Cottages in the Cotswolds

Thatched cottage in Old Minster Lovell, Oxfordshire Cotswolds © Laurel Kallenbach

Thatched cottage in Old Minster Lovell, Oxfordshire Cotswolds © Laurel Kallenbach

As it snows outdoors, I’m reminiscing about sweet, sunny August in western Oxfordshire.

The beautiful old cottages in this part of England’s Cotswolds are lovely beyond belief. A stroll through its villages takes you back in time to the 11th and 12th centuries.

I love half-timbered houses—especially when they have rose trellises. ©Laurel Kallenbach

I love half-timbered houses—especially when they have rose trellises. ©Laurel Kallenbach

My favorite for cottage-spotting in this area is Old Minster Lovell, a picturesque, one-road village along the River Windrush. (Could there be a more poetic name for a river?)

Half-timbers and thatched roofs greet you as soon as soon as you cross the one-way bridge. My husband and I found a parking space near the parish church on a sunny day and walked down the lane snapping photos of hollyhocks and roses.

We put in our name for a lunch reservation at the Old Swan Inn. With an hour to explore before we ate, we walked the footpath up to Minster Lovell Hall, a ruined, 15th-century manor house that’s right by the river.

Remnants of towers and arched windows made a pretty setting amid the lush grasses and trees. On this Sunday afternoon, families with young children picnicked on the lawns among the ruins.

Sunday at Minster Lovell Hall ©Laurel Kallenbach

Sunday at Minster Lovell Hall ©Laurel Kallenbach

Teens kicked soccer balls to one another. I just couldn’t imagine a better place for relaxing and drinking in the beauty of the Oxfordshire countryside.

After our exploration, we enjoyed a lunch of potato-leek soup and delicious goat-cheese salads. The Old Swan has been around for more than 500 years, but this gastro-pub has a 21st-century kitchen that serves seasonal, local ingredients creatively combined for full flavor.

We ate lunch in the Old Swan Inn, more than 500 years old. © Laurel Kallenbach

We ate lunch in the Old Swan Inn, more than 500 years old. © Laurel Kallenbach

The pub’s interior was as charming as its ivy-covered stone exterior: its Old-World half-timbers, cockeyed windows, and stone walls made me feel every century of its heritage.

Though the meal was fantastic, what I will always remember about Old Minster Lovell is its cottages—and dreaming of what it would be like to live in one of them.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Read more about English villages:

A hollyhock in Old Minster Lovell, England. ©Laurel Kallenbach

A hollyhock in Old Minster Lovell, England. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Colorado’s St. Walburga Abbey Offers Contemplative Retreats

Set in a valley in northern Colorado, St. Walburga Abbey welcomes visitors for spiritual or personal retreats. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Set in a valley in northern Colorado, St. Walburga Abbey welcomes visitors for spiritual or personal retreats. ©Laurel Kallenbach

A lifesize bronze statue of St. Walburga in a nun’s habit and long robes gazes serenely over the rocky hills and low pines near Virginia Dale, Colorado. Above the saint, a red hawk dips and dives in the air currents. In this serene Western landscape live 20-plus Benedictine sisters of the Abbey of St. Walburga,  a community devoted to God and the contemplative life.

The nuns observe choral worship seven times a day; maintain a small farm with llamas, bees, and grassfed beef cows; and make handmade cheeses. (And they do all this in full-length skirts and habits!)

The abbey's sanctuary ©Laurel Kallenbach

The abbey’s sanctuary ©Laurel Kallenbach

They also welcome not-particularly-religious people like me who are seeking a quiet place to retreat from the hubbub of life.

Located 35 miles north of Ft. Collins, Colorado, and 30 miles south of Laramie, Wyoming, St. Walburga Abbey is a tranquil spot for people to slip away from the cares of everyday life and retreat into solitude, contemplation, or prayer.

The beautiful, modern chapel and abbey building—created from eco-friendly, climate-efficient building materials—is a breath of fresh air. Here you can spend one to five days getting away from it all in a restorative environment.

And you don’t have to be Catholic. (In fact, I’m told the majority of retreatants are from other belief systems or simply want time to catch their breath in a beautiful setting.)

I’ve come several times to St. Walburga Abbey for writing retreats at the suggestion of writer friends. All of them have gotten their books published, so there must be divine inspiration at work!

Carrying a bottle of healing oil, St. Walburga welcomes visitors to the Abbey. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Carrying a bottle of healing oil, St. Walburga welcomes visitors. ©Laurel Kallenbach

At Home with a Saint

The statue of a serene-faced saint greets me as I drive up, and she sets a welcoming tone. In St. Walburga’s hand is an emblematic bottle of oil. At her burial crypt in Germany, it’s said that drops of oil flow from the saint’s relics, and this oil is used to heal the sick. I’m inclined to believe in this miracle; I know I start to feel better as soon as I arrive in this gorgeous landscape.

Having a set schedule—the same every day—is relaxing for me too. The nuns’ day is centered around the Divine Office—the seven periods of prayer and psalm-singing spaced throughout the day and night. I try to attend one daily, though I’ve never made it to the 4:50 a.m. Matins. There’s a pamphlet with the words that the sisters chant—and visitors can join in. (Just follow the sisters in standing and sitting down at various times. Don’t worry, the liturgy is mostly sung in English.)

I always give the singing/chanting my best shot, even though the pitch is a bit high for me and I’m not always sure when the notes change. But when at the Abbey, it’s nice to join in the culture. And it’s a perfect way for me to break up writing sessions. The words of a psalm sung at morning Lauds (held at a more doable 7:15 a.m.) inspired a scene in my novel.

There are beautiful tapestries to admire in the Abbey, both in and outside the sanctuary. If you are Catholic, you can enjoy a scenic walk around the Stations of the Cross—or you can simply meander the property or sit in the gardens and enjoy the view. In summer when the windows are open you can enjoy the chanting from the garden—or even from your cozy room.

A pastoral setting.  ©Laurel Kallenbach

The pastoral setting is perfect for contemplative walks in nature.  ©Laurel Kallenbach

The history is as fascinating as the place is beautiful. During the early years of the Nazi regime, the nuns of the original St. Walburga Abbey in Eichstätt, Germany (Bavaria), realized they were in danger of persecution, so the Abbess bought farm land on the outskirts of Boulder, Colorado, and quietly sent a few nuns to America to establish a new home for them in the event the rest of the order was forced to flee Germany. In the 1990s, the Abbey left Boulder for rural northern Colorado because the area around their farmland was developed and became surrounded by a busy commuter roads and a noisy highway. There, like me, they found peace.

Abbey Habits

On my visits to the Abbey—I usually go for two or three nights at a time—I feel myself exhale and slow down until I’m in step with this tranquil setting. I’m glad there’s no Internet; and I don’t even check my cell phone to see if there’s coverage. Instead, I chant, I write, I visit with other retreatants or a nun—if she’s got the time. (The sisters have much work to do every day, including cooking, cleaning, working in the gift shop, tending the livestock…and praying of course.)

The garden at the Abbey ©Laurel Kallenbach

The garden at the Abbey ©Laurel Kallenbach

On my most recent visit, the entire retreat center was full with a group of 18 doing a three-day silent retreat. So meals were completely nonverbal, which I enjoyed. On my first visit, the guests consisted of me and just one other woman who was a little too chatty. No worries, I simply pinned a badge on my sweater that stated I was keeping silence. That kept me in my own space instead of making small talk that distracted me from my writing or that crowded out my characters’ fictional voices in my head.

I’ll pass along a tip one of my friends shared with me the first time I went to the Abbey of St. Walburga: take snacks. The cafeteria-style meals are lovingly prepared, but basic and modest. There’s a refrigerator for retreatants, so you can easily store a few treats for between-meal munching. That said, the sisters make a huge effort to accommodate special dietary needs, and there are often homemade cookies for dessert!

Another thing: attire at the Abbey is casual, even though the sisters are wearing their Sunday best every day—except when they change into work clothes and aprons for chores. Because it’s outdoorsy, you need sturdy walking shoes. And you can wear jeans and a T-shirt into the church (but not shorts or sleeveless shirts).

The bell tower, St. Walburga Abbey ©Laurel Kallenbach

The bell tower, St. Walburga Abbey ©Laurel Kallenbach

Last but not least, there are bells. Every day, a sister walks to the bell tower wearing noise-reducing headphones for ear protection, and she begins to ring the bells. First, they peal just one at a time. Then the sister gets both going at once. The jubilant bells beckon to all who seek harmony as if saying: “Come to the life-affirming, serenity-inspired sanctuary that is the Abbey of St. Walburga.”

Who the retreats are for: People desiring peace and quiet and open air. The day begins and ends early. (You’re welcome to keep your own hours, of course, but you should respect the privacy and quiet of others both day and night.) There is no WiFi, and cell phone coverage is spotty, which is perfect if you’re serious about unplugging. Three meals a day are provided; the food tends to be simple. Rooms are comfy and modest with a twin-sized bed and private bathrooms. (There is also a handicapped-accessible room, and one with two beds to accommodate a married couple.) A minimum donation/offering of $65 per night is requested. Here’s more information on retreats (either organized through the Abbey or just personal retreats).

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Watch the “Rancher Nuns” video about the St. Walburga nuns.

The sign on Highway 287. ©Laurel Kallenbach

The sign just off Highway 287 between Laramie and Ft. Collins. ©Laurel Kallenbach


Cows on Parade: A Swiss Celebration

Stein is one of hundreds of Swiss villages that hold traditional dairy farming celebrations. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Throaty cowbells clang as flower-wreathed heifers parade through the streets of Stein, a tiny Swiss village in the Appenzell cheese-making region.

Dressed in traditional costumes, farm children and yodeling cowherds drive the cows toward the Viehschau (cattle show) judging area for the “Miss Stein” bovine beauty contest. There, the cows’ stature and coloring will be evaluated. It’s not just about pretty faces—honorable mention goes to cows with the best-looking udders and highest milk production.

On this late-September Tuesday morning, I’ve joined crowds of people jostling to watch the cows. Hundreds of people are clustered along the parade route. Stands sell toys and food; someone hawks balloons.

Appenzell cowherds carry traditional carved or painted wooden milk pails over their shoulders.

The streets in Stein, in the Appenzell canton of Switzerland, are festive on Cattle Show Day. ©Laurel Kallenbach

“Schools are closed today, and the whole town is here,” Antonia Brown Ulli, a tour guide, tells me. She lives in Stein and is wearing a dirndl dress for the occasion. “This is one of the village’s biggest annual festivals.”

Appenzell cowherds carry traditional wooden milk pails over their shoulders. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Indeed, the locals are impressively dressed, especially the men who are decked out in Appenzell finery consisting of red embroidered vest-jackets, fancy braces decorated with silver plates, black hats ringed with ribbons and flowers, and spoon-shaped earrings. Many also wear carry a wooden milking pail over one shoulder.

In the days of up-to-the-millisecond Swiss watches, I’m comforted that age-old cow herding traditions are still heartily celebrated by the entire community. And these cattle processions happen in rural villages all over Switzerland. (Germany and Austria too.)

In fact, the lead cows for each farm are adorned with bright flowers, ribbons, and fir branches on their heads. I’m giddy. As a cheese lover, I think it’s a grand idea to celebrate the cows (and goats too!) who provide milk for my favorite food.

Contestants for the Miss Stein title ©Laurel Kallenbach

The day before, I had visited the Appenzell Show Dairy, where visitors can see how the world-famous Appenzell cheese is made—and can taste it too! There’s a full restaurant on site.

The pageantry and music—bell-clanging and the yodel-like singing of the cowherds—is my farewell to Switzerland. An hour later, I’m zipping on the train to the Zurich airport. There, on the shuttle train to the international terminal, the piped-in sounds of mooing cows and cowbells makes me tear up. Even though I haven’t officially left the country, I’m already nostalgic for this scenic country.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor 

For more information, visit Switzerland tourist information and Appenzell Tourism

Read more about my travels in Switzerland:

In late September, Swiss dairy farmers parade their cows through the streets of the Appenzell village of Stein. ©Laurel Kallenbach

In late September, Swiss dairy farmers parade their cows through the streets of the Appenzell village of Stein. ©Laurel Kallenbach


Living Local at the Fresh & Wyld Farmhouse Inn in Paonia, Colorado

For July Fourth weekend, Ken’s Brazilian Jazz band played for the Cherry Days festival in Paonia, Colorado. A friend who used to live in Paonia recommended an agritourism B&B—the Fresh and Wyld Farmhouse Inn on the outskirts of this tiny town on the Western slope.

Just-picked cherries, almond-anise biscotti and iced tea are the afternoon snack for July 4th at Fresh & Wyld Farmhouse Inn in Paonia, Colo.

This inn is dedicated to organic, healthy living: the soaps, shampoos, etc. are all-natural and “local” is the buzzword here. We had farm-fresh eggs, pancakes with homemade jam, and local ham for breakfast this morning. And there are other treats lovingly prepared by chef/owner Dava Parr. In the afternoon, she sets out fresh-brewed ice tea, just-picked cherries and crunchy anise biscotti.

Morning Freshness on the Farm

From the farmhouse’s outdoor settee at 7:30 a.m., I sip mint tea and slowly come to consciousness. The air is cool, the birds are twittering wildly in homage to the morning sun, and the world is in suspended motion. Or rather, I’m in suspended motion as farm life bustles around me—in its timeless, laid-back way. Activity that has gone on every morning since the beginning of farms.

Paco, the old-soul farm dog with bad arthritis in his hips, wastes only a moment to touch his damp nose to the back of my hand and absorb my scent before he limps off to count other guests as they emerge from their rooms. I hear the ducks “wack-wack-wacking” like cartoon characters in a pond I can’t see from here.

A farmer goes about his hoeing and watering in the hothouse. Shocks of marigolds stand guard at the ends of each garden row, warding off insects from tender tomatoes, fronds of kale, sweet peas. Mourning doves perch on the telephone pole, casting watchful eyes over the land, here in the foothills of the Roaring Fork valley. A slight breeze rustles the heart-shaped cottonwood leaves, coaxing them into daytime.

Fresh & Wyld Inn is a beautifully restored 1908 farmhouse with colorful gardens, cozy rooms, and fantastic breakfasts.

The smell of strong coffee wafted into our room this morning, and my nose decided it was time to greet July Fourth. Yesterday was hot; today is too. Though the farmhouse doesn’t have air conditioning, there’s a lovely patio with pots of flowers and benches scattered in the shade around the farm.

Ken and I are staying in the Sunflower Honeycomb room upstairs—it shares a bath with the other upstairs guests. (The main-floor rooms have private baths.) All the rooms are very cute with old-fashioned furniture; colorful, handmade bedspreads; and local artwork for sale on the walls. There’s also a boutique filled with beautiful crafts, local honey, handmade cards, quilt art, and soaps.

We’re loving this piece of farmland paradise and are spending most of the day here reading, napping, relaxing (I’m still recuperating from bronchitis, so a do-nothing vacation is just what the doctor ordered.) If you’re ever in Paonia, this is the place to stay for terrific food, friendly people, and a getaway in the country.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

We’re celebrating Independence Day by being independent of toxic pesticides at this organic, sustainable B&B. How are you celebrating?  Just click below on “Comments” to share…