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For reasons unknown (but probably connected to my advancing age) my memories of England have become thoroughly romanticized over the last few years. Geoff is far more pragmatic about it but my ears have been firmly plugged for a while against our friends’ complaints of rain, relentless grey skies and penetratingly cold temperatures for months on end. My memory of those frigid, pitch black mornings in winter when I left for work to head to the office (returning in exactly the same bleak wintry conditions after a day of busy lawyering) have been miraculously erased by the passage of time 😉
“My” England is a verdant pasture of rolling hills and patchwork fields… mist rising on meadows in the morning clearing to a beautiful blue sky… puffy white clouds drifting across the horizon… lambs skipping through farmers’ fields and wild flowers blooming in the hedgerows…
Purple wisteria, pink clematis and old english roses tumble over walls and clamber around doorways… honey-colored limestone cottages are warmed golden in the afternoon sun… there are thatched cottages… village fetes… quaint medieval villages and market towns with bustling town squares… friendly village pubs… frill-decorated tea shops with homemade scones, clotted cream teas and Victoria Sandwich cake (preferably the labours of a couple of blue-rinsed elderly ladies from the local Women’s Institute).
There are peaceful churchyards… babbling brooks… manor houses and country house estates with glorious herbaceous borders… and most importantly, there are enduring towns and villages “of substance” and of history which have survived for hundreds of years largely unscathed by the less appealing ravages of time and modernization…
Obviously, Geoff thinks I have completely lost my marbles but I know that there are pockets of this England still remaining and… even better… I know where to find them! 🙂
Surprisingly, I won the battle for risking the notoriously unpredictable British weather in October again and this year (post an admittedly considerably warmer European vacation) we headed into the Cotswolds, one of my favorite parts of Ye Olde England, and more importantly, one which I know fits the description of “my perfect England” almost entirely 🙂
….all I had to do was keep my fingers crossed for equally perfect autumnal weather otherwise I may never hear the end of it 😉
To make the whole romanticized package even more wonderful I made a reservation at a particularly charming country house hotel (Abbots Grange) for the weekend in Broadway, one of the Worcestershire Cotswolds villages and one of the most picture-perfect and well-known of the Cotswold Hills region. To add a cherry to the top of our long anticipated weekend in the glorious English countryside we invited two of our best friends to join us, Gary and Tracey 🙂
Abbots Grange is a medieval monastic manor house built in 1320 with fully functioning contemporary 2016 plumbing.
Four poster beds… full and plentiful English breakfasts (with vegetarian sausages 😉 )… scrambled eggs and smoked salmon… croissants worth every calorie… afternoon tea and cakes fresh from Huffkins Tea Shop. We loved it – in all of its understated elegance and (simultaneous) pretentiousness.
Even better, it was a 2 minute stroll to a particularly good gastro pub (The Swan) and our postprandial evenings were passed sipping whisky and sherry in the great room with its fabulous exposed beam vaulted ceiling warmed by a roaring log fire.
What more could you want?
The Sky Gods hadn’t received my memo requesting the crystal clear blue sky on Saturday morning but they had at least given us a break from the rain, wind and/or freezing temperatures which Mr Negativity was predicting 😉 So we spent the day pottering aimlessly through the streets of Broadway, along the River Coln and Arlington Row in Bibury and down the High Street of the steep-hilled market town of Burford where we stopped in for an emergency 3-tiered afternoon cream tea… as you do 😉
In an effort to burn off a fraction of the thoroughly indulgent and unnecessary calories we shuffled off in the late afternoon in the direction of one of the most well-known short walks in the Cotswolds between the villages of Upper and Lower Slaughter. Wardens Way – part of the Great Cotswold Ramble – passes through meadows with grazing sheep, alongside the River Eye, crosses footbridges and passes millponds and an historic mill.
Only a 2 mile round trip, it would barely have burned off even one of the clotted cream and strawberry jam laden scones (let alone the array of crustless finger sandwiches and other sugary delicacies) but it was invigorating to stroll through the fallen golden leaves (the first chill of autumn in the air) and pretend that we were getting some exercise 😉
Happily, the Sky Gods were far more benevolent on Sunday. I flung open the old hinged windows in the Gardner suite letting the cold morning air pour in. I kicked Geoff out of the warm comfort of the four-poster bed and slung him (with some protest) under the shower with rather more urgency than normal for 7.30 on a Sunday morning. A lazy morning sipping earl grey tea in bed and nibbling on Huffkins lemon shortbread before breakfast was definitely not on the cards once I had spotted the sun rising in a clear blue sky 🙂 I, for one, was not going to pass up the peaceful tranquility of bundling up and strolling the early morning streets of Broadway before the clouds rolled back in.
It was all utterly lovely 🙂
Once the rest of our party had dragged themselves unenthusiastically from the warmth of their own four-poster bed we continued the aimless explorations and passed through Stow-on-the-Wold and Moreton-in-Marsh (where more emergency pre-lunch tea and cake were consumed in yet another frilly tea-shop) before our parting Sunday lunch in a pub in Bourton-on-the-Hill.
The common consensus was that Broadway was (hands down) the loveliest and most livable village and if we ever decide to invest in a summer holiday cottage back in our drizzly homeland to escape the heat of a typical Floridian summer in our dotage, it will be there 🙂
Burford is no doubt more famous with its sweeping views and beautiful High Street filled with tea rooms and antique shops but Broadway was still the firm favorite.
Neither Moreton-in-Marsh nor Stow-on-the-Wold could match the immaculate, peaceful, timeless, middle-class aura oozing from every dwelling and shop front in Broadway with its select few stores, gorgeous stone cottages and upscale cafes and restaurants.
The most diminutive village and the most popular with the tour buses was Bibury which was positively thronging with Japanese tourists. Their poor bus driver was trying to unsuccessfully round them up as they chattered excitedly and milled about in the main road taking photographs of each other on the bridge whilst the traffic dodged around them. I felt even more sorry for the poor local residents, however, who must have had some bizarre interactions over the years with foreign tourists escaped from their guides. This tiny village is just about the last place on earth that I would have expected to see “Private – no entry” signs pinned onto farmyard and garden gates written in Japanese, Korean and Chinese 😉
Of course, the quintessential English village “experience” was further enhanced in “near-perfect” Broadway by bumping unexpectedly into the Adlington Morris Men on a tour of the Cotswolds from Cheshire. It doesn’t get any more eccentrically British than standing in a chilly autumnal village square watching grown men dressed in top hats, white shirts, cropped trousers and long white socks, decorated liberally with striped green, yellow and red ribbons with bells hanging from their shins dancing around in circles to the music of an accordion whilst smashing sticks together over their heads. There are, apparently, stories to be told in this traditional form of dance but I have always been far too transfixed by the apparent lunacy of it all to consider the greater meaning 😉
The weekend sadly over, we headed with heavy hearts to London where the sun continued to shine (lucky me!). Geoff was otherwise engaged with meetings in the London office whilst I made the best of the weather and braved the rush hour crowds streaming across London Bridge and through the Square Mile. I couldn’t resist another photo shoot meander past the spaceship exterior of Lloyds of London and through the spectacularly decorative Leadenhall Market building.
I made it unscathed from the sea of bankers, lawyers and other suited city types and continued along the river around the Tower of London and across Tower Bridge to join, instead, a sea of other happy-snapper tourists. I passed through Southwark, by the Shard and into Borough Market (with its diverse, cosmopolitan market stalls selling everything from bubbling cauldrons of paella to fresh fish, French cheeses, saucisson and organic green juices) before catching the tube out to Camden to wander amongst the weird, wonderful and frankly inexplicable in Camden Lock and its Stables Market stalls under the railway arches.
Whilst Geoff was busy at work I took the opportunity to bundle up my octogenarian mother into the car and whisk her away for the day back to the Cotswolds! I hadn’t been to Bourton-on-the-Water for a good 20 odd years and I was interested to see if it had stood the test of time and survived the deluge of tour buses arriving on a daily basis. Unfortunately not. The shallow, fast-flowing River Windrush still runs through the village criss-crossed by stone foot bridges and the ducks still waddle around the green but I fear that the village has all but lost its identity to a rash of cheap cafes and tea-rooms catering to one-time visiting tourists. The only upside was the discovery of an artisanal bakery next to the Motor Museum where mum and I enjoyed “2nd lunch” sitting by flower-filled pots next to the river in the sun (mainly because “1st lunch” at the Small Talk Tea Room was so awful that I needed cheering up with a decent pot of earl grey and a particularly delicious upside down cake). Lesson learnt… never eat in a deceptively chintzy tea-room in Bourton. Should I ever pass that way again I would head straight for Bakery on the Water 🙂
The trip nearly over, I managed to squeeze in another (slow) walk with my parents through Eton, shuddering once again with memories of my early childhood in infant and junior school (the mere sight of those school gates at Eton Porny still makes me come out in a cold sweat), across the famous Eton Bridge into Windsor and along the River Thames to see the swans, the house boats and Windsor Castle in the distance.
As a parting gesture we took my parents to dinner and got them tipsy on a few sips of a shared martini. They are tea total so it was vaguely amusing although, obviously, very irresponsible of us 😉
By our last day the thermometer was dropping rapidly. It had rained overnight so it was bone-chillingly cold (which is, of course, a good thing for those departing their homeland again for almost another whole year) and even I will have to admit that it will be nice to get back to sunny Florida now for the winter to warm up 🙂
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