Monday, January 5, 2009

The Cotswolds: An area of outstanding natural beauty!

Once we were out of Oxford and fairly certain that we weren’t on the M4 or heading for Cornwall we relaxed a little and started to enjoy the countryside. We had been assured that our destination, Kingham, was about half an hour away. Why do locals lie? Do they not have watches? Anyway, we drove and drove becoming increasingly confused as to our direction and location. It appears that motoring in England is a quantum phenomenon – you can know your speed and direction but not your location or vice versa. A road sign will assure you that you are heading to a certain own. The next twenty road signs will not mention that town but instead will suggest that you visit a myriad of places that you thought were in the opposite direction.

I remember being told that during the war the British removed road signs in an attempt to confuse any invading forces. I think it would have been more effective leaving the signs up. That way the Germans would not only wind up lost but confused and frustrated also. On further reflection having your country overrun by angry and frustrated Germans might be worse. So maybe taking the signs down was a step towards capitulation.

The last time we were in Europe I was constantly surprised by the small scale of the cities. Everything is densely packed and within walking distance. In England the whole place is ¾ scale. What’s more any point in England can be reached from any other point by an entirely separate route. If you drive in a given direction for an hour you will pass dozens of turn offs to the same location until you eventually hit Scotland or Greenland for that matter. But back to the scale thing. People in one village will tell you the next town is down the road “’bout half an hour”. Rubbish! It’s right there next to them! Also the ridiculous place names don’t help. A town can be called North Weaslebreath and another called South Weaslebreath. However, there is nothing separating them. They are the same town! Or else a town may be called West Fartingsmell with blithe indifference to the fact that there is no East, South or North Fartingsmell. They think it’s quaint – I think it’s perverse.

Anyway, we finally made it to our destination up in the Cotswolds – an area of ‘outstanding natural beauty’. Ha!, nothing in England has been natural since Caesar turned the place into a tax sump for Rome. However, it is beautiful. Manicured to within an inch of its life. Twee to the point of nausea but beautiful all the same and redolent of history. The place is awash with Celtic hill forts, Saxon place names, Norman churches, Norman bus stops, Norman overpasses and so forth. Dry-stone walls are maintained by the descendants of their original builders. Thatched cottages line winding narrow streets. Pubs nestle every fifteen feet in the traditional manner selling flat beer and even flatter food.

The view from our bedroom window at Pat and Dudleys' home in Kingham

Each town has a shop selling all that twee country-living stuff - ceramic dogs, embroidered doilies, shiny brass things. We wondered who buys it until we peeked in a few people’s windows. The locals do! There are magazines called Midlands Life and Cotswolds Style that cater to local domestic fashion. I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a bye-law dictating minimum home furnishing requirements.

The locals are friendly and ever willing to talk about the history of their town or local church. It’s all “Cromwell shot so-and-so here”, or “King James was held captive there” or “These are the thongs King Canute wore to the beach”. They all seem well-to-do, having made enough money in the City screwing the economy to retire and indulge themselves in the authentic British lifestyle. In fact, most seem to have come from Central Casting and are just waiting for their episode of Taggart to begin. I am being a bit unfair. We did meet some true locals – “I wus born ‘ere and am gin’ to die ‘ere” types. How they can afford to live there I don’t know given a pie, chips and pint of ale costs the mortgage on a city apartment.

We puttered about looking at churches, graveyards, dry stone walls etc on our way to Uffington to see the White Horse. The drive was pleasant but the horse was disappointing. It has been carved on the crest of a hill making it impossible to see from a distance or close up. It is best viewed from the air. While we wandered all over the hill trying to find the best angle from which to view the horse a large military helicopter blatted about in the middle distance ruining the ambience. It was either a cultural history lesson for commandos or Prince William looking for some skirt. (JB)

This was as good a view of the Horse (the oldest surviving, apparently dating from Saxon time at least), as we got... guess which shadow is whose?
The UffingtonWhite Horse is situated on the highest hills for 50miles around... and close to several Saxon (or earlier) earthworks including a hilltop fort behind it, and another giant ring of earth below. This picture does nothing to describe how incredibly COLD it also was...

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