Chipping Norton. Stow-on-the-Wold. Minchinhampton. Moreton-in-Marsh. After a day and a half of driving around the Cotswolds, my wife and I are starting to believe that the village and town names could not get any quainter. That is, until we abruptly come upon – and just as quickly reach the end of – a row of cottages bookended by signs proclaiming the name…
“Tiddleywink?! We need to google this.”
As it turns out, we have just passed through a hamlet consisting of eight cottages that for years was omitted from most maps because it is so small. That changed in 2003, after residents successfully campaigned to quite literally put Tiddleywink on the map. There is just about enough space in Tiddleywink’s three-paragraph Wikipedia entry to also explain that the name is derived from rhyming slang for “a quick drink”.
If the words “Tiddleywink” and “hamlet” have you thinking of Enid Blyton tales and Shakespearean plays, you’re on the right track. After all, arguably the most apt description of the Cotswolds – a 2,000 sq km rural area west of London – is “very English, and very old”.
It takes a mere two hours, but the drive from Central London to the Cotswolds is like stepping out of Kansas and into Oz. Gone are the 50 shades of grey that pepper the English capital; the Cotswolds are all about bright azure skies, contrasted against rolling green hills and a yellow brick road paved with fields of golden rapeseed.
And, as my wife excitedly points out every now and then: “Sheep!”
The first port of call on our four-day stay in the English countryside is known as the “Venice of the Cotswolds” – and for good reason. Straddling the River Windrush, Bourton-on-the-Water is a village of two banks stitched together by a series of low-arched bridges.
On either bank, locals spend a lazy afternoon. One couple in particular has carved out their own little slice of heaven, at the heart of and yet somehow simultaneously cocooned from the chatter of families picnicking and the laughter of children splashing around.
It is the perfect setting for a spot of afternoon tea – alfresco, of course. We find ourselves a table outside The Chestnut Tree, a tea room strategically located just beside the river, and tuck into a combination of scones with clotted cream and tea.
THE SETTING IS STRAIGHT OUT OF A STORYBOOK, AND WE CAN ENVISION A MISCHIEVOUS IMP SNEAKING AROUND THE CORNER AND MAKING OFF WITH A LOAF OF LEMON DRIZZLE CAKE.
Our extremely English meal is a quintessential part of the Cotswolds experience, but so is paying homage to its most famous resident – a yellow Vauxhall Corsa that has photobombed many a tourist snap in the picture-postcard village of Bibury.
A 25-minute drive from Bourtonon-the-Water, Bibury is home to Arlington Row, an architectural conservation area of 14th-century cottages that originally served as a wool store. Built in stone with stone slate roofs, the cottages are among the most photographed homes in England, and even appear on the inside cover of the British passport.
But just as iconic is their yellow friend of steel.
Owned by resident Peter Maddox, the banana-coloured car has been blamed by visitors for ruining the view of what famed British artist and author William Morris described as “the most beautiful village in England”.
Sure enough, Mr Maddox’s car is there to greet us in all its glory – a bright yellow tin soldier standing resplendent and resolute against a backdrop of slate and stone.
We felt a tinge of sadness when, on returning from our holiday, we learnt that the yellow Corsa had been replaced by a grey model. After all, “grey car parked in front of stone cottages” isn’t exactly the most Instagram-worthy caption.
There is, however, a sense that uninspiring captions and photobombing cars are all that one has to worry about out here in the Cotswolds.
Especially when trust is as powerful a currency as cash.
In the village of Castle Combe, we chance upon a windowsill covered in jams, cakes, and various other baked treats. The name on the door tells us that we are at “Ellen’s Cottage” – only Ellen isn’t actually there to peddle her wares. Instead, a sign proudly declares: “It is run on trust! Please put your money through the letter box.”
The setting is straight out of a children’s storybook, and we can envision a mischievous imp sneaking around the corner and making off with a loaf of lemon drizzle cake.
Perhaps it helps that Ellen’s Cottage is just a few steps from the gates of St Andrew’s Church. Dating back to the 13th century, St Andrew’s houses a faceless clock believed to have been made by a local blacksmith in the 1380s, making it one of the oldest working clocks in the country.
The church is undergoing restoration, but its gift shop is open, with – you guessed it – no one manning the till.
And this will not be our last encounter with the honour system.
It’s our final full day in the Cotswolds, and we embark on a two-and-a-half-hour drive to South Wales. More specifically, to the little market town of Hay-on-Wye (population: under 2,000) which, every spring, welcomes more than 100,000 visitors to its Festival of Literature. First held in 1988, the festival has grown into one of the world’s largest celebrations of literature. Over the years, some of the most revered names in the literary world, including Martin Amis, Margaret Atwood, Kazuo Ishiguro and Zadie Smith, have been elevated to rock-star status at what former United States President Bill Clinton once described as “the Woodstock of the mind”.
With a name that sounds more like that of a sandwich than a tourist hotspot, Hay-on-Wye has gained fame as the world’s largest and oldest book town, with more than 30 bookstores catering to every bibliophilic fancy. There is Rose’s Books, its floor-to-ceiling shelves filled with rare, out-of-print children’s books; Murder and Mayhem, for those of the detective-fiction persuasion; and The Poetry Bookshop, devoted to… well, the name says it all.
We have arranged to join a bookshop tour, and it is testament to how small the town really is that our guide, Alan, can barely go two minutes without bumping into a familiar face. In between introducing us to some of Hay-on-Wye’s most iconic bookstores and exchanging pleasantries with the locals, Alan manages to sneak in the story of how Richard Booth, the man who opened the town’s first second-hand bookshop, once declared himself king of Hay-on-Wye.
IT IS AS IF OUT HERE, IN ONE OF THE OLDEST AND MOST RURAL AREAS OF ENGLAND, SOMEONE HAS LEFT THE LIGHTS ON.
While we are on the subject of kings, no visit to Hay-on-Wye would be complete without spending some time at Hay Castle. Located at the heart of the town, the castle itself is not open to the public because of restoration works. But you can visit its courtyard, and this is where we discover the Honesty Bookshop. Here, all books are priced at £1 (S$1.80) or less, and payment is placed into an unmanned collection box.
There is only one problem. With two massive walls of books sorted neither by genre nor by author but instead by colour, it is all we can do not to start judging books by their covers. Even so, we end up leaving Hay-on-Wye with heavier bags and lighter wallets.
As we cross the England-Wales border on the drive back to the Cotswolds, a signboard catches my wife’s eye. It simply reads “Welcome to England”.
Set against the brilliant hues of blue, green and gold that frame the country road we are on, the sign makes us smile. We may be back in England, but the colours of the Cotswolds are entirely incongruous with everything we know – or thought we knew – about the country and its grey skies.
It is as if out here, in one of the oldest and most rural areas of England, someone has left the lights on. ■