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Cotwolds Charm

By Susan Claremont-Smith
19th June, 2012

 

Our first port of call over our August Bank Holiday break was Bourton-On- the Water. The coach driver dropped us off in a dull car park at the back of the town and pointed out the pathway to the centre. Rain came down in shards. We peeped out from under an umbrella as the path ended and were amazed at the prettiest village green I have ever seen, bordered with tiny shops - but the best was yet to come. We followed other visitors to the heart of the town. It was old, but refreshing, where warmth emanated from the yellow stoned buildings. No wonder Cotswold stone is so popular up and down the country. It reminded me of a life size model town with story book trees.

    A wide shallow waterway flowed through its centre, with ducks swimming or waddling under low arched bridges and weeping willows trailed into the sparkling clear water. A village atmosphere pervaded, but side streets meandered on further than expected. Some were Elizabethan. One antique shop looked as if it was a transformed guild hall with a gallery at one end and colourful official mural incorporating a coat of arms facing it.

    The Cotswold Perfumery, a family run business, caught our attention. So handy, since I had forgotten to pack a perfume. An emergency purchase was necessary. Inside, the lighting was low, but fragrance dipping wells with glass sampling sticks were spotlighted. It was time for a mini smelling experience - all perfumes were made on the premises from the finest essential oils. I chose one that reminded me of Chanel No 5 and a Spanish Island holiday. Viva! -  A great name for a perfume and the perfect word, proving to be a good omen for our time over the next four days.

    Back at the coach, we made ourselves comfortable as it nosed its way through drizzle towards Coventry and our hotel.

    The Britannia Hotel was large, comfortable, but tired. Our room was clean on the surface, the bed linen and towels fresh. Meal times were early, a minor concern at first, but we modelled our time to fit in and the outcome was good. We had more time after dinner for walks around the town, the cinema on one evening and cosy drinks on another. Well, mostly cosy – except the first night when we inadvertently left a pub through the fire exit. As we pushed the glass door open it clicked electronically. We were totally startled when sirens sounded. With noses in the air and glancing nonchalantly around (just to put security staff off the scent, who were frantically punching the buttons of an alarm system) we walked swiftly away leaving chaos, whilst patrons inside were looking perplexed.

    It was up bright and early the next morning. Not our choice. Breakfast was at 7.30am on the dot. There was a good selection, but the cooked part, buffet style, was only warm. Unlike dinner the previous evening which had been tasty and hot. We had been able to choose from three starters and four main courses. Two meats, one fish and one vegetarian meal were on offer each night. Deserts were unexciting, but delicious and full of calories – so no complaints there.

    Warwick and Leamington Spar were the day’s planned destinations. We love castles, so decided to stay in Warwick all day.

    At the ticket office, visitors were met by actors dressed in historical costumes, including Henry VIII, although the Tudor king’s input to the castles history seemed limited in comparison to other historical figures. In his time, a kitchen roof, Spy Tower and an extension the State Room in 1509 was added. But he is probably the most famous and much more interesting for people to have their photograph taken with and romanticise about.

    We were guided through the main gate. Down a drive curving to the left, edging a green where medieval tents were set up in front of the castle, resplendent on the hilltop behind them.

    It was easy to imagine what it had been like in different eras starting from 1068 when it was built primarily by William I. Down at the base of the castle we veered further left and could hear rushing water, the river Avon swept around Caesar’s Tower and ran over water wheels, motivating giant cogs of The Mill and Engine House, where in Victorian days electricity was first supplied to the castle.

    Remembering our map and guide, we noticed at 11.00am we could witness the raising of the Portcullis. The actor demonstrating archery was in control and quite a comedian as he delivered fascinating information about Yorkists and Lancastrians. He climbed to the top of the portcullis and after humorous banter, health and safety reminders, he returned to the ground and the portcullis was lifted. The rabble, including us, cheered and entered the town.

    The Mighty Trebuchet. Witness the world’s largest siege machine…the guide’s words enticed us around the central courtyard, passing Merlin the Dragon Tower and Princess Tower towards the riverbank and the demonstration began. The river ebbed in between us, but the firing contraption was still much larger than expected and we were surprised at how much physical manpower assisted each firing. The catapult sling was loaded with a giant boulder and the wheel underneath turned like a gargantuan hamster wheel energised by men, first, walking one way, and then the other. In medieval times they may have suffered with motion sickness and fainted, whilst the sling contents sometimes contained disgusting debris, dead body parts, and excrement, in fact anything foul. This last strategy was designed to contaminate the castle’s water supplies, unlike boulders used to break down walls. Orders were shouted, the master released the trigger and the boulder flew through the air and landed in a desolate field nearby.

    We would never see the whole castle if we watched all of the shows on the programme. The next one was Flight of the Eagles and we watched it from above having climbed one of many towers. The smells of cooking meat and jacket potatoes reached us. It was lunch time and we dreamed of mediaeval times as we walked beside sideshows and jesters.

    Suddenly, we felt rumbling under foot as a jousting tournament proceeded nearby. Metal glinted, colours charged and the power of horse and man were amazing. Warwick castle is one of the only places to show the brave and noble sport – spectacular!

    On the ground floor we mingled with other visitors and were impressed by scenes set up showing trades from medieval times, blacksmiths, soldiers and many more, all with realistic waxwork figures. I loved the apothecary room full of small wooden drawers with herbs hanging from rafters, but my favourite was of a small stage where waxwork model children acted out plays, their tiny audience seated on straw bales forming a circle. It wasn’t until a few days after our trip we discovered the castle was owned by Madam Tussauds and the quality of the figures made sense.

    On the floor above, the Great Hall and State Rooms were packed with armour and heraldry. The art was impressive, with everything displayed under a marvellous vaulted ceiling.

   No castle visit would be complete without a look at the dungeons. This one dates back to 1345, dark, claustrophobic and was the cruel home to many poor souls. Torture implements, including a hanging human cage reminded me of a book I had read called Lady of Hay, a story set in Warwick and written by Barbara Erskine. The plague raging outside at the time of the dungeons conception was nothing in comparison to the suffering of the victims inside.

    The sun was welcome as we returned to the coach which was going to collect us on the road leading to the entrance. With half an hour to spare, we enjoyed a refreshing drink in The New Bowling Green, a traditional 15th century inn, the perfect end to a historically inspired day.

 

Our second day. Stratford-Upon-Avon. As soon as we walked from the coach to the town, we knew it was going to be good. Blue skies, wispy clouds, and canal boats were our first view.  Cox’s Yard was latticed with small bridges and footways, and soon we found boat rides on offer too, a good way to see the town and surrounding countryside. Our pleasure boat sailed by two theatres, beautiful houses, and an old church, all painted around with emerald green banks. Swans watched us, then skimmed elegantly through reflections of the sun and for a few moments it was if time had stood still. After three quarters of an hour the pleasure boat ride chugged to an end. We followed the sounds of music to a street entertainer on the town’s edge where a craft market was busy along the roadside. Handmade soaps - floral and sweet perfumed the air. Jewellery stalls and wooden toys for sale made colourful displays, there was plenty to see.

    The call of Shakespeare lured us to the really historical part. We photographed his birth place, which was next door to the visitor centre, but we decided not to go in as time was limited. The buildings were predominantly half timbered, dating from around the 1500s, in all there are five Shakespearean properties. There were a high number of independent shops in the town; we browsed in a few, including a magic shop. It was dark and intriguing, playing charming mystical music, but a bit disappointing. Carved wands were on sale at exorbitant prices. The bags of spells were reasonably priced, but just full of herbs and implausible, it was difficult to imagine how they could work. We had been hoping to purchase a skilful magic trick, or two, early Christmas presents for our son.

    After enjoying a snack in an outside café we ambled without plan. There was something of interest at every turn and we loved a sculpture of a jester, happy and elegant, foot outstretched, leaning forwards and grinning down at his audience.

    Back in Coventry on the last evening of our break. We had run out of time and still hadn’t explored the town very much, but we managed a mini tour without going too far. Our hotel was beside the Cathedral. The old building looked dramatic at dusk, but the new building beside it emanated warmth. A golden angel made from mosaics on an inside wall was visible behind a vast window. There was so much to see in just a small area. The university was close with fountains and decorative stone (maybe metal) spheres dotted around that seemed to lead the way to the Arts Centre. This would normally be free to browse around in the day. Opposite were the remains of a small castle, with its ancient gateway still in place. Nearby, date indicators engraved on large Verdi Gris metal slabs lined a street with the details of the people who had lived in the shops, offices and houses destroyed in World War II. It was interesting to see how the buildings usage had changed over the centuries.

    There was just enough time to discover another Wetherspoons pub in the centre of town, perfect for watching night time passers-by and enjoying comfortable surroundings. Then a good night’s sleep before continuing our coach journey home the next day, with a stop at Cheltenham before arriving back in Plymouth relaxed and inspired.

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