Weeping Willows, branches trailing in the gentle current of the clear river Coln; birds flittered and twittered between leafy boughs; the meadow, lush and wet, was a carpet of clover, forget-me-nots and dandelions; yellow daffodils and primroses in lavender, red, white and yellow adorned pots and borders fronting dark, honey-colored stone cottages. From beneath a wooden footbridge a single white swan floated towards me. Regal, (in more ways than one—Britain’s swans belong to the Queen), it drifted under the stone bridge, heaved onto the riverbank beside me, and then, in a decidedly less-majestic manner, waddled across the grass to plop into the trout pond.
It was April in the Cotswolds and although the day was cool, spring was busy revealing itself in Bibury. Friend Dave and I were on a daytrip to Blenheim Palace, birthplace of Sir Winston Churchill. It was the highlight of the tour with brief stops in the Cotswold villages of Bibury and Bourton-on-the-Water listed as added value. As I’ve often found when taking an organized tour, it’s the side trips that hold more of an appeal for me and are never given enough time.
From the moment we left the motorway I was entranced by the views. The bus rocked and rolled along winding country roads lined with sheep-covered hills and seas of yellow rapeseed. On the outskirts of Bibury we spotted a family of Romany. A kaleidoscopic-painted caravan was parked in a shady nook, their horse idling nearby. Our guide seemed less enraptured as she quickly dismissed them.
At the edge of the village she announced, “You have three quarters of an hour; meet me at the other end”. Not nearly enough time, I thought and vowed to one day return to one of England’s finest rural idylls.
Earlier this year, after a brief visit to York, friends Dave and Debbie and I arrived in Swalcliffe, Oxfordshire for our final days in England. It’s a tranquil oasis for walkers and riders, one edged by farms, fields, public footpaths and bridle paths. The village’s location also provides a base to explore nearby market towns: Banbury, Moreton-in-Marsh, Stow-on-the-Wold, to name a few, as well as many historic houses.
Swalcliffe sits on a hill about five miles west of Banbury. A small community, its charm lies in the fact it consists of a few homes as well as those other essentials of an English village: a pub, parish church (St. Peter and St. Paul dates back to the 14th century), village hall and a village green, a postage-stamp-sized one that, on arrival, we mistook for someone’s front lawn. It is also home to one of England’s “dozen best barns in the country”, an intact medieval timber building, the Swalcliffe Tithe Barn (its purpose was to store a tenth of a farm’s produce –tax that had to be given to the church).
Our home was comfortable, cozy and inviting. Aside from me beaming my head once or twice by forgetting to duck beneath the low, timber-framed entrance, the three of us settled in to our first star-lit night at Sweetheart cottage. In the morning, after a light breakfast of jam and hearty home-made bread provided by our considerate host, we headed to Stow-on-the-Wold.
During Saxon times, Edward, a hermit and missionary, lived on the south side of Stow-on-the-Wold, hence, when translated the name means “Holy Place on the Hill”. These days the market town is much less holy as the narrow, winding lanes lined with antique, chocolate and various shops as well as restaurants and tea houses attract tourists hunting for that must-have souvenir, in my case, the perfect little teapot with a no-drip spout.
Having found it,
it was time to fill the hole in our stomachs. After a more than satisfying lunch at the Sheep on Sheep Street, (the pizza, burgers and salad were huge and delicious) it was time to head to Cheltenham.
Before this trip, Facebook® friend John, writer, gardener and Cotswold resident, sent me a list of recommended sights. The kid in me was intrigued by a large mechanical clock. Within a Cheltenham shopping mall we found the “45-foot-tall wishing fish clock”. At the top of the hour a tune played and bubbles streamed from the fish’s mouth. Children squealed with delight and hopped beneath it to grasp at bubbles; catching one lets the lucky one make a wish.
I didn’t catch a bubble but luck was still on my side that day. Having misread the local guide, I thought we missed the chance of seeing the inside of the Swalcliffe Barn. Returning from our outings, we noticed the large doors were open. Curious and wanting shelter from the rain that had begun that afternoon, we entered to discover an exhibit of photos and artifacts telling the history of Swalcliffe as well as a large array of wagons, carriages and a hand-pump fire engine.
The history bug began when, as a teen, I spent many late hours undercover reading about Mary, Queen of Scots and the Tudors, particularly corpulent Hal the wife-shedder, better known as King Henry VIII. With Sudeley Castle near Winchcombe less than an hour away, I suggested we tour the home and gardens where four queens – Katherine Parr, Elizabeth I, Anne Boleyn and Lady Jane Grey – once walked the gardens. Sudeley is the only private castle holding the remains of an English Queen, Katherine Parr –the last of Henry’s wives. It’s said her ghost still wanders there.
While we didn’t encounter Katherine’s ghost in the house, we did find her tomb in the church of St. Mary’s, next to the castle.
A distinctive harsh cry greeted me as we stepped out of the church. Following the sound, we caught just a glimpse of a brilliant, teal-blue peacock. I would have liked to see him fan his tail but sadly, as we weren’t courtship material, he wasn’t about to put on a display.
The Cotswolds is one of England’s most visited Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Each year, thousands of tourists explore its countryside, villages and towns, and historic houses and gardens. Despite such numbers, touring the Cotswold is like uncovering your own secret garden, one filled with natural, unexpected and awe-inspiring treasures around every corner. If you’ve travelled there or plan to explore it, I’m sure you’ll agree with me when I say, it is simply…