“He stood staring into the wood for a minute, then said: “What is it about the English countryside — why is the beauty so much more than visual? Why does it touch one so?” ― Dodie Smith, I Capture the Castle The recap rolls on with our adventures in the Cotwolds. I’d never been to this area of Britain before and was very excited to see it for the first time. Not least of all because we stayed in this charming house with an equally charming garden: In the hallway to the B&B was an old typewritten booklet about the history of the house and village. Like most villages, back in the Middle Ages, all of the houses were associated with one larger manor house, and to this day the cottages bear names like, “Manor Barn,” and “The Old Stables,” simply because at one point that was the function they served. There were also less than 20 houses to this village, also typical for the Middle Ages and most of human history. To sum up a lot of impressions, the Cotswolds are unbelievably charming but in some places suffer because of their popularity. Several town, while they have absolutely retained their character are quite obviously destination hubs and there is a degree of charm that wears off a bit. Though I’m quick to stress not much because, again, the area is phenomenally beautiful. And old. Always a thing I like! Medieval and modern buildings stand side by side and only careful examinations of the architecture will tell you what era they come from. But without doubt for me, the best parts of the Cotwolds are the smaller and less well known villages. They are a bit harder to get to and there’s not much to see, but the utter charm of the place sinks into your bones in the most delightful way. This village, for instance, is made up of mostly a single short road that loops around a green containing a phonebox, a church, and a pub… …where people, riding their horses, set them out to graze before stopping in for a pint. We saw the Cotwolds by car, which really means we could take in the majority of the area in a single day. I’d like to go back and do a walking/hiking trip–or indeed a few days on horseback! Seeing them by car was fun, but I think that spending a few days tromping through the countryside might make it even better. Because, touristy in places or not, it’s just dang gorgeous.
“None but the most blindly credulous will imaging the characters and events in this story to be anything but fictitious. It is true that the ancient and noble city of Oxford is, of all the towns of England, the likeliest progenitor of unlikely events and persons. But there are limits.”
― Edmund Crispin
Christ Church College, Oxford, is a unique one. It is the only academic institution in the world that doubles as a cathedral. It’s the seat of the Bishop of Oxford, but incidently in its charter the resident ecclesiastical overseer is the monarch. Which is, of course, thanks to Henry VIII and his truly staggering sense of self-importance. Reformations can be such messy things.
It’s also a really lovely place to visit and is chock full of fun historical odds and ends.
Hideous grounds. How can any right thinking person work there? Horrible…
If the Hall looks familiar, it’s because it was used as a model for Hogwarts in the Harry Potter films. The pictures don’t move, but Henry VIII looms (of course he does) from the place of honor above the head table.
Sir Robert Peel was a graduate of the college but not always popular in elections. A later student tattooed his political opinion on a door of the college, which let it stand permanently!
The cathedral itself is a beautiful building, but it’s hidden bits are easily my favorite parts. I mentioned that reformations are tricky, and nowhere more complexly than Britain. These might not look like much but they are the remains of a medieval painting that was whitewashed over when Catholicism went out. Since medieval era church art like this was often scrubbed away, stripped, and burned, whitewashing is practically a gift since in many cases it preserved the art beneath it.
One of the most famous graduates was Charles Dodgson, better known by his pen name, Lewis Carroll. Look closely in the windows of the Hall and you may discover a delightful tribute hidden away. See them?
The Duchess is one of my favorite characters. Rare indeed is the cooking expedition in which pepper is called for and I do not belt out, “More pepper!” in honor of her cook as I rummage in cupboards. I’ve even got Jeff doing it, it’s officially a family quirk.
The Mock Turtle is a delight!
“Your father’s state of health must be a great drawback. Why does not he try Bath? Indeed he should. Let me recommend Bath to you.”
-Jane Austen, Emma
After the Roman baths, the next best thing in Bath is the 18th century Pump Room. It features in Austen novels, Gillray’s cartoons lampooning the Regency’s main figures, and countless travelogs. Largely unchanged since it was built, it was one of the main places for people to meet and greet, see and be seen in the 18th and 19th centuries.
And without doubt, the focal point is the fountain where do this day you can pay 50p to “take the waters,” as those who came to Bath over the years did to improve their health. On this visit, I was happy to just take pictures. I’ve tasted the water, and I’m convinced it’s more kill than cure.
The restaurant is lovely. I heartily recommend taking tea if you get the chance.
And those three performers? Apparently they are called the Pump Room Trio, and as an institutional group, they are the longest established residential ensemble in Europe. Knock back your tea (or mineral water, if you’re a masochist) and scones listening to beautiful classical music while feeling you most Austen-esque.
“Your head runs too much upon Bath; but there is a time for everything — a time for balls and plays, and a time for work. You have had a long run of amusement, and now you must try to be useful.”
– Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey
Obviously the most famous thing in Bath is…the Roman bath complex! A combination of historic site and museum, it’s well worth the cost of the tour. Like most places in Britain these days, you pick up an audio guide that takes you around the museum and through the baths, allowing you to set both the pace and amount of information you want to take in. There are also options for children who might not want to spend hours staring into collections of votive offerings to the goddess of the hot water spring like, er, some people…
The Baths are right next door to the Bath Abbey. If you love historic cathedrals like, er, some people again it’s worth a look in, but if not you can admire it from outside just fine and move on to other things.
The Baths are still flowing and still heated by the self same spring that fed it in the Roman era. Look closely and you can see steam rising up above he water in certain places.
This is the entrance to the spring itself, with a bit of Roman civil engineering thrown in for good measure.
The thing about Bath that really makes it worth a visit is that it’s just so very pretty. It’s utterly picturesque. The primary building material is the iconic limestone that is quarried from the area that gives a light sort of feeling to the entire city. It rises up out of the dark green hills, with tendrils of creamy stone curling through the river valley. The elegant Georgian architecture doesn’t hurt either.
It’s hard to explain how something like rock can be so alluring but I personally think Bath is at its best in twilight. The stone gives off a warm sort of glow that makes everything look like a Jane Austen mini-series. Ironic since she might be Bath’s most famous resident (and the locals trot her out at every opportunity), but she didn’t particularly like it there.
It’s a very British thing to talk about the weather, but it must be said that the “green and pleasant land” pulled out all the stops for my in-laws’ visit. The weather was perfect throughout the entire trip, and I’m fairly certain I got more Vitamin D in their week visiting than I had in the previous six months!
The other major site we took in was Number 1 Royal Crescent, a Georgian home that’s been restored and furnished to look as it would have in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Everyday items like hair scratchers (necessities for ladies who might have had their hair washed and set once a quarter) and mousetraps are displayed alongside formal dining and reception rooms. You can head up the main staircase, or tromp down the servants’ one to get a taste of life above and below stairs during the period.
Last but not least: FOOD. Sally Lunn’s is a Bath establishment. It’s fairly simple fair, but there has been a bakehouse on this site for centuries (and some excavations have revealed there may have been one in Roman times as well!). The current house dates from the 17th century and got its name from a French Huguenot baker who set up shop who created the “Bath bun,” a large and fluffy roll of white bread. Sally Lunn’s serves all meals, with a side of her famous bun with each portion.
We stumbled across The Circus cafe and restaurant on our way to the Royal Crescent and decided to take a late lunch there. A helpful sign informed us that it was ranked #4 in a nationwide list of “restaurants that only foodies know about,” and I can see why. My lunch of roasted squashes and vegetables with a pomegranate sauce and some magical concoction of goats cheese was easily the best dish I had on the entire trip. The food is locally sourced, season, and excellent–and most importantly, very reasonably priced for what you get.
“No Freeman shall be taken or imprisoned, or be disseised of his Freehold, or Liberties, or free Customs, or be outlawed, or exiled, or any other wise destroyed; nor will We not pass upon him, nor condemn him, but by lawful judgment of his Peers, or by the Law of the land. We will sell to no man, we will not deny or defer to any man either Justice or Right.”
– Magna Carta
My father-in-law wins, hands down, for finding accommodation for a trip through the southwest of England. We provided the itinerary and travel suggestions, he came up with the most wonderful housing finds. We did a five day loop through Salisbury, Bath, the Cotswolds, and Oxford to take in the sights and he was armed with guidebooks and things to do at every step of the way. And with not a single miss!
Salisbury is a small, but completely charming city. The center is a delightful hodgepodge of medieval through 20th century architecture and most of the historic sites and buildings are fantastically preserved. Unless you like history it might not be in your typical travel plans, but let me heartily recommend it as a stopping point on the way West from London. We stayed in a B&B called Cricket Field House that was very lovely and nicely appointed, and was just over a five minute drive from convenient and free/cheap parking near the cathedral.
The Breakfast Room won me over for a very important reason: the liberal use of Blue Willow china. It may be ridiculous, but that’s what my family has always owned and used and nothing in the world makes me feel more at home. The staff is fantastically friendly and helpful. I chatted with the breakfast server for quite a bit, and the gentleman who owns the establishment, when he heard where we hoped to eat that evening made a quick call to be sure that we could be accommodated immediately, without even being asked. In the interest of honesty, I also feel compelled to report that as we were leaving after breakfast a tiny and fluffy black puppy made an escape from the home portion of the house and put in an appearance by dashing across Jeff’s shoes before being snatched up by me. Puppies have a rather alarming effect on my brain so even though I’d decided that Cricket Field House was a delight, she sealed the bargain.
After parking the car we walked across the river and took in the views.
The New Inn is a bit of a misnomer, since it was built in the 15 century and remains essentially identical today. But we’ll let nomenclature slide because it was a great place to eat. Traditional hearty pub food, with a very nice sticky toffee pudding it has to be said.
The interior is tilted and uneven in the best possible way, with low beams and paneled rooms, open fireplaces and hidden corners.
And the view from the garden? Not half bad!
I took enormous delight in how the lowest beams have been altered to accommodate our modern heights with handy leather padding. It’s still about a foot above my head, but Jeff pronounced them not only useful but necessary.
After dinner we went for a late night stroll by the cathedral, to which we returned on the following day to see the best preserved version of the Magna Carta in existence (the Magna Carta is celebrating it’s 800th birthday next year, incidently), to gander at the supposedly oldest working clock in the modern clock in the world, and admire the various medieval and Tudor minions and courtiers buried there. I got to study up on the 1st Baron Hungerford who fought in the Battle of Agincourt, and his grandson the 3rd Baron who famously got into a land dispute with a family named Paston–through the Paston family letters we have some of the best information about the life and experiences of the up-and-coming gentry class in the Middle Ages.
Virginia might be for lovers, kittens, but Salisbury is for history people!
“Wearing a hat is like having a baby or a puppy; everyone stops to coo and talk about it.”
– Louise Green
Not that anyone cares this side of the Atlantic, but the Royal Ascot is a big deal and it’s going on now en Angleterre. And the hats are as weird, fabulous, odd, chic, and grotesque as ever.
No one wears hats over here. And don’t try to sell me on the Kentucky Derby, it’s peanuts compared to the towering plumes, wires, and (apparently this year) legos of Ascot. When Mum and I were talking about my then-pending nuptials, I briefly entertained the idea of getting married in England, so that we could have our reception at The Swan in Lavenham, and so that the ladies could all wear hats! Luckily common sense prevailed, J.’s family, which is several times larger than mine, are all here. And the mass exodus to Suffolk would have cost a fortune. Almost as much as a hat for Ascot!
For more horsey fun, check out the Australians going nuts for racing fashion, T&L may think the Brits are wacky, but they have nothing on the Aussies!
Photo from wireimage.com, care of Tom and Lorenzo.
My dream hat photo from Louise Green Millinery.
This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,—
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.
So! Flew in to Heathrow on the morning of Christmas Eve, met at airport by Dad and Snickers, drove home to Suffolk. Day spent hugging, talking, and trying to stay awake. Christmas Eve feast was superb. Went to bed. Woke up Christmas morning (siblings showed infinite patience and let us sleep in longer than I’d ever imagine they’d be able to) and tore into both presents and breakfast. Rest of day spent in rest and relaxation.
The adventures begin on December 26th, also known as Boxing Day. It’s part of the Christmas holiday in England and most people keep holiday hours on it, but this was the day chosen to go to London to show J. the sights. We checked online and it appeared some things would be open, so off we went.
Never trust the internet. The Tower, which really is the historical base of the city (thanks, William the Bastard/Conquerer) was closed. Luckily Westminster Abbey was open. Some of you may recall my raptures at visiting it two years ago? Well, it was nothing compared to this time. I was so obnoxiously happy to be back in England that I had a hyper litany of sheer enthusiasm trilling through my head as I forced myself to walk somberly through its hallowed naves. The Shakespeare alone was particularly thrilling, I may or may not have muttered the St. Crispin’s Day speech as I meandered past Henry V. Anne of Cleves got a nod and a, “Well done. Better off without him. Much,” Congreve got a cheeky grin, Elizabeth I another critical glance over (still not as pretty as she thought she was).
After Westminster we tried for the Tower but that as you know was a fruitless effort. So we traipsed across the city! I didn’t make it over to Kensington where I lived but I did stare longingly at the High Street Kensington and Gloucester Road stops on the Tube for a while. We walked through Trafalgar Square (scene of many a late night revel with Marie, Elizabeth, and AbFab so long ago), made our way to Leicester Square where, completely out of other ideas, we massacred three hours by watching Avatar. An observation: don’t see this movie in 3D from the second row of the theatre. Your inner ear thanks me. After that we saw Stomp and made our way home at a ridiculous hour of the evening.
Sunday we tried to recuperate a bit and celebrated Buddy’s birthday with a quiet family evening at home. The next day we celebrated it by scampering around the misty wet fields with nearly fifty people, shooting each other with paintballs. I had only been paintballing once before and been shot in the mouth, so I didn’t have a high opinion of the activity (this time I was shot at point-blank range while guarding a little girl, but it was during our mad dash for glory in a game of capture the flag and we were welcomed to the splotched sidelines like heroes). The boys loved it.
Tuesday we went to Lavenham, which is without question the most charming country village outside of the Lakes District. I’ve written about it before, but allow me to gush a little bit more! It’s just delightful, the crooked Tudor houses always make me grin like an idiot. I rummaged through my favorite antique store (trying on an Edwardian hat, drooling over Victorian jewelry, and rifling through letter boxes and cupboards) and we ate lunch at The Swan.
Wednesday J. and I basely ditched the family and hopped on the train from Cambridge back down to London so he could actually see things. The train was a necessity because, according to the news, a truck of pigs had gotten into a wreck on the M11 and, far from turning the passengers into bacon, a dozen or so had escaped and were wandering across the highway, grazing on things, and generally causing a bad time of it for the drivers who were backed up for hours waiting for the porcine perils to be rounded up.
We hit the Tower and the British Museum. Going through it was like visiting an old friend. J. seemed to especially love the awful imperialism it represented. “I mean, these guys just showed up and said, ‘I like that wall. I think I’ll take it!'” he said going through the Parthenon exhibit. During the evening we walked from Tottenham Court Road to Oxford Circus so I could get in some much needed shopping before we made our way back to Liverpool St. and hopped back on the train to Cambridge. Then, the next day, back to the States.
I’m going to be honest and admit that as we were driving back from J.’s parents house and I was looking across the valley and snow-covered mountains…I burst into homesick tears. When we got home I was absolutely howling with misery (or lack of sleep, one of the two). “I want to live two hours outside of London!” I sobbed, “I want to live where it’s green even in the winter! I hate the desert! I don’t want to go back to work on Monday! I don’t want to live here for two and a half more years while you finish school! I want my dog!”
J. just hugged me and promised to get me back there someday if he could, and he meant it. I calmed down, went to bed, and woke up feeling alright about leaving England behind for a while. In the meantime, I’ll just be here. Missing it.