A Tour Through England's Cotswolds

A Brit from the industrial north of England explores the storybook world of the Cotswolds, in a classic British sports car.

From the September 2009 issue of National Geographic Traveler

A Brit from the industrial north of England explores the storybook world of the Cotswolds, in a classic British sports car.

On this sunny afternoon, the bells are ringing as we motor into Blockley, a secluded village in the heart of rural England. We park outside the medieval church and ask what's going on. Is it a wedding? No, says a woman with a wicker shopping basket over her arm. It's the start of the local flower show.

We cross the churchyard and join the queue outside the community hall. We hand over the £1 entrance fee and enter, only to be engulfed by a scene of joyous, unmitigated Englishness.

During our four days in the Cotswolds, that most lyrically charming region of south-central England, nothing else quite so perfectly encapsulates the appeal of village life. At one end of the hall, a framed photograph of the Queen smiles down on a group of showgoers, who in turn smile down on a vase of artfully arranged daffodils judged best flowers in the show. The woman who grew them, Brenda Samuels, can hardly believe she has won. "I'm ecstatic!" she beams.

The flower show comes at the halfway point of a driving tour that my wife, Clare, and I are taking around this region of gently rolling fields and wooded hills west of Oxford and south of Stratford upon Avon. We're following the Romantic Road to the Cotswolds' most appealing towns and villages. These picturesque communities evoke an England of timeless calm and comfortable wealth, originally built on the wool trade. It's an almost mythical place which I, growing up 40 years ago in the industrial north of the country, could only read about in books, living as I did in a city of smog and steelworks. I still have some of those childhood books, and their photographs of the Cotswolds show Arcadian scenes that have hardly changed to this day. As the English travel writer S. P. B. Mais wrote in his 1932 classic, The High Lands of Britain: "[Nowhere] else in the world can you find beauty that is more completely soothing to the soul." This blissful land was less than a hundred miles away, but it could have been another planet.

Now, of course, I can drive the twisty, turning lanes of the Cotswolds whenever I wish. Clare and I have toured here before, exploring inside the triangle formed by the M4, M5, and M40 highways, but this time we're traveling in style, or, more precisely, in retro-chic.

We've rented a 1974 Triumph TR6, a sleek, homegrown convertible painted a yellow as bright as flower-show daffodils. It's not a car we'd expect to own in these tight economic times, but it's certainly fun to rent for a few days. Clare's behind the wheel. I'm at the map, a sort of GPS with attitude, barking: "Next left! Next right! You missed the turn! We're lost!"

The nimble sports car is perfect for navigating the Cotswolds' nooks and crannies, and for dawdling as well. If there's a choice between a minor road or an even more minor lane, we think minuscule, taking the byways, not the highways.

The car's period charm also fits in. "Most of the TR6's appeal is straight nostalgia," said Tony Merrygold, whose company, The Open Road, rented us the vehicle. When we picked it up, he explained the gear-shift pattern and how to use the choke, then noted:

"Americans find the roads around here too narrow. One said that you could barely drive a golf cart down them."

And with a last word of advice—"Cars like this don't respond to caresses; you need to be firm"—he waved us off. Clare shifted into gear and hit the gas. "This will tone up my muscles better than the gym," she said as the Triumph roared into motion.

The Romantic Road splits into two loops, both centered on the elegant Regency town of Cheltenham. There's so much to see, so many villages with evocative names like Lower Slaughter and Upper Slaughter, that we content ourselves with the northern loop, known as "A Road for Today." (The southern loop, appropriately, is called "A Road for Tomorrow.")

The names refer to the daylong drive time needed to round each loop. Our loop, in fact, amounts to only 75 miles and could be covered in three hours. But what's the hurry? The Cotswolds lay England's history out before you. Stopping to look is as important as covering the distance.

Pheasants cackle across misty fields as we join the route a few miles north of Cheltenham. A flashy sports car, we soon discover, is not for the shy. As we whiz by, people wave, give us the thumbs-up, occasionally shout "Smart car!" Within minutes, we reach Cleeve Hill, a viewing point celebrated for its panorama of hills, abbeys, and great bridges. As if on cue, the mist thickens, and we can barely make out a couple of crows 20 feet away, gathering twigs for their nests. "Hope they've got their compasses with them," Clare quips.

We drive stoically on, pulling into the little town of Winchcombe, with its honey-colored stone cottages and a sign marking the site of a Saxon horse market established more than a millennium ago. Along the main road is Juri's tearoom, also called the Olde Bakery Tea Shoppe. The blue-and-white Staffordshire cups and saucers and the array of Victoria sponge cakes suggest the place might be run by an old rustic plumped up by decades of over-rich cream teas. In fact, it's run by a trim Iwao Miyawaki, a Japanese chap who used to develop property in Manhattan.

When his company closed, he remembered his London years, when he, his wife Junko and daughter Juri would bring his family to the Cotswolds on weekends. Smiling quietly, he explains how Winchcombe was "the place to settle down, the place of our dreams," and how the shop he now owns with his wife and his daughter, Juri, was recently named the country's best tearoom by the U.K. Tea Council. "We in Japan have a 600-year-old history of tea. It's a traditional ritual," he says. "Here in England, tea is more about fun and entertainment."

Outside, weak sunshine is melting the mist as we explore the town. A notice board advertises bric-a-brac fairs and a "pudding and auction evening." The charity shops display secondhand white-tie-and-tails evening suits; the butcher shops stock partridge and guinea fowl; the hardware sells packets of seeds for marigolds, pansies, lupines, cornflowers, and sweet peas, which we glimpse in a hundred roadside gardens and fields along our route.

Many of the fields, we notice, are divided by drystone walls, built without mortar, their often mossy stones slotted carefully together. As we leave Winchcombe and veer off an already narrow road onto an alarmingly narrow lane—Clare rapidly down shifts, inadvertently jabbing her elbow in my ribs—we stop near a blacksmith's forge to examine one of these walls. A man strolls across the yard to chat. Robin Clayton is a friendly Winchcombe resident and, it turns out, a drystone waller himself. On a good day, he says, he can finish a stretch of wall three feet long and four feet high.

"You should build out of what comes to hand, not like that," he says, pointing to an overly perfect wall of immaculately trimmed stones. "That's been thought about too much. My grandfather said if you pick a stone up, use it, don't put it down."

Was his grandfather local? "Well, I can trace my family back to 1620 in Dumbleton, four miles from here." And has he ever wanted to leave the Cotswolds? "I wanted to get out when I was a kid," he says. "I joined the Army but came back. You don't know what you've got until you go away. I'm very conscious of my roots now."

Clayton walks over to his own car, pulls a folder of photographs from the glove box and hands them to me, one by one. They show walls he has built, the ones he's most proud of.

As we head north to the busy village of Broadway and then turn south to Snowshill Manor, we enter the most fascinating stretch of our drive. Soon we're edging gingerly along a lane through an almost secret valley, past cottages named Honeysuckle, Laburnum, and Wisteria, as well as teetering houses with tall turrets and steeply pointed gables. In this fairy-tale setting, we almost expect a witch—a rather friendly one, it would be in the Cotswolds—to step out and invite us inside.

As it happens, Snowshill Manor, which was originally a Tudor house, is a fairy tale in its own right. Charles Paget Wade, a wealthy eccentric, bought it in 1919 and spent the next 32 years filling it with curios, antiques, relics, costumes, and memorabilia of every conceivable sort. "What joy these old things are to live with," he wrote. Cramming 22,000 objects into 22 rooms, he hadn't enough room to live in the house himself, using a small cottage alongside instead. Now the National Trust, to whom he bequeathed Snowshill, describes it as the "Treasure House of the Cotswolds."

Dominic Hamilton, the affable visitor services manager, shows us around. Here are medieval church statues, military drums, 19th-century bicycles, harps and lutes, prams, and, startlingly, a group of life-size models of samurai warriors dressed in armor, more than mildly menacing.

"Everything had to have craftsmanship and color," Hamilton says. "When guests came to stay, Mr. Wade would put on a costume and go down secret passages to appear unexpectedly in their bedrooms at night. He was full of wit and humor. Look, this is one of my favorite objects." Above us, a stuffed fruit bat hangs from the ceiling, claws clenched, eyes bulging.

We leave the house, pass doves fluttering through the garden, and stroll down to tea on Snowshill's café terrace. A golden haze lingers over the valley as the sun sets. The only sounds are the bleating of lambs and the gentle murmur of the English middle classes in conversation. Two elderly men tiptoe around a maze cut into the lawn. Their wives smile indulgently.

With dusk falling, we decide to drive to Willersey, the village where we're staying, a mere six miles north. But it's not as simple as that. Junctions and crossroads proliferate here, but most of the signs only point us to places 20 or 30 miles away, not to the next village. After half an hour driving up and down steep hills and turning the map upside down and looking at it sideways (maybe an actual GPS would've been smart), we stop the car, get a grip, and retrace our tire tracks past Snowshill, now closed for the night.

And, yes, we finally find Willersey, which dates to a.d. 709 and has a duck pond and a wooden seat curving comfortably around a horse chestnut tree. It has won Gloucestershire's Best-Kept Village competition three times: Every roof tile on every house is perfectly aligned; every blade of grass on every lawn is lovingly manicured.

Lowerfield Farm, our comfortable guest house accommodation, is mostly 17th century, with great black beams arching over the upstairs corridor. The owners, Sue and Gareth Atkinson, typically serve breakfast eggs supplied by the hens strutting past the windows. They look a very modern, professional couple, I tell Sue; not at all like an archetypal farmer and farmer's wife. "No, Gareth used to run a company's videoconferencing division, and I used to work in personnel," she says. "We just wanted a different life."

More traditional Cotswold ways linger a mile down the road at the New Inn. We leave the car outside the farm and stroll under a night sky studded with stars. The silence is broken only by the occasional squeaking bat. Inside, the pub displays decorative "horse brass" medallions and hunting prints and has candles in wine bottles and a warming stove. Farmers play cards at the next table and snooker in the adjoining room. A thunderous rumble from down the corridor, followed by a clattering crash and a cheer, alerts me to a dozen women playing skittles, a precursor to bowling, in a skittle alley, a popular competitive pastime in the Cotswolds.

The regulars take no notice of the strangers sitting three feet away from them. Snatches of conversation drift over: "You'll be busy with sheep now . . . . I liked the Captain. He used to drive his Mercedes into the field and get straight on the combine." We wash down our fish and chips with a rich "real ale" brewed locally at Stow on the Wold, a town which, we discover later, God clearly put on this Earth to house antique shops.

We reach it after a gradual drive around the eastern extremity of our route, our moment to pretend to be sophisticated. We lower the top of our Triumph in the bright sunshine and feel the breeze in our faces. Clare winds a Grace Kelly scarf around her hair and puts on sunglasses. People wave even more enthusiastically now. "They must think we're famous," Clare says. "Wave back more convincingly."

It would be easy to overdose on picturesqueness in the Cotswolds—so much pleasantness, so many rich people in mustard-colored corduroys. This is, after all, an idealized England where two major royals (Prince Charles and his sister, the Princess Royal) own homes, as do celebrity actors and writers. For many Brits, it represents the apotheosis of privileged country living, seemingly insulated from the problematic aftermath of empire. To the visitor, it remains the rural fantasyland pictured in my childhood books, a Brigadoon of Britishness. So we are glad to pull in for morning coffee at Chipping Campden, still recognizably a real town, with real old ladies sitting outside almshouses reading in the morning sun.

A church, built in part by wool merchants, dominates the town; its 120-foot-tall tower whooshes up like a rocket. A young man plays the organ as we stand before a striking monument to Sir Edward Noel, killed in 1642 while fighting for Charles I in the English Civil War. This "lord of heroik high parts and presence" and his wife, Juliana, are shown rising from their tomb on Resurrection Day. They stand behind carved doors, as though someone has opened a wardrobe and disturbed their eternity.

Alongside is a monument to their daughter Penelope, who died from blood poisoning after pricking her finger with a needle "when working with coloured silks," as the church guidebook says. Some believe stories such as hers inspired the Sleeping Beauty legend.

"Sleeping beauty" pretty much sums up the Cotswolds, as does the scene back at the Blockley flower show. Halfway through the afternoon, John Baldwyn, chairman of the Blockley Horticultural Society, stands before Brenda Samuels's prizewinning daffodils, almost awestruck.

"Compare them with those daffodils next to them, that have a little nick in one of the petals. And those over there with one or two badly shaped petals," he says. "Brenda's flowers are perfection."

There are more winners all around us, and not just flowers. Best pot of orange marmalade. Best sticky gingerbread. Best knitted article. Among the embroidery and the woolen bootees and the fruit loaves, only a scale model of a landing craft storming a wartime beach strikes an alien note. The cups and medals are lined up on the platform, polished to a mirrorlike gleam and waiting to be presented.

Prizewinners embrace, and the hall buzzes with gossip as more than a hundred people sip tea and work their way through enormous wedges of homemade chocolate cake. There's a warm sense of community, of the fabric of everyday country life, as though the problems of global recession are far, far away. At any moment, Agatha Christie's Miss Marple may steal in to buy a pot of chutney.

We leave Blockley to its chocolate cake, climb back in the car and meander deeper into the idyllic world of the Cotswolds.

Intelligent Travel: England's Cotswolds

Entry requirements U.S. citizens need a valid passport, but no visa is required. Time The Cotswolds are five hours ahead of EST. Currency The British pound. Phone calls To call the Cotswolds from the U.S., dial 011-44, plus the area code and local number. Getting around Cheltenham is two and a half hours by train from London or three hours from Heathrow Airport.

Blockley www.blockley.org.uk.

Broadway Tower www.broadwaytower.co.uk.

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Search Trips

Cheltenham www.visitcheltenham.com.

Chipping Campden www.chippingcampden.co.uk.

Cleeve Hill www.cleevecommon.org.uk.

Cotswold Way National Trail www.nationaltrail.co.uk/cotswold.

Juri's Tearoom High Street, Winchcombe; 1242-602-469; www.juris-tearoom.co.uk.

Lowerfield Farm Near Broadway; 1386-858-273;www.lowerfield-farm.co.uk.

New Inn Main St., Willersey, Broadway; 1386-853-226; www.newinnbroadway.co.uk.

Romantic Road wwwvisitcheltenham.com/site/scripts/documents.php?categoryID=104.

Snowshill Manor Near Broadway; 1386-852-410; www.nationaltrust.org.uk.

St James' Church Cider Mill La., Chipping Campden; 1386-841-927; www.stjameschurchcampden.co.uk.

The Open Road Classic sports car rentals, between Stratford upon Avon and Warwick; 1926-624-891; www.theopenroad.co.uk.

Winchcombe www.winchcombe.co.uk.

Cotswolds Tourism www.cotswolds.com.

Kingdom Tourism www.visitbritain.com.

NGS Travel and Cultures http://travel.nationalgeographic.com/places/countries/country_unitedkingdom.html.

Stephen McClarence, a writer for several of the U.K.’s national newspapers, first toured the Cotswolds ten years ago. Maine-based photographer David McLain shot “Mystery of Exit 69” for our May/June 2007 issue.The Romantic Road’s 90-mile southern loop, called “A Road for Tomorrow”, starts and ends in Cheltenham, the Cotswolds’ major town. Sometimes called Cheltenham Spa, a reference to its role as a Regency health resort, it is a thriving centre for horse racing and festivals, with many fine buildings, gardens, upmarket shops, restaurants and pavement cafés. The Art Gallery and Museum fascinatingly explores the area’s history and culture, including the role of the Arts and Crafts Movement, while the Holst Birthplace Museum celebrates the composer of The Planets. The drive, which veers briefly out of Gloucestershire into Oxfordshire, features some of the Cotswolds’ most admired churches – Northleach, Burford, Lechlade, Fairford, Bibury, Painswick and the great church of St John the Baptist in Cirencester, with its towering south porch. Cirencester, the second most important English town (after London) in Roman times, is an agreeable place to wander, with regular markets and many “old-fashioned” family shops. The broad main street in Burford slopes impressively down to a medieval bridge. In both towns, tea shops are in plentiful supply. Among the villages, Bibury boasts a 14th century row of weavers’ cottages that is one of the Cotswolds’ most familiar images, and Windrush provided both stone and craftsmen for St Paul’s Cathedral in London.

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