Monday, January 6, 2020

Exploring the Honey-Hued Cotswolds

“Travel opens your heart,
broadens your mind and
fills your life with stories to tell.”
– Paula Bendfeldt

The morning was velvety; soft sunshine, breezeless and with a total lack of any early morning dew. Outside the backdoor the overgrown garden was songbird-filled noisy. Sure, it was mid-June, but in the English countryside the weather can be unpredictable and summers can sometimes last no more than just a few good weeks in July and August. An umbrella should never be too far away. But the ten days we spent in England would turn out to be different, with no rain and the hottest weather in years.

Our rented Airbnb lodging for our stay in Stow-on-the-Wold was near the historic town square, which these days’ looks more triangular and hotchpotch than square. Stow, as it is affectionately known, is in the northern part of the Cotswolds, a romantic English countryside region about an hour and a half’s drive northwest of London. The Cotswolds is crisscrossed with many honey-hued, chocolate-box villages, built from local yellow Jurassic limestone, and is bordered on the west by Bristol and Gloucester, the university town of Oxford to the east, William Shakespeare’s Stratford-upon-Avon to the north and the old Roman city of Bath to the south.

 Traffic and flowers on Sheep Street in Stow-on-the-Wold.

Our cottage on Park Street, built sometime during the 19th Century, was all yellow-stone with thick walls, a crooked slate roof that looks more than a hundred years old, a large fireplace and uneven red tile floors downstairs. A squeaking staircase led to an upstairs with creaking wooden floors and 2 bedrooms and 2 bathrooms, one featured an old porcelain-enameled cast iron claw foot bathtub surrounded by ugly avocado-green bead board paneling. Next door to the cottage is an eyesore, the only building on all of Park Street whose façade was not left the natural honey-hued stone of the region. Greedy’s Fish & Chips was painted white with a red door. Their fish and chips though, were very good. We tried it on one occasion.

From the front window, the only window downstairs, I could see the restaurant staff of The Old Butchers across the street was already wiping tables and moving chairs into their proper place, getting ready for the lunch crowd that was soon to follow. Tourists were already parading up and down the street, some downhill while others went towards the top where Park Street forks, Sheep Street to the left and Digbeth Street to the right and further along Digbeth onto Market Square.

Stow-on-the-Wold Market Day

After I made a breakfast of pan fried eggs, English country bread with local butter and some savory, buttery Cotswold cheese, all graciously provided with the cottage by the Airbnb hosts, we locked up and walked towards Market Square. It was Thursday, market day in the Stow. At the fork we went down the narrow Digbeth Street, past the Porch House, with a plaque upfront claiming it to be oldest inn in England, dating back to 947 AD. Further along we passed The Old Bakery tea room, the Cotswold Garden Tearooms and the New England Coffee House until we got to the square with its historic Market Cross. Here we kept to the right onto Market Street, passed the Kings Arms hotel, The Stag Lodge Inn, more coffee houses and Roly’s Fudge Pantry until we reached the north end of the square where several tent stalls were erected next to a small grassy park area with benches under large trees.  

Market day in Stow-on-the-Wold
 I love European markets! Throughout all our travels, whenever we get the opportunity of being in a town or village on their designated market day we would go and browse through them. The Stow-on-the-Wold market was not very large, but they had a variety of local fresh produce with soil still clinging to the potatoes and the carrots, and shiny red strawberries neatly stacked in paper baskets. Baked goods ranged from classic steak and mushroom meat pies to sausage rolls in flaky dough and quiches made with tomato and Stilton blue cheese in it. There was a table laden with cheeses, some cream colored from sheep’s milk, some with a blue streak running through the middle of the wedge, while another wedge was a golden yellow Sparkenhoe cheese from Leicester. Another stall had scones and muffins and little bottles of lemon curd and honey and jams. There were handmade jewelry and knitted woolen gloves, socks and throws. We bought some meat pies, sausage rolls and a slice of quiche for lunch, walked back to where our rented car was parked near our cottage and then drove north to Shakespeare country and to explore the Cotswolds.  

 St. Edward's Church in Stow-on-the-Wold. 
The north door is flanked by two very old yew trees. 

On the day of our arrival in London the drive from Heathrow Airport was nearly uneventful. Driving on the left side of the road is a skill I nearly forgot after 20 years in the USA. It used to be natural driving on the left during the years I stayed in South Africa. But in England I had to remind myself all the time, stay left, stay left. After some grocery shopping at a Tesco in Stow I exited the parking lot on the right hand side of the road at the very moment when a car was turning into the lot. I didn’t immediately realize my mistake and it was M that said, “You are on the wrong side of the road.” Luckily the other driver was patient, no hooting or cursing while I apologetically nodded my head and waved and drove to the left side of the road.       

So when we left Stow-on-the-Wold via the A429 north (alternatively known as the old Celtic path, The Fosse Way) that message of “stay left” was uppermost in my mind. But luckily the day’s and for that matter, the rest of the trip’s driving were uneventful. Except for the few times we got lost or took the wrong turn off. But that’s nothing unusual in a foreign country.


William Shakespeare's Tudor England in Stratford-upon-Avon's High Street 

I had no preconceived idea about Stratford-upon-Avon or its attractions, and after little more than an hour’s drive we entered the city, found a parking spot near the commons next to the River Avon and started to explore on foot. Our motto was “Let the city surprise us!” After crossing the river via Bridge Foot, we walked down Bridge Street and soon found ourselves on High Street and in the heart of William Shakespeare’s Tudor England. As usual, we purposefully got ourselves lost in the city. We gaped in wonder at the many old black and white framed Tudor buildings along High, Church and Chapel Streets. Every now and then some restaurant or shop owner had turned an old façade into a quirky alternative with a modern or colorful touch. At Chapel Street’s end we turned left onto Old Town Street and followed the tourist signs to the Holy Trinity Church, the oldest building in town, dating back to 1210 and the church where Shakespeare was baptized and buried.

Entering the church yard, the pathway to the gothic entrance is flanked by twelve old lime trees, thought to represent the twelve tribes of Israel or the twelve apostles. Although it is one of the most visited churches in England, it is not a very large church nor very elaborative, but it does boast an interesting nave with a decorative wooden ceiling, a few large stained-glass windows, a very old 19th Century organ and, in front of the altar, the graves of William Shakespeare and his wife Anne Hathaway.   

 The Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon

From the church we took a leisurely stroll through a park all along the river towards where we parked our car. Our last stop was at a memorial site for William Shakespeare with a statue of the poet surrounded by more statues of some of the main characters in his plays, among other, Hamlet, Lady Macbeth and others.  

Our visit to Stratford-upon-Avon was a brief one, by intention, because we planned to visit several other villages that day on our way back to Stow-on-the-Wold. But it seems to be a wonderful town with many architectural, historical, theatrical and leisure attractions.

Our first stop after Stratford was in the small village of Mickleton, where we found a tiny square with a small fountain, a single tree and 2 benches and we ate the pies and quiche we bought at the Stow market earlier that morning.

  Chipping Campden's High Street

Chipping Campden

From there it was a short drive down the B4081 to where it meets the B4035, where we turn left to our next destination, Chipping Campden. What a little jewel! The crown on the curved High Street with its honey-colored buildings is the Market Hall halfway down the street. The Market Hall, still in use today, was built in 1627 by Sir Baptist Hicks, the 1st Viscount of Campden and for whom there is a memorial inside St James’ Church, at the top of the hill overlooking the village. The church was our first stop.

 Chipping Campden's Market Hall on High Street

After we parked our car near the top of High Street we saw a tourist marker towards the church and went to investigate. We walked back uphill along Cidermill Lane, passed the historic Almshouses to our left, the Court Barn Museum to the right and beyond that, the impressive East and West Banqueting Houses, which are private property and off limits to tourists, until we got to St James’ Church. Except for the external architecture and the Hicks iscksmemorial, the church’s inside was rather non-descripted.

We meandered down the west side of High Street. Every English town it seems has a High Street, the American equivalent of Main Street. We popped into a quaint china shop, but found nothing interesting to purchase. We browse through a stationery store that doubles as a postal office, bought some postcards, and near Sheep Street (it seems every village in the Cotswolds have a Sheep Street,) M felt the need for some clothes shopping. While she entertained herself inside a charity shop, the American equivalent of a Goodwill store, however the quality of goods inside the English charity shops seemed far superior to the flotsam and jetsam in a Goodwill store, I further explored High Street down to St Catherine’s Catholic school, and other hidden alleys and side streets.     

 Inside the Market Hall. If walls could talk...


After M’s shopping and a visit to the Market Hall, we explored the east side of High Street until we got back to our car. Back on the road agin, heading south I saw a turnoff to Broadway and the Broadway Tower and thought “Why not, we’re here.” We did a drive through of Broadway, which was actually a pity because it was quite a little gem and then onto the tower. By now it was nearly 5 pm and unfortunately it was too late in the afternoon to get access to the tower, but the café was still open (only just) and we enjoyed some scones with strawberry jam and clotted cream. I love scones this way! However, from the parking lot we were able to drink in some great vistas of the Cotswolds’ rolling hills thank to its elevated location and upon our return to the main highway south, we saw some beautiful sheep-filled verdant countryside. A quintessential Cotswolds scenery!  

 Near Broadway Tower.
Lower Slaughter

It was after 6 pm when we reached Stow-on-the-Wold again, but instead of turning from the A429 into Stow, I remembered from previously researching a Cotswolds’ map there were some small must-see villages only a few miles south of Stow. By now some off the day’s heat has worn off a bit and a comfortable mellowness has descended upon the young evening. After a few minutes’ driving we turned off onto a narrow country road with no road markings and tall hedgerows on both sides, which led us to Lower Slaughter, which is linked to another village called Upper Slaughter by the River Eye that flows lazily through this leafy little hamlet.     

With only 3 or 4 streets in the village, there wasn’t much to see, but a leisurely stroll under old majestic trees along the river allowed us luxurious views of quaint cottages with beautiful tiny flower-rich gardens until we reached the Old Mill Museum with its waterwheel and tall chimney. Lower Slaughter was well worth a visit if only for its unhurried and gentle atmosphere as dusk approached.

Lower Slaughter Collage


Thank goodness for the late sunsets in England during summer months because there was time for one more stop to round off the day. A few miles further south from Lower Slaughter is another honey-hued village, little less chocolate-boxy and a little more commercial. According to historians, Bourton-on-the-Water (doesn’t these Cotswold villages have the most beautiful descriptive names), has been occupied for the past 6000 years. The Windrush River meanders through town at a snail’s pace and along High Street you will find businesses with quirky names like The Small Talk Tea Room, The Mousetrap Inn and the Forget Me Nots Florists. In the commercial hub of the village, on a grassy patch between High Street and the river, in the long shadows of the day, adults filled benches, watched their children play on the grass or catching up on the latest social news on their cell phones, or both, while others, like us, sauntered along the river path past imposing old houses turned into restaurants, inns and bed and breakfasts.      

By the time we arrived back at Stow dusk has settled in and we were rather exhausted from the day’s walking and not in the mood for a restaurant dinner. We went and ordered fish and chips from Greedy’s next door and then put our tired feet up in front of the television with a bottle Bellingham Chardonnay from Franschhoek in South Africa, which I found on the shelves of a Tesco. The Bellingham was a case of drinking nostalgia over quality.

With an open front door to let in some coolness we couldn’t escape the twinkling of glasses, happy conversations and a general atmosphere of indulgence drifting in from across the street from the Old Butchers restaurant. We felt pretty much like the diners after a day indulging ourselves on the beauty of the Cotswolds.

Lower Slaughter

A tranquil scene in Lower Slaughter

Chipping Campden's High Street

 Bourton-on-the-Water Motor Museum


  Along the River Avon

Friday, June 7, 2019

Chateau de Chantilly - A Day’s Escape from Paris

By the time we arrived in the town of Chantilly it was mid-morning. The cloudy sky and cold breezes that blew down the rues of Paris had given way to glorious sunshine and frosted pastures in the Hauts-de-France department, “the North Pole of France” as the southerners, exaggeratedly, calls it.

Our destination was the Chateau de Chantilly and at the entrance gate of the vast domaine large patches of the pond were frozen and on the one or two isolated thawed spots, white swans and harlequin ducks paddled in search of food.

The train ride from Paris to Chantilly ran through the rather boring industrial north of Paris and beyond that, farmland, mostly unseen because most of the rolling hills were carved out to build a straight flat terrain for the train tracks to allow the regional train to pick up some form of speed. The few patches of landscape I could see through the dirty window looked forlorn under the grey sky. A landscape that did not looked forward to the winter ahead. Only as we neared Chantilly did the sun emerged from beyond the dissipating clouds.

 A portrait of Chantilly as it looked around 1741.

The chateau is an 800-year old outpost whose history is closely intertwined with French royals and one of the most distinguished and noble families in France, the Montmorency family. Today the statue of Anne de Montmorency on a horse, the 1st Duke of Montmorency, (the duke originally build the first castle around 1528) can be seen in front of the castle’s drawbridge. The original mansion was destroyed during the French Revolution and between 1875 and 1882, Henri d'Orléans, the Duke of Aumale, the fifth son of King Louis-Philippe I of France, rebuilt the chateau as we see it today. (For more information about the owners of the estate click in the link.)

Within the chateau is the Musée Condé, our main focus of the day. According to a little research I did it seems the museum’s art galleries are the second largest collection of antique paintings in France after that of the Louvre. Any museum compared to the Louvre is worth a visit!

The chateau’s second major feature is its stables, which houses the Musée de Cheval, the Museum for the Horse. The STABLES could well be the most spectacular stables in France and approaching the vast chateau complex from the west and coming upon the stables first, one could easily mistake the stables for the actual chateau. Lavish in design!

French aloofness?

Many have written or talked about the aloofness of the French, but thrice on our short visit to Paris we experienced the opposite. Twice at the Gare du Nord train station. First, when a man helped M with her baggage down the stairs, (we were temporarily separated while I was searching for a ticket kiosk and which I eventually found hidden behind a huge billboard.) The second event was when another Frenchman, seeing me struggling with the ATM not accepting my credit card for some reason (I have used the same card several times before at other ATMs) helped me getting train tickets by using his own card and then I paid him back in cash.  

The third time was when we arrived at the Chantilly train station, a 25-minute ride with a regional train north of Paris. There was no taxi available at the time and the bus service to the chateau, according to another bus driver at the bus terminus, was only to arrive an hour from our arrival. I was not willing to waste that amount of time! However, a young French gentleman and his girlfriend/wife who arrived on the same train as us were waiting for a hotel shuttle to pick them up. When the shuttle arrived he asked the driver if he could drop us off at the chateau. The driver graciously agreed and we were very grateful. Later in the morning, I notice the same couple was also visitors to the Musée Condé. Upon seeing them I took the opportunity to thank them again for their assistance.    

An Unchanged Layout

The Duke of Aumale, an ardent collector of art, old books and manuscripts, was the last private owner of the Chateau de Chantilly. In the large Gallery of Painting he hung his paintings of suit his own personal taste. In fact, the layout closely relates to the Duke’s personal history and the layout has not changed since he bequeathed the domaine to the Institute of France in 1886. On the left wall of the grand gallery the art works are mainly Italian, reminders of his mother's family background and his time traveling through Italy. On the opposite wall are works from France, relating to his father’s side of the family and his own illustrious career in the French military.

 The Gallery of Painting.

Got to have some family pics on the wall too!

In the Sanctuary, a small inner room for the castle, hangs the treasures of the Museum’s collection; two paintings by Renaissance painter, Raphael: The Virgin of the House of Orleans and The Three Graces, and 40 pages of the miniature illumination manuscript, The book of Hours of Etienne Chevalier by Jean Fouquet. 

In the Reading Room, with its warm wood atmosphere, in one corner, kept in a locked glass cabinet I was thrilled to discover the Complete Works of François de Malherbe (1555 – 1628), a possible ancestor of mine on my mother’s side. Being an amateur genealogist for the past 15 years (my mother’s maiden name is Malherbe) and I having traced the Malherbes back to 1066 AD when one of them accompanied William, the Conqueror, as a knight, to conquer England, this, I have to admit, was my personal highlight of the day. The book was printed in 1630 and its cover is still in immaculate condition.

A 1630 print of Les Euvres de Mr Francois de Malherbe
François De Malherbe was a great reformer of French poetry and by some described as the father of French poetry. In South Africa, centuries later, the Malherbe family, descendants from Gidion Malherbe that arrived at the Cape of Good Hope from Normandy, France, in 1687, was instrumental in the development of the Afrikaans language and several of the family men were poets, writers and educators through the generations. 

Unfortunately, probably the most valuable book in the museum’s library cannot be seen except in digital format. It is the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, one of the best surviving examples of French Gothic manuscript illumination. (To learn more about manuscript illumination, click on the link.)

 Entrance to the Musée de Cheval

After our visit to the Musee Conde, we walked the half mile or so to the Horse museum. Meandering through the stables, seemingly one ancient horse stall to another, modernized to museum style, it does a decent job of capturing the history of the horse in military and personal usage; the history of saddles, stirrups, horse bits, and horse racing at the famous Chantilly race course, and much more. The stables are thought-provoking, to some degree, but as the French would say: C’est mon truc, the English equivalent of “not my cup of tea.” I have to admit it seemed M enjoyed the horse museum far more than I did, especially the royal carriages on show. She's got a soft spot for carriages.

 Collage of the Horse Museum

At the totally inadequately staffed snack restaurant on site, we waited way too long to be served and lingered only a short while after the late lunch before walking back to the estate’s entrance to await our bus back to the Chantilly train station.

 The Chateau de Chantilly basking in the late afternoon sun

Chantilly, the chateau, art museum and stables is certainly worth a visit. The estate is vast with woods, ponds, leafy walkways and bike lanes, and even small hamlets in the woods where workers used to live. It would have been a pleasant adventure to rent a golf cart, take a picnic basket and tour the vast estate, but that would be more appropriate during the summer months. Unfortunately we traveled there during December.

During the trip’s planning phase I initially included a visit to the Chateau of Vincennes in Paris, (close proximity) but I am glad M did some research, discovered the Paris chateau is not worth a visit and we both looked at Chantilly as an alternative to still our grave for visiting a castle of some sort on our short trip to France. I am glad we did investigate Chantilly. It was a fantastic escape from Paris. 

 Chantilly Chapel

 Two enormous horse heads dominates a small square