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Monday, October 15, 2007

Breathe in the country air...

Back today from a weekend trip to the English countryside: The Cotswolds, Bath and Stonehenge, with a surprise trip to Chepstow Castle in Wales. Day One was spent visiting a few towns in the Cotswolds, the most beautiful and picturesque countryside in England. First, Stow-on-the-Wold, a charming town known for an abundance of antique shops. It’s one of those places where it’s nice to just walk around and look at the various buildings, taking in the architecture and town planning. We sat at a small cafĂ©, ordered the local specialty, cream tea—tea served with scones with clotted cream and jam--and just people-watched for an hour. Very delicious and heavy—fills you up for the rest of the day!

Next, Bourton-on-the-Water, another absolutely breathtaking little town that can be walked edge-to-edge in under five minutes and is full of adorable little shops selling local crafts. The town was built up on the banks of a (very small) river or stream and lovely little bridges cross the water at three points. Walking around Bourton-on-the-Water, I got the feeing this was one of those towns where everybody knows everybody else’s name and they all attend church and potluck dinners together. Made me partially wish to live in a small village like that if only for the security it seemingly provides. Very nostalgia-inducing.

Then it was on to Bibury, described by William Morris as “the most beautiful village in England.” I’m not sure how he decided that, since each village was absolutely breathtaking and one was never more stunning than the next but nevertheless, Bibury is a gorgeous (albeit absolutely tiny) village centered around a lovely church. It was the epitome of what you expect from a town in The Cotswolds.

Gloucester was the next stop, a much bigger town that the others we had visited. Gloucester Cathedral is a massive gothic building that you can just get lost in. What was especially nice was that as we walked around the Abbey, the boys’ choir was rehearsing, filling the space with angelic hymns that reached every corner. It was both haunting and touching at the same time.

Another short drive up the road to a hill looking over England and into the Welsh countryside. There are no words that can describe how green England and Ireland are, or how fresh the air feels, how comforting the smell of chimney smoke is, or how peaceful you feel standing up so high looking down on only grass and trees and cows. The hills seem to roll on endlessly, reaching as far as the eye can see until disappearing under the horizon. Driving up to Chepstow Castle in Wales, there were no towns to be seen, which made the moment really calming. The castle itself is the oldest stone castle in Britain and even though we couldn’t go inside, it was a beautiful building. (Honestly, I’ve never seen an ugly castle so there’s no point in describing one was ‘beautiful’ or ‘gorgeous,’ it seems…)

Day Two, today, was spent first at Bath, still a fairly small town that was built around ancient Roman baths dating back several thousand years. Although the baths themselves are now closed to bathing (a fairly recent closure, only in the 1970s), you can still drink the hot mineral water that comes up straight from the ground. It’s hot, smells vaguely of sulfur, and tastes metallic, but is surprisingly good. Supposedly, the water has healing powers and doctors used it to cure diseases and promote fertility. Bath is another beautiful English town that has managed to retain its charm and ancient even has modernity slowly creeps in. It also has Pulteney Bridge, one of only two stone bridges with shops built on it in Europe (the other is Ponte Vecchio in Florence, which I also visited this year, coincidentally).

Finally, Stonehenge. One of the ancient wonders of the world and a World Heritage Site, it’s truly impressive up-close. Although you can no longer walk directly up to the stones and touch them, being at such a close distance is still powerful and really awe-inspiring. They are also exactly how they look in photos so I heard some people complaining about feeling let-down by the trip. However, while you’re in England, it’s really worth visiting and seeing one of the last great ancient wonders of the world. There is still no definite answer as to the purpose of Stonehenge, which is several thousand years old and the third henge to be built on this site (meaning that it must have had some very important meaning for the same structure to be built three times). Near the henge are several massive burial mounds, where wealthy people were often buried along with their jewels, precious objects, and even pets. Kind of chilling to see these mounds rising out of the otherwise flat countryside.
As a whole, it was a fantastic weekend. We had lovely weather, in the mid-sixties all weekend, and almost no rain (unusual for England!). The English countryside is some of the loveliest in the world and the Cotswolds is the best example of this, so to be able to see some of the most beautiful and famous sites in Britain was well-worth a weekend away from the city. And, I have to admit, it was kind of hard coming back to the hustle and bustle of London when I had just gotten used to the calming peace and quite of the country.

Next weekend, Edinburgh!


  1. If you liked Stonehenge, you should go up there at one of the solstices to watch the various people who come up.

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