Berlin Battleground

This morning I witnessed a quintessential Berlin scene, a clash of the old and new city in the fertile gentrification battleground of Mitte, although gentrification has arguably long ago won in this neighborhood and old Berlin is being represented by a lad of not more than thirty. He is drunk at 10:30 in the morning and has draped himself on a stoop adjacent to a popular Portuguese coffee shop. His bike lies beside him. A big baguette sandwich in a plastic bag, a bottle of water, a jumbo can of beer and what looks like a bottle of salad dressing are in the basket.

Across the sidewalk a yummy mummy—new Berlin—is wearing a Megan Draper-worthy getup: a pale blue trapeze cotton dress with elasticized smocking along the shoulders and ivory cap-toed shoes with square two-inch heels. She is changing her toddler’s shitty diaper on a bench built around a tree, and she keeps pausing to pull her dress back down on her shoulders as if to assert her chicness despite her current task. The clean lines of her brunette bob obscure her face as she leans down to finish the deed.

Meanwhile, the mohawked drunk lad has taken to amusing himself by putting the screw cap from his empty half pint of liquor on his eye, monocle-style. Yummy mummy’s toddler is delighted by this and they exchange nonsensical ramblings for about sixty seconds while yummy mummy monitors the situation. Just when it seems toddler might go in for a close up with mohawked drunk, she gets distracted by a cushion. It belongs on one of the café chairs and the toddler throws it on the ground and stomps on it to her mother’s delighted relief. The drunk stands up and walks to a parked car to admire his screw-cap monocle in the reflection of the window, then walks back to his stoop, lies down, and continues his now audience-less mumblelogue. For now, both old and new Berlin have held their ground.

Berlin Cycling

Walled Gardens

I first noticed the Kleingarten as my plane was making its final descent into Tegel, patches of green lining the Berlin-Spandau shipping canal just south of the airport. Translating as “small gardens,” these allotments are more enchanting than the prosaic English term implies. They’re also a staple of modern German society, with an estimated 70,000 in Berlin alone.

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A retreat in the Kleingartenanlage Bornholm

I got a closer look at allotment culture by cycling on the bike path that runs along the canal, starting near the Hamburger Bahnhof in Mitte and heading northwest. In less than twenty minutes you reach the entrance for the beach at Plötzensee, and not long after you’re riding alongside the lake’s Kleingartenkolonie. There are no cars, just tanned Germans pruning, weeding, or enjoying a drink in the sun of their gardens. But these postage stamp-sized plots are more than just rural oases plonked down amidst acres of urban apartment blocks. While you’re not allowed to live in them full-time, all the allotments have structures, ranging from cheerfully painted sheds to mock-hunting lodges—complete with antlers over the front door—to McMansions to rival those found in any self-respecting suburban enclave. The Kleingarten continued unabated as far as I rode, to Tegeler See, Berlin’s second largest lake situated just northwest of the airport.

On the return leg of the cycle, I veered off the canal-side path and rode along one of the interior lanes of the Kleingartenkolonie Plötzensee. Here middle-aged women busily snipped away at their shrubs. Most used electronic clippers, but one younger woman was wielding a pair of old-school, over-sized scissors, a scene that reminded me of the pristine neighborhood exterior shots in Edward Scissorhands. Later I read that allotment clubs typically have strict rules, from hedge height to the ratio of fruit to flowers to vegetables grown on your plot.

An allotment with a sense of humor, meters from the old East/West border crossing

An allotment with a sense of humor, meters from the old East/West border crossing

According to a BBC article, allotments were first setup in Germany in the 1800s as an antidote to the country’s rapid industrialization, becoming an important source of food during the two world wars. There’s a more recent historical connection in Stasiland, a tremendous non-fiction book I’m currently reading about the lives of ordinary Germans in the GDR. One of its central stories revolves around Miriam who, at the age of sixteen, made an impetuous attempt to escape across the Wall near Bornholmer Strasse. The Kleingartenanlage Bornholm I butted right up against the border, which ran through adjacent train tracks. Her attempt starts like this:

“Miriam climbed through and over the fences separating the gardens, trying to get closer to the Wall. ‘It was dark and I was lucky—later I learned that they usually patrolled the gardens as well.’  She got as far as she could go but not to the Wall, because there was this ‘great fat hedge’ growing in front of it. She rummaged around in someone’s tool shed for a ladder, and found one. She put it against the hedge and climbed up. She took a good long look around….Between her and the west there was a wire mesh fence, a patrol strip, a barbed-wire fence, a twenty-metre-wide asphalt street for the personnel carriers and a footpath…”

This morning I rode my bike to see the Bornholm allotments in the northwest corner of Prenzlauer Berg, not too far from my apartment in the old East. To get to them, I crossed the Bösebrücke, the border crossing between East and West Berlin that was the first to open on November 9, 1989, when a socialist party bureaucrat mistakenly announced that crossing points would be open effective immediately, precipitating the fall of the Wall. There are a few pieces of the Wall left as a memorial there—now known as Platz des 9. November 1989—but to get a sense of what Miriam saw you have to go a few kilometers away to a re-creation of the setup at the Berlin Wall Memorial on Bernauer Strasse. With its mingling tourists, it gives a benign, day-lit impression of what a teenage Miriam encountered as she peered over that hedge.

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The Monument in Memory of the Divided City and the Victims of Communist Tyranny

Back in the Kleingartenanlage Bornholm I walked my bike around the narrow pathways. Fruit trees were heavy with apples, pears, and plums, and there was little evidence of the hipster takeover some claim is happening in allotments around the city. There were enough garden ornaments to populate a miniature golf course—not just gnomes, but windmills and donkeys and wagon wheels—a display which, as far as I could tell, was completely without irony. Unlike the allotments at Plötzensee in the West, Bornholm was a ramschackle affair. Gardens were lush and overgrown, with sunflowers and roses and canna lillies higher than my head, perhaps a sign that, twenty-six years later, residents still have a lingering distaste for the rules of the GDR. As for Miriam, her escape attempt is just the beginning of her bewildering tale of life before and after the Wall. It’s well worth reading Stasiland for her story alone.

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A Bornholm Kleingarten


The Queen of Berlin


The Queen of Berlin works at a hairdresser in Prenzlauer Berg. She’s not the delicate flower with stocking-seam tattoos who does my cut and color, but rather the statuesque woman who shampoos. She has a shaved head—a note of irony I appreciate in an apprentice hairdresser—and her neck and upper chest are covered in black and red tattoos: a dragonfly, dahlias, some words. Her nose ring hardly seems worth mentioning, but her trademark look is black culottes and orthopedic-looking black sneakers. At first glance she’s easily mistaken for someone who could cut your heart out and eat it for a snack, but when you talk to her she is sweet, almost childlike. A Carrie Bradshaw-style gold necklace spells out her girlfriend’s name. “Cheesy, I know,” she tells me, “but I like it.”

Recently my husband and I were sitting outside a café at a busy intersection when she strode up on her bicycle. (I know you can’t stride on a bicycle, but whatever the two-wheeled equivalent is, she was doing it.) She was wearing her black culottes and an asymmetrical red PVC bolero, and in that moment she owned all of Rosenthaler Platz. “I know her,” I whispered to my husband.  There was no need to point out whom I was speaking of. We both sat back and admired her, an urban incarnation of an equestrian queen.

Today at the hairdresser I was too timid to ask if I could take her picture, but drop me a line if you come to Berlin. I’ll send you to have your hair done with The Queen.


Running Away to the Circus

One of the pleasures of living abroad is being in a time zone that’s inhospitable to watching live television coverage of key events in America’s presidential election cycle. Having missed the circus that was the Republican National Convention, I made up for it yesterday by spending the afternoon under the not-so-big top of a real circus, one with clowns and acrobats and animals whose sole aim was to do the exact opposite of what appeared to be the objective of America’s Grand Old Party: to make people smile.

Giffords Circus is a summer institution in the Cotswolds, touring village greens and commons with its distinctly throwback-style of entertainment. This year’s show, The Painted Wagon, is a wild-west themed extravaganza—a metaphor all too fitting for behavior last week at the RNC in Cleveland. Dodge City Saloon proprietress Sarsaparilla Sal was our hostess for the afternoon, while the house band led by Handsome Eddie provided the musical accompaniment for a variety show that included a lassoing cowgirl, juggling barkeeps, and gasp-inducing aerial hoop dancing. Tweedy the Clown and his pet iron, Keith, were also on hand to keep the laughs coming. There was even a baddie sheriff who tried to arrest the whole audience for eating gold chocolate coins that had been robbed from Wells Fargo by El Gifford. Perhaps in Cleveland he could have been deployed to arrest an effigy of Hillary. It’s as if the Giffords—the circus is the brainchild of Nell and Toti Gifford—anticipated the political climate in America and built the perfect antidote of an afternoon. Now if only they would consider touring it in the states.

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The General and his do-si-do-ing horse

Looking at my blog posts from the last year, it occurs to me that my afternoon at the circus fits a theme of how I like to spend my free time these days. From Kelmscott Manor to the whimsical Welsh village of Portmeirion to the London Tweed Run, I’m most interested in those activities who have no higher aim than happiness. I’m drawn to the creators of the world who’ve embraced this, from William Morris to Welsh architect Clough Williams-Ellis. A look over the headlines for the past month explains my newfound affinity for pursuits unburdened by any objective other than delight. More than ever, we need the Giffords of the world. An afternoon at the circus deserves a permanent spot on the curriculum for being human, especially if you’re running for president.

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Wunderbar Wales

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Castle Square in the walled town of Caernarfon

Glorious as it was, Wales’ underdog victory over Belgium last night in the quarterfinals of the European Championship is not the subject of this post. But if that victory means Wales gets more attention in the international travel press, all the better. After our return visit to the northwest corner of the country last week, I can’t understand why Wales isn’t plastered on the pages of every glossy travel mag. It may not always have the weather, but it has the scenery in spades and charming, unspoilt villages.

We first tiptoed into exploring Wales in early May with an overnight visit to Portmeirion before heading up north to the familiar territory of the English Lake District for the rest of the weekend. Leaving Wales so quickly was a decision we soon regretted. A combination of heaving crowds and a ratty hotelier painted the Lakes in grim relief compared to the busy-but-not-overwhelming Portmeirion, which seemed to be staffed solely by men and women whose warmth made me wish they were family. Turns out I’m a sucker for lilting Welsh-accented English.

That taste of Wales—I wrote about it here—was enough to prompt us to book a return visit in June. We again based ourselves in Portmeirion, but this time we explored the surrounding area, starting with a drive along the northern coast on the A55. The sun was shining and the combination of the green-capped hills and ocean made it feel like the PCH. A surfeit of castles on the route shattered the illusion in the most delightful way possible. (Yes, we have Hearst Castle in California, but along a 20-odd mile stretch of this Welsh coastline I counted no fewer than three such edifices, each with considerably more heritage than William Randolph Hearst’s twentieth-century creation.)

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Porthmadog Station of Ffestiniog & Welsh Highland Railway

In Caernarfon we stopped to use the loo and were lured down to the waterside by the view across the Menai Strait to the island of Anglesey. We kept walking, each block more interesting than the other, until we entered the medieval walls of the town. Here Welsh flag bunting fluttered above narrow, lively lanes—including Hole in the Wall Street—crammed with shops, cafés, and pubs. Lording over the scene was, you guessed it, a massive stone castle. We vowed to return and spend a night.

The ideal way to reach Caernarfon on our next visit is by narrow gauge steam train, specifically the Ffestiniog & Welsh Highland Railway. It leaves from Porthmadog, which is less than a three-mile walk from Portmeirion, most of which is along a bike path with glorious views across Snowdonia. The train wasn’t running on the day we visited, much to the disappointment of my husband who is of a middle age where an obsession with steam trains and train stations is mandatory.

Instead we followed the port, which was developed in the 1800s to export slate, to a small stretch of the Wales Coast Path leading to the harbor of Borth y Gest. Here a row of candy-colored, double-fronted houses line the crescent-shaped coastline. The tide was out and we drank a glass of rosé underneath the striped awning of the Sea View Bistro. There was an ice cream parlour next door, but after a short walk out to the windswept beach we settled on the deck of Moorings, the other village café, for another glass of rosé. I could have done the same thing every day for a week. Next time we visit it will be for a week—I always seem to leave this corner of Wales wanting more. There’s the rest of the Llŷn Peninsula and more walking on that coastal path and always another glass of rosé.

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Low tide at the harbor village of Borth-y-Gest

Books Cotswolds Walking

Laurie Lee and me and the Cotswold Way

For evening entertainment while walking the Cotswold Way, I packed a slim paperback of Laurie Lee’s Cotswold memoir, Cider with Rosie. The book has a firm place in the twentieth-century British literary canon although it remains somewhat unknown in America—at least it did to me before I lived in the Cotswolds. Capturing Lee’s boyhood and an age of lost rural innocence between World War I and the mid-1930s, I can’t think of an obvious American comparison. Little House on the Prairie crossed my mind, but its era (late 19th century) and prose style are different, and the Lark Rise to Candleford trilogy is its more obvious British soulmate.

In any case, Cider with Rosie had been resident on my bookshelf for the past few years—I must have bought it in the publicity surrounding the 2014 centenary of Lee’s birth—but I had never gotten around to reading it. Ten days of immersion in the countryside Lee was so fond of seemed like the perfect excuse to finally crack it open.

On the second night of our journey we stayed near Winchcombe with friends. We were still more than 20 miles north of Lee’s home territory in the Stroud Valleys, but Cider with Rosie would prove itself an eerily relevant literary companion that evening. One half of the couple who were hosting us is a shepherd and earlier he had brought 30 sheep into the garden to address the problem of a broken lawn mower. While we dined on a supper of takeout curry, I looked up from the table to see the flock gathered ominously at the kitchen window, their collective glare seemingly indicating their disapproval of the lamb rogan josh that lay steaming on the table (this menu selection, I note, was the shepherd’s idea). I tried to put them out of my mind as I dipped into the chicken tikka masala, but later, reading the local ghost stories Lee recounts early in the book, it seemed they were destined to haunt my dreams.

There is little remarkable about a two-headed sheep, except that this one was old and talked English. It lived alone among the Catswood Larches, and was only visible during flashes of lightning. It could sing harmoniously in a double voice and cross-question itself for hours; many travelers had heard it while passing that wood, but few, naturally enough, had seen it. Should a thunderstorm ever have confronted you with it, and had you had the presence of mind to inquire, it would have told you the date and nature of your death—at least so people said. 

The next morning I awoke with a start to the 5am wake-up call of the bleating flock, one final act of revenge.

The lawnmower brigade

The lawnmower brigade before the lamb rogan josh incident

Three days of walking later we arrived in Painswick, the closest point on the Cotswold Way to the village where Lee was raised, Slad. Here there were signs to nearby Bulls Cross, but on the advice of Lee, we gave it a miss: At this no man’s crossing, in the days of foot-pads and horses, travellers would meet in suspicion, or lie in wait to do violence on each other, to rob or rape or murder.

In Painswick, Lee’s legacy started to be audible. Sitting in a coffee shop, I overheard a lively local whose father, also a poet like Lee, had apparently known the author and found him a tad arrogant. Our hostess for the next evening had aunts and uncles who had been classmates of Lee at the village school on which he lavishes an entire chapter, a taste of which is here:

Our village school was poor and crowded, but in the end I relished it. It had a lively reek of steaming life: boys’ boots, girls’ hair, stoves and sweat, blue ink, white chalk, and shavings. We learnt nothing abstract or tenuous there—just simple patterns of facts and letters, portable tricks of calculation, no more than was needed to measure a shed, write out a bill, read a swine-disease warning.

From our B&B in Middleyard, we arranged a taxi to take us up to the Woolpack Inn, Laurie Lee’s local pub. The bar is adorned with some pictures of Lee, but the real thing to see is the view from the deck overlooking the Slad Valley. We lingered on the patio while I caught up on my reading before sitting down at a table inside for dinner. Despite its fame from its association with Lee, the Woolpack remains a down-to-earth and lively local, with good real ales and a kitchen punching above its weight.

That evening I was introduced to my favorite chapter of the book, Grannies in the Wainscot, in which Laurie Lee marks himself out as the Alan Bennett of the south of England. The chapter is devoted to the two old ladies who lived in the “top-stroke” of the T-shaped house that Lee grew up in.

Grannie Trill and Granny Wallon were rival ancients and lived on each other’s nerves, and their perpetual enmity was like mice in the walls and absorbed so much of my early days. With their sickle-bent bodies, pale pink eyes, and wild wisps of hedgerow hair they looked to me the very images of witches and they were also much alike. In their time as such close neighbours they never exchanged a word. They communicated instead by means of boots and broomsjumping on floors and knocking on ceilings. They referred to each other as “Er-Down-Under” and “Er-Up-Atop, the Varmint”; for each to the other was an airy nothing, a local habitation not fit to be named.

In the days of walking that followed we left Lee’s patch of England for Wotton-under-Edge and Tormarton, but the scenery remained as beautiful as Lee’s prose, like this description of his beloved mother, a voracious gardener:

While Mother went creeping around the wilderness, pausing to tap some odd bloom on the head, as indulgent, gracious, amiable and inquisitive as a queen at an orphanage. 

On our second-to-last day of the walk we crossed the M4, a major motorway and milestone on the Cotswold Way. While technically still within the boundaries of the Cotswold Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, this part of the Cotswold Way begins to feel foreign for those who hail from north of the border. Both soil color and accents change. At our bed and breakfast in the unfortunately named hamlet of Nimlet, our hostess was particularly disinterested, making it all too easy for us to label this unfamiliar territory as unfriendly. The impression was not helped by the price gouging of a local taxi firm who charged us £25 for a 3-mile journey from the nearest pub, where we had been served a dinner seemingly fashioned out of cement.

Cider with Rosie once again echoed our journey. In the chapter called Outings and Festivals, Lee writes about an Annual Slad Choir Outing to Weston-super-Mare, a 50-mile journey in five charabancs that felt as foreign as going abroad. Their impulses as they entered “stranger’s country” were similar to our own:

So we settled down, and opened our sandwiches, and began to criticize the farming we passed through. The flatness of the Severn Valley now seemed dull after our swooping hills, the salmon-red sandstone of the Clifton Gorges too florid compared with our chalk. Everything began to appear strange and comic, we hooted at the shapes of the hayricks, laughed at the pitiful condition of the cattle…

Once arriving in Weston, members of Lee’s entourage also had gripes about the refreshments: Mrs. Jones was complaining about Weston tea: ‘It’s made from the drains, I reckon.’

The Cotswold Way finishes at the grand doors to Bath Abbey, and Lee also writes about church, albeit an altogether humbler affair, in the final chapter of Cider with Rosie. His lament for the loss of community life seems as poignant today as it must have been when the book was first published in 1959.

This morning service was also something else. It was a return to the Ark of all our species in the face of the ever-threatening flood. We are free of that need now and when the flood does come shall drown proud and alone, no doubt. As it was, the lion knelt down with the lamb, the dove perched on the neck of the hawk, sheep nuzzled wolf, we drew warmth from each other and knew ourselves beasts of one kingdom…

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To end here would be to give the wrong impression of walking the Cotswold Way with the companionship of Lee, which was a joy. Rather I’ll leave you with this gem of a line from Lee’s description of his boyhood summers, my own memories of the summer of 2016 juicily fossilized with Lee’s prose and the paths of the Cotswold Way:

We carried cut hay from the heart of the rick, packed tight as tobacco flake, with grass and wild flowers juicily fossilized within—a whole summer embalmed in our arms. 

Cotswolds Walking

Where to sleep, eat, and drink on the Cotswold Way: The best of life off the trail

It’s been a little more than a week since we arrived in Bath, shattered but giddy over completing the Cotswold Way. Two days later I was stricken—and I do mean all the grandiosity and fervor that word implies—with a nasty stomach flu and, between that and going back to work, haven’t had time to write much about the experience. Spoiler alert: it was awesome.

While I assimilate all 102 miles of the Way and try to figure out how I’m going to get it down in words (I’ve got your pictures here), I thought I’d pass along some of the more prosaic but nonetheless important details now: the best places we slept, ate, and drank along the walk. Because nature aside, the beautiful thing about the Cotswold Way is your never far away from a bed, a pint, and a pie.

Best B&Bs
The Cotswold Way is more B&B than tent, although there are a few fields in which to erect one if you insist. Personally, I prefer a room with freestanding tub, like the one that greeted us at the end of our first day at Shenberrow Hill in Stanton. Wifi is dodgy in the whole village in the early evening, but this was the only shortcoming of an otherwise perfect stay hosted by a British Joan Didion lookalike and her Jack Russell puppy. Five-star full English breakfast.

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Just south of Stroud in Middleyard we stayed at Valley Views, a bungalow B&B owned by the genial Pam. She not only came out into the street to track us down when we somehow veered off the path, she also booked us a taxi to nearby Slad to eat dinner at the legendary Woolpack pub (more on this later). Pam’s accommodation was sparkling clean, with decent wifi and a bath thoughtfully stocked with a variety of bubble and foam potions to soak our weary legs. Five-star full English breakfast.

In Tormarton, just north of the M4, yet another proprietor had to come into a field to find us and lead us back to their B&B, in this case The Little Smithy. Our digs were an entire elegant little cottage, complete with sitting room, kitchen, and, yes, a bathroom with a tub. There’s no wifi, but the accommodation was so comfortable we almost didn’t mind. Three-star full English breakfast, but only because it was doll-house sized. (Having eaten eight consecutive full English breakfasts prior to this one, my arteries thank the hostess for the portion size.)

All these B&Bs are part of the hosts’ home, not a hotel trying to be cute with its name. Mercifully all are directly on the Cotswold Way so, assuming you have a better sense of direction than us, there’s no extra foot mileage involved. All cost under £90 for two.

Best Pubs
After a few days of hiking, it became clear that wild garlic (ramsons) was going to be the official scent of the journey. Covering every woodland floor, these delicate white flowers conspired to keep food on my mind for much of the walk. While others may have been admiring the scenery, I spent most of my time thinking about how I could really go for a nice risotto. Luckily there were excellent pubs en route to keep my thirst and hunger at bay. I even managed to eat some of that wild garlic in a rather cement-like falafel dish. Needless to say, that pub didn’t make this cut.

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Top of the list is the Woolpack Inn in Slad, technically not on the Cotswold Way but worth every cent of a short taxi ride when you’re in the Painswick area of the walk. Famous for being Cotswold writer Laurie Lee’s local, the Woolpack may just be the best pub in the region. Somehow it manages to combine boozer and foodie havens into one glorious setup with nary an ounce of pretension. We spent a luxurious couple hours drinking real ale on the patio before settling down to the meal of the trip: a tomato salad as pretty as any meadow we had walked through, wild asparagus (a delicious first for me) with roasted asparagus and courgette fritters, and a glorious Eton mess.

We didn’t stay the night in Dursley, but I liked what I saw of the town when we walked through somewhere around day 7. While the villages of the north Cotswolds are stunning, their beauty feels a bit like a precious piece of china locked away in your grandmother’s curio cabinet. Dursley in the south Cotswolds feels the opposite: a place where real people live and work, including a rather spectacular newish-looking public library. We had occasion to meet some of the locals when we stopped for an excellent Sunday roast at the vibrant Old Spot Inn. Here we made the acquaintance of Fly, an Italian greyhound, and his human, both of whom were very nice to us despite the fact that I had inadvertently taken Fly’s normal seat in the booth by the bar.

In Hawkesbury Upton, it’s worth taking the teensiest of detours to lunch at the Beaufort Arms, a big, friendly place filled with locals and serving the kind of plentiful stodge you can happily justify on a 16-mile day. In a mega carbo-load, I downed cheese and onion potato cakes with a shared bowl of cheesy chips while the petite Belgian couple who had passed us earlier in the day nibbled their granary bread sandwiches. Needless to say that was the last time we saw them on the Way.

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Finally, I’d be remiss not to mention the Mount Inn in Stanton, overseen by the ever-lovely Pippa who long ago ran the Plough in Cold Aston near our Cotswold home. The Mount Inn is more restaurant than pub, whose excellent food is complimented by the westward-facing vista from their hilltop position. They open at 6PM, but if the weather’s good I recommend arriving a few minutes earlier to nab the bench on the outside deck for some pre-dinner drinks with a view.

Best Bit of Luxury
Conveniently spaced at the nearly halfway and end (or beginning, depending on the direction you walk) points of the Cotswold Way are two opportunities to indulge in a bit of pampering. And let’s face it, walking 10+ miles a day is an excellent excuse for a bit of indulgence. In Painswick, the recently opened and imaginatively named The Painswick, offers a stylish restaurant and hotel. We didn’t stay overnight, but we did have a glass of wine on their wisteria-strewn veranda overlooking the valley followed by a rather posh dinner. I’ll definitely be back, even if my ibérico ham and truffle pizza was served on a tree.

The Painswick

We ended our journey in grand style with a night at the Gainsborough Bath Spa. Arriving in mud-caked boots and waterproof trousers we didn’t exactly fit in with the rest of the clientele, but the gentleman who checked us in treated us like royalty, right down to the bottle of champagne delivered to the room. I like to think it was a congratulatory gift for walking the Cotswold Way, but it turns out they “give” (yes, yes, I know we paid for it in the room price) a bottle to everyone who books direct with the hotel.

Of course the real reason for staying at the Gainsborough is access to Bath’s famed thermal hot springs, which is free to hotel guests in the evenings and early morning. I couldn’t wait that long to take the waters, so I paid the day spa fee and spent several hours relaxing in the various pools, each with slightly different temperatures. In between dips I drank shots of warm chocolate from a slurpee-like dispenser—not the most obvious spa amenity, but I’m a fan—and snapped surreptitious shots of other ridiculousness, like a lion head that barfed lavender ice and came with instructions to scoop handfuls to rub on your entire body. It was entirely divine, as was the whole walk. We’re already talking about doing it again, this time from south to north, but I won’t wait for that to revisit these spots.

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The Details

Shenberrow Hill B&B
Worcestershire WR12 7NE
Tel: +44 (0) 1386 584468

Valley Views B&B
12 Orchard Close
King’s Stanley
Gloucestershire GL10 3QA
Tel: +44 (0) 1453 827458

The Little Smithy B&B 
Smithy House
South Gloucestershire GL9 1HU
Tel: + 44 (0) 1454 218412

The Woolpack Inn
Slad Road
Gloucestershire GL6 7QA
Tel: +44 (0) 1452 813429

The Old Spot Inn
Hill Road
Gloucestershire GL11 4JQ
+44 (0) 1453 542870

Beaufort Arms
High Street
Hawkesbury Upton
Gloucestershire GL9 1AU
+44 (0) 1454 238217

The Mount Inn
Nr Broadway
Worcestershire WR12 7NE
+44 (0)1386 584316

The Painswick
Kemps Lane
Gloucestershire GL6 6YB
+44 (0) 1452 813688

The Gainsborough Bath Spa
Beau Street
Bath BA1 1QY
+44 (0) 1225 358888

Cotswolds Walking

The Cotswold Way: A glutton’s guide to rambling


Photo by Richard Cocks, licensed under https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

Today at 8AM sharp we set off on our nine-day walk along the Cotswold Way, 102-miles of British National Trail from the market town of Chipping Campden to the Georgian city of Bath along a Jurassic-era escarpment. I have wanted to walk it ever since I learned of its existence, both because I am incessant box-ticker—the sort who risks perverting experiences into acts of consumption—and because I know a long walk is one of the few things that can release my mind from my incessant box-ticking.

While it promises breathtaking landscapes and acres of mud, the Cotswold Way is not exactly the deep wilderness one associates with famed American trails like the Appalachian or Pacific Crest. I’m assured there haven’t been any bears in England since medieval times, which means the most aggressive animal we’re likely to encounter is a frolicking lamb or grazing cow. At any given time we won’t be much farther than an hour from a pub, so dehydration is unlikely, too. Indeed, one of the things I’m most looking forward to is kicking off the boots at the end of a long day of tramping through fields and downing a guilt-free pint or three.

Mercifully, camping along the trail is discouraged and we’ll be spending almost every night safely ensconced in a B&B. When on our last day we reach the end of the trail at Bath Abbey, we’ll check into a proper hotel, complete with thermal hot springs from the city’s famed waters in which to soothe our by-then aching muscles. All of this to say it’s the perfect walking holiday for gluttons of both scenery and gastronomy—just enough miles, hills, and pounds hefted in our packs to feel righteous as we rock up to the pub for supper each night. At least that’s the plan. Not in the plan but undoubtedly on the horizon: blisters, lumpy beds, and umpteen fights over directions. And if I’m lucky, somewhere around day five the box-ticking will stop and box and its ticker will briefly become one. Let the rambling begin.

Britain Cycling

The London Tweed Run: In aid of just because

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Last Saturday my husband and I joined the eighth edition of the London Tweed Run, an annual event where a group of like-minded people come together to ride their bikes around London while sporting tweed. The dress code extended beyond woven wool to all things dapper, from lavishly waxed mustaches to bowler hats, argyle socks, seamed stockings, and the odd monocle. Bikes were equally adorned, featuring flowers, bunting, Union Jacks, and wicker picnic baskets or vintage radios lashed to the back. There were Pashleys, Penny Farthings, tandems, and at least one boneshaker. In short, there was a lot of effort involved for no other reason than it’s good fun and looks sharp. It was a joy to see that roughly 1,000 people found this reason enough to join in.

The effort of dressing up infected the group’s behavior to splendid effect: people doffed their caps, complimented liberally, and exhibited extreme manners, which were on full pinkie-waggling display when we stopped for tea—complete with real china cups and saucers, natch—in Tavistock Square. After a jaunt west into Bayswater, we looped back along the bottom of Kensington Gardens for a lunch stop beneath the Prince Albert Memorial. Blankets were spread, corks were popped, and the occasional candelabra appeared, as did the sun. Music was provided by a Victrola setup next to the mustache grooming station and a village fête-style game of cap-the-pigeon. After lunch we joined a traffic jam under Big Ben then rode south of the river before heading over Blackfriars Bridge and back into Clerkenwell for the closing festivities.

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As the group wound its way around the streets of London, innocent passers-by generally had one of two reactions: to snap a picture or ask some version of the question why: “What’s this all about?” or “What charity are you raising money for?” The answer to why was, of course, something very simple—just because—but the fact that so many people felt compelled to ask was revealing. It was as if the average member of the general public couldn’t quite fathom that one of their fellow human beings would go to such lengths simply for a bit of fun. We live in an age where you have to do things for a reason and just because doesn’t compute. Just because is a luxury we don’t seem to allow ourselves much these days.

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The weekend before The Tweed Run, my husband and I spent a day visiting Portmeirion, the holiday village that was the brainchild of architect Clough Williams-Ellis and made famous as the setting for the 1960s TV show, The Prisoner. I was so taken with this incredibly improbable, Italian-style, just-because folly jutting out of the Welsh coastal countryside that I bought a book by Williams-Ellis called Portmeirion: The Place and its Meaning. In the preface he writes, “I have perhaps a special difficulty—a ‘blockage’—in trying to explain Portmeirion—what it is like, what it’s about, what it’s ‘in aid of’, because have there expressed myself as well as I can in stone and timber, brick and concrete, shape and colour and indeed in planting and landscaping generally. And having so said what I felt impelled to say in solid visible form, I feel that is that…”

This explanation struck me as equally applicable to the participants of The Tweed Run. Certainly a gentleman who has troubled himself to don tweed Plus Twos and ride a Penny Farthing around the cobbled pavements of London requires no further explanation. He, too, has expressed himself in quite solid visible form, and that, certainly, IS that.

Long may such gentlemen and women carry on with such antics, just because.

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More pictures from the Tweed Run here.


Portmeirion: The Architecture of Happiness

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Earlier this month we visited Portmeirion, a coastal village in North Wales exclusively for the use and pleasure of holidaymakers. I can’t remember the last time I was so enchanted with a place. A passion project of architect Clough Williams-Ellis that first opened in the 1920s, Portmeirion remains true to the description Lewis Mumford gave it in a 1962 issue of The New Yorker: “…a gay, deliberately irresponsible reaction against the dull sterilities of so much that passes as modern architecture today.” It is also an entirely enjoyable place to spend at least one day and night, as we did, and I suspect a week would pass just as easily.

Employing the landscape to create a liminal state, Portmeirion ingeniously prepares you to experience it on your inbound journey. Located on a peninsula off Cardigan Bay, your arrival requires an hour’s drive through the stark Welsh countryside of Snowdonia National Park—the land for which was secured for public use by Williams-Ellis—which is just enough time for your mind to absorb the natural landscape and unravel itself from the day-to-day grind. You descend into the village via a private road, then on foot under the thresholds of a Gatehouse and a Bridge House. The sum total effect of this mode of arrival reminded me of an explanation I was once given for the tunnel-like entrance to a mosque in Cairo: to prepare the person for a transformation once he or she arrives in the inner sanctuary.

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The inner sanctuary of Portmeirion is a jolly cliff-side Italianate village populated by tasteful tat boutiques, a bookstore (I like to think this is because Williams-Ellis thought no village complete without one), an ice cream shop, and several cafés and restaurants arranged around a central square. There are cottages where guests can stay for the evening as well as a small art deco-style hotel and restaurant at the bottom of the village with a sweeping view over the tidal estuary. Buildings and follies are adorned with idiosyncratic details, many of which Williams-Ellis rescued from distressed, once-grand British homes and buildings. Staff are uniformed, plentiful, and extraordinarily friendly, all seeming to have undergone Disneyland-style hospitality training. The Welsh accent helps; Mumford aptly described it by saying “…in a country that still does homage to its bards and orators, where every countryman still speaks in a soft singsong, as if verse were more natural than prose.” Fittingly, the bookstore is well stocked with volumes by Dylan Thomas and other Welsh poets should you wish to heighten the mood.

The original impetus for our visit was my husband’s interest in the village that had been the set for the 1960s cult-classic television show, The Prisoner. For me, Portmeirion had vague associations with mid-century pottery made by Williams-Ellis’ daughter, the designer Susan Williams-Ellis, which was enough to rouse my interest. We weren’t sure what to expect and only booked a single night on the theory that if it was all kitsch and irony, 24 hours was about how long we could sustain the joke without growing weary. As Christopher Hussey wrote in a 1930 issue of Country Life, “a pastiche conglomeration such as the acroplois at Portmeirion might easily have been an architectural horror. Set down in words, the idea of dumping a bright Italian village on the Welsh coast is scarcely promising.”
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As it turned out, our fears were completely unwarranted. Perhaps helped by the generous appearance of the sun for what locals told us was the first time this spring, Portmeirion was a joy. It was just busy enough to have interesting people watching but not to be overrun. There were several well-situated watering holes to engage in such people watching and one Prisoner-themed shop to entertain my husband. Should you tire of the village, Deudraeth Castle is a five-minute walk that’s just uphill enough to make the garden an excellent vista point from which to enjoy an apertif (they also have a brasserie and hotel). We ate dinner at the hotel restaurant in the village, which was exceptional, and the next morning we walked one of several trails behind the village through a spectacular forest of rhododendron and camellias. The hydrangea weren’t yet in bloom, but I’m told they’re something to see.

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Despite tremendous competition from the various amusements on offer, my greatest discovery of the visit was Clough Williams-Ellis, with whom I’ve developed a minor obsession. I’m compelled by his singular vision and commitment to creating something for no other reason that pure aesthetic pleasure for the public. Unwittingly I’ve been tracing a thread of such pioneers on my recent visits to the UK. Three weeks before going to Portmeirion I visited the former country home of William Morris, the man most associated with the Arts and Crafts movement. His famous quotes include “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful,” and “I do not want art for a few any more than education for a few, or freedom for a few.” Both apply equally well to William-Ellis’ creation of Portmeirion. These days this same thread is being woven by people such as the philosopher and writer Alain de Botton, the creative director of Living Architecture, an organization that commissions exceptional modern architecture for the purpose of holiday rentals. The artist Grayson Perry designed one of their projects, and his House for Essex seems a logical next stop on my informal journey along the British trail of beautiful things. But first I want to go back and spend that week in Portmeirion.