When I was driving around the countryside around Salisbury and Bath, I had already seen some adorable villages, rolling fields filled with livestock, and narrow lanes, but little did I know that was just a teaser to get me ready for my next big "region": The Cotswolds. This area of little villages and hilly sheep farms (mostly) is apparently located in Gloucestershire, not that anyone calls it that, and I imagine it's a popular destination for mini-breaks, as it's only about a two hour drive outside of London. I know I keep mentioning him, but Rick Steves' chapter on this region was really indispensable for me. He lists so many little out of the way B&Bs, pubs, self-guided walking tours, etc- I probably read it through 20 times - and used his little maps CONSTANTLY.
I can't remember how I found my B&B (because again, I booked a little too late for one of his recommended spots), but the lovely couple at Woodlands Guesthouse just outside the village of Stow-on-the-Wold were WONDERFUL hosts for my three nights exploring this area. They provide their guests with a whole binder of information - from maps for hikes to other tucked away pubs and such - and cook up a really excellent full English breakfast each morning. I haven't mentioned the breakfast situation yet - but here's as good a place as any. I am not a big breakfast person. Like, I eat a cereal bar or piece of fruit if I have to wake up too early to be able to wait until lunch. This is NOT what the English do. When you get into one of the rooms, they've got a whole buffet spread out with different cereals, often cut-up fruit, juice, ect. Then they either take your order or just hand you a plate full of: eggs (usually fried), bacon (and English bacon is HUGE compared to american bacon), sometimes sausage links, and of course toast. I feel like I'm forgetting something, because somehow this sounds reasonable. In fact, these full breakfasts are just massive. I don't know how many times I felt so bad leaving my plate(s) & bowl(s) half full, yet assuring the lovely hosts how good everything actually tasted. I also know that there is a stereotype, at least in the US, about horribly annoying B&B hosts & guests, but I never experienced anything really cringe-worthy on my tour of B&Bs. At Woodlands, for example, all of the guests shared the dining room table & exchanged stories about hikes planned or taken, pubs visited, and generally just were lovely and friendly. I can't imagine touring the English countryside without staying in a cute B&B in fact - they just seem to go hand in hand.
In any case, my first day I arrived early in the afternoon, and went directly to the closes village to start exploring. Stow-on-the-Wold (or just, "Stow", but pronounced like it should be spelled Stowe) is sort of the "capital" of the southern end of the Cotswolds. It used to be a major sheep-selling spot, but to be honest- after following Rick Steves' quick little 45-minute walking tour, I wasn't incredibly impressed. Yes it was cute, and yes there were cute buildings around a square (but no "green" in the square), but to be honest, the highlight for me was the back door to the main church which is said to have helped inspire Tolkien's door to Moria (photo below, but only half of it b/c again- it's vertical). That all changed once I started heading out on the recommended hike out from Stow. After I got off the main highway out of town, I saw horses, giant open fields with old trees, little gates, and lovely views over hills for days. I didn't make it all the way to the next village, mostly because I was concerned about it getting dark & getting back to the village in time for dinner, but it was an excellent first taste of the area.
Before even arriving to this area, I knew I wanted to go horseback riding at some point, and luckily Rick again had the answer for me. There is a really high-end stables in the middle of the Cotswolds where you can actually go out on a trail ride - so needless to say, I made sure to get that organized as soon as I arrived. Since I knew I needed to be there right after lunch, I chose a hike for my second morning which wouldn't be too far away, nor too long. So off I headed to the darling town of Broadway - apparently a bit touristy for good old Rick, but perfectly great for my purposes. After having a bit of trouble finding a public parking lot (crazy roundabouts!), I then headed off for a jaunt on the "Cotswolds Way" - a path that winds all through the region. Seconds after leaving the main street, there I was in a field full of sheep (and lambs!!), heading uphill toward the Broadway Tower (another Victorian-era "folly" randomly stuck up at the top of the hill). Other than squeeing over the lambs & the views, I most remember trudging up the hill a few steps behind a nice couple who I shared a chuckle with because we were passed as if we were standing still by a nice English chap who had to have been 75 years old. Heh - I guess tromping up these hills your whole life gives you an advantage. OH- and another thing- I got to witness the farmer for this particular field come & feed/water the sheep, which was just fun to see because of all of the sheep mommas bleating for their babies to come on. Plus, it was cool to see how quickly they stopped grazing/lazing around to rush over to the gate & trough - before the farmer even showed up. Neat stuff. Up at the top by the random tower, I saw my first deer farm (they farm deer for venison here, just like in NZ - so strange for me to see!), and then started winding my way back down through back tracks and farms. Really, really lovely couple of hours!
Sorry- there are lots of pictures - I was obsessed with the adorable lambs & sheep. I restored my energy with a delicious bacon & brie take-away sandwich on the green, and then I was off to find the stables for my trail ride. After getting a bit lost and driving through the ADORABLE village of Stanton a few times, I finally took the right turn and found the stables. Immediately I could see that this place was no tourist barn with horses trained to stay nose-to-tail, which I was thrilled with. Jill Carenza's Cotswolds Riding Centre is a real training barn, complete with pictures of their junior riders' various wins at different trials hung proudly all over the main office room. They of course do have helmets & boots for visiting riders (thank goodness), and what I love is that they make sure to give you some time in the ring to see your level & make sure you can handle a horse. This was actually a bit embarrassing for me because a) I could hardly get my chosen horse to canter and b) there was a guy out training in the neighboring ring who was really good. Sigh - how far I have fallen. (If you weren't aware- I rode competitively for basically my entire youth until my parents made me quit to go to college - since then I have RARELY been on horseback, much to my chagrin.) In any case, after a few minutes showing my now-lackluster skills, I was deemed fit to go out into the hills. Though I had paid for a "group hack", with it being low season, I was their only visitor of the day, so off I went on my private guided hack through the hills. My "guide" was what seemed like one of the grooms, and he had about half of his teeth and was wearing sneakers - less than ideal. He was perfectly nice though, and clearly loved and grew up around horses. The only problem during this gorgeous 2 hour ride was that I have ZERO leg strength anymore, so even though my guide was content to trot & canter all around the countryside, I was dying. I kept having to beg him to walk - too embarrassing!! But, like I said- absolutely gorgeous. We did get a teeny bit of drizzle, and even some mini-hail (!!) during the hack, but overall the weather really held up. Lucky for you- no more pics of all the gorgeous vistas (obviously I couldn't take my big ol' dslr on the horse with me), but here are a few shots of the village of Stanton:
Though the hack was definitely one of the more expensive excursions I did during all of my travels, it really is one of my best memories. My bruises and soreness the next day, however, I wish I could forget. I'll break the next day off into another post- so coming soon: Shakespeare's birthplace & more cute Cotswolds villages!