The West Country

18 December 2000, Monday

This was our day to visit the English countryside, and if I overuse the word quaint, it’s because I’ve also ’way overused both charming and picturesque already. All of which apply to the beautiful villages we saw in the Cotswolds.

First to Castle Combe (pronounced COOOOM), reputed to be the prettiest village in England (population is 350). Little has changed here in five hundred years; I purchased several postcards with photographs taken in 1900, and it truly looked the same.

The main street in Castle Combe, December 2000.

The main street in Castle Combe, December 2000. Love the tree clinging to the wall of the home second from right.

“There are no television aerials or street lights, and the buildings are of the same honey-colored limestone traditionally used for centuries,” says the official guidebook. That’s because when you buy a house there you agree to maintain certain “standards”; one assumes only the very well-heeled can afford to live in the prettiest village in England. Originally home to a Roman villa, the town still boasts a lovely old stone arched bridge built in Roman times.

Anna and Jess on that Roman bridge, December 2000.

Anna and Jess on that Roman bridge, December 2000. Remember, you can click on the photo to see a larger version; click again to zoom in.

Castle Combe, landlocked as it is, is most famous for being portrayed as a fishing port in the movie Dr. Doolittle, which starred Rex Harrison and Anthony Newley (and some of us are old enough to have seen that movie!); a little jetty was built on the banks of the bybrook, to make the town into a seaport. Local inhabitants became extras at fifty shillings per day, with meals, alcohol, and costumes all thrown in. (UPDATE: More recent films have been shot here: Stardust in 2006 and most notably Steven Spielberg’s production of War Horse in 2010.) We paused in Castle Combe for refreshments—meaning tea and baked goods. This whole tea-and-sweets thing was beginning to be a real hardship. 🙂

Then we drove on to the village of Lacock (LAY-cock), which lies at the southern edge of the Cotswolds. Originally a center of the medieval wool trade and part of the estate of Lacock Abbey, the whole village (pop. 1,000) is now owned by the National Trust. This is like having a very strict homeowners’ association: one agrees to keep the property looking as it did hundreds of years ago (at least on the outside). Again, there are no television aerials, no yellow lines, and no overhead cables. I’m not completely sure how that works for people living in the twenty-first century, though.

We drove by Lacock Abbey, which is now a country house and was once the home of William Fox Talbot, who was making photographs in 1834, five years before before Louis Daguerre. Talbot’s method involved creating a negative, from which many positives (prints) could be made. One of the first of these was of a window here at Lacock Abbey; it’s considered the oldest photographic negative in existence.

Interesting statue in Lacock, December 2000.

Interesting statue in Lacock, December 2000. Someone is buried here but I can’t remember if it’s a boy or a boy’s dog.

From there we went on to the city of Bath, which you can pronounce any way you want, as far as I’m concerned. Anna insisted there was only one way (BAH-th), but if you’ll click around on this page, you’ll see that Canadians, Australians, and Americans use a short A, and even some Brits pronounce it with a less deep AH than others. I think there’s some wiggle room. 🙂

We stopped to listen to this street busker. This is one of my favorite pictures from the trip.

We stopped to listen to this street busker. This is one of my favorite pictures from the trip.

Bath sits on the River Avon (no waffling here: AY-vin), but it is most famous for its hot springs. “The story of the hot springs of Bath,” the official guidebook tells us, “began many thousands of years ago with rain on the Mendip Hills being driven deep underground before rising, hot and bubbling, to the surface.” Bath owes its origin and ultimately its name to these springs, which produce about five hundred thousand (500,000!) gallons of water a day at 120 degrees Fahrenheit. “The sight of this extraordinary  phenomenon incited the Celts to adopt the spring as the home of their goddess Sulis. When the invading Romans reached Bath … they built a grand spa (in 65 AD) with bathing and leisure facilities, and within the complex a majestic temple, which they dedicated to their own goddess of healing, Minerva, as well as to the Celtic goddess Sulis.” Here are some photos of the so-called Great Bath; we were there in mid-afternoon, when the sun was already beginning to go down.

The Great Bath from the second story, December 2000.

The Great Bath from the second story, December 2000.

Another view of the Great Bath. This was taken on film, and I wasn’t carrying zoom lenses with me, as one had to do thirteen years ago.

Another view of the Great Bath. This was taken on film, and I wasn’t carrying zoom lenses with me, as one had to do thirteen years ago.

I loved this little gargoyle.

I loved this little gargoyle.

Those square fixtures that seem to hang over the pool are the bases of the original Roman pillars, which are long gone now. Those Romans were really quite ingenious; we toured the entire facility. This website walks you through everything. You can’t get in those poisonously green waters at the Roman site but there now is a very nice spa (not there when we were in 2000) at which you can test the waters, which contain more than forty-two different minerals.

Bath also has a magnificent abbey, which we did not have time to tour (it was closed for the evening), although we did drive by. It’s definitely something I’d make a trip to see in the daylight. The front of the building has an interesting feature: on either side of the magnificent window (and the door below), there are stone ladders, with angels climbing up to heaven.

Bath Abbey—and the angels climbing the ladder to heaven. December 2000.

Bath Abbey—and the angels climbing the ladder to heaven. December 2000.

Here we’re still at the Roman Baths but you can see the abbey rising behind it, dwarfing it.

Here we’re still at the Roman Baths but you can see the abbey rising behind it, dwarfing it.

There is also some truly spectacular architecture in the Palladian and Georgian styles in Bath. These buildings are positively huge, stringing together dozens of townhomes; the most striking is the Royal Crescent, completed in 1774. Imagine a football field-sized lawn, flanked on one side by a single gigantic, curving building, four stories high (there’s a fith below ground), 180 degrees’ worth. It is divided into thirty grand homes; they may share walls, but you would never call these apartments. Or condos. 🙂

We also spent some time in the shopping district—and may I just say how much I enjoyed the absence of anything even remotely resembling a mall (in Bath or anywhere else)? I absolutely adored meandering down narrow streets from shop to shop (Anna called this “mooching,” as in “We’re just gonna go out and mooch around today”). I bought a beautiful sweater here that I treasure to this day.

I also loved the fact that—aside from individual shop displays—there was very little Christmas commercialism: no concerted effort by a given town to put up carefully designed, matching Christmas decorations and/or lights in the streets. Not that I mind municipal outdoor Christmas decorations, mind you; but this was an unexpected and pleasant change from what I am used to. I say this also because several of my friends, when hearing of our planned trip, sighed, “Oh, Christmas in London!” (or, a minor variation, “Oh, Christmas in England!”), but we could barely tell the season. It was not what either of us had imagined. To which I say yea! (Note, this was thirteen years ago. We saw a place here or there where homeowners had installed American-looking Christmas lights; this trend may have continued to expand—I don’t know.)

Now, tired and hungry, we piled into the car for a meal at one of Anna’s favorite pubs; however, upon our arrival we discovered (to Anna’s chagrin) it had been sold not two months earlier. This wouldn’t have been so awful except the new owners brought in a new chef and changed the whole menu, which Anna insisted had been perfectly wonderful. So we decided to move on, landing, finally, at the Lysley Arms pub in Chippenham—the site of Anna’s first ever job. There was one other couple in the place, who’d just been served as we walked in, now really tired and really hungry. The three of us (Eoin had been at work all day) leaned leeringly over their plates, saying, “Oh my God that looks good!” and they were good sports about it.

But just as we settled at out table, the electricity went out! Yes. A wait of five minutes in the dark (with some good-natured ribbing from the Scottish couple whose warm food we’d just been ogling) decided us that we must continue on our desperate quest for sustenance, so we got up and were trooping out when the cooks came from the kitchen. “Don’t go!” they said. “Our grill runs on gas! Please stay! You can have anything grilled—that is, a steak. Our fryer is gas, so you can have chips [in the American: french fries] and a salad.” And so we did. They piled our plates high, the food was delicious, and we had a positively delightful conversation with the Scots at the other table. In the dark.

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