Thursday, September 29, 2011

Beds, Beer, The Bard and Blockley - The Cotswolds Becken

Now that we are 25,000 feet above the beautiful British Isle, and heading south toward a London airport we never knew existed, it's time to reflect on our short vacation in Scotland. They are a funny lot this bunch. Very proud of their national identity, no doubt about that and they seem a rugged, hearty group. Short anecdote: we were accosted (in a nice way) by a petition solicitor, who looked every bit like one of those log throwers, or at the minimum a rugby player, who asked if we were Scottish (Scaw-tesh). When we demurred, he said simply, "That's unfortunate for you" and went on to the next person walking along. Everyone we met was very nice and congenial, and Edinburgh itself seems like a wonderful introduction to Europe if you've never been. We only got lost once, driving back to the guest house at night we ended up at the waterfront, which was good because we had always wanted to see the Firth of Forth (great name) and we did. Our only suggested improvement would be to put up a road sign on occasion, or at least indicate the direction of travel. The cardinal points on a compass were developed for a reason (probably by a Scot - they invented a lot of things including the decimal point) and are free. We did not get to see the Highlands, nor go to a Scotch Whisky factory, or get to St. Andrews, opportunities for a future visit. I like their spirit and frugality, and that two men (Knox and Smith) who had such a profound impact on our civilization came from such a small bit of land is remarkable.
(Ed.note: if interested in more Scottish accomplishments, I can recommend the humbly titled book by Arthur Herman: "How the Scots Invented the Modern World - subtitled: The true story of how western Europe's poorest nation created our world and everything in it." Shy aren't they?) And while we are on the subject of frugal, our airline (Easyjet) is so cheap they don't even talk to you. Or have someone at the bottom of the stairs to tell you which way to go. We love them.

Thursday - September 29, 2011 - Moreton in Marsh, England

We left our digs at 8:05 and turned left onto the main road (an easy feat when you think about it) and within moments were approaching EDI - Edinburgh airport. When we got lost on the previous trip it was because that in addition to having minimal street and highway signs, the few they do have are hidden behind bushes. We were quick to spot the little blue airport sign peeking out from the greenery and exited left just in time.
The airport is compact and easy to navigate, and within minutes we had returned the car, made it through security and were waiting at the gate to board our 9:30 flight to Stansted airport just outside London. No frills, on time departure into a wonderfully clear sky. We could see the aforementioned Firth of Forth from our seats and noticed a few very nice manorial homes below us. Very nice. When planning this trip we thought we were pretty clever. Our itinerary has us traveling to the north of London then over to Wales, then south in a band across and back to London. So we fly into Stansted, which is north of London, rent a car and drive around then return the car to Heathrow at no additional charge ... now we will find out how smart we were.

First Stansted airport is larger than expected but easy to navigate. The long walk to baggage claim works perfectly as the bags arrived at the same time we did, and since we were flying domestic there were no customs or passport control. We picked up the car (a compact with an arm rest), and in minutes were cruising westward at 75 mph, having no idea what the speed limit was, just being passed on a regular basis.
The scenery changed from country to real country very quickly and in just under two hours we were in "THE COTSWOLDS", home of the thatched roof cottages, quaint roads and friendly people. We had read and heard of and romanticized this area for decades and we were finally here. And it lives up to the billing.

There are street signs here, maybe a little hard to find and all but they seem to point us in the right direction. We were heading for a little place called Blockley, our hotel (The Crown Inn) being on the high street, which we all know from our Elizabeth George novels is equivalent to our "main street" and Blockley is either right in or right next to Morenton-in-Marsh. Close enough for the Cotswolds as we were about to find out. You just have to trust your instincts, and it's a bit of fun navigating the "just a little too small" roads.

Blockley is really pretty easy to find and there is only one street that could claim the title high, and surely enough right in the middle of a string of ancient row homes and buildings is a very narrow stone lined passage with an overhanging sign that announced our arrival at our hotel. The buildings all seem to have a soft yellow golden glow to them, characteristic of the locally quarried stone which gives a gentle patina to the entire region. Through the gate we went, up a ridiculously torturous winding narrow driveway to the car park at the top. It reminded us of the Villa Bonelli in Fiesole. We were glad to walk down to reception to check in. It seems we have the upper floor of our own little 17th century stone cottage, with a very nice view and a lighted patio right outside the door. We're happy.

And mellow. The travel had been easy, the scenery sublime, and the setting was everything we could hope for. Difficult to explain but this area seeps into your joints in the same way Provence does the first time you visit that part of southern France.
No wonder people rave about the region. We were a bit tempted to leave the car safely atop our high street perch, but with a whole afternoon ahead of us and a perfect (for me - 85 degree, sunny, record setting) day, it seemed a trip to Stratford-Upon-Avon (a mere 15 miles north) was in order.
We all know that this little town upon/on the river Avon is the hometown of William Shakespeare, or at least most of us do. You can't forget it once you enter the town limits. Home to the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC), it is a small, compact town with a great canal lock system passing through, and one of the more picturesque little rivers banks we've found.

Before we get to the touristy stuff, we were mesmerized by a long sleek canal boat passing through the Stratford lock. It's like the Panama canal in miniature, and the boat people seemed so natural tending to the closing and opening of the gates, like we would open and close our garage doors. On the side of the lock is a street-like sign pointing the way to London (only 85 hours and 185 more lock negotiations to go through) as well as other distant locations.
Like any adult child boy, I could have spent the afternoon watching the process but we had things to see. It was just at that point in the afternoon when the tourists start heading for their coaches and the place kind of empties out. We've experienced this phenomena in Venice and Disneyworld and it always leaves you feeling a little special. Like you have the place to yourself before the dinner crowd shows up. The lighting gets softer and the shadows start to melt.

We found old William's house, didn't go inside, but were impressed that as a pilgrimage site it exceeded our expectations (as compared, for example with the little stone room St.Catherine of Sienna lived in). It was easy to imagine all the literary folk who's footsteps we were standing upon gazing at this particular timber building. We know there is all kinds of controversy over where he actually lived, and who owned what house, but we didn't care. We were at the center of the literary universe and enjoying it.
Other than the really cool Shakespeare coat of arms over the ancient door, there wasn't much to see from the outside, so we decided to go see where he was buried. The Holy Trinity Church is a short walk away and it's a lovely church in a wonderful setting. Worth the walk even if you are not a Billy Bard fan. Will was baptized, married (they think), was a deacon, and certainly was buried in this church. His grave is at the base of the altar along with a few of his family members. We were glad we skipped the house and went over to the church.
As we entered we were greeted by one of the volunteers (church member?) and graciously invited to take our time and all the pictures we wanted; quite a difference from Rosslyn chapel and other places where you have to "buy" a photography license for a few pounds. The church has a very pleasant "feel" to it and given the time of day, we shared the space with just a couple of other visitors. It was so pleasant and the setting seemed perfect for a bit of contemplation.

The altar itself is contained within a beautiful stained glass window banked chapel, and everything is in very pleasant proportion. There are plenty of notices and boards to read and it's a great experience. The outside of the church is as pleasant as the inside with great old trees that snake their way around the side graveyard. There is also a door that is the perfect frame for a lovely lady.
Stratford upon Avon is really a lovely little town and we meandered along with the Avon through the center, passing by a bevy of rental boats each with the name of one of Shakespeare's characters ... what would have seemed touristy/tacky in another setting did not seem so at all.

For dinner we decided on the Windmill Inn which was just OK. We should have and didn't solicit some local advice for dining. The crabcake appetizer was more cake than crab, Kat had the burger, I fish and chips and mushy peas (that's what they are called, not an adjective), a first for me.

We are now used to the idea of ordering at the bar, finding a table, and having the food brought to us. It actually seems kind of a reasonable thing to do, eliminating all that phony introductory welcoming waiter to happy to be there customer dialog. Plus it gives the customer a chance to check out the very cool beer pulls, nothing sissified about them.

We took a last leisurely walk along the riverfront,the sun was just setting and the light was soft upon the Avon. We were not far from our stony hotel but it still meant navigating the little streets in the dark. Driving around the Cotswolds during the day is just plain fun, not so much at night, as the streets are not lit, narrow and all the charm of the daytime seems to disappear with the sunset. We made it back to Blockley in no time and retired up to our private patio for a cigar and a little good conversation. As we sat there, we could hear the kitchen crew as they cleaned up after the dinner service accompanied by what we thought was a choir, perhaps practicing in the little church at the top of the street. It had been a great day and the area was living up to its expectations.

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