After the heat of Vienna, we were all looking forward to visiting somewhere where we could cool off. Luckily, our next stop, the Cotswolds, fit the bill perfectly. Situated a couple of hours west of London, the Cotswolds are close to Oxford, Salisbury, and many other important historic centers.
Think of England as a very large book. The Cotswolds would be an unfussy chapter in the middle somewhere where there is lots of limestone and even more sheep.Susan Meissner
Of course, the main charm of the Cotswolds are the tiny thatched cottages clustered amongst the rolling hills, farms and one laned roads. Claiming our rental car from the airport, we headed off towards the village of Stow-On-The-Wold. Along the way, we made a brief stop at the village of Avebury to view the standing stones surrounding the tiny village.
Unfortunately, we were not the only ones who were making the trek out to this unique site. When we got there, we had to spend quite a bit of time searching for a parking spot. We finally found a car park with empty spots and headed over to the pay machine to purchase our parking ticket only to find that the parking machine only took coins. We did not have coins, but fortunately, you could pay at the booth at the far end of the car park. Deanne gave me some cash and I headed off. Reaching the front of the line, I was informed that the money I had was the old currency which they did not accept any more. They also did not accept credit cards. So back I went to the car to attempt to exchange my bills for newer ones. Luckily, Deanne had some of the newer currency and we were off.
One of the reasons Avebury was so busy was that the Summer Solstice had just passed and many people were still making the pilgrimage to the site. Thankfully, the site itself is quite vast so crowding was not a problem within the stones themselves. The standing stones at Avebury comprise the largest stone circle in the world. Within the henge is the largest stone circle in Britain – originally of about 100 stones – which in turn encloses two smaller stone circles. The large stone circle almost completely circles the village of Avebury and is a delightful walk through pastures, fields and quaint little churchyards. As it was a beautiful day, we spent a leisurely couple of hours wandering amongst the stones and having an afternoon tea at the local church. Liam loved the fact that he could actually touch the stones, while Siena was sad that she couldn’t climb them.
Stow on the Wold and Broadwell
Google maps was kind enough to direct us to Stow on the Wold without any difficulties. Our apartment was actually in a little village just outside of Stow called Broadwell. Broadwell was the perfect location for our adventures around the Cotswolds. The village of Broadwell is the quintessential Cotswold village with old stone buildings lining the village green. There was one old pub on one side of the village green. While the inside decor was more modern (1970’s modern), it was exactly the kind of village pub you would have read about in any book describing the pastoral charms of the British countryside. Family members (and their dogs) wandered in and out of the pub greeting neighbours as they popped in for a pint. They had one of the local independent breweries on tap, which I will explain more about later.
Broadwell was a short drive from Stow on the Wold, the village where we did most of our shopping. You could also walk there using the Monarch’s Way. This trail actually continues on for about 625 miles meandering through the countryside. This is one of the things I love about England. There are walking trails snuggled throughout the hills and valleys of England ignoring private property rules and leading you through some of the most peaceful and stunning landscapes. Monarch’s Way gets its name from the path Charles II used after being defeated in the Battle of Worcester. While we didn’t walk the entire trail (!), we used it a couple of times to walk to Stow and to get to the grocery store.
While finding Broadwell was easy enough, actually finding our apartment was a little more difficult until our host popped out of the hedge to show us the way to the converted farm building where we to stay. Without his help, there is no way we would have found the apartment hidden down a tiny road lined with huge hedges. However, we were utterly charmed by our little apartment overtop the garage. Inside the old stone building, we were welcomed by a very recently modernized apartment complete with a beautiful kitchen and a wonderful shower. If you have been reading our blogs you will recognize a theme in our descriptions of our apartments. What really makes or breaks an apartment is the kitchen and the showers – and the wifi. This apartment was perfect in every way. Not only that, but our hosts had thoughtfully supplied our kitchen with milk, bread, some fruit and a lovely bottle of wine. They had even put up the Canada flag to welcome us. We could not have asked for a more perfect place to stay.
Exploring the Countryside
There isn’t really much else to say about the Cotswolds and our time there other than to say that we had an amazing time exploring the area. It is very easy to get off the main roads and explore the countryside if you are brave and don’t mind challenging the single-lane roads that are the norm once you leave the main road. These are by far the most scenic parts. However, you do have to be cautious as the locals come zooming down these lanes as if they were their own private road. There are little areas carved out of the sides that you can slide into place every few kms but you sometimes find yourself facing an oncoming car or truck and you spend a tricky few minutes trying to decide who is going to be the unfortunate person who is going to have to reverse all the way back to one of those little turn-offs. Despite that, driving through the countryside was a lot of fun.
Donnington Brewery and Stanway House
One of our little travels took us to a small independent brewery a few kilometres from Stowe. Donnington Brewery has been making beer on their farm since 1865. Driving into the yard, we were met by a beautiful farm property with the farm buildings stretching alongside a pond in which swans lazily splashed around. You would hardly know that this farm has been brewing beer for over 150 years. This picturesque brewery was very casual and it took us a little bit to find someone to help us. If we had wanted to, we could have used their honour system and just left some money in the pot but I had been also hoping to pick up one of their distinctive pint glasses as a souvenir. I ended up having to get one at our local pub as they didn’t have any at the brewery.
Another day of adventures took us to Stanway House. Stanway House is a working manor house and is the home to the current 13th Earl of Wemyss. While he had popped out to town during our visit, he can often be found in the library or the kitchen which are both still open during the tour. Stanway House was quite interesting. It is certainly an old building and no attempt was made, it seems, to do any of the major restorations you would often see in other historic sites. Beyond the modern conveniences that had been shoehorned in, it looked lived in and exactly as it would have been almost since it was first built. Not being crowded at all, we had a lot of fun wandering the house and grounds which also included the water mill, which still made flour for local shops and restaurants, and the fountain. The fountain, which rises to over 300 feet, is the largest gravity fed fountain in the world and quite impressive.
Salisbury and Stonehenge
Quite a few years ago, I traveled to Stonehenge with my family. Whilst Stonehenge is an amazingly stunning testament to human capabilities, thought and creativity, all I remember is eating at the cafe supplying food to the visitors of the day. This cafe had a huge vegan, back to nature focus. However, despite the food sounding good on the menu, the execution of said menu items left you feeling like you should be, well, executed as the only way to rid yourself of the taste. I’m exaggerating slightly, however, as evidenced by the huge amounts of food left by other tourists fleeing the cafe, I was not the only one who felt that way.
Traveling ahead in time, we were looking forward to seeing Stonehenge. Foregoing the cafe, we had brought our lunch with us and were planning to picnic nearby. I never realized how close you could actually get to Stonehenge with food. We ended up eating a picnic on the side of the path near to Stonehenge. It was a delightful moment as we sat almost in the shadows of these great pillars eating our Coronation Chicken sandwiches – and if you have never had coronation chicken sandwiches, you have never lived. Having cleaned up from lunch, we walked around the stones and spent some time in the center learning the history of this incredible accomplishment of stonework. Stonehenge is one of those places where you stand staring in awe, overwhelmed with what you are seeing and feeling this strange sense of otherworldliness. I had that feeling at Uluru and felt it again at Stonehenge.
From there, we headed over to Salisbury, which is mainly known for its beautiful cathedral. We were there just in time to attend the evensong service sung by members of the girl’s cathedral school. The singing was so uplifting and ethereal with the notes bouncing off the intricate stone and woodwork of the cathedral. We got to sit right behind the choir in the stalls reserved for dignitaries on special occasions. It was a nice bookend to our trip to Stonehenge – seemingly opposite and yet similar odes to human creativity and religious belief.
A similar feeling awaited us in Oxford as we arrived to take in an evensong service at the glorious and majestic Christ College. First, though, we headed over to the Ashmolean Museum to view some of the amazing collection. While the kids quickly got over the charms of Oxford – they couldn’t understand why we were there again – Oxford is a place I could go to over and over. The history, traditions, and customs of Oxford echo throughout this incredible city.
However, we did not have very long there. We were there mostly to hear the evensong so we hurried over to Christ College to get seats. We discovered, when we got there, that there was an alumni event happening and we found ourselves sitting in amongst all these gowned professors, both current and retired. Combined with the gorgeous music sung by the cathedral choir, it made this evensong a little more unique.
Cotswold Farm Park
Of course, one of the children’s favorite stops in the Cotswolds was the Cotswold Farm Park. This working farm is dedicated to maintaining rare breeds of farm animals that could be lost through cross-breeding and modern farming. There was something for everybody. The children loved feeding the baby animals with milk bottles, running through the maze and bouncing on the humongous air pillow. We also enjoyed petting and viewing all the different farm animals. What we didn’t enjoy was the onslaught of allergies both Siena and I experienced following our visit. For Siena, it was all worth it though as she got to gambol amongst the animals; one of her favorite things to do.
There are two types of historical sites in the world: those that are interactive and full of lively activities and costumed interpreters bringing history to life or museums with stuffy rooms filled with some furniture and posters with descriptions on it. When you find a place like the former, you spend the rest of your time wondering why other places don’t create similar experiences. This is how we felt upon arriving at Blenheim Palace. Blenheim Palace is best known for being the birthplace of Winston Churchill. However, the current curators are intent on making Blenheim Palace into a much larger experience for those visiting. While you can see some excellent exhibits on the life of Winston Churchill and tour the magnificent house and gardens, there is so much more to do. Our children immediately wanted to ride the train to the children’s play area. This area not only had a hedge maze but also a butterfly house, a playground and a theatre doing a show based on Horrible Histories, which in turn is based on the Horrible Histories book series – a well-loved series in our household. Rushing over to the Hedge maze, the kids challenged us to find the exit before they did. They were quite upset to find us waiting for them outside the maze when they finally finished finding their way out of the maze!
The Horrible Histories play was very well done. There were only two actors but they were very enthusiastic and had the children eating out of their hands. They did a smattering of important events throughout history starting from the Big Bang and going all the way to the present day. They covered a lot of material but kept the kid’s interest through the entire show. It was hard to convince the kids that a tour through a mansion and gardens would be a wonderful follow-up to the play but we dragged them through anyway. The audio-guide helped a lot as it helped keep the kid’s attention.
Hay On Wye
No, this is not the name of a strange British sandwich – though the British have some of the more imaginative names for food found anywhere in the world. Hay on Wye is a little town just over the border in Wales and it is known for its bookstores. Visiting Hay on Wye is like visiting the largest second-hand book store in the world. There are bookstores everywhere; some just general stores of second-hand titles while others were more specialized. There was one bookstore solely focused on mystery books, Murder and Mayhem (the chalk outline on the floor of the store was a nice touch) and one with rooms focusing on different themes. There was even a bookstore outdoors leaning along the walls of the dilapidated castle walls. Put a couple of dollars in the box and you can have your own musty second-hand book. It was a fun place to wander around. Our kids loved second-hand bookstores so they had a glorious time searching out books, finding a spot to crawl into and read to their heart’s content.
Well, I guess there was more to write about than I thought! However, you may not be pleased to know that we searched diligently for a place to buy; a place in a small village with its own friendly neighborhood pub. Preferably a small converted, recently renovated historical building with a small space for a library and a fireplace. Alas, England apparently has very strict laws for people wanting to move to England. So it does not look like a move to the Cotswolds will happen anytime soon. We’ll just have to come back for a month next time! Now, on to the Orkneys!!