New feeling in an old world

The Cotswolds, in England’s West country, epitomise English village life, writes Stevenson Swanson.

india Updated: Apr 04, 2007 15:32 IST

The main road through this picturesque village says a great deal about the time less quality of the Cotswolds, a region of low, rolling hills in England’s West Country. A vision of tranquil English village life, the street is lined with charming, centuries-old stone houses and a halftimbered post office that dates from the Middle Ages.

The name of this thoroughfare? New Street. ‘New’ is a relative term here. About the newest things in Painswick are the chips on the stone tower of St. Mary’s church, created by the cannon fire of Royalist troops during the English Civil War in the 1640s.

Nor, for that matter, has much changed during the last several centuries in Chipping Camden or Stow-on-the-Wold or Bourton-onthe-Water or any of a dozen quaintly named villages.

For Americans who are pressed for time during a trip to England, the Cotswolds are easy to over look. The region doesn’t have big historic sites such as Stonehenge, nor is it a place that a tourist would have to pass through on the way to somewhere else, the way Canterbury, say, is on the way from London to the English Channel and the Continent.

But that’s part of the appeal. You don’t go to the Cotswolds to see anything in particular but rather to relish a quintessentially English landscape of deep green hills dotted with sheep, narrow lanes bordered by hedges, well-kept cottages built with honey-hued stone and masses of flowers that testify to the native genius of English gardeners.

Another reason to consider a stay in the Cotswolds is what’s nearby. Within about an hour’s drive — less if you drive like the English — are places like Gloucester with its magnificent cathedral, the Georgian spa city of Bath and the town that the Bard made famous, Stratford-Upon-Avon.

My wife, my son and I visited all three cities in day trips from Painswick, our Cotswolds base, as well as wandering the ‘B’ roads — a designation roughly equivalent to a state highway, only narrower — that run up and down the Cotswolds.

The name of the region comes from two Anglo-Saxon words meaning ‘sheep pen’ and ‘open, uncultivated ground’, an indication that this has been sheep country for more than a thousand years.

The Cotswolds flourished in the late Middle Ages, when England’s woollen cloth was in high demand throughout Europe. Local sheep farmers and wool merchants grew rich as the region’s mills and looms, powered by swift-running streams, turned out yard upon yard of high-quality fabric before the steam-powered factories of the Industrial Age made them obsolete.

With their wealth, the people of the Cotswolds built their houses to last, with limestone quarried from the local hills. This Cotswold stone has an appealing amber appearance that relieves the severity of the stone, especially at dawn or dusk, when the sun’s low rays burnish the buildings with a golden glow.

That is especially true of the region’s churches, most of which were built in the late Middle Ages when the Cotswolds were at their most prosperous. Ranging from modest parish churches to the elaborate Gothic elegance of St. John the Baptist in Cirencester, these houses of worship are known locally as ‘wool churches’ because their construction was paid for by the landowners, merchants and mill owners who grew rich from the wool trade.

The spire of St. Mary’s, with its gilded weather vane, was the first sign we were nearing our destination as we approached Painswick. We chose this hillside village as our base because it is reputed to be one of the most beautiful places in the Cotswolds, although the title of most beautiful village is a subject of a neverending debate within the region.

But Painswick has the added advantages of being centrally located in the Cotswolds, and it is on an ‘A’ Highway — a step up from a ‘B’ route — that runs south to Bath and north to Stratford.

Although Painswick has narrow lanes and quaint houses that look out on a beautiful valley, St. Mary’s is the main architectural attraction. The oldest part of the church dates from 1377, and that was a replacement for an earlier chapel that predated the Norman Conquest of 1066. The castle-like tower was built in about 1480, but the soaring stone spire was not added until 1632, just in time to provide a target for troops during the English Civil War.

In marked contrast to the foursquare church, the grounds of St. Mary’s are dotted with weathered limestone headstones and the rounded silhouettes of immaculately trimmed 200-yearold yew trees. According to local legend, there are 99 yews because the devil will not allow 100 trees to grow.

The only way to verify the number would have been to count them, but our son was more interested in trying out the nearby metal leg stocks, which were used to punish errant Painswickians well into the 20th century.

Almost every village in the Cotswolds has some special quality that helps to set it apart from the others. Bibury boasts Arlington Row, a line of slate-roofed weavers’ cottages that overlooks a meadow where wool was once hung out to dry. Winchcombe, once the capital of the Saxon kingdom of Mercia, has a special attraction for English history buffs.

In a valley near the town stands Sudeley Castle, the home of Catherine Parr, the last of Henry VIII’s six wives. He died before he could divorce or behead her, and she spent the rest of her short life at this place, where a ruined stone barn stands picturesquely beside a lily pond.

For antique lovers, Stow-on-theWold is a can’t-miss stop. The road to Stow winds up a steep hill, lending credence to the village’s claim to be the highest town in the Cotswolds. Antique shops line the village’s broad market square and nearby streets. But with the dollar’s sinking value, bargains are rare.

If price tags prove discouraging, one can find solace in a stroll down the village’s alleyways and stopping at St. Edward’s, another fine wool church, to see where Cromwell imprisoned Royalist soldiers after the last battle of the English Civil War.

On our last day in the Cotswolds, we stopped in Painswick’s half-timbered post office to mail some postcards, and we fell into conversation with a local man.

Where were we heading? he asked. Stratford first, then London, we told him. Ah, Stratford’s quite nice, he said. But he wasn’t so sure about London. Too much noise, too many cars, too much ‘hugger-mugger’.

We could see his point. The clatter and smoke of the Industrial Age largely passed the Cotswolds by, and although cell phones and the Internet have made inroads here, it remains a refuge from the frenetic pace of the Information Age, a place entirely lacking in hugger-mugger.

Getting there: To explore the Cotswolds, you need a car. The 95-mile drive from London’s Heathrow Airport takes about two hours. It pays to shop around for the best rental deal before leaving, but it’s still not cheap. ?

Getting around: Roads in the Cotswolds are narrow, with sharp curves, and signs can come fast and furious.

Study a map in advance to know your route. As an alternative to driving, consider walking. The Cotswolds is laced with public footpaths and hiking trails. ?

Staying there: We stayed at the Cardynham House. Housed in a gabled stone building that dates back to the 15th and 16th centuries. $135 to $361 a night, including tax and breakfast. For the Cotswolds, contact the Cotswold Tourist and Travel Information Guide:

First Published: Apr 04, 2007 15:02 IST