Monday, 23 November 2009

'The wold is, in itself, an ugly country'

Back to the farm this weekend. Driving through the wind and rain on Friday was a reminder of the bleakness of the Cotswolds during the winter months. Cold too; colder than Oxford certainly: every few miles driving westwards, the ground rising, has the temperature on the in-car thermometer dropping half a degree. We left London in warm drizzle and arrived in Bibury in freezing rain.

Of course, the popular image of the Cotswolds, or at least that portrayed in the press, is that of a picturesque playground for film stars and the London rich: the Primrose Hills, if you like. Pretty much true.

What brought them there - along with the two-hour drive from London - is the area's chocolate boxery; the sort of thing that irritates the hell out of cultural critics, the ones that can't see a conventional image without defacing it in some way (sometimes with reason). One of AA Gill, Jonathan Glancey, or Jonathan Meades - I forget - claimed the honey-coloured villages of the Cotswolds made him want to vomit. It takes a lot of intelligence to justify a reaction like that, so hats off.

But its chocolate box period started relatively recently, and was really only made possible by the neglect contingent upon years of economic decline. In fact, until the post-WWII agricultural revival, it was an area that had been stuck in an impressive, hundreds-of-years-long economic decline. The substitution of cotton for wool, foreign competition, changing fashions and the shifting of textile production to Yorkshire contributed to its fall from the wool-producing pre-eminence it established in medieval times.

So, the good times left some superb churches, manor houses and cottages, all built in the local stone and all on wool. And then the lack of further good times helped prevent their being demolished or otherwise improved.

Lovely buildings, rolling hills, not too far from London - surely tourism arrived in the Cotswolds as early as anywhere? No. The area was regarded as a dismal location during the first age of popular leisure by such opinion formers as Dr Johnson and William Cobbett. This from Rural Rides:
This wold is, in itself, an ugly country. The soil is what is called a stone brash below, with a reddish earth mixed with little bits of this brash at top, and, for the greater part of the wold, even this soil is very shallow; and as fields are divided by walls made of this brash, and as there are for a mile or two together, no trees to be seen, and as the surface is not smooth and green like the downs, this is a sort of country having less to please the eye than any other that I have ever seen...

It took a revolution in taste to create the possibility that this 'ugly country' might seem beautiful. That Romantic and epochal taste-maker William Morris did his bit (describing Bibury as 'the most beautiful village in England', for instance). But I'm convinced that it was the introduction of central heating that provided the foundation for the Cotswolds current popularity.

And exposure to a cold, wet November weekend reminds you how those hills are only considered a friendly habitat because of domestic technology. Driving towards Cirencester, the wolds rise and dip, bare and whale-backed, encrusted with barnacle-like dry stone walls. The colours are drab: ploughed brown and lichen-y grey-green. Liminal colours, certainly not dead but hardly vibrant with life. There's one stretch of road which contains as much old-man's-beard as I've ever seen before. In winter, it hangs on the denuded trees like scragged corpses suspended by a minatory game-keeper.

It's only when you reach a village, strung along a river valley like a trinket fallen into the fold of a cushion, that you receive some friendly impression. But look closer: the footprints of buildings are small and they have low ceilings; small and low too are the rather reticent windows, pulled back under the eaves; in all, they're designed to present a small target to the blasting weather.

The bleakness, however, has its compensations. The hills have an austereness that's desperately welcome in our colour-drenched, visually-busy world. There's no vegetative clutter as you might find in one of the more fertile western counties. Crisply curled lichen provides a sparse detail, returned as industrial dirt is no longer blown over from South Wales, and readily visible on bone-clean branches.

Walking on top of one of these wolds with a gusting westerly misting your face, you have the feeling of walking on the top of the world, a restoratively austere and uncluttered one. The alleys and canyons of the city are infinitely distant. A reminder that our appreciation of landscape is always changing, always contingent, always defined by what it isn't.


Francis Sedgemore said...

Here's son of Kent Chris Wood performing a musical version of Frank Mansell's ballad poem The Cottager's reply

The irony is that among the largely celebrity audience at the BBC Folk Awards ceremony there will no doubt be a few Cotswold second-home owners. It's an irony that would not be lost on the canny Mr Wood.

Brit said...

Returning home has got you a-waxin' lyrical I see, Gaw. Very nice. I like the observation about the restorative austerity. London is so shouty.

worm said...

Its definately true that people seem to know the Cotswolds as a sheltered, bucolic place when it is in large part a barren, windswept one. Stow on the Wold was built in a very exposed position and can be seriously windy, wet and chilly! I guess the sheep like it there for a reason!

great writing as ever

Gadjo Dilo said...

Yes, lovely and very evocative stuff Mr Gaw, I particularly liked the old man's beard for some reason.

Gaw said...

Francis: Thanks for that. You've provoked me to post on this thorny issue (next one along).

Brit: London is indeed shouty but it's the visual shoutiness that's worst - where I live is strangely quiet. Thanks for the nice comment about the niceness.

Worm: Stow certainly presents some contrasts, the chocolatiest boxiest chocolate box from some angles but a windswept waste from others! Thanks!

Gadjo: Thanks! It's funny old stuff. There's about 100 yds of it covering everything in that place then none for miles around. Strange.

Hey Skipper said...

I was lucky enough to live in the Cotswolds for awhile (Duns Tew, and Ascott under Whychwood).

Loved it. I have never seen a place more soothing to the eye.

As a Lance Armstrong wannabe, my favorite leisure activity is getting out on my road bike. By a very long way, I have never found a better place for that than the Cotswolds.

Well, except for pubs. Sometimes I was only getting 2.5 miles to the pint.

Gaw said...

We had an American base in nearby Fairford. I can't imagine any military base in a foreign land has had a more harmonious relationship with its host population. With the exception of the odd CND-type, the Americans were universally loved. I believe it was reciprocated - there were a lot of converts to warm beer and fish and chips.