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Strolling amid the sheep outside of Winchcombe
On May 10th, we took the short drive from Bath through Cirencester and ended up in an area of Gloucestershire known as the Cotswolds. The origin of the name is lost in history; it may be an old Saxon phrase meaning "hills of sheep's coats," or it may mean "shelter" ("cot" as in "cottage") in the "open upland" ("wold"). Whatever the case, the villages throughout the Cotswolds built their wealth on the wool industry in the Middle Ages, which collapsed with the coming of the Industrial Age. Today, the area is known for its picture-book beautiful English countryside, and its quaint stone and thatched-roof houses.
Our home base for our three nights in the Cotswolds is Didbrook Fields Farm. Frank and Jane Kennedy (with their children Edward, 13, and Katie, 10) left a prosperous antique furniture business four years ago and purchased a 40-acre environmental farm outside of Didbrook. Following Frank's dream, they are simultaneously running a farm-stay Bed & Breakfast, renting out cottages and office space, running an antiques business, teaching swimming at an indoor pool, preparing Edward for a career as a professional golfer, and completely renovating the farm and its 19th-century buildings.
Upon our arrival here, we were greeted by the two dogs, two cats, pet chicken (with two chicks), and pet duck (with a duckling that also thinks it's a chick). We immediately swapped the converted-barn room that we had reserved (with four twin beds) for a smaller room (with a double and two twins). The new room is still larger than some of the ones we've stayed in, and Gail and Russell won't have to be separated. We spent the rest of our first day playing on the grass tennis court and taking an evening walk around the grounds. With the first microwave oven we've had in months, we had a popcorn and movie night in our room (we've been carrying around the microwave popcorn since Crest, France).
A game of lawn tennis at the farm
Beginning on May 11th, we set out to explore many of the ancient artifacts in the area. From the nearby town of Winchcombe, we set out on a five-mile day hike to the Iron-Age (3,000 BC) long barrow (burial mound) of Belas Knap. We used a guide written by a local, and our hike took us out of historical Winchcombe; through lush green sheep fields separated by fences, stiles, and kissing gates; and over hills that gave us incredible views of wide-open valleys. We had our picnic lunch at the long barrow itself (the name is derived from the Old English words "bel" and "cneapp," meaning "beacon hill"). Our return trip took us through part of the "Cotswold Way," one of the many massive systems of footpaths throughout the region. We took our time as usual: the guidebook said to allow two and a half hours; we took more than four.
The long barrow at Belas Knap
At the end of the day we drove to Evesham to pick up supplies (and afternoon tea) at the Safeway supermarket, then back down through the storybook-pretty villages of Broadway and Buckland.
May 12th was Mother's Day, and Cameron and Joss both made handmade cards for Gail. Afterwards we continued our tour of local artifacts; we drove through Stow-in-the-Wold to visit the Rollright Stones, considered the third major stone circle in Britain (after Stonehenge and Avebury). At three sites within a stone's throw of each other are the King Stone, the Stone Circle of "Kings Men," and a burial monument known as the Whispering Knights. It is said (for the tourists, no doubt) that no one can count the same number of stones twice; in our own efforts we got 69, 72, and 75.
Counting stones at the Rollrights
There are actually two "Cotswolds": the villages that all of the tourists visit, and the villages that the locals keep a secret (Frank told us that Rick Steves -- and other authors -- purposely omit mentioning many Cotswold villages at the request of the locals). By now, other people who have visited the Cotswolds have probably noticed that our photographs don't seem to look like any of theirs. We purposely avoided the more tourist-ridden towns and stayed away from the crowds.
We have already mentioned Stow-in-the-Wold -- it is so built up with souvenir shops and lines of cars that it now looks like a Disneyland version of a Cotswold village. During our brief stop there, we were surrounded by an entourage of dozens of motorcyclists passing through. When we drove to Bourton-on-the-Water on May 12th -- the village we had stayed at 12 years ago -- we were shocked at how much it had changed. What had been a sleepy village of stone bridges and waterways was now completely overrun by people and cars. We could barely park our car and walk to the TI. (We did not even try to visit Stratford-upon-Avon this time around; the birthplace of William Shakespeare was already too commercial 12 years ago.)
We got out of Bourton as quickly as we could and headed for the much quieter villages of Lower Slaughter and Upper Slaughter (the name has nothing to do with butchery -- it refers to the "sloe" trees). We spent the afternoon hiking between the two Slaughters on the Warden's Walk (another footpath network); here again was the calm, quiet, and tourist-forsaken environment of beautiful streams crossed by stone bridges. In Upper Slaughter the villagers were holding a fundraising tea at Town Hall for children's programs; we gladly partook.
Two vastly different Cotswolds: the chaos of Bourton-on-the-Water...
... and the quiet of Lower Slaughter
We returned to our room just as it began to rain. The forecast is for rain over the next few days, but we don't mind. Our time in the Cotswolds has been sunny and warm... and peaceful and relaxing as well.
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