It is a generally accepted, as I wish it to be, that driving into the countryside, spilling from village to village, in England, is about nostalgia. Life still lived the way it used be, many moons ago. It’s the stuff of Jane Austen’s Longbourne, and Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford. Stately manors and quaint hamlets seemingly fixed in time. And for me, it always begins with the church.
Two days in the Cotswolds. Not too far from London and an effortless drive, my first port of call is Burford. For most, Burford’s main attraction is the high street – rather like a high way from hill to bridge, to which most tourists keep. You sweep down, stop a little, have some tea, browse some more and leave over the bridge and up toward the next village. There are many to visit in this part of the Cotswolds, all with antique names like Bourton-on-the-water and Stow-on-the-Wold. Run off the tongue they do, pretty images they make.
But for me, it is always to the churches. Such as the one in Burford. The Church is the lesson of the place. Those who lie in the grass beside the doors. The locals lads and lasses who went to war and never returned, their ghostly absences fixed on stone beneath the stained glass windows. There are stories of hardship and loss, woven into the tapestry that are these little towns and most likely found in the church.
Burford is one of the larger towns in the Cotswolds. Many, like me, fancy themselves an ochre coloured cottage within her boundaries, or down a country lane. The prices here are high – quaintness costs. Bus loads of tourists are tolerated, catered for, and valued for their contribution to the village GDP, but few will ever settle here. Times I think, of course I could: would work in the Tea Room (have experience), do the Nativity play at Christmas and write poems beside the brook. The simple life for me … until I wonder how this soul will survive the quiet and isolating winters?
Eager to continue to the gardens, I crossed the bridge and swept left toward Stow-on-the-wold.
The view back over Burford. Sweeping fields of Rape Seed beneath a broody sky.
Spring in England could present you with a confetti of seasons in one day. The Barbour close at hand, the stripping and cloaking of it, a regular past time. I don’t mind driving when it’s not too hot, besides, it’s lanes are the prettier for it. As I have been to these other villages en route to Hidcote many times, I skirt them, swinging in, imagining I shall find the perfect house for the price and sadly, sweep out and onto the road again. The fact finding is not restricted to the main towns, but stopping by hamlets dotted between. If I did move here however, the mainline to London would dictate, I say to myself in my pretend looking to re-locate.
Another decision on this little road trip, was to leave the GPS at home. The beauty of the journey is in fact to meander, drive with a semi idea of destination, tempted easily to lesser roads where more discovery is made. Coming to a cross roads, shall I go left or right and if so, soon they all join up again, which most do. Going is circles is possible, only they are such pretty circles to go around in.
I know the Cotswolds well. I always need to return to Hidcote Manor Gardens.
Many years ago, I think it was 1987 or thereabouts, we first visited Hidcote. Till then I had only been to the gardens of London, mostly parks, and tried to emulate the ‘English’ gardens I had seen in magazines, into my own patch in South Africa. Yup, always the rebel, none of the gorgeous, indigenous stuff for me, like my mother who wanted only European influence in her home – I wanted to pick the lavender, smell the rose and fall into daffodils. I had an idea of garden design but it was not until I visited Hidcote, did the idea of ‘rooms’, distinctive colour planting and hedging really mean anything. There are others, like Sissinghurst, that still have me under their spell, and gardens with less restrictive boundaries, but it was Hidcote where the romance began.
Now part of the National Trust (yay that I am a volunteer), Hidcote Manor garden was bought in 1907 by Lawrence Johnson and his mother, Mrs. Winthrop. The garden development history is fascinating and today much as he initially intended it. There are rooms throughout the design, so as to maintain a sense of mystery for the visitor. Not all is revealed at once. Rooms are colour co-ordinated, such as at Sissinghurst, or built around a particular theme, such as the Bathing pool. Hedging plays a large role throughout, to create walls of green and lead the visitor from one reveal to the other. I love the way we are continually surprised by another scene, as if a play with characters in statuary or water feature. There is an open air theatre present. Even when visiting for the umpteenth time, Hidcote is still a as curious as she was on my first visit.
The impressive Cool colours and the historical Cedar of Lebanon – older than the garden.
The view from the top of the Serpentine Hedge. This walk opens up to the countryside, and on the left, the Wilderness. Daffodils over but the lilacs in full play.
Pleached Hornbeam and the Hot garden, complete with red tulips. The beds reveal hot reds, yellows, oranges and purples throughout the year.
A downpour was welcome on the day. This gave only the determined visitor like me an almost empty garden to enjoy. Timing is crucial when visiting the famous English gardens, for they can be over run with tourists which makes for single file slowness and hundreds of Instagrammers – if you are like me, the sure fire way to grumpiness. Love Instagram, hate the lack of really seeing or enjoying a vision but only to say ‘I was there’. I remember a single visit to Giverney being totally ruined by non-appreciating, loud and rude tourists who only wanted the evidence of the trip and paid little attention to design, or even the story of the place. Know when to visit gardens in England and Europe. Anyway, I digress, the shower had a few of us huddle beneath a portico, still getting totally drenched but caring little – you would appreciate the joy of soft, post rain beauty in a garden. Drops of rain, suspended on petals, on the new lime leaves unfurling, puddles in rock crevices, on ducks in the pond – a bonus, on this visit.
Close, but lesser known that the NT Hidcote Manor House, lies another favourite, Kiftsgate. Kiftsgate is a privately owned garden, a triumph and tribute to the dedication of three generations of strong and creative women. Much of the gardening is traditional, but where this garden is unique is on the level and clever integration of contemporary garden design.
Driving up toward the house, one is oblivious to the precipice on the left, which drops sharply to a level, far below. If you have vertigo, stay clear, although there is a pathway that curls and leads you down, knowing that you have to climb back up again, but the walk is worth it. For me, the cliff is colourful and Spring bright with white, pale yellows and bluebell blue. It is the pool below: half moon and lying within the crescent that echoes, that takes my breath away. One wonders at the seemingly incomplete circle, it seems almost lunar, and yet intrigues. We are used to symmetry in a traditional English garden design and though it seems, well, I am not sure really, it is beguiling.
Love this design.
The house is not open to the public, not when I was there, but the cafe did offer a welcome pot of tea, succumbing to the large slice of cake, and a paging through of their beautifully printed coffee book. Before exploring the rest of the garden, I knew I also wanted to see the water feature by Simon Allison. There are times when something just captures your imagination, holds your interest and this water feature had me spellbound, many years ago. I tried to imitate this in my own home on my return. The movement of this feature raises it to a different love.
Most of the garden lies to the front of the house. There is hedging and intricate ‘rooms’ also, but not on so much the grand scale as Hidcote. This is still a family home, a intimate space and we are fortunate to be able to visit.
It was time to head to Chipping Campden where I was staying for the night. The Cotswold House Hotel and Spa is a luxurious boutique hotel in the heart of the village. The garden here is in itself a treat to explore. At this time of the year, did not partake of the Spa or pool but spend a happy hour with a glass of wine on the front porch before dinner. Well, planned dinner and then my inclination turned to the very spoiling of a hot bath, robe and slippers and a feat of room service. Ending the day with cheesy TV and a tray of eating in, it was apt. I was happy to just spend the quiet time.
Chipping Campden was a market town and all signs of this still prevail. It is a town lived in with great pride by its inhabitants, and many a garden is a testament to this. Topiaries, manicured beds, typical thatch cottages with wisteria and roses. There are ruins, another great church and the quaintest of shops. Walk the lanes and just beyond, the fields, complete with sheep and being the season, new-born lambs.
Driving back to London, with a quick turn in Broadway, I decided to stop at another NT property, Snowshill Manor and Garden. The orchards are breathtaking, but little else compared to the gardens I have visited the day before. It did not take long to discover before I took to the road again.
The Cotswolds House Hotel and Spa.
For those who love gardening, wanting to visit a few iconic examples and indulge in the quintessential English countryside, the Cotswolds will not disappoint. No wonder so many wish to live there. It’s the chocolate box version of another time, natural beauty, as are many other parts of this glorious mud island. Extend your visit to Oxford, Stratford-upon-Avon and Blenheim Palace. Woodstock to meet the ghost of Inspector Morse and follow all the stories close by. Many lovely spots to stay in, things to do and the stuff of stories.
I will return again, perhaps in the Autumn when the gardens don another cloak all together.
For more information, or to plan your own journey, please contact me on the email [email protected]
Image. Own and The Cotswolds House Hotel and Spa