On our second morning in Bath, we woke up determined to take the 6-mile Bath Skyline walk, but our host at Poplar House offered such a torrent of options and glowing descriptions, we soon found ourselves heading instead to three historic Cotswold villages: Castle Combe, Corsham, and Lacock.
This new itinerary proved problematic. First, because it involved driving. On tiny roads. And then, Castle Combe, a village dating from the Middle Ages that has been described as “the prettiest village in England” did not really fire our imaginations. The clustering of unspoiled, quaint cottages seemed like a stage set crawling with tourists. True, the short heavy wooden doors were beautifully strapped and studded with old iron. True, the stone cottages couldn’t have been more charming. Various films we’d never heard of were shot there, and also some parts of the tv series, Downton Abbey. There are actual residents of Castle Combe, but they hardly showed themselves. Instead we saw tourist bits—a tiny souvenir shop, an honor system rack of baked goods, and some hotels.
Jim thought that maybe the church and churchyard might provide interest, and tried to convince Michelle. “An unknown writer might be buried there.”
Michelle said that that was probably true of every cemetery.
At Corsham, we stopped for lunch at the Flemish Weavers, an eccentric English pub with a sprawling garden and good food; we had a toasted cheddar and onion sandwich on thick brown bread that was exponentially better than the sum of its parts.
We’d been coached to go to Corsham Court, a great old pile with acres and acres of idyllic parkland—but starting the day before (October 1st), it was only open on the weekends. We admired the topiary bulging in vaguely animal shapes above the high walls, then strolled to the gates to have a look—they were wide open. A sign said the park was indeed closed, but small clusters of people strolled about. So we strolled in—and nobody stopped us. Turns out, we’d stumbled into the Bath Spa University Creative Writing campus. A young male creative writer walked his bicycle and said he’d just had a class with Faye Weldon—and then told us that the topiary had been shaped from yew trees, which were deadly poisonous in every part—bark, needles, wood, and berry pit—except for the berry itself. Supposedly you can eat the berry, if you spit out the pit. Although the sculpted hedges produced thousands of the gay red berries, we were not tempted to sample them, and neither was our informant. He suggested we go to their café and see if Faye Weldon—or anyone else on the staff—was there. I was hoping to see Gerard Woodward, who has written an amazing trilogy of novels in which alcoholism and drug addiction ravage a family--the glue-huffing mother is a particularly memorable character. (August, I’ll Go to Bed at Noon, and A Curious Earth). But neither Weldon or Woodward were in in evidence. So we wandered out into the parklands and admired the manmade prospect—vast fields, sheep, mighty trees, a twinkling lake in the distance--ready to be chased off at any moment. We must have looked convincingly enough like creative writers because nobody apprehended us. Soon enough, we left on our own.
The third town, Lacock, turned out to be another favorite of location scouts as well as home to an enormous, historic abbey. In fact, the movieof Downton Abbey was shot there in the last few weeks. Lacock was also Cranford in the BBC series made from Elizabeth Gaskell novels, and served as the town in one or another production of Pride and Prejudice. Are we a little abashed that somehow, these cinematic locations worked their way into our literary tour? Yes, a little. The easy conflating of the literary and the cinematic is something that this trip has made us think about. Certainly, at Bath’s Jane Austen Center, it is understood that these days many people experience Jane Austen’s work only through the movies, and not through her books.
Outside the abbey, Lacock seemed less like a movie set and more like a functioning town with businesses and contemporary cars and workmen. Jim dragged us into a small, old church, which turned out to be the site of the wedding of the daughter of HRH Camillia Parker-Bowles. A photo album next to the hymnals had pictures of the bridal couple and the many Royals in attendance. Outside, Michelle admired the neat trench being dug to accommodate new plumbing.
With a map provided by the tourism office, we took the Lacock Riverside Walk, an easy ramble through pastures by the river. We enjoyed the bright mild afternoon, the cows in the fields we crossed, the “kissing gates” (which let humans through but never livestock), the lazy saddle-brown Avon wending south, the fishermen casting while thigh deep in their waders, and all the dogs larking about in the sunshine.
This was also the day we were cursed by GPS. After Lacock, the GPS system in our little KIA, perhaps because we had been making fun of its accent, took us on narrow windy roads, between high hedgerows, and up and down steep hills to a random destination twenty miles from our hotel. We switched to the GPS on Jim’s old iPhone, outfitted with a British SIM card, and returned to Poplar House in one piece. After dinner a mile from the hotel, Jim thought he could navigate back on his own and got us just a bit lost. Now it was the iPhone’s turn. It rescued us, but at a price. The iPhone directed us onto a long winding dirt road, hardly wider than the car. In the pitch dark, we climbed up one side of a hill and down the other—no driveways or houses in sight nor (thankfully) other vehicles. Michelle became increasingly convinced that we would end up in a ditch or gnawed by animals. She still doesn’t believe we made it back alive.