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HOME AT FIRST's

ADVENTURE

THE COTSWOLDS-

What?! Leave home for Christmas?! Blasphemy!

 

THIS ARTICLE FIRST APPEARED IN OCTOBER, 2005.                 MOST RECENT UPDATE: 2014.

 

 

I. CHRISTMAS EVE

        The long shopping list looked pretty routine — with two noticeable exceptions. In 35 years of marriage we had never before shopped for Christmas pudding or Christmas crackers. Still, the Tesco hypermarket looked familiar, crowded on this Christmas Eve day with stressed-out, last minute shoppers getting ready for company.

 

And, just like at home in America on the eve of a big

Welcome home! The front door of our 16th century Christmas cottage. Photo © Home At First.
WELCOME HOME! THE FRONT
DOOR TO OUR 16TH CENTURY
ENGLISH COTTAGE.
Photo © HOME AT FIRST

holiday, the English supermarket was more restive than festive.
         Somehow we managed to get several bags of groceries and all five of us into our small Vauxhall rental car. Fortunately, it was a short trip back to the little 16th century cottage we had rented, although made fifty percent longer than normal by heavy traffic on the highway. It was Friday afternoon, and get-away time at the start of the long holiday weekend here in rural western England. Saturday would be Christmas, and Sunday Boxing Day — what we anticipated would be Christmas, Part Two. We noticed cars full of packages and kids with faces pressed against the windows. More than a few had evergreen trees strapped to the roof or sticking out of the boot.
         Back at the cottage we unloaded the car and stocked the larder full. My wife and I retreated to our upstairs bedroom to wrap gifts. My son and his wife did the same.

 

His mother-in-law, who had flown in from Sweden to join

us for Christmas, took command in the kitchen. Christmas Eve night is the traditional Swedish celebration of Christmas, and Ingrid was preparing the hearty Christmas stew we would have before heading off to church.

         The weather was cold and damp, but the gas fire in the ancient fireplace kept the room warm. Hanging from the rough-hewn oaken mantle were five stockings we had brought with us from Pennsylvania. My wife and I filled them with lots of little gifts we had carried with us, plus fruits and nuts from the Tesco hypermarket. Several larger gifts leaned against the stone sides of the fireplace away from the heat of the open gas flame. My wife and I had purchased a few of these at London’s Petticoat Lane market and along Oxford Street before coming to the Cotswolds. Others came from Christmas markets in Sweden and English towns. It would be a rich Christmas, with each of us getting and giving to each other. By prior agreement, we had decided to

The gas fire in the ancient fireplace kept the room warm. Photo © Home At First.
A GAS FIRE IN THE ANCIENT
FIREPLACE KEPT THE ROOM WARM.
Photo © HOME AT FIRST

limit the size and number of gifts, if not the quality or

 

the sentiment. No one wanted to be overladen on the journey home.

         In the glow of the fireplace we toasted the season with glögg, a warm Swedish mulled wine wassail. Then we retired to the candlelit supper table, where Ingrid’s

 

Christmas stew fortified us further.

Wonderfully, the church choir remained unaffected by the chill, and their voices soared in the grand gothic reaches of the place. Photo © Home At First.
THE CHOIR'S VOICES SOARED
IN THE GRAND GOTHIC
REACHES OF THE PLACE.
Photo © HOME AT FIRST

         We needed fortification. We had decided to walk to the local Christmas Eve church service, 35 minutes away. Although the temperature outside was just above freezing, roses still bloomed in the gardens of homes we passed. A few houses were decorated with electric lights, but displays were very modest by American standards. Christmas trees were visible inside many English living rooms. Streets were largely empty — traffic had "calmed" since the height of the afternoon Christmas rush. We were well bundled against the damp and cold. Though someone occupied every seat, temperatures were not much warmer inside the medieval stone church, and many worshippers wore overcoats and gloves. Wonderfully, the church choir remained unaffected by the chill, and their voices soared in the grand gothic reaches of the place. The Anglican priest, like ministers I have heard in American churches at Christmas and Easter, was careful to take the opportunity to admonish his overflow audience that they should

 

strongly consider attending the regular services held

each Sunday in the same location. Kindly, he shook our ungloved hands as we filed out after the service feeling our spirits lifted if a little guilty for being infrequent churchgoers.

         The walk homeward was Dickensian. In the full moonlight our breath steam was heavy with condensation. I imagined glassy footpaths lurking in each dark corner and hoarfrost icing on the shrubbery. Churchgoers in Christmas finery strolled high-mindedly arm-in-arm. Coats unbuttoned, a few high-spirited revelers poured out of pubs laughing and stumbling in the streetlights. One or two poor besotted young men huddled low in their greatcoats away from moon and lamplight, and from inquiring eyes. As we entered our street a milky blue light shone out from a neighboring house: a giant screen TV filled a complete wall of a small living room in a centuries old cottage. A vintage American western was playing on British television on the last hours of Christmas Eve.
         Back inside our rented 16th century cottage, we huddled round the gas fire, and warmed ourselves further with hot glögg. In the Swedish tradition, we each opened one

Although the temperature outside was just above freezing, roses still bloomed in the gardens of homes we passed. Photo © Home At First.
ROSES STILL BLOOMED.
Photo © HOME AT FIRST

gift before midnight brought Christmas Day and sent us to bed.  
 

 

II. CHRISTMAS DAY
         Christmas morning came quietly and late without the excitement of children. The heavy duvet was too comfortable to voluntarily leave. But the sunrays streaming in the little leaded bedroom window insisted, and, with the urging of my bladder, I was finally induced to get up.

         I wasn’t the first out of bed. Someone was already in the kitchen. Coffee was already brewing. Presumably, the kettle was on for morning tea. I put on heavy woolen socks and a sweater before going onto the bare wooden kitchen floor. My son’s wife, Lisa, was inside the kitchen making the coffee and tea. My wife, coffee cup in hand, was sitting at the kitchen table in her heavy robe talking with her daughter-in-law. Lisa’s mother was already awake, too, curled up with a book in front the gas fire in the living room. My son was in the shower. I requested a

Christmas morning, before gift opening there's breakfast: steaming, buttered, sugared rice porridge, toast and jam, and fresh fruit. Photo © Home At First.
FATHER & DAUGHTER-IN-LAW
AWAITING CHRISTMAS PORRIDGE

Photo © HOME AT FIRST

cup of tea and joined Ingrid by the fire.

 

         The gifts were being ignored. Breakfast first: steaming, buttered, sugared rice porridge, toast and jam, and fresh fruit. Then we retired to the fireplace for the American Christmas morning ritual of gift-opening.

         There were no large or lavish gifts and few enough of them — 3 each plus a Christmas stocking — yet the process still consumed more than two hours, ending after noon. In the interim the sun had reached its low December zenith and had managed to warm the day into the upper 40’s. My wife announced that she would be preparing an Anglo-American Christmas dinner and would require three hours of peace. We would be free to go walking.

         Shortly after 1PM we tied on our hiking boots and headed into the fields west of our village. Although we were following a map, a lack of trail signs, muddy footpaths, and high hedgerows made it difficult to find our way. No matter. Getting lost in England only means you must seek directions from a stranger — a delightful prospect that promises better conversation than is available in most American social gatherings. Happily, we discovered we were not the only ones to be walking in the hills, fields and forests on Christmas Day. We spoke with everyone we met, enjoyed every conversation, and always received helpful advice. That most of it was inaccurate mattered little. The setting sun and rising moon told us where west and east were found. By walking toward the moon we made it home after three hours of walking,

 

after sunset, and after becoming cold and hungry.

For the next two hours we worked our way through the turkey, stuffing, two kinds of potatoes, green beans, red and white wine, hot rolls, Christmas pudding, coffee and tea. Photo © Home At First.
FIRST, THE CHRISTMAS CRACKERS
NEEDED TENDING TO.

Photo © HOME AT FIRST

         The glowing fireplace welcomed us only slightly more than the beautiful Christmas dinner table. Candlelight reflected among the wine and water glasses and off the gold foil of the Christmas crackers. Kitchen smells promised roast turkey and all the traditional side dishes. My wife’s big smile announced confidently that all the elements of the feast were coming together at once, and that we should come to the table. First, the Christmas crackers needed tending to. While the explosions were disappointing, the prizes were keepers. Mine presented me with a sterling silver bookmark I’m hanging on to.

 

         For the next two hours we worked our way

through the turkey, stuffing, two kinds of potatoes, green beans, red and white wine, hot rolls, Christmas pudding, coffee and tea. The table talk slowed only when we retired to the fireplace, when our tired legs, the warm fire, the wine, and the tryptophan quickly had us dozing.

 

 

III. BOXING DAY

         Sunday — Boxing Day. The day after Christmas is a public holiday in Britain and many other places. Tradition holds December 26 as a day to present small gifts (presumably in small boxes) to deserving members of the underclasses. Lacking footmen, valets, porters, butlers, cooks, concierges, scullery maids or the like to honor with our presents, we decided to rise early and go walking.

         This time we took the car up into the highest Cotswolds. As we gained altitude the air temperature dropped. We drove carefully. The sunny day made the roads treacherous. Bright sun melted the frost on some roads. When shadows fell across the wet roads patches of black ice would form.

         It didn't take long to reach our first destination, the ominously named village of Lower Slaughter. At 10AM the village church was convening. The English sun was still low in the sky and shadows were as long as they are at gloaming. The glinting angle of the sun melted the frost on the grass into wet diamonds. The little River Eye was a ribbon mirror reflecting golden Cotswold cottages in the bright, frosty, stillness. We found the trail marker pointing northwest across fields upstream ¾-mile to Upper Slaughter village. Perfect weather for walking on Boxing Day, and the Slaughters in all their

The little River Eye was a ribbon mirror reflecting golden Cotswold cottages in the bright, frosty, stillness. Photo © Home At First.
THE RIVER EYE WAS A MIRROR REFLECTING
GOLDEN COTSWOLDS COTTAGES.

Photo © HOME AT FIRST

peaceful irony were ours.

 

         The good folk of Upper and Lower Slaughter must tire of throngs of summer visitors poking around their perfect villages, pointing cameras shamelessly. I can imagine that the attention-plagued citizens of Upper and Lower Slaughter must maintain a certain stoicism that borders on the cynical. But, on this fine winter’s day, an armistice existed in the Slaughters, and we few visitors were warmed with the sincere greetings of the season from the local people we met along the way.

         Noon was fast upon us, and, as there was no pub or restaurant open in the Slaughters, we returned to our car and set off to one of my favorite English pubs, the Mount Inn in Stanton. Gaining more altitude, we left the frost zone and crossed the snow line. The Mount Inn is on the very edge of Stanton, another perfect Cotswold village that draws great attention to itself by remaining frozen in aspic.

         Stanton was emptier of visitors than the Slaughters. Until we arrived at the Mount Inn, that is. The Mount was lively, even boisterous, warm, and hospitable. The real ale served here comes from the small Donnington Brewery in nearby Stow-on-the-Wold. The food—hearty pub soups and sandwiches — was excellent and substantial enough for long distance walkers on the Cotswold Way who pass by the inn at all times of year.

 

         After lunch we decided to set off on foot up the

At the hilltop our trail T-intersected the main branch of the Cotswold Way following the north-south ridgeline. Photo © Home At First.
AT THE HILLTOP OUR TRAIL
INTERSECTED
THE MAIN
BRANCH OF THE
COTSWOLD WAY.

Photo © HOME AT FIRST

Cotswold Way. Up is the operative word here. From the Mount Inn, a branch of the Cotswold Way climbs steeply twenty minutes east to one of the high points of the Cotswolds Hills midway between Stanton and Snowshill Manor. We passed quickly from a wood into open fields, our shoe tops covered in powder. The trail traced a rill that wound its way to the hilltop. Three-quarters of the way up we heard the muffled drumming of horse hooves in the field to the left of the trail. Five riders of mixed ages galloped by us toward a low fence and a hedgerow. Four of the horses cleared the fence—the youngest rider, an early teenager, went around—and all jumped the hedge. Two minutes later the same group returned, jumped both obstacles in full stride, and waved to us before disappearing to the west.
        At the hilltop our trail T-intersected the main branch of the Cotswold Way following the north-south ridgeline. We turned south, joining a large family group enjoying a Boxing Day outing with their Border collie. Their obvious joy told us

 

that a white Christmas was as precious a gift to this English

family as it was to us Americans and Swedes. In another ten minutes the Cotswold Way began a steep descent down Shenberrow Hill west into a wood and into the sunset. Twenty minutes and five hundred feet lower, we emerged from the forest in the fading twilight at the southeastern edge of Stanton. In another ten minutes we back at our car by the Mount Inn, and on our way back to our own classic village, to curl up by the fire after a supper of turkey leftovers and Swedish stew. Each of us had traveled far to come together for three days of peace at Christmastime. Now, many months later, it's easy to return to that time and place and find peace again.
 

 

EPILOGUE: Travelers travel. We explore geographies and cultures that captivate our curiosity. Even at Christmastime. Perhaps especially at Christmastime. Those for whom Christmas is the ultimate family gathering time may find having Christmas at a dream destination the perfect family holiday — and an ideal Christmas gift. Bring your holiday traditions with you, and expect to discover new ways of celebrating the season that you will want to add to your family's traditions. The experience will be unforgettable.

 

 

Learn how to plan your own Christmas in The Cotswolds
or elsewhere through Britain and Ireland with Home At First.

Home At First offers travel to the Cotswolds and 16 other regions of Britain and Ireland.
Each region promises an unforgettable Christmas holiday.
Minimum stay is 7 nights of Home At First lodgings.
Home At First will help you design the trip that’s perfect for your needs,
including lodgings, car rental, and all the air transportation you need.

DREAM HOLIDAYS BEGIN HERE:

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