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Part 8–Driving, Dining, & Sleeping in a Fairytale the Cotswolds
Mid-afternoon that Sunday, we had walked back to the motel parking lot in Bath, climbed into our car, and had no trouble finding the motorway we needed to get out of Bath and soon were headed north to the Cotswolds Hills. We had to switch from one motorway to another a couple of times, and that went smoothly for 33 miles—until we reached Cirencester.
Cirencester was the ancient Roman city of Corinium (2,000 years ago) and the second largest city in England, after Londinium, at that time. My guidebook says their Corinium Museum is impressive for its Roman artifacts, and its church is the largest in the Cotswolds, but for us, it was the city in which we were to pick up A-429 to head further north 19 miles to Stow-on-the-Wold, which is only ten miles south of Chipping Campden, where we would spend the next two nights.
We were zipping right along through the outskirts of Cirencester, until we came to this one roundabout. (Dave, by the way, drove those roundabouts like he’d lived in England all his life!) We drove around it once and neither of us saw A-429 or a sign to Stow. So, we drove around again, still didn’t see it. The third time around, Dave took a road, but I could soon see that road was going west and not north; so, we turned around and drove back to the roundabout. This time, we decided to backtrack, thinking we might have missed a sign along the way. We drove south in Cirencester to where we’d seen our last sign, and then headed back to the roundabout. No, neither of us saw the sign we were needing. So, we decided to take the road to the hospital off of the roundabout thinking that we could get directions there. I scurried into the hospital’s main entrance, only to find it deserted because it was Sunday. I headed down a hall, and the only person I found knew nothing about the motorways. Back inside the car, this time we took the road leading us into the city’s old center. We were on very narrow, often curvy streets, and eventually we found our way to a major intersection, and lo, there was the sign for A-429. (We’re pretty sure that’s not the way most motorists reach that intersection, but we still don’t know where we messed up.)
Stow-on-the-Wold (means meeting place on the uplands) is the highest point of the Cotswolds, and is heavily touristed, mainly for its antique stores and cute little shops around a large, town square. Additionally, tourists enjoy getting their photo taken, while they are “locked” in the square’s stocks, which in former days were used for public humiliation. But to us, Stow was where we picked up A-424 en route to Chipping Campden, and that was accomplished with no problems.
The rural road from Stow to Chipping Campden is very narrow, and by now we were seeing field after glorious field of yellow rapeseed (a plant that is used for food for sheep and hogs). The countryside in the Cotswolds is over-the-top lovely—green pastures dotted with sheep, fields of bright yellow, and gorgeous old rock walls. Unfortunately with no shoulders on the roads, where we could pull off, we took no photos of that beauty.
Our destination, Chipping Campden, is a charming, old market town, complete with a 1627 Market Hall. In the 1600s, the hall was where the locals came to purchase their produce. It is now a part of the National Trust, and its current timbers are true to the original. This is a good spot from which see the classic Cotswold stone roof, held together with wooden pegs nailed in from the underside. Next to the Market Hall is a WWI memorial to the many Chipping Campden men who lost their lives during that war.
The village’s street plan and property lines are those of the 12th century, and all of the buildings are made of the Cotswold’s honey-colored limestone. Lots are narrow, but very deep because in the 1170s, rooms were lined up. Each structure had a small storefront, then a workshop, living quarters, staff quarters, stables, and a small garden at the very back. Some of today’s buildings are wider, but they are exact multiples of those first lot widths.
We drove into Chipping Campden, and I had my photocopied map of the village in my hand. I saw that we were on Sheep Street and found it on my map. (Most Cotswolds’ villages have a street of that name—very wide for herding the sheep to market. In those days, merchants would come from as far away as Italy for the high quality raw wool.) When we arrived at High Street (rated by our guidebooks as the finest High Street in the Cotswolds, another street name that most Cotswolds’ villages have), I said “Turn right,” Soon we found the Noel Arms Hotel, (they’ve been welcoming guests for over 600 years on the main square), and Dave found a parking space right across from the hotel. They have 27 rooms, and we were fortunate to get a ground floor room in a stone building attached to the hotel, with free parking, only a few feet from our room. We took our luggage inside and were relieved to have a “home” for the next two nights.
Since we were less than half an hour from Stratford-upon-Avon, Dave secured tickets by phone for the following night for a play at the Royal Shakespeare Company there. (Almost had to do that, since I was wearing my friend’s gift of a sweatshirt (to keep me warm most nights) that said, “Formerly Worn by Shakespeare While Experiencing a Writer’s Block.”) Since it was late Sunday afternoon at this point in time, we read our guidebooks re: where we wanted to go the next day, and did not explore the village itself, guessing that most shops and the tourist information center were closed on a Sunday in late afternoon.
That night we elected to walk down the street to have dinner at the Lygon Arms Pub. (It was my favorite pub of all that we experienced in England!) The bar was full, and I think we got the last available table in the place that night, and it was at the end of the room, right next to one of the old stone walls & rock fireplace—I loved it. Just think—that day we’d driven through a fairytale landscape, we were spending two nights in a fairytale village, and now we were dining in a fairytale pub that had been around for hundreds of years!
Dave insisted that I have a traditional English dinner that night, and so I ordered the roast beef. (I complained that I knew I would not be able to eat that much, but he insisted.) It was delicious, and I don’t think I’ve ever had tastier gravy. But when the waitress came to take our plates away and two large slices of roast beef remained on mine, I had to inquire, “Please tell me that all this wonderful meat won’t be thrown out?” She smiled and replied, “The dogs will get it.” “Lucky dogs!” I quickly responded.
We had a good night’s sleep that night, and the next morn had breakfast, which was included in the price of our room, in the Noel Arms dining room. We found an empty table, and the waitress took our order from a menu. Dave had a traditional English breakfast, complete w/the boiled tomato and black pudding (sausage made from dried blood—yuck). I had bacon, eggs, toast, and tea, plus a bowl of fruit and a glass of orange juice, which we gathered from the fruit and juice table just inside the dining room entrance.
Then we were off in our rental car to explore other villages in the Cotswolds. I had a route in mind, but loved seeing the signs to Dumbleton and Wormington. (We don’t have towns named like that in the U.S.) And when I saw a sign to Hidcote Manor Garden, I asked Dave to turn there ‘cause I’d read about it in my guidebook. Hidcote is on the National Trust & claims to be the place that “taught England how to garden.” It’s where garden designers first created a series of “outdoor rooms,” each with a different theme and separated by a yew hedge. It is huge, and it was lightly raining and chilly, when we arrived, and the gardens were wondrous, but we did cut our time short here, due to the chilly temps and light rain.
Next we drove the gorgeous, sheep-around-every-curve-in-the-road route to Snowshill. Very photogenic square with a single pub at its base, but since the cars were parked into the road here, we could not stop for a photo. And it was on to Stanway, more of a crossroads, rather than a village. We did stop at the church there, which dates back a thousand years. We really felt just how old this part of England was compared to our country, when visiting this church. (If we’d been there in June-August, we’d have also stopped at the Stanway House, since the Earl of Wemyss, whose family goes back to 1202, opens this up two days a week during those months.)
From Stanway, we drove to Stanton, where we visited the Church of St. Michael (easy to spot with its very pointy spire). My guidebooks say that any church dedicated to St. Michael likely sits upon a pagan religious site, and Stanton does sit at the intersection of two ley lines. The church probably dates to the 9th century, this building is mostly from the 15th century. The list of rectors goes back to 1269. We took time to finger the grooves in the back pews, which were worn away by sheepdogs’ chain leashes, since in those days, a man’s sheepdog was with him at all times, and again felt the presence of history.
From there, we drove to Broadway, a very pretty town, but very heavily touristed, for a late lunch at The Swan, and then headed for our hotel in Chipping Campden. Once back in our room it was time to get dressed for our evening of Shakespeare in nearby Stratford-Upon-Avon. Turned out to be a very serendipitous evening …