Part One: The Cotswolds
Charlotte Baker, the heroine of IN SEARCH OF SCANDAL, is always lamenting the fact that a young, unmarried, 19th century lady can go nowhere without a chaperone. Unlike her hero, Will Repton, who can cross oceans and traipse across wide swaths of the Asian continent without any sort of companion at all.
It's an old complaint, really. She yearns to explore new landscapes and meet new people, so perhaps it was unkind of me to mention that I had a trip to the Cotswolds planned, and as I am long on the shelf, and it's 2016, I have no need of a traveling companion. She sighed lengthily. Twice. (Though the sighs were very ladylike.) A trip to the Cotswolds, a pretty, rural region west of London, would be a rare treat for one who so rarely leaves her London townhouse and Derbyshire country estate.
So it was decided. Charlotte would accompany me on my travels. She is amiable and charming, enough, so I really shouldn't complain. Though she does always looks impossibly gorgeous, and rather enjoys having her likeness captured, even when she's not the intended subject of the photograph.
To reach our destination in the North Cotswolds, Charlotte experienced her first trip on the bus from London Heathrow to Slough, then the train from Slough to Moreton-in-Marsh. Americans would naturally pronounce this village name with five syllables, possibly six if we go so far as to add 'the' before 'Marsh,' but Charlotte corrected me: morton-in-mosh. Just a note: English pronunciation is often counter-intuitive to an American-English speaker.
THE BELL INN and THE LORD OF THE RINGS
(A quick preface: from here on out, I play fast and loose with dates and etymology and second-hand information, filtered through a jet-lagged brain. Don't quote me. Though if you have a correction, I'm happy to post.)
I was fortunate to book a room at the popular Bell Inn. The Bell is an old coaching inn that is, at least, 152 years old (according to a captioned photo that I have). The Inn is situated right on the High Street, which runs alongside Fosse Way, an old Roman Road and crazy-straight, because the Romans knew how to build roads. The Inn is also just a few easy blocks to the M-i-M rail station (which can take you to London in under 2 hours), so I thought the village a perfect base to explore the Cotswolds.
And hold on to your geek hats: the inn and village are reputed to be the inspiration for “The Prancing Pony” and the “Village of Bree" in THE LORD OF THE RINGS.
Professor JRR Tolkien, author of THE LORD OF THE RINGS, was teaching at Oxford and his brother lived in a village called Evesham, and M-i-M was in the middle, so the brothers often met there. (Let me know in comments if you’d like me to outline the similarities between the fictional Bree/Prancing Pony and the real Moreton in Marsh/Bell Inn. I was given a big, printed place-mat sort of thing with such facts. I promise not to judge you. Much.)
The Bell Inn is flanked by antique stores, toy shops, candy shops, a co-op grocery, and a fish and chips takeaway (which also serves Pukka Pies, fried chicken, sausages, other oddly-shaped, deep fried foods…long lines out the door onto the sidewalk. But Charlotte and I agreed, not at all good, even with a liberal dousing of malt vinegar.
At the Bell Inn, Charlotte was delighted to see the many cask ales on tap, notably from the Hook Norton Brewery, which has been brewing beer in the same site since 1849. The landlord of the Inn mentioned that in the past, traditional brewing methods required that the large vats of beer be cooled in the top floor of the brewery in the open air, and as such, twigs and pigeon feathers and such, sometimes found their way into the brew from the open windows. To this day, he says some locals refuse to drink Hook beers.
MODERN CHALLENGES of THE COTSWOLDS
As beautiful as the Cotswolds are, the communities there face several challenges. Many of the hospitals are quite far away, so many of the iconic red phone booths have been converted to hold defibrillators, which I’m told have saved quite a few lives. There is a joke among the locals that it’s no coincidence that many of them are placed at the top of hills (but everywhere in the Cotswolds seems to be at the top of a hill.)
Another challenge has been the influx of wealthy weekenders from London. Many of the charming Cotswold stone cottages are extremely expensive now. (One 3-bedroom cottage, which looked TINY, was listed at 350,000 pounds/$543,000.) The younger people can’t afford to buy in the area, and lacking many of the entertainments and conveniences of the city, are leaving.
Those who are left are an aging population, often without the support they need to drive to shops or medical appointments, and public transportation is limited. Also, health care workers are very scarce as they can't really afford to live where they work. Post offices have gone mobile, in some places, and these community buildings and charity shops (like a Goodwill) are often staffed by volunteers. And with many of their new neighbors strangers from the City, who may visit once or twice a month for a weekend (Icomb village is a notable one), the sense of community has eroded. One man I met volunteered three days a week to drive those unable to drive to the shops and clinics.
I was unaware of this dynamic. While there are extremely wealthy celebrities and business men buying vacation homes in the Cotswolds to enjoy the peace and beauty of the area, the locals are challenged with maintaining their infrastructure.
As a tourist, I can only be very grateful to the local population who take such great pride and care in maintaining the beauty, history and character of this beautiful corner of the world.
SOME BASIC IMPRESSIONS OF THE COTSWOLDS
The Cotswold landscape is rolling hills and small, patchwork fields, separated by essential hedgerows (for all the pollinating insects and birds) or dry rock walls (no mortar, a skill that takes years to develop). The stone that is quarried is yellow to gold to an almost red-orange stone, depending on the location. And the cottages, churches, civic buildings and great manor houses built with this stone are really lovely mostly because of it.
Especially squeal-inducing are the thatched roof cottages, which are pure Disney-Snow-White-and-the-Seven-Dwarves. The roofs last about about 65 years, but to replace costs about 30K pounds, I understand. The very top part is replaced most often, as one can imagine.
Great Tew is an especially interesting and picturesque village. Most of the cottages in this village are manor-owned and leased to tenants, but during the Great War, the lord of the manor went off to war and was killed, leaving no heir. The village fell into disrepair. Only recently has the manor house been purchased and the village buildings refurbished. (My informants seem to think the buyer wishes to remain anonymous as they are unable to find out that information.) There are still cottages waiting to be repaired with roofs caved in, trees growing out of them, barely discernible behind the thick vines growing all over them—the Manor House itself had trees growing out of the roof—it’s incredible to see the progress, and the havoc 50 years can wreak on a stone building.
There are too many lovely villages in the Cotswolds to count: Snowshill, Bibury, Upper Slaughter and Lower Slaughter, Stanton, Bourton on the Water, the list just goes on and on. If you wish to see other pics from my trips, I'll be adding them to my Pinterest page in the next several weeks. (You can click the 'pinterest' icon at bottom of my website pages, if interested.)
NEXT: Charlotte and I visit The Secret Cottage, and take a walk through the countryside. Charlotte really wasn't outfitted for the day, but she managed to look nearly perfect all day.