Most of the images I have of the English countryside were inspired by the books I read as a child. When, years later, the opportunity arose to visit the Cotswolds — the north-central region of southwestern England — I finally discovered the lands that had shaped and nurtured the writers whose stories once upon a time fed my young imagination.
Located about 100 miles to the northwest of London, and easily accessible by public bus, the Cotswolds region covers an area of 790 square miles and is the country’s largest officially designated “Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.” Currently, it’s in vogue because celebrities like Kate Moss and Elton John are known to keep homes here, but visitors from around the globe have been coming for relaxing getaways for ages. They come to rest in manors and hotels located among the gently sloping hillsides (or “wolds”), to meander through river valleys and water meadows and beech woods, and to wander the quaint, sleepy ancient limestone villages which retain a “typical English” character even while other cities rocket through modernity.
It is this quintessential landscape that serves as backdrop to so many imaginary tales. Take, as the consummate example of English children’s books, Alice in Wonderland. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson — better known by his pen name, Lewis Carroll — went to school in Rugby, not far from the Cotswolds, and was then later educated at Oxford. The images of expansive, perfectly manicured lawns from the British countryside no doubt enter scenes when Alice plays croquet with the Queen, or during teatime with the Mad Hatter. A similar setting can be seen at Blenheim Palace, in Woodstock, a few miles from Oxford, where Winston Churchill apparently was born.
The Rugby School is one of the original nine public schools that have since gone on to define what it means to be an English gentleman. The related sense of propriety and “proper” behavior is a theme that resurges regularly in many of these children’s books — and how the protagonists might rebel or reject the rules. That’s certainly the case in The Tale of Peter Rabbit, about the mischievous and disobedient young bunny as he is chased about the garden of Mr. McGregor. It’s easy to imagine Peter Rabbit running through Cheltenham’s Imperial Gardens in the center of this former spa town. Such small towns in the English countryside were commonly frequented by the author, Helen Beatrix Potter, during her day.
The fantasy novel The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, by C.S. Lewis, presents the adventures of the Pevensie children who are transported into the fictional land of Narnia after walking through a wardrobe. A full-length antique wardrobe would be out of place in my own home, but such a furniture piece would not seem out of place in Thirty Two, a lovely boutique hotel looking onto the aforementioned Imperial Gardens in Cheltenham. Here, the interior designers-cum-hoteliers have lovingly turned a traditional Regency town house, with its intricate ironwork balconies and painted stucco façade, into a thoughtful, delicate Western classic peppered with Eastern touches.
One other traditional element of design that I had long attributed to my picture of a traditional British countryside is the manor home, where aristocracy or even royalty perhaps once resided. During the approach toward Cowley Manor, about fifteen minutes by taxi from Cheltenham, the single-lane road wound through old beech forests that reminded me of scenes from Roald Dahl’s Danny, the Champion of the World. In the book, Hazell’s Wood is where Danny rescues his father during a pheasant hunting trip gone wrong. But here, the woods are a charming setting for long walks around ponds and rolling hills, where pheasants run free.
The Cowley Manor pays tribute to the traditional country-house ideal, but the design injects a sense of humor. Where heads of vanquished wild game might have been mounted, instead massive plasters of colorful, imagined animals grace the blue and red walls in the Game Room. Watching a hunting party, just returned from their outing that day, brought the entire image home.
The Cotswolds retain the quaint yet majestic flavors characteristic of “classic English” countryside, but one undeniably discerns a magical, otherworldly feel to the place. I could easily imagine Alice, Peter, the Pevensie children or Danny roaming the well-manicured farm plots gracing the rolling countryside. It’s easy to see how Carroll, Potter, Lewis and Dahl did, too.
Originally published in the December 7, 2010 edition of Tablet Talk, courtesy of Tablet Hotels.