The Cotswolds are an obvious choice for a second home: easily accessible from London, beautiful scenery, charm laden pubs, and historic architecture. It’s so obvious that it’s almost become obscure. British second home owners seem to be far more enamoured with the warmth and romance of Tuscany, French countryside, or the Costa del Sol thanks to the advent of Ryanair and EasyJet.
I exaggerate a bit on the obscurity point. The Cotswolds are home to a generous selection of the great and good, from Prince Charles to Liz Hurley, and there’s something unmistakably obvious in that. They are also firmly on the tourist map, although tourists tend to stick to only a few of the vast network of villages that make up the Cotswolds. But for an American and a newly repatriated Brit, the Cotswolds is as exotic as it comes. It’s the England from central casting, the one that’s lost in the international melee of London where I hardly recognize the languages being spoken into mobile phones on my daily bus commute. And by this I don’t mean it’s white, although it largely is. I mean the rose strewn cottages and grand manor houses, green hills and sheep, dry stone walls and honey coloured stone, and tweed and wellies, often adorning the great English eccentric holding court in any given pub or inn. I also mean the sense of community and decency. We’ve made more friends in two months in the Cotswolds than we made in two years in London. And on Saturday night we did our best to alienate them all.
We were hosting our first out of town guest at the cottage, MF, an old friend over from New York. Thus far on his visit we had spent a lot of time gossiping at the big table in the local wine bar, the best laid dinner plans forsaken for another bottle of Prosecco. We did manage to get him out for a walk and a proper pub lunch at the Black Horse, but only after a trip to the country mart where he procured a pair of stylish black wellies that could seamlessly transition from Cotswold mud to German industrial techno club (not that I have any reason to believe he frequents German industrial techno clubs).
But the highlight of the visit was our Night at the Races charity event. There had been much discussion beforehand about what a night at the races would be since it was being held in the village hall rather than a racetrack. The consensus between husband and our neighbours who were going with us was that it would be betting on pre-recorded horse races shown on video monitors. We had gotten a race guide with our pre-purchased tickets, each sponsored by local businesses so one could, for example, bet on Lambchop to place in the butcher’s race.
When we arrived at the hall there were a few authentic elements of the race track experience, including a ruthlessly efficient betting setup and a bar. That’s about where the similarities ended. Attendees were seated around a giant central checker board set out in masking tape. Our assigned table was front and center of the checker board so we were on display like some kind of demented bridal party. Stroppy teenagers, three of each gender, jockeyed rocking horse-sized wooden steeds painted in bright colours with mop string hair. Their parents definitely made them do it. A tuxedoed MC called for volunteers to throw the giant fuzzy dice that would power the wooden horses up and back the checkerboard. Husband, no wallflower, was first to throw.
A childless couple and a gay man shaken up with a few bottles of wine can be awfully catty. Well, awfully awful really. Between trips to the bar and the betting tables, MF and I spent much of our time comparing notes on the relative attractiveness of the teenage jockeys, neither gender spared. In retrospect this was probably not a good way to endear ourselves to local parents (we were sure we were whispering, but our perception could have been a wee bit undermined by our blood alcohol content). MF then became obsessed with getting a turn at the dice throwing, an activity that had grown in popularity with each passing race. Elbowing small children aside, he finally managed to secure his position as thrower of the dice in the last race following tense negotiations with the MC on a smoke break between races five and six.
Our true colours only went on full display at the end of the evening when a young man in a wheelchair took the microphone to thank everyone. He was the beneficiary of the evening’s fund raising, which would go to buy a sports wheel chair so he could play tennis. He was confident, gracious and eloquent, so much so that we immediately sobered up in the full realization of what a loving and supportive community we’d so recklessly imposed ourselves on. This man didn’t need our charity. We were far more desperate specimens who could clearly benefit from our own fundraiser to pay for the many hours of therapy we each require.
Through it all our neighbors sat next to us smiling patiently. It’s further testament to the fine people of our Cotswold town that they still speak to us.