This is a collection of some 90 shops of really the best international brands. Of course like in every other outlet center what you find is the remnants or past collections ( or odd colours etc.). but the prices are reasonable ( for items that in normal shops are usually all but good value).
On this friday we chose to visit an area which is outside the Cotswolds but has a great reputation for its beauty : the Wye valley.
But before that, we had to visit two spots who in fact proved well worth the detour.
Both are very near Cheltenham.The small village of Deerhurst is a rural gem, but more noticeably is the only village in England to have an anglo-saxon chapel AND an anglo-saxon abbey. The former, Odda's chapel, was consacreted by count Odda in 1056 and rediscovered in XIX century, being incorporated in a farm. The abbey is a remarkable monument, well kept and boasting peculiar features like triangular windows and a very, very ancient baptismal font.The village lies on River Severn.
The adjoining town of Tewkesbury is a cosy ancient village, dominated by an imposing , outstanding quality abbey consacrated in 1121 and choke full of interesting details ; the finest part is Lady's Chapel, beautifully decorated and characterised by interesting, rich tombs, the main nave is also very imposing, and this church gives a rich and airy impression, unlike many protestant churches that look too austere to me ( I'm sorry, I'm from a catholic country and I can't help but compare them with italian or spanish churches).
But now, on to Wye Valley.The river Wye marks, in its southern part, the border between England and Wales. From Ross-on -Wye to Chepstow two paths follow the river: the Offa's Dyke path, apt for experienced hikers, and on the other bank another walkway that follows more strictly the river's bank and is more easy. A famous spot is Symond's Yat, an elevated point were you can admire the best portion of the river landscape. Well, we couldn't see anything of all this, because it rained heavily for most part of the day. We tried to drive up to Symond's Yat anyway, but we were stopped by a large truck parked on the narrow road to fill the oil tank of a house,and after 20 minutes we gave up. We had a chance to visit interesting Monmouth/Trefinwy, a welsh border town where we had lunch, and for God's sake we were greeted by a glorious sun that burst out of the clouds in the last part of the afternoon, just when we were about to visit magnificent Tintern Abbey. These are actually the ruins of an Abbey built in XIII century and abandoned in 1536. The roof went, but most of the walls are intact and make one of the most romantic sights we've ever seen, which is by the way witnessed by William Wordsworth who enjoyed this excursion repeatedly.
On leaving the keys of our holiday home we made acquaintance with the owner, an attractive woman. This is to say that the owners were so discreet, that they never came to our unit in the whole week ( when we arrived on day 0 , they were out for dinner and had left a note on their house door with directions for us). A tranquil and nice place, indeed ( if someone is interested , he should go to www.english-country-cottages.co.uk and in the box " quick search by property ref." type : NYN ). Just one thing : if one should want to limit itself to the Cotswolds, maybe another location could de more central than Cheltenham, but for us, who wanted to visit a larger area, it has been a good choice.
We would spend our last night and the following day in London, but on our way there, we visited first Warwick Castle. This is one of the best preserved medieval castles in Britain, and I thought we were going to stop there for half an hour or so just to catch a glimpse. But the place has been taken by the same organization that runs Madame Tussaud's wax museum in London, and they transformed it in a big tourist attraction. On that particular day, a medieval feast was on, with medieval games for children, medieval ( plastic) coats of arms for sale, medieval banquets, ( all at an extra cost excluded from the 13,50 GBP entrance ticket), medieval music, and so on. We noticed a long line to visit the dungeon ( and we skipped it) , opted instead for an exhibition recreating a 1891 ( circa) party at the castle, with wax characters , all famous people, in every room, and the main apartments with more characters, including Princess Diana who of course was here in more than one occasion.
Almost everyone took snapshots of friends arm in arm with the princess.
This could seem unbearable, but the rooms are actually so rich in furniture, paintings, and all the likes, and so well kept that in the end it resulted in a pleasant visit, and worth the price that seemed at first exaggerated. The park is also a splendour ( again work of Capability Brown). A rather partial visit ( including mounting up a tower on a steep and narrow spiral staircase ) took us three hours.
On our way to London , we left the motorway to look for a catholic church for the Sunday Eve mass. We ended in Henley-on-Thames, a village that is world renowned for the regattas, that actually were about to be held just the next week. It was really gorgeous to see the teams training for the forthcoming competition and imagining allthe upper class ladies in strange hats and noblemen in formal suits picknicking on the banks of this glorious river. The village is by the way also gorgeous, although not in the same category as cotswolds'.
I was shockedd uring my week in Cheltenham, when I realized that understanding the english english was so difficult. I'm not so bad at written english ( or at least I hope so), and I generally understand people when they talk slowly enough and not in slang. But this refers especially to my visits to the U.S. and in London, some years ago. Moreover, I also have a hearing loss for which I wear hearing aids, so I was rather sad for this difficulties. Especially the priest who spoke the mass in Cheltenham, on Day 1, was TOTALLY incomprehensible to me.
So I was quite happy when , on this further chance to hear a mass, I was understanding , say, 80 % of it. And I realized that it was really the way people talk in that western area that had been puzzling me. This was confirmed by an italian girl I know who is a Pharmacy graduate at the University of Bristol.
It was now time to reach Heathrow airport, where we would release our car ( a compact station wagon at 302,00 GBP for 8 days with AVIS), sleep at an airport hotel, and spend most of Sunday in town before catching our Alitalia flight to , sigh, return home.