England (1997)

                                         The Back Roads of England

Valerie and I have been regular visitors to England just about every year for a lot of years now. Twice this year, as a matter of fact. But, our July visit was different and, maybe, a little more indicative of the pace of things to come. While previous visits have largely been weekend stopovers in London on business trips to Europe, this one was a full ten days, which we spent in a meandering drive through back roads of the English country side.

The primary reason for the trip was Cousin Jane Underwood’s wedding but with new flexibility of an open retirement calendar we were able to take some extra time to explore some of the less visited spots in the Cotswolds and the South Coast at much more leisurely pace.

Cotswolds. Following our overnight flight to Gatwick, we rented a little car and drove out to the Cotswolds to check into the first of our pre-selected country inns Our first stay was in Halewell (Holy Well) Close located in Withington . . a quaint, secluded hamlet in the Cotswolds with an old church, a manor house, one pub and a few scattered, stone cottages. We were Lady Carey-Wilson’s only guest the first night and we had the run of her lovely, fifty acre estate and stone manor house built in the early fifteenth century as a small farming monastery.

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Guest Room,  Halewell, Cheltenham                                                                                                                               Lower Slaughter, Cotswalls

Halewell became our base for daily trips into nearby Cheltenham for its annual International Music Festival where we soaked up daily concerts . . . from pianists to string quartets to symphonies. Most of the concerts were held in an elegant hall with the improbable name of the Pittsford Pump Room, a former health spa resort for the royal family dating back to King George III. Between concerts we visited nearby castles (Blenham, Sudeley), hiked to a four thousand year old, longbarrow burial site (Belas Knap), toured a Roman villa and explored a number of the nearby villages. On our final night in the Cotswolds, we drove up to Stratford-On-Avon to see a performance of Hamlet at the Royal Shakespeare Theater. There is nothing like experiencing Shakespeare in his own backyard.

The South Coast. We drove down to Poole on the day before the wedding stopping along the way for brief visits to the ruins of old Sarum and Stonehenge. Compared to our last visit to Stonehenge thirty years ago, when we wandered freely among the giant stones with our kids, we were a bit disillusioned (but not really surprised) to find it fenced off now and surrounded tourist buses, parking lots and refreshment stands. Takes away some of the mystique.

Perhaps, the most interesting stop enroute to Poole was serendipitous. Along the way we happened to notice a sign post to a village called Shipton-Bellinger and stopped to see if it might provide some clues into Valerie (nee Bellinger)’s English origins We talked to a local resident, who turned out to know quite a bit about the history of the little town . . . which was formerly sheep grazing acreage (Sheep Town = Shipton) which was deeded to a nobleman named Berringer (eventually change to Bellinger) for his support of William the Conqueror in the Battle of Hastings (1066). In fact, one of the thatched roofed cottages bore a plaque showing that it was recorded in the Domesday Book (1085). Hopefully, this chance discovery will provide us with a starting point to help Val trace the genealogy of the Bellinger family up through her dad’s early days in Carlisle, the Lake District town from which he left for Canada as a young man. In any case, we now know that Valerie is descended from noble blood. I think that I’ve always suspected it.

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Valerie's Ancestral Origins                                                                                                        Mason's Arms Inn, Branscombe

Janie’s wedding couldn’t have been nicer. The noon wedding took place in an Anglican church in downtown Poole followed by a reception at a very elegant officer’s mess inside the local Marine base. Janie was lovely and Mark was elegant in his Navy dress blue uniform. A contingent of Beastie’s fellow officers provided an arch of swords through which the new Lt. And Mrs. Mark Williams exited the church. Later at the reception, John (as a special surprise for Janie) had arranged for a trumpet fanfare to announce the arrival of the newly weds and drummers to lead the couple and guests into the dinner. John was a proud father in his morning suit with pin striped trousers and Ann never stopped smiling all day long. The reception began with a four course, seated meal for the hundred plus guests and finished ten hours later with Celtic square dancing.

The South Coast.  Valerie and I took the car ferry the next morning to the nearby Isle of Wight, we stayed overnight at the Clarendon Hotel / Wight Mouse Inn on the south west cliffs of the island overlooking the English Channel and the French coast beyond. The island is a quiet retreat from the mainland and we spent the day exploring it with stops at Carisbrooke Castle and Queen Victoria’s summer palace.

From the Isle of Wight, we headed west along the coast through Dorset to Sidmouth in Devon, where we stopped for a visit with Lionel and Marlene in their new, retirement home. They have a very nice house and it was fun to spend the afternoon with them before moving on to nearby Branscombe. The drive from the main road into Branscombe was as fascinating as the little village itself . . . along an eight mile, one lane road lined with ten foot hedge rows, which in many places formed complete tunnels over the road. When we finally arrived at Masons Arms, we felt like we’d driven through a time tunnel into an earlier century.

The Masons Arms Inn was our favorite lodging of the trip. This inn was established around 1360 as an inn for traveling smugglers along the remote Devon coastline and had retained its thatched roof, beamed ceilings and magnificent view of the surrounding countryside.. We had intended to stay overnight but were so enchanted by the locale that we extended our stay an extra day to do some hiking through fields, pastures and along the seaside cliffs to the next village . . . with a stop enroute to explore an underground limestone quarry, which dated back to Roman times and has produced much of the stone used to construct the great cathedrals in the south of England.

Reluctantly, we left Devon after just two days to head back to London, where we spent our final night in England with Pat and Ralph in Bletchingly near the Gatwick airport. They are always fun to be with and have really done a lot with both the house and garden since we last visited them.

All too soon our stay was over. Even ten days is hardly enough time to begin to sample all the back roads of England and we’re already talking about renting a cottage somewhere in England for an extended stay sometime in the not too distant future. If this is what retirement is all about, we should have done it a long time ago.

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