March came racing around (the usual pace of 2016, it seems), but enabled me to spend time with my mother and grandmother, who will be 100 next week! I always enjoy the opportunity to spend some time in England and this time, had the best of both worlds – first some quiet time with my ladies at home, where the mild climate meant that the garden was way ahead of our own, with blooming camellias (something that doesn’t survive our winters and is only seen south of the Alps in Switzerland for the most part).It was wonderful to have a special day out for my friend’s birthday that turned out to be spectacularly blue and sunny. Since it was probably the first time we’d spent her birthday together since our teens (!) it was extra nice and a day out in the English countryside can hardly be beaten. We headed for the extraordinarily pretty, without being sugary, little town of Alcester in Warwickshire, wandering the charming streets and perusing the interesting little shops, even a well-stocked wool and sewing shop, Harry and Floss, much to our delight (and we may have spent rather a long time oohing and aahing over it! It’s decorated with vintage children’s toys and clothing and books…). Spoilt for choice with an array of delicious-looking cafés, we plumped for one with an arty, eclectic decor and had a delicious salad and sandwich accompanied by big pots of tea and old-fashioned lemonade – mmh! Alcester managed to be calm and unflurried without being deserted or unloved and I was really impressed with the unspoilt atmosphere. The church has an unusual clockface set on the corner of the square tower and faces southwest, sitting comfortably at the top of the high street overlooking goings-on in the market town, a reassuring presence to the mediaeval houses round about it, like a mother hen clucking busily over her chicks. It turned out that my friend’s ancestors came from here – how delightful is that?! It was actually almost too sunny to get good pictures but this is an example of Alcester!
Our next stop was Coughton Court, a stately home I hadn’t visited since I was a very small child. I have no memory of that visit save a souvenir teatowel that hung in my parent’s home for many years and which I almost knew off by heart – Impressive!
However, I didn’t know what to expect, certainly not this handsome Tudor house with lovely gardens set in rolling countryside… As this was only mid-March, the gardens weren’t yet open to the public but it was just as nice to wander down through the little wood to the river and enjoy the spring sunshine. The house itself has a fascinating history, having belonged to the Throckmorton family – Catholic (never easy in ye olde England in the past), and instrumental in the famous Gunpowder Plot of 1605, where several members lost their lives around the scandal. As this is one of the very first events in history that I was taught at school, aged 6, it was of particular interest to me – somewhere there is an old exercise book with proof of this. As it happens, another Throckmorton, Elizabeth or Bess, married the famous Sir Walter Raleigh and was a favourite lady-in-waiting to Queen Elizabeth I but incurred that lady’s wrath by marrying Walter without her permission and was sent to the Tower! Although eventually released, Sir Walter, as we know, lost his head in 1618 (also after plotting…) and distraught Bess is said to have carried his head around with her in a red velvet bag… Pretty gruesome. Still, these old stories are what make history so very fascinating and hold our attention. The house itself is of course not only Tudor but has a core and various later additions, depending on the fortunes of the family at different times, but we were thrilled to be allowed up on the tower roof to see a fantastic panorama of the Warwickshire countryside on a perfect day – And to end our excursion, the exterior of Coughton Court My gallivanting was not yet done. As the daughter who has been acting as envoy to England for the past 4 years was in the midst of packing up to move to France, this was our last opportunity to visit her and her husband in the Oxford area. The weather wasn’t quite up to scratch, but my husband and I made full use of a long weekend to explore Oxford, where I was happy to meet up with another of my school friends (how amazing to still be friends with people we meet as mere children!) on the top floor of the Ashmolean but where we also had time to look at some of the exhibits, especially enjoying the still life room (oh, the lemons!)…
And can you believe it, we went to a wool shop? Surprise surprise 🙂 (The Oxford Yarn Store on the North Parade) My excuse to buy was that I have never worked with exclusively British wool, so I came away with some pretty pink Bluefaced Leicester by West Yorkshire Spinners and two skeins of Exmoor alpaca, incredibly soft and squishy. One happy bunny here. As there was a great foodie shop next door, (2 North Parade Produce Store) which was of more interest to the rest of the party, I had no guilty conscience whatsoever. The yarn shop is lovely and has lots of more unusual yarn brands I have never seen anywhere else, which in my view, gives it 5 stars! The food shop is no less lovely and we came out with a bag full of goodies there, too…
The Thames is generally associated with London and considered a mighty river – but remember that it also has to spring from somewhere and before it grows up to become so important, even regal, it is just a pretty little stream and flows through places like Kelmscott, the tiny Oxfordsire village where Arts and Crafts cultural figure William Morris had his favourite house… This was the 2nd time I have found my way to Kelmscott, only to find the house closed to the public – the first time there was a private tour going on and this time, I found it didn’t open until April, so if you ever go, make sure it’s open before going to the trouble! The day was so chilly and dreary that we escaped into a quintessentially English pub, The Plough, with a roaring fire going, so the expedition wasn’t completely wasted. We also took in Bath for a long and hilarious lunch with one of my mother’s friends, notably consuming great quantities of French lemonade – I can highly recommend the Côte Brasserie in Milsom Place! The food was excellent and the staff friendly. We spent several very entertaining hours there… Again, the weather wasn’t terribly conducive to wandering, though it improved later in the day when we saw the more typical sights like the Royal Crescent. Finally on the way back to the Midlands, we took a detour to see Anne Hathaway’s Cottage in Shottery, near Stratford-on-Avon – another place I hadn’t visited since I was a young child. Our advantage was that we were so early in the year, so that although the cottage is always “chocolate-boxy”, there weren’t too many people milling around and yet the gardens were beginning to take shape. Having said that, we ourselves live in a fairytale house, so we have no cause to criticise! I have since read Germaine Greer’s “Shakespeare’s Wife” and can recommend it to anyone interested in this celebratory year of 400 years since Shakespeare’s death, or otherwise.This took us back into familiar territory – we had to pass Alcester to get back towards the M5 and enjoyed countryside we’ve visited several times between southwest Birmingham and Worcester. For me, this is what English countryside is all about!
Our final good deed this trip was to save an armchair my daughter and her husband are fond of yet not planning to take with them – it seemed a shame to get rid of it and my mother and grandmother would enjoy something new but which suits their interior decor. This does indeed appear to have been a success…
Amazing what you can pack into a couple of days when you have a car and are prepared to drive around a bit! You really ought to be writing your own travel guides.
Yes, a car makes all the difference!
As Brian has demonstrated, travel writing is a calling for some, not sure if I’d like the life but I do enjoy reporting back 🙂 http://www.writerbrianjohnston.com
I’m behind on my blog reading! This post was brilliant. Amazing photos too. Thank you for taking us on your adventure too, swissrose!
Thanks! I really need to catch up with writing, never mind reading… 😮 It’s a rather crazy year!
I agree with your mother. You write the best travel blogs.
It’s been a crazy year, Susanne – it needs documenting 😮