Browsing Tag



Our Cotswold Town Transformed for the Filming of JK Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy

Last week the market square of our Cotswold town was transformed into the fictional town of Pagford for the filming of a television version of J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy. We weren’t there, but friends and family were staying in our cottage and took some pictures. Thanks to Julie Henderson for all the images in this post.

The plot of The Casual Vacancy centers on the death of a beloved parish councillor and the resulting election that occurs. The set included a notice board for the Pagford Parish Council (above) complete with fictional notices for a village fête, a wine tasting evening, and a scintillating-sounding illustrated talk on “A Passion for Piers.” I can only assume by the authenticity of the notices that the production staff took inspiration from our real notice board.

The local beauty salon became a sweet shop, the Black Cat café morphed into a posh deli, and the chippie turned into Evertree Antiques (no reflection on the age of the chips usually served there).

Actor Michael Gambon was spotted around the square sporting a pair of blue pajamas and velvet slippers. A more common sight around the square, the bike that’s usually parked outside the wine bar, was given a facelift and used as a prop for Michael Gambon’s character’s shop.

I look forward to seeing the full effects of the transformation when the series airs later this year on both BBC One and HBO. And while I hope the show is a big hit, I hope it’s not big enough that it turns our town into something other than the best kept secret in the Cotswolds that it is.


Open Gardens, Old Friends

Our last Sunday in the Cotswolds coincided with Guiting Power’s annual Open Gardens Day (first Sunday of June each year). The flowers—poppies, foxgloves, cornflowers, irises—were ravishing, the lemon drizzle cake beyond reproach, but mostly we went hoping to bump into Dorothy, the 94-year old matriarch of the village who still regularly mans the till at the local shop, her namesake Watson’s Groceries. We first came to know Dorothy when we rented a cottage in the village in 2007 and made her acquaintance at church. There were, on average, seven attendees at each service, which meant we made the acquaintance of everyone. When we subsequently bought a cottage in a town 20 minutes away, we still made the trek up to Guiting Power on the one Sunday a month when there was church, not because we were particularly religious but because, then as now, we wanted to see Dorothy.

On this particular Sunday we found her selling tickets at a card table in front of the 1970s-era village hall. Wary she wouldn’t remember us after several years away, I greeted her by saying, “It’s Jennifer.” She seemed confused as to why I was explaining who we were and immediately asked if we had started a family yet (clearly she hadn’t read my book) before launching into an update on the health scare of the Dorothea plant we had given her for her 90th birthday. Unable to reach it on the window ledge to water it while the house was being redecorated, she had feared for its health but, somehow, it had pulled through. As had Dorothy. Eight months earlier she had fallen backwards down the stairs of her flat, broken several ribs and gotten 18 stitches in her head. As she explained it through her benevolent Black Country accent, she was just on her way out of the house to visit Jeanne, the equally lovely and slightly less elderly lay minister, when she decided she better get a sweater because “you know how it is at Jeanne’s house.” It was just as she turned on the stairs to retrieve her cardigan that she slipped and fell.

We didn’t know “how it was” at Jeanne’s house, but in a moment that was straight out of Alan Bennett if Alan Bennett had written about the Cotswolds instead of Leeds, Dorothy’s raised eyebrows told us in the most plain way that Jeanne never turned on her heating. In an instant we were reminded of the barely detectable but still unmistakable tension we had observed between these two ladies over the years. Where I got my idea that such tensions should cease to exist after a certain age, I don’t know, but it made me smile to be reminded in this way that they we remain human until the bitter end. Unwittingly dispensing another life lesson, Dorothy ended our conversation by telling us she had recovered quickly because she was fit before it happened, as indeed she seemed that day. It was a pleasure, as always, to see her.

More photos from the Open Gardens:






Making up for Michelle: My Royal Encounter

Generally speaking, I have nothing but praise for First Lady Michelle Obama. She’s an accomplished career woman, advocate of physical fitness, and, miraculously, has managed to pull off bangs (that’s a fringe to my British readers) in middle age. As far as I can tell, her only fault was that memorable moment in 2009 when she dared to hug the Queen of England. Luckily for Mrs. Obama, and on behalf of all Americans in England, I set out to make good on her gaffe this past weekend when I had occasion to meet the Queen’s son, HRH The Prince of Wales.

Check out that footwork. Years of childhood ballet recitals finally pay off.

Prince Charles was visiting our Cotswold town to attend a choral concert as part of Music in Country Churches, a charity of which he is a patron. That I was allowed to meet him, and thus rectify Mrs. O’s impropriety, was through the good fortune of our cherished friendship with Rupert and Ralph (of Americashire fame), who are residents of the former vicarage. During the concert interval, HRH would take refreshment in a marquee on the lawn of the vicarage. To thank the residents for their hospitality, Prince Charles would then take a moment to greet them all before returning to the church for the remainder of the concert. Knowing of my Anglophilia and having met HRH on a previous visit some years ago, Rupert and Ralph suggested we masquerade as residents of the vicarage and take their place in the receiving line. In exchange for their generosity, the only request was that I behave. And so I took to the internet to research royal etiquette and spent the day doing curtsy practice around our kitchen. When my turn came, I would be ready.

As HRH made his way down the receiving line, I readied myself for the big moment, shifting my weight to my right foot and purse into my left hand. With his pleasantries nearly completed with the woman next to me, I went in for my curtsy, adding a reverent little bow. Just at that moment, a chap from a few places earlier in the receiving line took advantage of the pause to attempt to re-engage HRH in a bit of light banter. I panicked. What was this over-eager buffoon doing distracting Prince Charles from the gracious sweep of my curtsy? I was already down. Should I come out of my pose and wait my turn or should I just stay in position? Erring on the side of caution—there would be no Michelle-esque breaches of etiquette on my watch—I chose to stay as I was, leaving HRH to greet my slightly overgrown roots when he did turn his attention to me.

In an apparent bid to make HRH feel better about his comb over, I show him my roots

As patiently as he had waited for the last fellow to finish his bit of not-so-snappy repartee, HRH waited for me to complete my genuflection so that we could shake hands. Thankfully my husband managed to answer some questions on my behalf while I was busy bowing. I’m not sure I ever managed to form any words, but at least I have proof I managed to smile.

Oh shit, the future King of England is talking to me


Quirky Cotswolds: A guide to the region’s silliest sporting events

While London lays claim to hosting the most Olympic Games of any city, its record pales in comparison to Chipping Campden. This quaint Gloucestershire town has been holding its own “Cotswold Olimpicks” each year since 1612, when the events included singlestick, wrestling, jumping in sacks, and shin-kicking. Farther south in Tetbury, competitors race uphill carrying woolsacks on their backs in the town’s most famous annual event, while, to the west in Gloucester, they race downhill in an attempt to catch a wheel of cheese.

These are but a few examples of the Cotswolds’ quirky collection of annual sporting events. Most are open to the public for free or a small fee and include a whole series of festivities in addition to the main event. Even if you don’t compete, any of the outings in our guide below would make an entertaining—and quintessentially Cotswoldian—addition to your itinerary.

An old woodcut of the Cotswold Games. Originally published in 1636 as the cover of the book Annalia Dubrensia. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Rubber Duck Racing
Shake off the excesses of Christmas Day with a brisk Boxing Day walk in the idyllic village of Bibury. Stop along the way to take in the annual rubber duck race on the lovely River Coln, which starts with decoys and ends with the yellow versions more commonly found in the bathtub. As a bonus, Bibury is the picturesque home to one of the most photographed scenes in all the Cotswolds, the National Trust’s Arlington Row.

Cheese Rolling
Cheese rolling on the steep slope of Cooper’s Hill is the Cotswoldian equivalent of Pamplona’s running of the bulls. Every year crowds gather to watch an intrepid group of racers chase an eight-pound wheel of Double Gloucester, which also happens to be the prize. The event caused quite the controversy last year when it carried on despite warnings from officials about health and safety concerns. Past cheese-rolling events took place on the late spring bank holiday Monday, but check this website for details of future events. One thing’s for sure: Double Gloucester has never been so dangerous.

Woolsack Races
The Cotswolds are known for their sheep-dotted hills, and each year in Tetbury, on the late spring bank holiday Monday, they celebrate the region’s wool heritage with woolsack races. The races, which consist of running up Gumstool Hill with a woolsack on your back, are thought to have originated as a way for young drovers to show off their strength to local lasses. These days, women can also demonstrate their prowess by competing, albeit carrying a slightly lighter load, at 35 pounds, than the men, who heft 60 pounds. Thankfully, there are pubs at either end of the racecourse to offer refreshment to both participants and spectators alike.

Olimpick Games
Wish you could relive the glory of the 2012 London Olympic Games every year? You’re in luck. Robert Dover’s Cotswold Olimpicks take place on Dover’s Hill in Chipping Campden every year on the Friday after the late spring bank holiday. There may not be a Danny Boyle-directed opening ceremony, but there’s still plenty of fun to be had, including music, races, and the traditional shin-kicking contest. The Olimpicks even have their own royalty in the form of a Scuttlebrook Queen, who is fêted the following day in a procession that includes fancy dress and Morris dancing.

River Football
Every August bank holiday Monday, the villagers of Bourton-on-the-Water play football in the River Windrush. You read that right: not on the banks of the River Windrush but actually in it. Goal posts are set up under the stone bridges, and visitors do their best not to get splashed while cheering on the teams from the surrounding green. Just down the road from the site of the match is Birdland Park & Gardens, a family-friendly venue where, dotting the river, you’ll find flamingos rather than football players.


An Afternoon at the Big House

Lawn stripes. Can it get anymore English?

We’re back in the Cotswolds for a few weeks and we seem to have brought the weather with us from California. Sunday was one of those days when there is no better place to be in the world than England. A landscape lush with yellows of laburnum trees and rapeseed was offset by the contrast of a cloudless blue sky. By happy coincidence Stowell Park, the local big house and home of Lord and Lady Vestey, opened its gardens for a charity plant sale.

Peonies in the walled garden

We picked up a few cuttings to keep the gnomes company in the stone trough of our courtyard garden, then spent another hour admiring the wildlife around the house. My husband’s aunt was with us and she declared the view from in front of the house—looking out over Yanworth and the Coln River—to be one of the finest in England. It’s the kind of scenery that never photographs as well as it looks to the naked eye so I took a shot of the house instead, which is none too shabby. These bulls were in the pasture and, on a day like Sunday, I’d be happy to live there, too.

Bucolic bliss incarnate

Banksy in the Cotswolds

Alongside my favorite pubs and long walks in the countryside, I’ve just added a new, rather incongruous activity to my to-do list for our upcoming May visit to the Cotswolds: see the new Banksy that appeared last week in Cheltenham.  Painted around a phone box, it shows three men in trench coats and sunglasses, tapping the phone.

The location was presumably chosen because of its proximity to the UK’s Global Communications Headquarters, more commonly known as GCHQ and the rough British equivalent of America’s NSA. It’s an industry that’s not exactly an obvious fit with with the image of arcadian bliss commonly conjured, including on this blog, to describe the Cotswolds. Then again, that may be exactly why GCHQ, and Banksy, chose this spot.


Spring 2014 Literary Guide to the Cotswolds

April kicks off a verdant season of literary events in the Cotswolds:

The Chipping Norton Literary Festival takes place 24-27 April with a full calendar of author talks, readings, workshops and children’s events. On my wish list are appearances by Tim Harford, aka the Undercover Economist of the Financial Times, and Emma Bridgewater, doyenne of British pottery that graces country kitchens (and aspiring country kitchens) around the world.

It may technically be just outside the boundary of the Cotswolds, but I would be remiss not to mention Stratford-upon-Avon and the festivities there for Shakespeare’s 450th birthday celebration on the weekend of 26-27 April. The town’s Literary Festival runs in parallel through 4 May.

Back in the heart of the Cotswolds, festivities are underway to celebrate the centenary of Laurie Lee, author of Cider with Rosie. I’m most looking forward to the 26 June unveiling of 11 poetry posts inscribed with Lee’s poetry and positioned along walks throughout the Slad Valley.


Horse Play: An Evening at the Races

Horses in the Coln Valley, the Cotswolds
The Cheltenham Festival, the biggest horse racing event—and arguably the biggest social event—of the Cotswold calendar, kicks off today. In its honor, I’m sharing an excerpt from a chapter of my Cotswold memoir, Americashire, about my slightly humbler experience of horse racing in the Cotswolds.

Spring in the Cotswolds means horse racing. This is horse country and manicured horse farms dot the hillsides, discernible by jumping equipment that from a distance looks like giant candy-colored matchboxes and pickup sticks strewn about the fields. The racing event of the season is the Cheltenham Festival, for which half of Ireland, also horse mad, descends into Gloucestershire’s pubs and inns. Despite my enthusiasm for trying new country pursuits, I didn’t manage to book tickets to any of the Cheltenham Festival days. (We had already visited the Cheltenham racecourse for the Sunday flea market, a worthy but entirely different sort of sporting event.) Lots of administrative tasks—paying bills on time, booking train tickets, doing laundry—had gone out the window since buying Drovers Cottage. Chores used to get done on weekends, but now the pressure was on to enjoy ourselves come Saturday, especially if the weather was nice. The manufactured pressure to have a good time, formerly the reserve of real vacations, had with the purchase of a second home become a weekly event. In a fine example of first world problems, we were going to have a good time whether we liked it or not. And in this case, I was too busy having a good time to make time to purchase some tickets that would have allowed us to have, well, a good time.

And so we watched the biggest race of the festival, The Gold Cup, on television. This was a much-publicized battle between elegance in the form of the sleek Kauto Star and brute force embodied in the gigantic Denman. Equally as interesting as the horses was the spectacle of the attendees. The place was swimming in gloriously vulgar hats that are as emblematic of English weddings and horse races as Hermès scarves are of French mademoiselles. I still treasure my own hot pink, pimp-feathered hat purchased for Royal Ascot the previous year. It may not be as versatile as a Hermès scarf, but the opportunities in life to wear vision-obstructing, fuchsia-colored feathers on your head are rare and must be taken. In the end, Denman crushed Kauto Star. It was a victory for brashness of every kind, including big hats.

Our only real horse race of the year took place at the village hall, and there had been much discussion beforehand about what this race would look like since it was being held in a village hall rather than at a racecourse. The consensus between D and Rupert and Ralph, who were going with us, was that it would be betting on prerecorded horse races shown on video monitors. We had gotten a race guide with our prepurchased tickets, each sponsored by local businesses so we could, for example, bet on Lamb Chop to place in the butcher’s race.

When we arrived at the hall there were betting booths with visored attendants and a bar set up in the corner. That’s where the similarities to a real racecourse ended. Attendees were seated around a giant central checkerboard set out in masking tape. Our assigned table was front and center, so we were on full display to our fellow villagers, like some kind of demented bridal party. Stroppy teenagers, three of each gender, jockeyed rocking-horse-sized wooden steeds painted in bright colors with mop-string hair. (Their parents definitely made them do it.) A tuxedoed MC called for volunteers to throw the giant fuzzy dice, the roll of which would determine the progress of the wooden horses up and back the checkerboard. D, no wallflower, was first to throw.

A childless couple and a gay couple 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, Rupert 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 undermined by our blood-alcohol content.) Ralph then became obsessed with getting a turn at throwing the dice, 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 cigarette break between races five and six.

At the end of the evening, a young man in a wheelchair took the microphone to thank everyone. He was the beneficiary of the evening’s fundraising, which would go to buy a sports wheelchair he would use to play tennis. He was confident, gracious, and eloquent, so much so that we immediately sobered up in the full realization of what a generous community we’d so recklessly imposed ourselves on. This man didn’t need our charity. We were far more desperate specimens in need of our own fundraiser to pay for the many hours of psychotherapy we each required. Through it all our new neighbors sat on either side of us smiling patiently. We just weren’t sure if they would still be speaking to us in the morning.

Books Cotswolds

The Cotswold Report: from old favorites to new finds, the region’s best eating, drinking & shopping

I’ve just arrived back in Los Angeles after a month in the Cotswolds, where I was struck by the pleasingly consistent, almost defiant answer locals give when asked what’s new: NOTHING. While this may be true of some things—the wet weather and the stunning landscapes come to mind—I found the Wolds were awash with new and worthy finds: some just opened, some that have been around but were new to me. During our visit I also tried all our old standards, and I’m delighted to report they generally remain in good form. Still, with very few exceptions, the service in Cotswold restaurants remains too slow. Even if a kitchen is busy, much could be done to soothe tempers by providing prompt delivery of water, wine and bread, in that order. Sadly, even this seems to be too much to expect of many eateries whose prices demand that they should know better.

And now on to the good stuff. Starting in the north and working our way south, here’s my list of the best of the Cotswolds:


  • Greek Deli – Recently opened by hospitality veteran Ilias Karalivanos, this is a great spot for coffee and a light lunch of Greek classics. Don’t leave without some Greek wine and tasty tidbits from the deli case.
  • Christmas Birds & Books – In the same arcade as the Greek Deli, Richard Kemp recently opened Moreton’s only bookshop with the worthy sentiment: “Towns deserve bookshops. They are part of the community.” Amen.
Stow-on-the-Wold and nearby
  • The Porch House – This recently renovated pub/hotel is decorated with oversize bell jars housing antiquarian books, an interior design trick I’m planning to employ when I buy my Cotswold dream house. Snack on honeyed chili nuts and a pint of something local in
    the low-ceilinged pub, purportedly the oldest inn in England.
  • The Old Butchers – One of my old favorites for Sunday lunch has been reinvented as a charming wine and charcuterie bar. Coincidentally, we found its former manager at the delightful Royal Oak in Gretton, just outside of Winchombe, where we enjoyed a generous Sunday roast.
  •  Vintage and Paint – Just opposite The Old Butchers, this curiosity shop has everything from old Johnny Strong dolls to vintage movie lights. A refreshing take on the typical Cotswold antique shop.
  • The Borzoi Bookshop – On a tiny lane just off the market square sits a gem of an independent bookstore. Well stocked with regionally relevant books, it’s the perfect spot to pick up my favorite kind of souvenir.
  • The Coffee House – A couple doors down from the bookshop, their leather sofas are my favorite place to catch up on the papers.
  • Daylesford Organic (about 4 miles east of Stow) – We had our first Daylesford lunch in their Notting Hill branch, but the site just outside of Stow is the real deal. It’s easy to feel like a target market here (and hate yourself a little bit for it), but there’s no getting around the fact that the food is fantastic. The proprietress recently opened The Wild Rabbit in nearby Kingham, which is on my list for my next trip to England.
Beetroot soup at Daylesford
  • No 131 – A welcome, terribly stylish hotel/restaurant/bar addition to the Promenade, and not just because the bartender knows how to make a stonking Old Fashioned.
  • Mad Hatter Bookshop – a bookstore and a hat shop, because, why not? Think of the English penchant for hats and its literary heritage, and it all starts to make more sense.
  • New Dragon Inn – When I need a break from the standard Cotswold menu of pies, sausage and mash, and fish cakes, I head for the New Dragon Inn. Served in the incongruous surroundings of a Grade I listed building (koi tank aside), I’m a fan of the crispy duck and Singapore noodles.
  • The Black Cat – A new café in the old wool house. If this was Portland, it’d be loaded with hipsters and their Mac Books, but this is the Cotswolds which means you won’t struggle with getting a table or an overloaded wifi signal. Great breakfast baps, but the kitchen seem to struggle if an order includes more than two items.
  • The Wheatsheaf – Every time we return, the prices have nudged gently upward, but that’s done nothing to dampen business. Excellent fish dishes and the sirloin with peppercorn sauce always delivers. Service remains consistently inconsistent.
  • The Ox House Wine Company – My old favorite now serves tasty lunches. Menu changes on a weekly basis but may include anything from a lamb curry to fishcakes. There’s Viennoiserie in the mornings, plus standout bacon sandwiches. Of course the real attraction here is the wine, all hand selected from small producers. A delight whether you’re drinking in or taking a bottle or two away.
Relaxing in front of the fire at the Ox House


  • Barnsley House cinema nights are a favorite way to spend an evening in the Cotswolds. Relax with a glass of wine in the pink-loveseat splendor of it all. You don’t have to be a hotel guest to attend, although it’s a great place to stay if you’re in need of a bed.
  • The Village Pub – A firm old favorite. One of those rare places I would be happy ordering everything on the menu.
  • The Royal Oak – Recently refurbished, this pub with rooms is worth a visit and a good excuse to take in a scenic stretch of Tetbury that’s off the main drag.
  • Moloh – If you’re after some real royal memorabilia, skip Prince Charles’ Highgrove shop and head to Moloh, an upscale British women’s clothier favored by Kate Middleton. 
  • The Ormond – A pub and hotel that’s warm, friendly, and offers my personal favorite form of royal memorabilia: coronation chicken.
The Snooty Fox, Tetbury