Walking in the Cotswolds: The Beautiful Slaughters

Day 2 of our Cotswold Walks idyll: Stow-on-the-Wold to Bourton-on-Water (via Upper and Lower Slaughter)

Lower Slaughter, a village on the banks of the River Eye ©Laurel Kallenbach

Lower Slaughter, a charming village on the banks of the River Eye.  ©Laurel Kallenbach

Yes, the names of Upper and Lower Slaughter—which we visited on our second day of walking in the Cotswolds—sound alarming, but if you’ve read Bill Bryson’s The Road to Little Dribbling or Notes from a Small Island you already know that English country towns often carry strange appellations. (And for the record, “Slaughter” comes from the Old English word for a wetland—“slough” or slothre—meaning a “muddy place.”)

The trails were well marked throughout our English walking vacation. ©Laurel Kallenbach

The trails were well marked throughout our English walking vacation. ©Laurel Kallenbach

During our second day walking the “Best of the Cotswolds” loop, the highlight of our 7.5-mile hike was our arrival at these two villages. The walk began with a trek through farm after farm, field gate after field gate, dodging cow patties the size of hubcaps.

How is it possible we were walking across private farmland? In Britain, the Countryside and Rights of Way Act gives people access to “mountain, moor, heath, or down”—within reason, of course. We were almost always on established trails, and usually we could see where other hikers had already plodded across or on the edge of fields. We were respectful of the livestock and crops—although the corn and hay had already been harvested by late August.

The Old Mill in Lower Slaughter ©Laurel Kallenbach

The Old Mill in Lower Slaughter ©Laurel Kallenbach

Waiting for us after all the farm crossings were two jewels of Cotswold villagedom. First we came to Lower Slaughter, a small village populated by stone cottages built along the slow-moving River Eye.

Lower Slaughter is best known for its 19th-century flour mill with its picturesque waterwheel and chimney. The Old Mill is now a museum and gift shop—which also happens to sell some wonderful ice cream. We had lunch outdoors at the River Café and watched the ducks as we slurped our soup and tucked into sandwiches.

The steeple of the 13th-century Anglican church, St. Mary’s, presides over the town, and its clock bells add to the village’s timeless feel. An occasional bench makes a nice place to sit and take in the scenery. We could hardly take a dozen steps without snapping a photo, especially after the sun peeped out.

St Mary's Parish, Lower Slaughter ©Laurel Kallenbach

St Mary’s Parish, Lower Slaughter ©Laurel Kallenbach

There’s something irresistible about willow trees beside the water and Cotswold-stone cottages with flower boxes full of bright blooms.

(Cotswold stone is honey-colored sandstone that’s been quarried in the region for centuries and used to build houses and churches.)

At one pretty cottage, a couple was hanging swags of international flags for the upcoming Bank Holiday Village Fete.

After enjoying the views of Lower Slaughter, we continued our walk—yes, through more fields—to Upper Slaughter, a little less than a mile away. Along the way were some glorious trees, including age-old oaks and horse chestnuts that looked like massive green haystacks with pendant nut pods.

Cottage in Upper Slaughter ©Laurel Kallenbach

Cottage in Upper Slaughter ©Laurel Kallenbach

This village was—is it possible?—even smaller and a bit more posh than Lower Slaughter. Every cottage had climbing roses and flowerboxes; every stone was perfectly situated.

We wandered about Upper Slaughter and ambled into the Norman St. Peter’s church, where the list of priests/clergy stretches back to the 1200s.

We returned to Lower Slaughter to continue on our route to Bourton-on-Water, and in the process of passing through a kissing gate we noticed a plaque commemorating the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana in July of 1981.
Charles and Diana plaque, Lower Slaughter©Laurel Kallenbach

It was a bit sad considering it was just a week before the 20th anniversary of Diana’s death. Ken and I shared a smooch at every kissing gate we passed through during our trip, and we thought about how much happier we were than that infamously unhappy royal couple.

PS: What’s a kissing gate? It allows people, but not livestock, to pass through it. The hinged gate swings between the two sides of an enclosure, so only one person can step through it at a time, and they can kiss across the gate.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Farmhouse on the edge of Upper Slaughter ©Laurel Kallenbach

Farmhouse on the edge of Upper Slaughter         ©Laurel Kallenbach

This cottage was decorated for Lower Slaughter's Bank Holiday Fete ©Laurel Kallenbach

This cottage was decorated for Lower Slaughter’s Bank Holiday Fete ©Laurel Kallenbach

 

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

Bampton, England: Film Location for “Downton Abbey”

St. Mary’s church in Bampton, Oxfordshire, is a film location for the Downton Abbey TV show. ©Laurel Kallenbach

The spires of Highclere Castle set the elegant tone of the PBS Masterpiece TV series Downton Abbey (see my post: “My Pilgrimage to the Real Downton Abbey”) but fans of the show want to know more. Anytime one of the show’s characters has business in Downton village, the Oxfordshire town of Bampton gets its turn in the spotlight.

So far, a fair, two weddings, and a funeral are among the big events filmed in Bampton, just 20 miles west of the city of Oxford. When my husband and I discovered that the National Trust cottage we rented for three days was just 15 minutes away, we were ecstatic that we could see another piece of Downton Abbey lore.

A Photogenic Church

We arrived in town just about teatime, parked in the market square, and had tea and scones at the Bampton Coffee House. There we got directions, but as we left, the church bells began tolling exuberantly.

Bampton’s church has been the setting of Grantham family weddings. ©Laurel Kallenbach

We simply followed their sound as we wandered down pretty Church Street until we arrived at St. Mary the Virgin, a 12th-century parish church with Romanesque architecture. No doubt about it: this was the church where Lady Edith took Matthew sightseeing during Downton Abbey’s season 1—when she was hoping he would woo her instead of her sister Mary.

The church’s TV-land alter-ego is St. Michael’s and All Angels, and its interior and exterior have appeared on American tellies most famously as the scene of Lavinia’s burial (season 2), Mary and Matthew’s nuptials (season 3), and Edith’s jilting at the altar (also season 3).

On the August afternoon we visited, the church bells were pealing for a real wedding. We watched as the bride and groom had some last photos taken before braving the gauntlet of rice-throwing wedding guests and into a vintage Rolls Royce.

I’m standing at the gate where Lady Mary entered the churchyard for her wedding to Matthew Crawley. ©Ken Aikin

Then Ken and I wandered inside the church as the wedding candles were extinguished and the flower arrangements carried away. The sanctuary has a lovely pipe organ, elegant stone arches, vaulted ceiling, stained glass, and ornate pews. (We also picked up a free, photocopied guide of Downton Abbey locations in Bampton, which helped us with the rest of our impromptu tour.)

Outside, the little churchyard is dotted by lichen-covered tombstones and a few red-berried hawthorns. We speculated that Matthew and Mary would be wed in this church—but we had to wait until January 2013 to confirm that.

Strolling with the Granthams and Crawleys

Churchgate House, the exterior film site for the Downton village home of Isobel Crawley. ©Laurel Kallenbach

All the Downton Abbey scenes filmed in Bampton are confined to the picturesque Church View lane, a row of old buildings, houses, and stone walls. Right beside the church is Churchgate House, which serves as the exterior for the Crawley house where Isobel and Matthew lived in seasons 1 and 2. (The interiors are filmed elsewhere.)

This bench shows up in a number of Downton Abbey episodes. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Just outside the churchyard walls is the church green—with a huge tree and park bench that often shows up in the TV series. This area was the setting for the fair, which was featured in a season 1 episode in which Mrs. Hughes, the housekeeper, met an old beau.

Next comes the Bampton Library, which for TV’s purposes sheds its literary facade and poses as a medical building. The library is the exterior for Downton Hospital where Dr. Clarkson treats villagers and the wounded soldiers during WWI.

Bampton Library, just down the block from the church, serves as the exterior for Downton Hospital. ©Laurel Kallenbach

So, when Mrs. Hughes walks up to the hospital for her cancer checkup, that’s Bampton’s library you see. If it’s open, visitors can go in; the library sells souvenir postcards there.

Finally we ambled down Church View Road, noticing doorways that become the Downton Post Office and the Dog & Duck pub. It’s fun seeing locations that look vaguely familiar…but not quite. After we returned to the States, we watched reruns of the early episodes and paused the DVD player so we could see spots where modern fire hydrants were covered by bushes or fake postboxes to complete the early-20th-century look.

Bampton’s Church View Lane gets used in numerous shots. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Before the Downton Abbey craze hit, Bampton was a sleepy town known for its morris dancers (traditional folk dancers who wear bells on their shins), its May flower-garland festival, and the colony of swifts that nests in the village every summer. Bampton was quiet when we visited, but with the show’s popularity, occasional tour buses now stop there.

Bampton, in Oxfordshire, is a beautiful village. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Bampton, one of England’s oldest towns, has a number of pubs, inns, and B&Bs, so it would be a nice place to spend a few days. (It’s within an easy drive or bus ride from other quaint Oxfordshire Cotswold villages such as Burford, Lechlade-on-Thames, and Minster Lovell, so there’s plenty to do in the area.)

Who knows, if you visit Bampton this spring, you might be there during the next season’s filming!

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

For more information, check out Visit Oxfordshire’s website.

Read more Downton Abbey posts:

Winchcombe: This Cotswolds Village Is a Hub for Hiking

A Tudor courtyard in the Cotswold village of Winchcombe. © Laurel Kallenbach

The Cotswolds Hills in west-central England are famous for quaint villages, thatched-roof houses and grazing sheep—and I’ve always wanted to visit the area.

(True confessions: as much as I love visiting museums and enjoying the arts in big cities, I am, at heart, a village lover.)

So a day-visit to Winchcombe, a Tudor-era village in Gloucestershire, was a match made in heaven. It’s got old buildings, pretty gardens, a picturesque location, plenty of hiking and rambling options into the gorgeous countryside, and Sudeley Castle to boot.

A Taste of the Country Life

The only thing that wasn’t absolutely perfect on the day Ken and I visited was the weather. Ah, if only the sun had shone … but even rain could not dampen our spirits at this village.

The Happenstance Border Morris Dancers led the procession through the streets of Winchcombe. ©Laurel Kallenbach

As luck would have it, we arrived in Winchcombe on the day of the Country Show, held annually in late August. A troupe of morris dancers wearing feathered bowler hats, tattercoats, and bells on their shins paraded through the streets, followed by septuagenarians driving vintage tractors. We felt like we were part of the party, which includes a flower show, a test of the skill and speed of herding dogs, sheep shearing, and much more.

Morris dancers help celebrate Winchcombe’s Country Show. ©Laurel Kallenbach

We ate lunch at The White Hart Inn, a 16th-century pub with accommodations right on Winchcombe’s main thoroughfare.

With lots of country pub atmosphere, The White Hart restaurant is called Wine & Sausage, but it offers much more: In fact, it specializes in local produce cooked into simple but flavorful British food. We tried the regional cider and beer, of course!

I ordered the local lamb served with rosemary/garlic sauce and colcannon, while Ken sampled the traditional fish pie with purple sprouting broccoli.

We were now fortified and ready to ramble.

Ken beside a signpost for the Cotswold Way footpath. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Winchcombe Welcomes Walkers

The Cotswolds have been crowned the Walking Capital of England, and the 102-mile Cotswold Way footpath takes through-hikers from Chipping Campden to the city of Bath.

Winchcombe is one of the jewels of the Cotswold Way, although it has many other trails as well, including the long-distance Winchcombe Way, the Wardens Way, and and the Windrush Way. The circular Gloucestershire Way also passes through Wicnhcombe and finishes at Tewkesbury.

Our plan was to hike for a couple of hours on one of the many trails that intersect in the village. So, after lunch, we set out on the Cotswold Way footpath, despite threatening clouds. We’d barely left town when it started to drizzle, but on we pressed up the hill. Alas, the rain got heavier and was then propelled by high winds. We turned back.

Stately Sudeley Castle

The consolation prize: ancient Sudeley Castle, the home of Katherine Parr, Henry VIII’s sixth wife—and the only spouse who officially became that monarch’s widow. (The queen was born 500 years ago.)

Sudeley Castle is located on the outskirts of Winchcombe, and offers gorgeous gardens and stunning views of the Gloucestershire Cotswolds. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Between rains, we wandered through the sculpted yew trees and the herb and rose gardens; we rested beside an elegant fountain; we explored the hollyhock-enhanced ruins of an old tithe barn, used in medieval times to store the produce that farmers brought as their tithe to the church. Cromwell partially destroyed the barn during the English Civil War.

A garden gate at Sudeley Castle ©Laurel Kallenbach

For more than 15 years, Sudeley’s groundskeepers have been gardening organically and creating niche gardens and ponds that support native wildlife, including toads, bee orchids, disease-resistant elms, bumblebees, dragonflies, kingfishers and nuthatches.

We also visited the 15th-century St Mary’s Church where Queen Katherine lies buried.

Inside the castle, we learned about the inhabitants of this castle, from Katherine Parr to its current occupants, the Dent-Brocklehursts (Lord and Lady Ashcombe). We especially appreciated an exhibit about the family’s campaign to protect badgers in the region. (They adopted an orphaned badger in the 1960s and ’70s, and have been advocates of the animals ever since.)

We absolutely loved Winchcombe, and we still dream of hiking its hills. Fare thee well, little Cotswolds village—we’ll be back!

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

For more information about walking in and around Winchcombe, Gloucestershire, visit Winchcombe Welcomes Walkers.

If you’d like a guided walking vacation—or one where you guide yourself but a local company creates the route and arranges reservations at B&Bs in the Cotswolds—I know of two companies whose services sound quite nice. I haven’t hired them personally, but I hope to someday:

  • Cotswold Walks: I’ve interviewed the owner, Andrew Guppy, as well as some of his clients who hiked The Cotswold Way through this company, which offers guided and self-guided walks.
  • Cotswold Journeys: Offers both walking and cycling tours.

 

In honor of the Queen’s 2012 Diamond Jubilee, flags were flying in the pretty village of Winchcombe. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Read more about England’s pretty Cotswold region: