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There is an England that exists in the dreams of many and the reality of few: quiet country lanes weaving between rolling farmers’ fields, small villages of cosy cottages, imposing manor houses and small parish churches, all dating back generations.
In search of the same, one Summer’s Friday evening we left the madness of London Paddington station bound for the historic market town of Moreton-in-Marsh in the Cotswolds. Bikes stowed in the luggage carriage at the front of the train, to no one’s delight but our own we squeezed our way through the packed standing room only train to the sparsely populated oasis of the 1st class carriage at the far rear of the train: a £20 upgrade well spent.
By 9:15pm we were crossing the ancient lintels into the delightful Manor House Hotel. Housed in an original 16th century manor house, and a former coaching inn for centuries, more recently it has been sympathetically turned into a 35 bedroom boutique hotel. With our bikes kindly stored in a hotel outbuilding, we followed the warren of stairs, low doors and tartan corridors to our country house styled bedroom on the second floor.
We dined briefly from the á la carte menu in the orangerie overlooking the gardens before an early night in the comfort of a sumptuous king sized bed, thick with pillows and crisp white bed linens. The breakfast service was of predictably high quality, with the delicious novelty of mulberry jam from the Manor House’s 350 year old mulberry tree in the garden. There was no lingering over such historic preserves, however.
A leisurely day of pedaling through villages of flowering gardens, honey coloured stone cottages and undulating Cotswold hills awaited. We struck north-east, a few miles to the village of Todenham, which dates back as far as 804 and the antics of the lesser known historical figure of Etheric son of Ethelmund. He was of no consequence to us today however and we continued on through Great Wolfood, Barton-on-the-Heath and Long Compton. The country lanes rolled and blessed were the down hill sections, as our thighs screamed ‘take the car next time’ puffing up hill. The occasional cars whizzing by were missing the tranquility and the magic, however.
We bypassed the Rollright Stones at Long Compton, a collection three Neolithic and Bronze Age stone circles, in favour of the slightly less ruinous Chastleton House. Made famous by the popular BBC TV drama Wolf Hall, Chastleton House dates back to 1607 and was held in the same family for over 400 years.
Now a National Trust property, the Jacobian mansion has been ‘restored’ to the state in which it had formerly been kept: loving disrepair. It is said that the generations of owners all struggled to maintain the property. Hence, walking around today one sees not a shining restoration but a more believable depiction of life inside the house over the last few hundred years.
We trod the creaking wooden floorboards and large cold flag stones of the House, as large portraits of former owners loomed large over us. Our eyes wandered around the furnished rooms, still displaying the design and interior decor of a hundred years past or more.
Antiquated ornaments of everyday life adorn the walls, tables and shelves. Every room has a story, from hidden trap doors to the meaning of carvings and depictions in the wood work. Little imagination is required to drift back a century or two to Chastleton’s heyday.
Beyond being the setting of Wolf Hall for the BBC drama of the same name, Chastleton House is also famous for a quick thinking wife who hid her Royalist husband in a cupboard above the porch during the English Civil War. The searching Roundhead soldiers could not find him and lost his trail when the lady of the house served them beer laced with laudanum, sending them to sleep whilst her husband made off on one of the soldier’s horses.
Our departure was a little less dramatic. The adjacent church was serving teas, coffees and cakes to raise money for the nearby Katharine House Hospice. Taking in this most English of scenes, we sat repairing for a few moments over coffee and cake in the sunshine.
Our cycle back to Moreton-in-Marsh weaved more of the splendid rolling country lanes, awash with sunshine. Aromas of freshly cut grass and those of a more agricultural nature wafted by.
Parish churches were hives of activity with wedding season underway. Grooms and ushers in long- tailed morning suits crunched up the gravel paths clutching Orders of Service and elderly guests. Summer dresses and feathered fascinators fluttered in the breeze.
Arriving back at the Manor House Hotel, we snuck into their secret garden at the back of the property to rest our weary legs. To aid recovery, we supped upon the hotel’s signature mulberry infused cocktail, made from the fruit of their own tree.
A more quintessentially Cotswold day we could not have wished to have had.
Title photo courtesy of: Cotswolds Adventures