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An American Writer in the Cotswolds
“Stay on the road. Keep clear of the moors. Beware the moon.” A nonsensical bit of wisdom from “An American Werewolf in London.” Nevertheless, when wandering the desolate British countryside at dusk solo, one can’t help but think of it. One doesn’t worry about typical American criminals like purse snatchers and kidnappers. In Britain, on a chilly June evening, one worries about being “turned.” As least I do as I stray off the main road, feet crunching in the grass, to head toward the castle, passing the 12th-century St. Mary’s Church and its headstones. Blackbirds caw into the darkening day. As I cross through the iron gates and head into the moors, I’m particularly thankful that the moon hasn’t yet risen.
Not to worry, though, I’m no longer alone. A human version of the white rabbit dashes by – a man in white tux and tails. He flies by, glancing at his watch, and disappears into the medieval doorway of Thornbury Castle, a massive 16th-century stone fortress that doubles as a luxury inn.
We’ll meet again later, though. He’s the one who will climb the spiral stone stairs to the tower, where my bedchamber is located, balancing a platter of Scottish and English cheeses and smoked-chicken finger sandwiches. He’ll set the tray in front of a Henry VIII-size fireplace while I glance out the gothic-shaped windows at the Beatrix Potter countryside. The wind will rustle my hair as I stare at the vineyard below, and at the castle’s Tudor garden, with sculpted hedges and meditation benches.
It’s a shame that Thornbury’s first owner, the third Duke of Buckingham, didn’t enjoy this view for long. The year was 1521 when charges of treason were brought against him, and his punishment was severe: Edward Stafford was beheaded. All this intrigue is just a two-hour train ride from London’s Paddington Station or 90 minutes north of Heathrow.
Thornbury is a hamlet on the edge of a fairytale region known as the Cotswolds, a collection of picturesque villages that gained their wealth from the wool trade during the medieval ages. Today, visitors come to the region to experience quintessential England: narrow streets, ancient churches, lovely gardens, honey-colored limestone houses and old pubs (The Royalist pub in the town of Stow-on-the-Wold dates to 947). Towns have fabled names such as The Slaughters, Bibury and Painswick. Shakespeare’s Stratford-on-Avon is close by.
The scenic way to explore the Cotswolds is either by cycling country roads, by walking on the more than 3,000 miles of footpaths or by horseback. But by the looks of the congestion on the main streets of towns such as Broadway, Moreton-in-Marsh and Chipping Camden, as a practical matter, people seem to be using cars. I’m guilty, too. It’s hard to get from village to village quickly without one.
My first stop is Painswick, a sloping town of crooked, narrow streets. St. Mary’s church, built in 1378, is the centerpiece of the town and renowned for its 99 clipped yew trees. The most action in Painswick is seen at night à la Watership Down, when rabbits and badgers shred gardens to bits. Or so I overhear. I stop for lunch at Painswick Hotel, a former rectory built in 1790, then drive to the Painswick Rococo Gardens, the sole complete survivor from the brief 18th-century period of English Rococo design.
After, I tour Chipping Camden, where “The Libertine” has just wrapped filming. The Cotswold House Hotel is where the cast stayed, and there’s no doubt why. The 1930s yellow-limestone hotel is tastefully decorated and run by a friendly Ian Taylor and his wife, Christa. Its lobby staircase is an architectural gem, and suites have a plasma-screen TV near the bathtub. While in Chipping Camden, dessert aficionados may want to visit Three Ways House, home of the famous pudding club. Meetings are held twice a month; you don’t have to be a member, however, to taste syrup sponge, jam roly poly and sticky toffee pudding. But make reservations.
My day ends at the circa-1545 Manor House Hotel in Moreton-in-Marsh, a thriving market town. It has pubs, restaurants, a great cheese shop and Country Lanes, a cycle outfitter. I’m not a bicyclist, but I have a romantic notion of seeing the Cotswolds on two wheels: a bicycle with a basket, passing rolling English countryside, stopping for lunch at a creaky pub like the Slaughtered Lamb.
The next day, while I am walking to Country Lanes, I rethink the “rolling” part of the countryside. I’m from the swamp – won’t hills be a problem? Luckily, Country Lanes has specific routes for beginners. Ian – is everyone here named Ian? – who e-mailed a week in advance to ask my height, has arranged a proper bike (no basket) for me. He hands me a route map with step-by-step directions.
That’s how I find myself once again solo in the English countryside. I cycle over bridges, under tree canopies, and past centuries-old villages and farmhouses. Flowers bloom. Bugs fly into my nose and mouth. I pass two other Americans, also Country Lanes clients, who yell at me, “It’s much easier coming back.” I cross another bridge, splash my tires in a stream and realize I’ve wandered off the main road. I’m lost. I scan the moors for werewolves. (Evidence I found my way back is this article.) Country Lanes also offers B&B bicycle tours. Now, that’s romantic.
Other Cotswolds dalliances: shopping farmers markets, staying overnight on a farm, sampling famed Cotswold cheeses and traveling a designated “Romantic Road” by car. You can also walk it. Remember, though, to “stay on the road. Keep clear of the moors. Beware the moon.”
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