The thing about the Cotswolds is this: although they are world-famous, they are two-faced. They resist any single definition. The textbooks simply tell us that they are a mid-England range of hills, some 50 miles long and 25 miles wide, first made rich by the wool industry of the Middle Ages, full of beautiful villages in the well-loved Cotswold Style and now one of the great tourist destinations of Europe. But as I drove there myself, and saw the long line of their escarpment sharp against a blue autumn sky, I thought I would pursue two definitions of my own: the Cotswold Experience, as the publicists would say, and the Cotswold Vernacular as traditionalists might prefer. So I made first for an epitome of them both, Broadway, described in Nikolaus Pevsner’s Buildings of England as “the show village of England”.
The Vernacular has flourished here for several hundred years, with a celebrated old coaching inn, the Lygon Arms, where the local hunt still meets, a sweet old church, a main street built almost entirely of the honey-coloured Cotswold limestone, and ancient traditions of rural craftsmanship. However, in the 1890s, it was Broadway that gave birth to the Experience, when William Morris, founder of the arts and crafts movement, and his disciples discovered the village and made it famous. Today that village street is almost too pretty, its shops are mostly aimed at visitors, car parks are crammed, tourist coaches swarm, the Lygon Arms has been acquired by Spaniards and has canned music and a spa.
For a start I immersed myself in the Cotswold Experience – literally, for in my delectable bath at the Lygon Arms I read some local glossy magazines and found them marvellously expressive of my definition. Here was a feature entitled Yummy Mummies. Here prospective Cotswold bridegrooms were advised that “the look to emulate is classic and distinguished”. Here a catalogue of Cotswold movers and shakers listed a “multimillionaire supermodel actress turned Cotswold farmer”, a television celebrity who is “embedded in the hearts and minds of the Cotswold clans”, some lottery winners with a £4m eco-mansion, Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson and the Duke of Marlborough.
Out of the bath, and on the road, it was easy to find confirmation that tourism, TV, fashion and snobbism between them dominate the Cotswold Experience. Marvellous old houses have been too obviously tarted up. Shops are too chi-chi, villages too self-conscious. Even an autumn weekend visit to one of the best-known Cotswold showplaces – Bourton-on-the-Water, say, or delectable Bibury, can be a nightmare of push, kitsch and ice-cream. Whispers of the celebrity culture hang heavily over the Cotswold lanes. Delis are two a penny. The word “organic” is endemic and, indeed, Prince Charles’s home at Highgrove is up the road, together with its attendant shop (where I bought myself a pot of marmalade, not actually made in HRH’s own kitchens but with the three feathers on its lid).
In the south-east, the Experience reaches an unexpected climax in the phenomenon called the Cotswold Water Park. This consists of some 140 flooded gravel pits, spread over several miles, which have been turned into one vast leisure facility. “Thirty Square Miles of Adventure”, the publicists call it, with a real sandy beach beside one lake, a fearfully expensive enclave of second homes beside another, hotels and water-ski runs and the glorious saving grace of 10,000 wild water-birds.
Anyway, I think of the Experience as an outer icing, so to speak, of the Cotswold cake, a sickly layer from which it is easy enough to reach the home-made jam inside. The capital of this country is Cirencester, and grander by far than any Highgrove or lottery-palace is its terrific parish church, which is like a cathedral. Especially at night, when it is floodlit to a sort of moonlight effect, its tower stands over the town as a tremendous benediction upon trend and tradition alike. Like the fine old town around it, the building speaks of benevolent wealth and grandeur, and you need not go too far to meet the creature that is its truest patron. The medieval fortunes of the Cotswold country were based upon the wool of its myriad sheep, in a region that was in those days one enormous sheep-run – “cots” were sheep-folds, “wolds” were grazing grounds – and the particular breed that made its people rich was nicknamed the Cotswold Lion. It became more or less extinct when arable farming took over but I met a survivor at the Cotswold Farm Park at Guiting Power. With its curly mane and bold kind eye, this amiable animal, nibbling at my fingers, seemed to me a living conciliation of past and present.
I proceeded calmed and fattened (for I had my best dinner for ages in Cirencester) to look for the Vernacular. Almost at once I met it, in the hamlet of Adlestrop. On a bench there I found inscribed the poem by Edward Thomas that gives the place its gently poignant aura: “Yes, I remember Adlestrop/ The name because one afternoon/ Of heat the express train drew up there /unwontedly.” Thomas was killed in the first world war, and no trains now stop at Adlestrop, even unwontedly – the bench is the bench from the defunct railway station. Yet people who love the poem still go there, to sit on the bench and take a cup of coffee at the nearby village shop, and this quiet and quirky allure seems to me true to the Cotswold Vernacular.
I enjoyed such suggestions everywhere, in between Experiences. At the village of Longborough, for instance, not only has the village shop been taken over by its own customers, giving it an almost New England sense of community, but a highly cultivated neighbouring gent has built an exquisite little opera house, presently engaged in preparations for Wagner’s Ring cycle. Not far from Stow-on-the-Wold, I met an engaging company of travelling people camped beside the road with their ponies and smart caravans, ready for the Stow Horse Fair. An innkeeper at Tetbury assured me that the name of his establishment, The Snooty Fox, was not just a trendy joke but genuinely referred to a difference of opinion between one of his predecessors and the very posh local hunt.
At Poulton, villagers were gearing up for their annual conkers tournament, mindful of the regulations, I was told, that all conkers must be Poulton-bred, and not artificially hardened. Everywhere adorable little churches, for the moment mercifully empty of socially aspirational bridegrooms, bewitched me with tumbled churchyards and touching epitaphs, and criss-crossing the landscapes were the miles and miles of dry-stone walls that had marked the end of the great sheep-wolds, the rise of the arable farm and the demise of the Cotswold Lion.
So the Cotswold Vernacular lives on, thank God, defying all the four-postery, glossy-paged, tour-guided, name-dropping, twee and vulgar flummery of the Experience. Gradually, though, as I meandered towards the east, it began to fade. Everybody I asked still vehemently declared themselves to be Cotswoldians, and the towns certainly made the most of the heritage, but those dry-stone walls petered out, concrete was more apparent than limestone, chain stores were taking over, the main streets felt less like old post-roads, life’s purposes seemed more mundane and the blessing of the Cirencester tower sounded ever fainter in my mind.
I ended up in Oxford, which had once been a Cotswold country town itself, and whose ancient colleges were one and all built of Cotswold stone. Here I was welcomed at a very different sort of hostelry, the Old Bank, which within my own memory really had been a bank, and was now sleek with cosmopolitan urbanity. London was up the road now.
The city’s last backward gesture of Cotswold loyalty is Nuffield College, on the way to the railway station. When the locally bred magnate Lord Nuffield founded his eponymous college, in 1939, he wanted it to be constructed entirely in the Cotswold manner of his youth, oolite limestone, pitched roofs, dormer windows, gable ends and all: but during the long years of its construction the design was progressively de-Vernaculared, as it were, and now it seems a long, long way from Adlestrop.
The Barcelo Lygon Arms in Broadway (www.barcelo-hotels.co.uk) has doubles from £132, including breakfast. Oxford’s Old Bank Hotel (www.oldbank-hotel.co.uk) has doubles from £128. For general information, see www.cotswolds.com.