England – May 2022.

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Swaledale, Yorkshire Dales National Park

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Exiled from family and friends for 3 years during the pandemic, we finally made it home for a long-awaited visit to the motherland in mid-May.

First stop in our crazy schedule around England – Sunday lunch with Geoff’s side of the family. No brownie points whatsoever for my unfortunate choice of country pub at Bunk Inn, Curridge in Berkshire outside Newbury. In my defence the reviews were grossly misleading and I was perhaps swayed mostly by my determination that we would eat lunch in a cute pub garden overlooking the surrounding countryside. That plan required sunshine. We were, however, welcomed home after 3 years with miserable, chilly, drizzly rain … perfect! The food was dreadful (aside from the sticky toffee pudding). Bunk Inn is never to be repeated. I hung my head in shame … 

Early the following morning my best friend Kate collected us from our Heathrow airport hotel in her posh Porsche 911 sports car. Three’s a crowd when you’ve not seen your friend in years so we dropped Geoff in Lechlade to meet his old school friend for a couple of nights of gigs and a tour of the relevant spots in the life of a long dead music idol. 

I spent the time in abject luxury with Kate in Abbots Grange Manor House Hotel in the picture-perfect village of Broadway in the Cotswolds. The Cotswolds region is located in central southwest England and has been designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty since the 1960’s. The region lies mainly within the counties of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire with tentacles into Worcestershire, Wiltshire, Somerset and Warwickshire. Broadway is my favorite Cotswold village. Abbots Grange is located mere steps from a lovely old stone inn in the village (The Swan Hotel – which is also a well-known gastro pub); and a few steps further into the village is the very posh Lygon Arms hotel with its impeccable restaurant serving locally sourced, artisanal fare. Lygon Arms is stunningly beautiful and is one of the most famous historic Tudor coaching inns in the Cotswolds dating back to 1620. It serviced stage coaches running between London and Wales. 

Broadway is small and perfect – tea shops, pubs, boutique shops, village stores, restaurants – and in either direction you can walk into the idyllic countryside. Abbots Grange Manor House and Hotel is the oldest dwelling in Broadway. It was built in 1320 as the summer residence of the Abbot of Pershore. It is a small, tranquil, adults-only family run hotel with four-poster beds and antique furniture. Afternoon tea (from famous Huffkins cafe and bakery in nearby Burford) is served in the outdoor seating area. Homemade breakfast is served in the oak-paneled dining room. At the end of the day you can relax with drinks from the Pulpit cocktail bar in the spectacular medieval Great Hall with an open fire crackling in the grate. What’s not to love?!

Oh … and lest I forget … if you fly into the Cotswolds in your own helicopter they also have a dedicated landing pad for it on their lawn … but of course … 😊

The Cotswold villages are renowned for their warm honey-colored limestone cottages and country mansions draped with purple wisteria; doorways framed with climbing pink roses; and gardens immaculately maintained by their well-to-do owners.

We stopped in Burford (one of the most famous villages) for lunch en route to Broadway and started as we intended to continue by eating our own body weights in coffee and homemade cakes. If you are passing Burford, Huffkins is the most famous of the tea shops, but The Priory Tea shop further down the hill lured me in with its courtyard garden, raspberry almond slice and spicy falafel, spinach and sweet chilli on sourdough. It didn’t disappoint.

After we had arrived in Broadway and checked in at the Grange, it was still early enough to stretch our legs before dinner at The Swan. The quickest option was the scenic walk from the village uphill to Broadway Tower (built in 1794). The circular walk starts behind the village church and heads up through fields liberally splattered with sheep droppings and cowpats large enough to sink into up to your knees. At the summit of the hill (the second highest point in the Cotswolds) there are expansive panoramic views over the village, the undulating Cotswold Hills in the distance and a patchwork of yellow and lime green fields hedged with trees and flowering shrubs. 

Aside from frittering time in as many quintessentially English tea shop gardens as possible we also took full advantage of the unexpectedly lovely weather. The sun gods were smiling upon us! The roof came down on the 911 and we set out to explore the countryside with the wind in our hair.

Our shortest amble was the well-known 1 mile stroll between the neighboring villages of Lower and Upper Slaughter. You’d think it would be impossible to get lost on a 1 mile walk only I had navigated us in the car to the end destination of the walk as opposed to the start. Since I was going from visual memory of the last time I had done this walk many years ago this threw me off somewhat as I couldn’t find the start of the trail. Not surprising as the starting point of my memory was in Upper Slaughter and we were actually in Lower Slaughter. Someone with a hiking map (instead of a phone with a GPS and one confused operator) pointed out the error and saved the day. Otherwise we’d have inadvertently ended up in trekking in entirely the wrong direction to Bourton-on-the-Water and Kate might have slaughtered me 😉 

Our favorite walk was a 3.5 mile circular amble which started and ended back in Stow on the Wold. At the dizzy elevation of 800 feet above sea level, Stow is the highest of the Cotswold villages and is located on the Roman Fosse Way. Due to its strategic location it was once a major force in the wool industry. The impressive market square stands as a testament to its importance for hundreds of years.

Following a blogger’s advice we parked in the free carpark adjacent to Tesco Supermarket. We turned left towards Stow on the Wold and, distracted by the architecture, almost immediately lost our way (there are, of course, worse places to wander aimlessly than a Cotswold village). So, we retraced our steps until we found Parson’s Corner and headed in the correct direction towards the tiny village of Broadwell. Broadwell is notable for its utter tranquility and the Fox Inn pub. The walk meandered through tracks bordered with shoulder-high creamy Queen Anne’s Lace. We passed through shady avenues of trees, crossed over streams and strolled past fields of corn (too early for poppies in mid-May but by mid-June they would undoubtedly have been glorious). The route of the walk continued through the churchyard of St Peter and St Paul’s, an impressive 12th century medieval cruciform church. All was going remarkably well with the blogger’s printed route plan until we reached the busy Fosse Road which we had no alternative but to dash across. Thereafter the instructions failed us somewhat dramatically. We hopped over a stile and into a farmers field. So as not to attract the ire of the farmer (who was watching us from the seat of his tractor) we circumnavigated the field schlepping our way between the brambles of the hedgerow and the deep ankle-twisting furrows of the sloughed field. I have absolutely no idea which route we were supposed to have taken once we had reached the Fosse Road but eventually we made our way to a gate at the top of the field through which we exited sheepishly … still under the watchful gaze of the farmer … 

Within a few minutes we saw Tesco at the top of the hill, ignored the car and continued on into Stow for an emergency cup of Earl Grey tea and a slice of Victoria Sponge at Lucy’s Tearoom.

Kate left me to my own devices early on the third morning to head home. I had a good few hours to kill before my ride arrived to pick me up and head north to Cheshire. I soaked up the morning sun in the garden at Abbotts Grange and pottered down to Tisanes Tea shop in the village for lunch. I watched the local well-heeled pink-haired ladies (with matching manicures) lunching with their friends and idly wondered if I could convince Geoff to sell up from Florida and move to a country cottage in the Cotswolds instead … 

Gary, an old friend of ours, arrived from Nantwich in Cheshire to collect me from Broadway. It was tough to tear myself away from the endless delights of the afternoon teas and the sedate peace and quiet of the Grange but I was also looking forward to reacquainting myself with the similar delights of Cheshire. One of those delights was definitely not The Leopard pub in Nantwich where Gary took me for dinner upon arrival up north. I had requested a cute country pub – preferably with a garden – for dinner. Not so much cute country pub, The Leopard is more working men’s club. And to add insult to injury I had been assured that the menu catered for vegetarians – it did not. Chips and deep-fried onion rings do not a vegetarian meal make. Clearly if I were to survive my 3 nights in Cheshire without starving to death I had to immediately resume my role as organizer of lunch and dinner venues.

First morning bright and early we headed to the pre-approved Ginger and Pickles tea shop in the wealthy enclave of Tarporley. Millionaires shortbread was followed by a circular walk at Bulkeley Hill in an effort to offset some of the calories. It was damp and overcast much as you would expect in Cheshire in late spring/early summer (and if I’m honest, as you might also expect in mid and late summer) but the hedgerows were dotted with delicate wild flowers and the views were suitably pastoral with happy cows in the surrounding fields chewing the cud. 

The sun finally shone so we took a relatively more summery stroll along the Shropshire Union Canal back in Nantwich passing the photogenic house boats with colorful painted folk art designs, decorative watering cans and painted buckets of flowering annuals. Dogs scampered along the towpath enthusiastically greeting ramblers with muddy paws and butterflies fluttered in the hedgerows. 

Geoff arrived into Nantwich station late afternoon after his magical mystery music tour stretching the breadth of the country from Nottingham to Manchester, Stockport and Macclesfield. 

Since The Leopard had been unceremoniously struck from the list of potential eateries I suggested dinner at The Dysart Arms in Bunbury (previously approved from many visits to Cheshire over the years). The food is excellent and if the sun is shining (as it was) nothing beats a few drinks in a pretty English country pub garden. If the solar deities are angry then it is equally appealing inside the19th century oak-beamed inn … so appealing, in fact, that we made a return visit the following day for lunch after a visit to Chester. I was searching for a denim jacket – a jacket which might not have been required if the weather had been a tad warmer (as originally forecast when we packed our luggage). Of course, we should have anticipated that it would be sunny, warm, cold, drizzly and then briefly sunny again followed by some freezing winds and more drizzle in Cheshire. The wettest winter I have ever spent was a summer in Cheshire in my youth 😉 … it’s unpredictable to say the least.

Although the flying visit to the 1st century Roman-walled Cathedral city of Chester wasn’t successful in terms of emergency clothing purchases (thankfully the posh shops in Tarporley saved the day) it did allow a return visit to Jaunty Goat in Bridge Street for a slice of Earl Grey and Orange cake, an Aeropress coffee and a V60 pourover. All of these were worth the parking fee in the city and the 20 minute wait to get a table in this very popular city coffee shop. The boutique stores in the Rows are always worth a visit – the spectacular medieval 13th century timbered buildings with 2nd floor galleries and covered walkways are architecturally unique. But I couldn’t find a denim jacket to fit my requirements …

Our visit to Cheshire was all too short and the highlight was, without doubt, dinner at the Combermere Arms in the village of Burleydam (just into the neighboring county of Shropshire) with Gary and friends Rob and Rainzley. Excellent food, beautiful country pub (inside and out) and great company. There was no chance of it, of course, in mid-May in the deep dark north of England but I could have happily wiled away an hour or so sipping a Pimms in the patio garden amongst the wallflowers and the lavender … but it was not to be …

The next leg of the visit was to Harrogate, Yorkshire to visit my best friend from university years, Caroline, her husband Stephen and her super cool kids (kids when we left for the USA 23 years ago but now definitely no longer kids). The younger of the two beautiful offspring, Olivia, is conveniently also an excellent vegan cook who made sure that we were stuffed to the gunnels at least once every day with her incredibly versatile and delicious recipes. Lucky us!!

We love our friends and we love Yorkshire. If it weren’t notoriously chilly, windy and not quite as sunny as we would like for a place of permanent residence we might even shortlist Harrogate and the Yorkshire Dales for our retirement years. But … truth be told … if the Cotswolds down in the balmier south of England don’t cut the mustard for Geoff weather-wise then the Yorkshire Dales never will (despite the possibility of bribing Olivia to cook us dinner from time to time) 😉

As luck would have it we miraculously managed to dodge the worst of the rain most days and got lucky with some positively sunny spells! Harrogate is well-known for the iconic Betty’s Café Tea Rooms, abundant luxury spas (a booming industry catering to the Victorian well-to-do since the1800s) and its landscaped flower gardens in the Grade II listed Valley Gardens. This is where we started – stretching our legs amongst the tourists and current well-to-do of the city. If you venture deep into the Valley Gardens you eventually find yourself wandering through the Pinewoods amongst the spectacularly huge rhododendrons – seemingly a million miles from the center of the bustling city – and yet only minutes away. 

Yorkshire – day 1 – we started our visit to the Dales with a mid-morning coffee (and slice of white chocolate raspberry cake) at The Café at Car and Kitchen in Settle. I’d travel half way around the world for another slice so if you’re planning on a hike at Ingleton Waterfalls trail (as we were) then The Café at Car and Kitchen should be your designated en route tea shop detour. The Ingleton Waterfalls trail is a 4.3 mile loop trail. There are six waterfalls of various shapes and sizes and Thornton Force is the most famous of them all where the river plunges 45 feet over a limestone cliff. We passed swirling falls, rapids, rocks thick with emerald moss and giant ferns. Bluebells still carpeted the woodlands in mid-May with delicate lavenders and blues and thick blankets of white-flowering garlic filled the air with pungent scent.The trail weaves through oak woodlands and opens out into the Twiss Valley with expansive views over Ingleborough, one of the three famous Yorkshire Dales Peaks. It was a fabulous hike – we loved it for its variety. A few miles down the road we stopped for lunch at an excellent country inn – the Marton Arms – in Thornton in Lonsdale. The pub sits next to St Oswalds Church on a narrow country lane and is surrounded by rolling hills and pastures with grazing sheep and newborn lambs. A thoroughly perfect bucolic Yorkshire scene. 

Yorkshire – day 2 – the forecast was for sun interspersed with puffy white clouds with a vague possibility of showers so we took our chances and headed to one of our favorite dales – Swaledale in the Yorkshire Dales National Park. All of the dales are spectacular but Swaledale is particularly special on a sunny day in mid-May. We planned to start our one-way hike from the Village Store and Tea Shop in Muker powered onwards by the traditional pre-hike coffee and cake stop. No sooner had we arrived, it looked as if the day’s plans would fall apart at the first hurdle. We parked up and were kitting up in hiking boots and jackets when the wind started to pick up – rapidly followed by drizzly rain. We ran to the Muker Tea Shop in our hiking boots in search of coffee and cake (and to wait out the rain for a while) only to discover that the tea shop hadn’t opened for the day due to some irritatingly unconvincing COVID-related reason. As gloom descended on the forlorn damp hikers, Geoff threatened to bail on the hike completely. He was debating hitching a ride with Stephen in the warm, dry car to Gunnerside – our intended hiking destination – 4.5 miles away (for a pint of bitter or two). Albeit we were damp and miserably bereft of coffee and cake we convinced him to proceed as planned. Conveniently the sun appeared as quickly as the rain had 15 minutes earlier and we decided to brave whatever else the elements were to throw at us and headed off across the fields. Swaledale is famous for its preserved stone field barns, one of the fastest flowing rivers in England – the River Swale – and miles of stone walls criss-crossing the fields in the valley. In mid-May the famous Muker Meadows are cleared of grazing sheep for a short while and the meadows are left to blossom for the benefit of the bees in blankets of bright yellow buttercups and wild flowers. It was absolutely glorious in the sunshine. We emerged from the fields on a road by Ivelet stone bridge and were greeted with hedgerows of colorful pink and blue wild flowers along the roadside before the finale through yet more buttercup-filled meadows. By the time we reached Gunnerside we were pretty hungry. Some frantic googling directed us towards Hawes, a short distance away, where we hoped to eat at The White Hart Inn. For similar inexplicable COVID-related reasons that plan was as unsuccessful as the earlier failed coffee and cake stop in Muker. We were now getting desperate and set off in different directions across Hawes in search of suitable options. The boys ended up in the decidedly grungy Crown pub and we located Caffe Curva which ticked all of the girly boxes (which are after all, the important ones). The Crown was summarily rejected so we left the boys for a couple of pints of beer with strict instructions to meet us at the cafe – which turned out to be excellent. Another perfect day in Yorkshire!

Yorkshire – day 3 – the coast was calling. The designated en route coffee and cake stop of the day was at Helmsley a very attractive Yorkshire market town located in the North York Moors National Park. En route we were entertained by one of the most quintessentially English countryside experiences. We were bounding along a single carriageway across the Moors enjoying the open vistas across the moorland when Stephen suddenly slammed on the brakes and came to a screeching halt behind 200 sheep frolicking down the road. They were followed by a tractor and a couple of sheep dogs. A hapless lamb made a dart for freedom back up the road towards us, scrambled over the top of the sheep dog which, in one fluid, graceful manoeuvre jumped high into the air, caught him by the scruff of the neck in mid-air, turned him around and pointed Larry the Lamb back in the direction of the rest of the herd. There’s a Collie who would win a trial or 2 in competition.

We finally made it Helmsley where there is an impressive market square and a myriad of independent stores and cafes and restaurants. A stream runs through the town centre and Helmsley also boasts the ruins of a 12th century castle. No time for its cultural exploration though – we were bound for Mannion and Co Kitchen (sister cafe to York city’s renowned Mannion and Co Kitchen). They serve the largest, fluffiest scones with clotted cream and strawberry jam this side of Devon. The marmalade cake and black cherry cakes were also not to be sniffed at. Much as we could have sat there all day shooting the breeze with our old friends and consuming more calories than the average person needs in a week, the coast was still calling and we were only half way there! 

Onwards to Staithes, a well-known seaside village in North Yorkshire. Once one of the major fishing ports of the Northeast of England – now it is better known as a vacation destination and the starting point of various clifftop coastal walks running north and south. We meandered through the narrow cobbled lanes and aimed uphill to start our coastal clifftop hike. We were heading south to Runswick Bay where Stephen would meet us in the car. The short but scenic 3 mile walk is part of the Cleveland Way National Trail and passes wild flower dotted headlands, Port Mulgrave and the Rosedale Cliffs before descending to sea level at the immaculately maintained seaside village of Runswick Bay. Time had drifted (mainly because of the extended coffee and cake stop at the start of the day), lunchtime was now well past due and we were all ravenous. The only respectable way to finish a great day on the Yorkshire coast is with a plate of Trenchers’ famous fish and chips in Whitby. The interior was a little incongruent with the fare – Trenchers has modeled itself after an Italian bistro with booths and Tiffany lampshades – but it has to be admitted they serve a very fine traditional English fish and chips.

Whitby is famous not only for its fish and chips but also for its connection to Bram Stoker’s Dracula which was set in Whitby. The imposing clifftop ruins of Whitby Abbey are said to have inspired Stoker. Consequently the town draws huge crowds of Goths for the annual Whitby Goth Weekend – the world’s premier Goth festival (since Geoff fancies himself a bit of a closet Goth, I am keeping this quiet for fear he’d steal my eye-liner and catch a surreptitious flight back for Halloween). On a slightly less spooky note the town is also renowned for Whitby Jet (a semi-precious black stone popular since the Victorian era). Filled to the gunnels with fish and chips, we had run out of time to explore Whitby’s wealth of interesting offerings … those must wait for another visit!

Yorkshire – day 4 – the market town of Knaresborough is a short distance from Harrogate and worth the risk for a quick stroll along the riverfront dodging the looming rain clouds on our last day. We walked up through the grounds of the 12th century castle to the iconic viewpoint over the Riverwalk, the River Nidd and the steep banks of the gorge and descended to the riverside where on a more summery day tourists can rent small rowing boats or sip coffee in the sunshine in one of the waterfront cafes.

We left the unpredictable northern weather and headed a few hours south to the Midlands to spend the night with Geoff’s dad and step-mother in Melton Mowbray. The visit was fleeting but busy – a long walk through the surrounding Leicestershire countryside and our first curry of the trip at Spice Club which was worth the wait!

The following morning we left early to drive to southern East Anglia for lunch with Geoff’s nan – a very spritely 94 year old lady. We sat in the sun in the patio garden of Bell Inn Bistro pub in Thorpe-le-Soken, overlooked by the 16th century St Michaels Church. After lunch we took her for a drive to Frinton-on-Sea and walked along the Esplanade down by the water in the bracing wind. Far hardier Brits than we will ever be were sunbathing behind striped wind-breaks sitting outside of their colorfully painted wooden beach huts. 

By mid-afternoon we were driving north again to Capel St Mary, Suffolk to see my mother for the first time in 3 years in her new home with my brother and sister-in-law.

Highlights of the local area are undoubtedly the very pretty village of Dedham, Essex on the River Stour. This is the heart of Constable Country. The village is renowned not just for its well-preserved timber-framed historic buildings and upmarket Georgian dwellings but also for its proximity to Flatford Mill and Dedham Vale made famous by artist John Constable in his early 19th century paintings. In 2022, 200 years later, the village of Dedham offers the visitor immaculately maintained homes, shops, charming tea shops and historic pubs. The Old Bakery Cafe became something of a regular stop for coffee and homemade cake. For dinner there is the medieval The Sun Inn (slightly more modern fare) and The Marlborough (a little more traditional) – both had good food. If it had been warmer The Sun Inn would have had the edge since it also has a beer garden with flowering borders. 

The late-May weather in East Anglia flip-flopped between sun … rain … and blustery cold. In between its unpredictabilities we successfully squeezed in visits with my mother and brother to 2 other local villages largely unsullied by the worst of 21st century development – or the worst of 16th, 17th, 18th, 19th and 20th century development come to that 😉

Lavenham, dating back to Saxon times, made its fortune on the back of the medieval wool industry and in the Tudor era was the 14th wealthiest settlement in England thanks to the production of Lavenham Blue broadcloth. Many of the buildings have remained substantially unchanged since the 15th century. The jewel in its crown is the famous timber-framed 15th century Guildhall overlooking the village square. Lavenham is considered Britain’s best preserved medieval village with over 300 registered historic buildings. And of course, where there is such perfectly-preserved English history, there will also be a plethora of excellent restaurants and quality village tea shops! Our choice for the day was Tatum’s tea shop.

20 minutes away is the equally picture-postcard village of Kersey which also made its riches in the wool trade. It is a small village with an abundance of historic homes and buildings and, more unusually, a shallow ford running through its heart sourced by the River Brett. Crossing the footbridge over the ford and heading up the hill towards the 12th century church is a quick but worthy detour. The view over the village from the top of the steps leading to the churchyard of St Mary’s church is quite beautiful. The Bell Inn is bedecked in summer with hanging flower baskets. A few miles down the road is Kersey Mill – the site of a historic listed water mill and maltings which have been repurposed into boutique stores, craft stores, various commercial businesses and The Miller’s Kitchen – a popular cafe which, naturally, we had to visit. A scenic drive in the bucolic countryside without a critical stop for coffee and cake is just not the done thing for an englishman … or woman 😉

We left Suffolk for a mad dash across the country for COVID tests at Heathrow (without which we would not have been able to fly home to the US) and then onwards for a final pub lunch with Geoff’s aunt and uncle at Crab and Boar, Chieveley – a thatched-roofed inn in the Berkshire countryside. This was my last-ditch attempt to have lunch in a country pub garden. It seems we had irritated the sun gods because the holiday ended as it started with rain and wind – absolutely no chance whatsoever of eating outside – but mercifully with substantially better food!

We were so sad to leave England, many tears were shed. Since we got home we’ve been googling non-stop on real estate websites for a likely pied-a-terre in Cornwall so we can spend summers there with my brother and sister-in-law … sigh … happy dreaming …

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