Every morning I enjoy a cup of Earl Grey tea. This tradition was inspired by my first trip to Europe when I was five years old and I traveled with my family to London. High Tea at Harrods or The Palms inside the Langham is a tradition for our family. We have been fortunate enough to be in London several times during my seventeen years. But as wonderful and exciting as London is, there is so much more to England outside of the bustling capital city. I have come to prefer the English countryside with its small villages lost in time, or its pastoral landscapes dotted with manor houses. All constructed of the famous honey-colored Jurassic era stones quarried west of London. Enjoying tea in the English countryside is definitely the idyllic life.
The current COVID 19 pandemic has brought jet-setting to a screeching halt. But someday soon we will board planes to our favorite destinations with new appreciation, having been prevented from seeing them for months. I encourage you to escape to the beautiful countryside of England and discover history and natural beauty away from past-paced London.
One of my favorite areas just an hour west of Heathrow is the Cotswolds, stretching from Stratford-Upon-Avon to Bath. Renting a car is easy. Driving on the wrong side of the road can be a challenge, but just remember “little left, big right” when making turns. The Cotswolds is an area of 780 square miles, about 25 miles wide and 90 miles long west of London. It encompasses the counties of Gloucestershire, Oxfordshire and Worcestershire among others. There are many picturesque, rose-vined towns and villages with memorable names like Stow-on-the-Wold, Bourton-on-the-Water and Chipping Camden. The Cotswolds towns made of honey stone popped up in the Middle Ages thanks to the prosperous wool trade, most successful between 1250-1350AD. In fact Cotswolds means “sheep on the hillside”. Once the wool trade began to decline, the towns were frozen in time and offer today’s tourists a visual glimpse into history from centuries ago. Now the Cotswolds has become fashionable with wealthy Londoners who wish to escape the city on weekends and tourists from the world over.
There is much to see and do in the Cotwolds. You could simply enjoy driving town to town and taking in the lovely views, or engage in activities like falconing, biking, horseback riding and fishing on the Windrush River. Stratford-Upon-Avon is a larger town famous for Shakepeare’s home. There’s also beautiful Sudeley Castle where Henry VIII’s last wife Catherine Parr is interred; the only monarch buried at a private home in England. The grounds at Stowe are a nature lover’s paradise and the Hidcote Gardens would inspire the greenest thumbs of professional gardeners. Blenheim Palace is the home of the Duke of Marlborough and the birthplace of Winston Churchill. Bath is the southern-most Cotswolds town famous for its preserved Roman Baths and nearby Stonehenge. The little taverns and pubs along the way provide the most delicious food at little cost. I always recommend the fish and chips which England is famous for. One of the most unspoiled Cotwolds towns is tiny Snowshill. Snowshill sits beyond a field of lavender alone about ten minutes from the village of Broadway. Tourists come to see the Snowshill Manor, part of the National Historic Trust, but we come for the quiet and simplicity. It is comprised of one circular street set with charming cottages, a central church, St. Barnabas, and a small pub where the Steak and Ale pie is better than anything you could order at a fancy restaurant. There are two favorite hotels our family enjoys: The Lygon Arms in Broadway (Oliver Cromwell stayed here) and The Old Swan and Minster Mill in Minster Lovell (a favorite of former prime minister Tony Blair) The Old Swan and Minster Mill is the only hotel in the world that derives its electricity from an Archimedes Screw in the Windrush River.
The Cotswolds isn’t the only pastoral part of England to see. South of London is beautiful Surrey, famous for its summer gardens and the place the Magna Carta was signed in 1215. Surrey is not quite “country” but still worth a trip outside of London proper to see. My favorite place there is Hampton Court Palace, built by Cardinal Wolsey and gifted to Henry VIII. The king’s original kitchens are still there, exactly as they were during his reign in the 1500’s. One can just imagine the kitchen workers preparing his enormous meals. There is also the magnificent Kew Gardens and Guilford Castle to explore.
A special honey-colored place to see is derived from my favorite show Downton Abbey. Highclere Castle, home to the Earl and Countess Carnarvon, is 45 miles west of London in the town of Newbury. Only open for a few weeks in summer and a week at Christmas, visiting Highclere was a highlight of a trip outside of London in August of 2019. Built in 1679, it is the family home of the Herbert family, the Earls of Carnarvon. The most famous Earl was the fifth, Lord Carnarvon who, along with Howard Carter, famously discovered King Tut’s tomb in 1922. In the lower level of the house is an Egyptian Exhibition about their discovery. The home and its grounds are beautiful and elegant. A must-see for Downton Abbey fans but also anyone interested in the Edwardian Era as the house and its furnishings are perfectly preserved from that era. My tour guide surprised me with a signed copy of the Countess’ book Countess Catherine and the Real Downton Abbey. What a treasure!
So although I look forward to the racing black cabs, changing of the guard and crowds at Trafalgar Square, I prefer the honey stone cottages of the quieter pastures outside of London. It is why I take my tea with honey.