It’s rather odd how the Cotswolds doesn’t ever really feel like ‘home’ whenever we visit, even though we lived there for quite a few years. It’s just so ‘touristy.’ Of course, when we did actually live there, we were rarely conscious of tourism impinging on our normal way of life. Back again, this time as outsiders with no claims to residency, first impressions are no surprise. The Cotswolds, that great swathe of rolling (mainly Gloucestershire) countryside, is ridiculously ‘pretty.’ No other descriptive term will suffice.
We’ve often commented on the manner in which visitors from abroad, especially those from the USA, head for London and, if time allows, take in the sights of Edinburgh. That’s Britain done. Tick the box and move onto Paris. Or Rome. What they should do is come here. The Cotswolds is England at its finest.
We’re intending to revisit a specific area, since Covid arrived we aren’t especially keen on gallivanting.*
*Love that word.
No, we’ve based ourselves in one hotel for a few nights with the intention of having short excursions in the day. I’ll just concentrate on a couple of days out or this blog post will resemble a novel by Dostoevsky in length. That’s Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky, the famous Russian writer, not the bloke who plays at centre back for Wisla Krakow in the Polish Estraklasa.
The hotel was just as we’d been promised, lots of character, comfortable lounge area and a big garden for sunny days. There were four women in the bar area as we were booking in, very much of the ‘ladies who lunch’ persuasion. They seemed rather ‘relaxed’ considering it was still (very) early lunchtime and the reasons were clarified when one of them announced in ringing tones, ‘Just keep the dry white wine coming my way; I’ve had so much champagne over the weekend I’m awash with it.’
‘Just be quiet, Agnes,’ one of her friends advised, ‘you’re becoming irksome.’
‘Irksome,’ I muttered to Marigold. Archaic or rarely used words and phrases always fill me with joy. I made a mental note to use ‘irksome’ more often.
Marigold was focussing on the name. ‘Agnes,’ she repeated, ‘I love that, but not Aggie. Bet nobody ever called that one Aggie.’ I nodded. It certainly seemed unlikely.
I used to work with an ‘Agnes.’ She wasn’t fond of her given name, a state of affairs I can relate to, and circumvented it in an interesting fashion: she inverted the letters and was henceforth known as ‘Senga.’ I trained her and in fairness it wasn’t an easy task. Segna was indifferent to any concept, any conversation, that didn’t engage her intellectually. ‘Small talk?’ Expect to be ignored to a degree far beyond any normal perception of rudeness.
We had occasional group meetings where agents/officers - the terminology changed with bewildering frequency - of each region of the country got together to discuss ongoing trends and resolve problems. There were twelve of us, one to each region of the U.K, but only eleven ever fully participated. These meetings could be long winded and tedious, so Senga’s predilection for wandering off to look out of the window or even on one occasion taking out a newspaper and reading it in the middle of an intensely important discussion made me deeply envious. Her distinctly idiosyncratic behaviour was usually tolerated by our alleged superiors simply because she produced results.
As for the Hotel, it did almost exactly as it said on the tin. Just one caveat: our bedroom was number 19. Out of a total of 19. Approached by a narrow staircase with the steepest slope I have encountered since we last visited the Eiger. Marigold wasn’t impressed. After puffing our way up the rickety stairs the first floor corridor seemed endless. Number 19 must have been in the next postcode.
‘It’s only for four nights,’ I said, as brightly as I could manage while desperately sucking air into my lungs. Somehow this didn’t raise spirits to any discernible extent. We dropped off our ‘stuff’ - minimal clothing, even less personal grooming items – yes, of course I’m only speaking about myself here – and descended the almost vertical staircase for the first time.
Less tiring than on the way up, but possibly even more stressful. Marigold isn’t a big fan of ‘going downhill,’ it’s that fine line between a relaxed descent and a headlong sprint that she finds difficult to judge.
Back in the Lounge the couple who had booked in just before us had apprehended a waitress, still laden down with plates and cutlery after clearing a table, and were evidently in great distress. The female guest, tweed trouser suit and stiletto heels, snapped, ‘there’s only a tiny little barth in our room. Don’t you have anything larger?’
Her partner, a big, lumbering, distinctly ursine man yet wearing very tight red trousers and a psychedelic patterned waistcoat over a dress shirt unbuttoned almost to his ( ample) waist, remained mute. Understandably as I had difficulty imagining a ‘barth’ large enough to contain even a small section of his torso, so surely the bathing issue was a moot point in his circumstances.
‘Not sure the waitress is the best person to ask,’ Marigold whispered to me as we walked by. We never found out whether a more commodious ‘barth’ had been sourced in time to prevent an escalation of a serious situation to Def. Con. 5.
We set off for a late lunch in Cirencester. It’s one of those places that’s midway between a town and a city, steeped in history and we always enjoy visiting here. We started to panic after spending far too much time in a ‘craft fair’ where just about every stall holder was ‘a bit odd’ – I’m being kind here – as we love eccentricity and fairly galloped into Pretty and Pip in Castle Street about thirty seconds before they stopped taking lunch orders.
We’re easy to please and the waitresses were charming so we found seats in the lovely courtyard around the back. We’ve been here before, yet never established who Pretty and Pip are. A plethora of choice for ‘Pretty,’ rather less options for ‘Pip.’
Just as our baguettes arrived, cheese and ham and salt beef respectively, both with lots of trimmings the man on the next table called out, ‘try the salt beef, it’s as good here as in my local deli.’
I didn’t actually say, ‘give me a chance, mate, it only arrived ten seconds ago’, but I wanted to. Marigold did say, ‘I’m guessing your local deli isn’t near here’ as he had a rich Bronx accent.
‘No, ma’am, I’m from Noo York City. Just visiting my friend here who’s a Purfessor at your Oxford University.’ We supposed he said ‘your Oxford University’ in case we imagined he meant the one in Oxford, Mississippi, commonly known as Old Miss. We didn’t.
It’s not easy, eating enormous baguettes while trying to carry on a conversation with an overtly friendly American visitor. His female companion – the Oxford Prof was too busy eating to talk – interjected occasionally, but only to argue with remarks he made. She didn’t object to every word he uttered, but it was pretty close.
Two nations divided by a common language. It’s a quote attributed to George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde and Winston Churchill. May as well add Shakespeare to that list of Usual Suspects and you’ll have the full set. Shaw gets my vote, but the expression makes sense no matter the era. On our last visit to the United States we were baffled by a man from Texas who may as well have been an alien being. Virtually every sentence he uttered engendered a furrowed brow and air of utter incomprehension, even though the actual words were ‘allegedly’ English, just not the English language we had been blithely using for so many years.
In between snatched bites of baguette we were treated to a Noo Yorker’s unique version of English history.
‘The Ancient Greeks established a settlement, maybe on this very spot.’
Really? What ignoramuses we were, convinced that Cirencester in Roman times, back then known as ‘Corinium Dobunnorum’, was second only to London in size and importance. Neither Marigold or myself had ever heard of a Greek invasion, despite us living just up the road from here for many years.
I did know Corinium was recaptured by resurgent Saxons in the 6th century and renamed ‘Coryn Ceasre’. If you’re local, you just call it Ciren, pronounced Zoiren by just about everyone we met in our Cotswolds dwelling era. We didn’t argue. Even the lady companion didn’t pick up on the Ancient Greek reference, even though she took issue with just about everything else. As for the Oxford Professor, he was still chomping away. I just hope he wasn’t a History Don.
The relentless monologue switched, seamlessly, from History to Matrimony. ’44 years married and never a cross word,’ confided the verbose American visitor, smiling at the woman we’d by now assumed to be his wife. Her expression suggested she disputed the accuracy of his claim.
‘Lightweights,’ I thought. Marigold and I got married way back in the 1960s, plus another six months living together in a tent in Cornwall, but we weren’t in the mood to top his story. Call it self defence.
While remaining mute, I was reminded of a similar expression, not quoted quite so often, I read recently, while researching* the history of the Blundell family, prominent on Merseyside since the Middle Ages. Nicholas Blundell, while still officially a child, was married off to Margery, the daughter of another prominent landowner, Henry Scarisbrick. Medieval texts report they lived happily together for sixty years and 'never noder cold find fote noder with oder.’# Sixty years, that’s the next milestone for me and Marigold to aim for. Sounds much easier than 'never noder cold find fote noder with oder’ even though that’s certainly the case on my side. My many faults are perhaps more obvious.
*Researching people long since dead and buried? Don’t ask, it’s just one of my foibles. Keeps the brain ticking over.
# yes, of course I looked up the ancient spelling. Plodding through Chaucer’s prodigious output in the Sixth Form still didn’t help me to become fluent in ‘Olde English.’