Friday, September 30, 2011

The Cotswolds -- From Thatch to Palace Patch

Another lovely day, and we can't figure out why people always complain about the weather in Britain. We have no complaints at all. Plus we have a room with a view. From the second floor of our private little stone cottage perched at the top of the driveway we look down upon the rear garden of the house next door. It looked so peaceful, certainly a respite from whatever weary work the day brought. Every square inch of the garden had something of interest. Perhaps we have too much land at home? Seems the Brits can do more with less than any other group of people on the planet (at least the ones we have run into). It is so well planned and planted - someone either has a very green thumb or has a real passion for topiary organization and splendor.

Friday - September 30, 2011 - Moreton in Marsh, England

Up, at em and out by 8:15 and parked in the little town square of Chipping Campden a short time later. What a gem this place is. Said to have one of the loveliest high streets in the Cotswolds, it's easy to understand the designation. Built on a crescent slope, one side of the street is lined with large stone houses that were once home to the wealthy wool merchants, with the lower side filled with smaller, more utilitarian buildings, shops, hotels, etc. Everything is neat, clean and picture perfect.
Right in the town square is the old market, you can't miss it. We staked our claim on a park bench right beside the old market and walked across the street to Sarah's Coffee Shop in the Noel Arms Alms Hotel. Arriving just as it opened we bought our picnic breakfast, returned to the park, and retired to watch Chipping Campden wake up in the warm morning sun.

Most of the buildings were built in the 15th century and they still looked darned good. Made of the same warm honey colored Cotswold stone, the unified fronts pleasantly went on as far as the eye could see all bathed in the warm morning sunshine. A major marketing town known for the finest wool in Europe, we were able to imagine all the traders/buyers negotiating their deals in the little market. They came from many countries, as far away as Italy, so it must have been quite a an experience to behold on sale days with the multitude of languages spoken.

One of the current major draw to the village is the number of spectacular (no hyperbole here) thatched roof cottages (they are called cottages but some are rather large homes) that dot the streets just a short walk from the center. This particular house (which I am pretty sure we walked by the front of was for sale and listed for £1.3M (or about $2.1 million). Heck of a cottage. It was a delight just walking through the neighborhood and it reminded us of Beverly Hills where every home was not just landscaped but manicured. Decided we couldn't afford the gardener's weekly tab, and heaven forbid you had to replace the thatch roof. You are not going to get Sam's Roofing from they yellow pages to do the work ... it requires an artiste.

We stopped at St. James Church, noted for it's beauty, grace and light. As this was a very wealthy wool town, the church benefited. It is wonderful. Inside is a very classy tomb (in Abelard and Heloise style) of old Sir Baptist Hicks and his wife ... some great sculpting there. What really caught our attention was an arched cabinet/closet in the wall. Inside were two statues, a husband and wife. The husband died in 1642 and the wife commissioned the statues and closet and had it sealed until she died --- 38 years later. On that day it was opened revealing the young lovers together forever. Great story.

We retrieved our car, negotiated the absurdly narrow streets out of the village and began our trek to see the one "must see" of the day, a different type of cottage (more like we are used to from Newport), Blenheim Palace.

On the way we couldn't pass up the opportunity to make a quick stop in Stow-on-the-Wold (meeting place up on the hill - we like their name better), just 10 miles to the south, and in our path. Its a bit touristy, with some very old rickety looking building that you imagine will crumble into rubble at any moment. Oh, and I probably haven't mentioned before that on this trip, even at our ripening ages, we are the youngest people on tour. It appears that with all the kids back in school the tourist sites are left to us oldies, and in this town there were plenty of them spending the kids' inheritances.
And as you can see by the menu at Digbeth's place even a simple lunch is not cheap (multiply the pounds by about 1.6 to get the dollars). A bowl of soup and some garlic bread seems a little pricey at $12, but hey it is on the Wold. (More on that subject at Blenheim where we saw that in spades).
One of the reasons we wanted to stop here was the abundance of little alleys (called Fleece Alleys) where the shepherds (?) would bring their flocks before taking them to market both here in SotW or at CC Market. The alleys are very narrow, forcing the little bo-peeps' charges to line up single file for ease of counting and probably critical scrutiny by potential buyers.

The other reason is a church door. Sounds silly, I know, but J. R. R. Tolkien spent a fair amount of time in the Cotswolds, and some believe he sketched the rear entrance to the church and used it as inspiration for the door into Moria. (If you click on the picture and enlarge it you can see how beautiful it really is.) The yew trees have been growing there forever it seems, and you have to imagine there is much mystery behind that door. And I'm sure there is. We enjoyed a brief visit inside, greeted by a volunteer who could not have been nicer and more helpful. So if you are in the town, which is very nice we recommend a visit.

Down the road a bit was the place we sought: Blenheim Palace. Not to sound critical, but it really looks more like a mansion than a palace, but I guess that is just semantics, or my imagination of what a "palace" looks like. I'm thinking Caesar's in Vegas. The picture to the left (Wiki) almost makes it look like a government building, I think. It is big, and has wonderful formal gardens through which you can wander. Why did we pick this one instead of Windsor or Hollyrood in Scotland?

Two reasons; the main draw for us was that it is the birthplace of one of the most satisfying, important, cigar chomping, and grumpy looking old men in history: Winston Churchill, my hero. For as long as I had a career, I kept one of his quotes above or on my desk. Never give in. Never give in. Never, never, never, never—in nothing, great or small, large or petty—never give in, except to convictions of honour and good sense. For another example of typical Churchillian thinking see the note at the bottom. The second reason was that along the way the various dukes that owned it lived the good life, ran out of money, and the only reason the place is still privately owned by the landed gentry is because of a fortuitous marriage to an American heiress (a Vanderbilt) who shared daddy's money and brought the place back to solvency. More later.

Blenheim (Blen-em --- not Blen-hyme) palace is a magnet house, no doubt about that as it seems to attract a lot of metallic colored hair people. The very large parking lot was almost full. Everything is on a grand scale, including the grounds (2000 acres) which contains an immense man made lake (10 years to build and lined with two layers of clay - see I do listen to the tour guides), and a lawn large enough to hold Wembley Stadium. It has an interesting soap-opera history as well. The guy who started it all was John Churchill who fought against Louis XIV's (Versailles) army at the battle of Blenheim in Germany. John won. The English and French had been battling for territory for years and with this battle things seemed settled, finally. As a reward John was made "Duke of Marlborough", and awarded some land and money for a house so he built this monster.

As with many following generations, the wealth of the forebearers morphed into the excesses of the successors and along with most of the money the Churchill name was lost (no male heirs - enter the Spencers). It was the 9th Duke who finally figured that something drastic had to be done, so he married the 18 year old American, Consuelo Vanderbilt. They were married in NY and along with Connie came a nifty $2.7 million dollar dowry (about $67M today). Before long dollars were converted into pounds and the old bling was back in Blenheim. Alas, the marriage lasted only 10 years, but it was enough. There is a nice portrait of Consuelo that used to hang in Belcourt Castle in Newport, the Vanderbilt summer home. The current Duke (No.11 if you are keeping track) appears to be a pretty shrewd character, figuring he would let the public finance his abode. He's on his 4th wife, a little younger - about 30 years? - Iranian ex-pat (Lily Mahtani née Sahni) who looks pretty stern in her boobage portrait at the start of the tour). The entrance fee is $30 a pop, and they hold all the concessions on the property: 6 gifts shops and 3 restaurants. The WCs are free.

The big question is what happens when the currently breathing Duke doesn't. Who inherits? There is all kinds of intrigue there. When asked, if the guide knew, she wasn't telling. The Duke and Duchess still live in the palace, strictly off limits to those of us paying for their dinnerware, and will on occasion wander the halls mingling with the tourists. I asked the guide what they call him when they see him wandering in his bathrobe, and the answer was "Your Grace" of course. Yeah, why not?

Now for the best part. Before the tour began we wandered through a special exhibit dedicated to Winston Churchill, future prime minister, warrior and quintessential quote machine. His dad's cousin (Duke in Waiting) owned the place or was going to, and his mom was "supposedly" only 7 months pregnant at the time. Lady Randolph Churchill (the Brooklyn NY born Jeanette Jerome) went into labor right in the middle of the St. Andrew's Ball which was being held at the palace. They rushed her into the nearest room (an old chaplain's bedroom that was being used to collect all the furs and coats of the attendees), threw everything off the bed and onto the floor, and it was in this room WC took his first breath. So, even though he was born there, he didn't grow up or live in the lifestyle and I think we are all better off for it. The collections in the adjoining rooms are fascinating and there are many of his original paintings, drawings, and writings. That was worth the price of admission.

The tour was fine, the tapestries and some of the artwork amazing, and the guide really was very informative, but with no sense of humor. Didn't see the Duke, or the Duchess wandering, but did contribute by having a nice lunch at the Pleasure Gardens Cafe.
Wandering out the side door, we eased our way into the secluded little Secret Garden behind that wing of the palace. It was perfect. We found ourselves a nice bench and while Kat wrote out postcards to Alyssa and Jonathan (the last two) I enjoyed the solitude and a nice smoke in Winston's honor. I am sure he would have approved.

By this time we were exhausted by all our hard touring so decided on Tesco's in M-in-M for some yogurt and finger foods, took them back to our cottage and enjoyed our last evening in Blockley. A note: while we seldom watch much TV while traveling, we do turn it on for background noise on occasion and was surprised to see the Michael Jackson/Conrad Murray murder trial broadcast on SKY TV. Live. Weird. Turned it off fast to settle in for a good nights sleep that we would need in preparation for our next days' travel. We are heading to Wales - the land of beautiful accents and beautiful countryside.

Note: If you enjoyed reading about Shackleton, you will probably enjoy a book by Sydney Wignall, "Spy on the Roof of the World" written in 1996. It is the story of a couple of British mountaineers who entered Tibet to climb Gurla Mandhata (which was forbidden) and were captured as spies by the Chinese occupiers, back in 1955. They got clearance from Winston himself, his attitude being: we should help all British expeditions overseas "because you never know what useful intelligence they might bring back." (pg. 17) They were indeed captured, interrogated as spies, and finally released to make their way through the "unpassable" winter passes from Tibet into Nepal. The Chinese of course were sure they would die on the way. Great read.

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