Saturday, December 31, 2011
Village of Enchanting Beauty
Nineteenth century writer and poet William Morris once described Bibury as “the most beautiful village in England.” It’s a view I find difficult to argue with.
Bibury is famous for Arlington Row, a row of medieval stone cottages. With their honey-colored stone and steep pitched roofs, they are among the most photographed images in Britain.
My dad moved to Bibury 10 years ago and visiting is always a treat. Situated in the Cotswolds, an area of gently rolling hills in the English countryside, Bibury exudes charm from every house and tree and meadow. Footpaths cross scenic hills and fields leading to rivers, woods, and charming country pubs. Life is unhurried and the past is ever present.
The village is popular with tourists from all over the world; they arrive in their hundreds on sunny summer days but also on the coldest winter day.
Arlington Row was built in 1380 as a monastic wool store and converted to the present day cottages in the 17th century. The cottages face out to a water meadow, known as Rack Isle, once used to dry the cloth for Arlington Mill on the other side, but now a wildlife preserve for water voles, frogs, and other animals. It takes its name from the wooden racks that were used to stretch the drying cloth.
There are some great places to eat and drink in the village, my favorite being the Catherine Wheel, which dates from the 15th century. But it‘s also fun to explore, and on many an occasion I'll drive through the countryside with my dad in search of country pubs further afield - and we have found a few.
A real treat is to get up early and walk along the River Coln, which runs through the village, and along Arlington Row as the first rays of sunlight kiss the limestone walls giving them a warm, luminous glow. Equally enjoyable is to walk the same route after dark when the stars in an ink blue sky sparkle above steeply-pitched slate roofs.
Spring is my favorite time to visit. Daffodils sway softly in fields filled with new-born lambs that skip joyfully up gentle inclines, their fresh white wool in sharp contrast to the lush green grass.
In summer I love to walk across the countryside. A favorite route is to the nearby village of Coln St. Aldwyns, a journey lasting roughly an hour. My dad and I once walked there together. We climbed over stone stiles, walked beside ancient dry stone walls, through woods and along pathways edged into the earth. We saw no people, just the occasional house in the distance, the golden-colored Cotswold stone blending into the land and the land into the sky.
In autumn, the smell of fallen leaves mixes with the rich clay earth. Smoke rises from cottage chimneys and fills the crisp air with the smell of burning wood.
In winter the light fades early. A walk at dusk along Water Lane, the narrow path that borders Rack Isle, reveals bare trees cloaked in the frozen embrace of frost.
A short walk from my dad’s house is the Saxon church of St. Mary. Tucked away in a tranquil setting the church dates from the 8th century, though Norman and Perpendicular styles can also be seen. The high, slender chancel arch is especially striking.
The entrance door is always unlocked so I often go inside, sit in one of the pews, and watch as rays of sunlight shine through the 13th century stained glass windows. I look at the plaques on the walls commemorating local men and the regiments they served. All left to fight for crown and country on foreign fields. None returned.
Outside in the churchyard, ancient gravestones covered in moss protrude through the earth. Next to the church is Bibury Court, a majestic Jacobean mansion, now a hotel, and set in six acres of grounds. The house itself was built in 1633 by the Sackville family, whose initials can still be seen carved over the entrance.
Access to Bibury Court is through a large wooden door set in an even larger stone wall that borders the churchyard. On the other side is an apple orchard, neatly clipped yew hedges, trees, arbors flanked by beds of lavender, vines and shrubs; meandering past on one side is the silvery river Coln.
It is the quintessential Englishness of Bibury that it so special. Even Hollywood used Arlington Row as part of the mythical village of 'Wall' in the 2007 film Stardust. I was visiting at the time as Bibury was transformed into a film set with bright lights, cameras, actors and...fake snow.
Other interest from this side of the Atlantic came in the form of Henry Ford who attempted to buy the cottages and ship them back to his home in Michigan. Fortunately the plan was blocked.
On a recent visit, long after the last tourist bus had departed, I stood on Swan Bridge, the river Coln flowing underneath. I watched as a silhouette of a white swan glided elegantly through the icy water; a black cousin followed closely behind. In the distance silhouetted against the darkening sky stood Arlington Row. Soft orange lights flickered through tiny windows in a scene both timeless and of its time.