A weekend in the Cotswolds — Stow-on-the-Wold and Snowshill Manor

After a busy and work-filled start to the year, we managed to escape for a well-deserved weekend away from London just before lockdown started. Given that we haven’t been able to leave London since, this was a lovely opportunity to explore the gorgeous town of Stow-on-the-Wold, which was new to us. The market cross was at the centre of the little town, and has a slightly gory history dating back to 1646 and the English Civil War. The Royalist Army marched through the Cotswolds on their way to Oxford, but were intercepted by the Parliamentarians, and the battle which ensued in the market square was so gory that it was said ducks could bathe in the pools of blood left behind [maybe it’s good that we didn’t know this beforehand?]. This apparently led to the street’s name, Digbeth, from ‘Duck’s Bath’. However, we can confirm that it is now much more peaceful and full of interesting antiques shops [well done if you can leave without buying anything!] and gorgeous cafés. This is a place to come prepared for scones, tea and cake!

Stow-on-the-Wold

You might recognise this famous little door! The 13th century north door of St Edward’s Church, the town’s church, which itself dates back to the 11th century, is said to have inspired J.R.R. Tolkien to create the “Doors of Durin” in The Lord of the Rings.

Tolkien's door at St Edward's Church, Stow-on-the-Wold
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Exploring the Regent’s Canal at its annual festival

Have you ever been for a walk along the Regent’s Canal? Everyone knows about the Thames, and has probably walked across one of its bridges or along the Thames Path, but the Canal is a slightly better-kept secret. During the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century, canals were built all over the country as an efficient way of transporting industrial materials and products, while the roads were still in a relatively poor state. By 1790, the Oxford Canal had been built, meaning that goods could be transported to London and beyond using water transport.

However, the Oxford Canal was only wide enough for one narrow barge at a time, and the Thames didn’t suit these narrowboats at all. Either goods had to be transferred onto larger barges, or the boats were at risk. As such, the idea of a new canal from Paddington to Limehouse, and the creation of a new dock at Limehouse, was born, which would prevent the need for transference onto barges or wagons for goods to reach the City and the Thames docks.

The project started to progress when John Nash started to plan the development of Marylebone Park (later to become The Regent’s Park). Initially Nash planned for an attractive waterway through the park, but upon realising that the cargo boats may prove unsightly he routed the canal instead along the northern boundary, hidden in a deep cutting. This section was completed in 1813, and the whole canal was opened in August 1816, on the birthday of the Prince Regent.

Immediately the canal was busy, with cargo ranging from building and industrial materials to hay and vegetables for the markets. These early cargo boats were pulled by horses, walking along the towpath at the side, although ‘legging’ was required in two of the tunnels (a chain-powered tug was introduced in 1826 given how slow this process was). We [well, one of us…] tried legging for ourselves at the Black Country Living Museum – we can highly recommend as a great day out! However, the ‘golden age’ of canals was already on the decline, thanks to Robert Stephenson and the introduction of the powerful steam locomotive. One Midlands route in particular passed across the Regent’s Canal as it came into Euston, the London & York Railway went under the canal by tunnel as it approached Kings Cross, and the Midland Railway went over it into St Pancras. Finally, the North London Railway opened in 1850, carrying goods from Camden to Bow from the Midlands.

Although the waterways continued to be useful for a time in the carrying of coal to power the trains, the carrying of freight in its entirety ended during the 1970s, leaving us with a beautiful path running alongside London Zoo (you can see the giraffes on a good day!) and past the backs of the ridiculously ornate and luxurious, many Nash-designed, houses in Regent’s Park.

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Mottisfont, Hampshire — the National Trust’s rose garden

Mottisfont Abbey started life as an Augustinian priory dating back to 1201. From this, it was transformed by Lord Sandys into a large house; this family also owned The Vyne, also in Hampshire, and divided their time between the two properties.

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A trip to Highclere Castle, otherwise known as Downton Abbey

Highclere Castle in Berkshire, home to the Earl and Countess of Carnarvon, was largely built by Sir Charles Barry while he worked on the Houses of Parliament. With grounds laid out by Capability Brown (of course), the house and family also have links with the history of planes through Sir Geoffrey de Havilland and with Tutankhamun’s Tomb, which was discovered by the 5th Earl. The name is also familiar to those who are fans of horseracing, with the current Earl’s father, the 7th Earl, the Queen’s racing manager until his death in 2001.

This particular angle of the house is instantly recognisable from Downton Abbey, the well-loved TV series and film made here. While the fictional Downton Abbey is in Yorkshire, the blue skies and sunshine make it obvious that we are in fact in Berkshire [less of that, thank you].

Highclere Castle

The gardens around the house are extensive, with some pretty wonderful tulip varieties in bloom in the spring.

Tulips at Highclere Castle
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Standen in the springtime

Now that the sun is (sporadically) here, the days are getting longer and flowers are starting to appear, we’ve decided it’s officially springtime and time for us to start exploring again! And where else to start but Standen House, a National Trust property near East Grinstead in Surrey.

An Arts and Crafts property, the house was designed by Philip Webb, a friend of William Morris. It was designed in keeping with the Arts and Crafts aesthetic, where the everyday domestic object was exalted through thoughtful and pleasing design, and thus William Morris’s Golden Rule: “Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful”. This stunning coffee table showed this perfectly [I love the geometric patterns].

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The Golden Age: a trip to the Buckinghamshire Railway Centre

Although we do love a steam train, this wasn’t actually our choice of trip, but a family birthday celebration. It was also exceptionally cold, so I wasn’t sure what to expect on a freezing and grey Sunday morning! However, the Buckinghamshire Railway Centre turned out to be a great place to visit, for all ages – and conveniently close to London too.

There is so much to see, but if you like a map with suggested routes, a list of attractions or a guided tour, you won’t get it here. There are trains [and more] everywhere, at varying stages of repair and restoration, some open to visitors, some in use and some looking like they’ve been forgotten about. There is obviously a large team of committed volunteers working to bring these huge machines back to their former glory, which is great to see.

There were some truly sumptuous carriages, showing just how possible it was to truly travel in style [a far cry from a modern commute…]. Also on display was the specially-designed carriage used by Winston Churchill as he travelled across the country during the War; the intricacies of D-Day might well have been planned in that train.

There was even a working steam train, though its route was limited to a few hundred yards and back [they go back and forth twice to make you feel like you’ve had more of a trip]. The interior of the train was fascinating though, making you feel like the heroine of a WWI film, featuring compartment carriages with blinds to pull down and seating facing each other; perfect for a romantic rendezvous, if super awkward in the wrong situation. [You can also treat yourself to the added comfort of First Class!]

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Five ideas to beat the January blues

It’s January, and like many we’re feeling a little worn down by the freezing temperatures, lack of available funds and propensity for interesting places to be closed for refurbishment. However, we’ve got some great plans for summer lining up already, as well as a few weekend distractions, so we thought we’d share with you some of our favourite ideas and tips to break up your week.

1. Booking tickets – a long way in advance

I was clearly feeling uncharacteristically organised in October, so I put the day that the Royal Opera House winter season opened in my diary, and when that day came I logged on at 9am and speedily booked some opera and ballet tickets for January. At £17 each, they didn’t break the bank, but were a welcome treat on the first day back after the Christmas break and then again in mid-January once we were feeling very fed up. Not only were they a spend we couldn’t have justified in January, but all but the most pricey tickets sell out pretty much the same day at the ROH. [You could also check out the Friday Rush at 1pm every Friday, where the ROH sell last-minute tickets for a variety of prices.]

2. Borrow a doggy

This isn’t a sponsored post, but we’re feeling a lot of love for BorrowMyDoggy… You do have to pay to sign up (£10 for borrowers), but you get matched with dogs in your area who might need occasional walking or looking after. Win – you get to hang out with a dog and you’re helping out someone in your community! Disclaimer: we haven’t tried it out ourselves yet, but have friends who love it.

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A day of remembrance

Soldiers are citizens of death’s grey land,
Drawing no dividend from time’s to-morrows.
In the great hour of destiny they stand,
Each with his feuds, and jealousies, and sorrows.
Soldiers are sworn to action; they must win
Some flaming, fatal climax with their lives.
Soldiers are dreamers; when the guns begin
They think of firelit homes, clean beds and wives.

I see them in foul dug-outs, gnawed by rats,
And in the ruined trenches, lashed with rain,
Dreaming of things they did with balls and bats,
And mocked by hopeless longing to regain
Bank-holidays, and picture shows, and spats,
And going to the office in the train.

— Siegfried Sassoon

Poppies against the wall at the Tower of London

(This photo is from the installation at the Tower of London in 2014 – click here to see more pictures from that day)

A Sunday in York

Last weekend we found ourselves in beautiful York for a wedding of two close friends. They had chosen The Hospitium in the York Museum Gardens, an intimate 14th century, two-storey building which was the perfect setting for their ceremony, dinner and dancing.

The next day, we met up with some family for a stroll around the centre of York, which is one of our favourite cities (and, for once, we weren’t there to sing!). The day started as every Sunday should [apparently], with tea – and this time we went all out at Betty’s. Yes, we probably should have gone to Harrogate, but this Southerner had never experienced Betty’s at all and was too excited to wait any longer. It lived up to the hype: silver teapots, cosy corners and very good tea.

Betty's in York

We walked down the cobbled streets to explore some of the less well-known attractions, with the Minster still always in sight around the corner.

York Minster

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Exploring the Hampstead Cemetery

I was on my own this week, so I decided to take a walk around the nearby Hampstead Cemetery and practice a bit of monochrome shooting. There are a huge variety of tombs and gravestones that I thought would provide a good opportunity for some atmospheric photography, and it was a place I’d been keen on exploring for a while.

Cross at Hampstead Cemetery

I really liked how this bright-white stone sat in somewhat splendid isolation amongst the slightly-overgrown grass.

Gravestone at Hampstead Cemetery

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