Wednesday, 12 November 2014

autumn in the cotswolds

D. and I left London late last Friday afternoon with the idea of escaping the city before the motorways got too clogged. Of course, everybody wanting to leave London on a Friday afternoon has this exact same idea and before long we found ourselves stuck in traffic jam after traffic jam. What a relief it was then, to arrive in the village of Crudwell (granted, not the most glamorous of names), on the edge of the Cotswolds. In need of a brief break, I'd booked in for us to stay at The Rectory Hotel for the weekend very last minute a few days beforehand. We left our bags in our attic room and walked a few hundred yards down the road to The Potting Shed Pub, which is owned by the same guys who own the hotel. I had the most perfect bowl of rabbit pasta and a good drink with lots of rhubarb, and then, totally exhausted after a long week, we had baths and went to bed...

Saturday was a very rainy and windy day; we spent most of the morning reading the newspapers. In the afternoon we drove to nearby Tetbury, where we explored the (many) antique shops and had a good lunch of hot onion soup (ideal wet weather subsistence).

The exterior of a very handsome house in Tetbury. A good choice of blue paint.

After Tetbury, we drove to Castle Combe (via several extremely muddy dirt tracks), which is often called the prettiest village in England. It's certainly true, the rows of Cotswold stone cottages, babbling river and Market Cross are all completely charming. I must admit my main reason for wanting to visit however: the village was used as a key filming location for Steven Spielberg's production of War Horse, a film which, I'm unafraid to say, I have a huge soft spot for. Just as the sun was beginning to set, we wandered through the village, the smells of woodsmoke and wet leaves hanging in the air, popped into the church, and sat for a while by the river.

Filming War Horse in Castle Combe.

The sitting room at The Rectory.

We enjoyed a great autumn feast in the hotel's panelled dining room on Saturday evening - Negronis, scallops, venison, rice pudding.

Springing to life on Sunday morning, we headed back towards London, with the idea of stopping off at Strawberry Hill House on our way home. The Gothic Revival villa was built in Twickenham by Horace Walpole from 1749; Walpole rebuilt the existing house in stages and added gothic features including towers and battlements outside and elaborate decoration inside. He wanted theatrical effect, atmosphere and what he called 'gloomth'. The object of 'gloomth' was to create atmosphere, an emotional and evocative approach to building opposite to the rationality of the classical Palladianism that was prevalent in Britain at the time. Walpole filled the house with papier-mâché friezes, Gothic-themed wallpaper, fireplaces copied from medieval tombs, a Holbein chamber evoking the court of Henry VIII, Dutch blue and white tiles and modern oil paintings, china and carpets. Strawberry Hill was not intended to be a faithful recreation of a medieval manor. Fascinatingly, Walpole said of the house: 'It was built to please my own taste, and in some degree to please my own visions.' You know, I'm not too sure how I feel about Walpole's big Gothic meringue of a house. Inevitably, nothing felt... well... real (not helped by all that papier-mâché, I suppose). Parts of it I really loved, the wallpaper lining the main staircase for example (see above), was wonderful. I think, in its heyday, it would have been the perfect house in which to have thrown a wild party!

An engraving from 1784 showing the main staircase at Strawberry Hill.

As an antidote to Horace Walpole's mock-Gothic melodrama, we dropped by Chiswick House afterwards. We needed a dose of Neo-Palladian symmetry. Though the house itself is now closed for the year, the gardens were looking incredibly beautiful in the last of the afternoon sunlight.

I mean, that light!

And then, home was calling. Back to the city, happy and rested.

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