Cotswolds and Beyond


Cotswolds Travel Blog: Including Highclere Castle, Avebury Stones, Marlborough, Bibury, Chedworth Roman Villa, Bourton on the Water and a spot of Shakespeare.

“So, you want to go to Norfolk next?” I asked Madam.

“I guess so…” she replied somewhat hesitantly.

“It’s very flat,” I said, “you can wave to people in Birmingham.”

“Really?  You can see that far?” asked Madam.

“Well… maybe not quite that far but it is very flat and there isn’t a lot to do there.”

“But you said you wanted to go there,” she insisted.

“Me? No I never said that. You said you wanted to go!”

“No I didn’t, it was your idea!”

It was definitely something you wanted to do! I remember you telling me!”

This conversation continued in a similar vein for some time and in the interests of brevity we shall withdraw to a discrete distance for an hour of so before we rejoin the protagonists.

“I distinctly remember you saying that was our next trip!” she said

“Only because you said you wanted to visit Norfolk ages ago.  So where do you want to go?”

She crossed her arm and was silent for a moment.  She waved expansively and said “what’s up there, north of Bath?

“The Cotswolds mostly, until you get to the Midlands… Wales if you turn left.” I replied.

“Can we go to Highclere Castle?  It’s on the way.”

“Only if we can go to Avebury to see the standing stones afterwards.”

Highclere Castle is the home of the Earl and Countess of Carnarvon and has been the seat of the family for over 300 years.  The current building was designed by Sir Charles Barry in 1842.  He was also the architect who designed the Houses of Parliament and there are external similarities between the two buildings.

Before we left home, I looked online for ticket prices and their website told me that admission was going to cost us over £30 and only by pre-booked timed ticket.  It also informed me that they were fully booked for the next ten days.  I was about to tell Madam the bad news when I noticed that, deep in the FAQ, that they welcomed Historic Houses Association members to the castle free of charge and there was no need to pre-book. 

We reached the castle a little before 2pm, waved our membership cards at the ticket-seller on the gate and were queuing for entrance to the house five minutes later.

It is an interesting building in its own way, but is mostly famous since it was used as the location of Downton Abbey in the TV series of the same name.  The castle has fifty bedrooms and several of these were used as locations in the series as well as the outside and gardens.  We shuffled through, I don’t know how many rooms, following groups of mostly elderly visitors.  All of them were talking about Downton Abbey.  “Ohh, look it’s Lady Edith’s Bedroom!”, “This is were they carried the body!” and “This is where Lady Sybil died!”

It was furnished with antique furniture and elaborate wall-hangings and oil paintings on the walls.  Piles of magazines were artfully arranged, ‘Country Life’, ‘Homes and Gardens’ and ‘Harpers Bazar.’  A book by Piers Morgan was on a bedside table.  The library contained over 5,600 books dating from 1538.  We passed an American woman, who may not have seen Downton Abbey, complaining to one of the guides about the lack of air-conditioning in the building.  The guide shook her head and said “It’s Grade I listed, we can’t even have central heating.”

They wouldn’t allow photography inside the building, so you will have to use your imagination or take a look at their website.

We spent the night in Marlborough in a room above a 15th century pub with sloping creaking wooden floors and low black beams and ceilings.  I made a cup of coffee and put the cup on the bedside table.  I watched it slowly slide towards the edge.  I tried a table near the window.  It slid the other way.  I thought about going downstairs to get a pile of beermats to prop under the table leg, but instead I just sat on the edge of the gently sloping bed and balanced the cup on my knee.  I drank my coffee and watched the traffic in the street below our window.

Marlborough is a tidy and prosperous town with a large church at each end of the High Street.  There was a Waitrose and a Rick Stein restaurant nestled amongst the charity shops.  According to an information book in the pub it has the second widest High Street in the  country (Stockton on Tees has the widest) and was a popular stopping point of horse-drawn stage coaches travelling from London to Bath.  Unfortunately those in power decided to use the width of the road for additional parking in the centre as well as along each side.  It made the street look cluttered and untidy.  How much different and nicer it would have looked with trees, grass and flowers down the centre, but then the locals would all be bitching about having nowhere to park.

After dinner downstairs in the pub, we walked along the High Street and looked in an estate agents window.  “We could buy a nice pied-à-terre for only £695,000,” said Madam.  I pulled her away before she started getting ideas.  We walked through the town pausing to look in a few shop windows before finding our way down to the river.  I had hoped to find a riverfront walk but the only access we found was a wooden bridge along a footpath crossing the river.  I had imagined it would be at least be a navigable canal, but it was shallow and weed-chocked with clouds of midges hovering over the surface.

Avebury standing stones have been on my travel wish list for several years, right there after Stonehenge.   I had pushed it to the back of my mind, maybe onto that list of maybe get there one day but probably not, so I awoke in a state of some anticipation at today’s agenda.

The Avebury area was populated by Neolithic farmers around 6,000 years ago.  Around 4,000 years ago, somebody decided to erect something like 600 stones and dig a whole bunch of ditches and earthen banks. Such was the scale of the enterprise, it must have taken several generations to finish.  In fact, the building time was probably measured in centuries.  One of the stones weighed 100 tons and was buried seven feet into the ground.  Try shifting that with an animal bone and ropes made from plant fibres and see how long it takes you.

The Avebury monument is a henge, which is a type that consists of a large circular bank with an internal ditch. The henge measures roughly 348 metres in diameter and over 1,000 metres in circumference.

Nobody knows why it was built.  Really, not a clue.  Lots of guesses, a religious temple of some kind, a site for meetings or ceremonies.  Maybe aliens landed and gave the locals a plan and helped with some heavy lifting.  One of the dafter theories voiced in the 19th century, and bear in mind that these theories include aliens, was that Native Americans popped over from the Appalachian mountains to build it before returning home.

We know nothing about the people that built the monument.  What they looked like, what they wore, their religion, if they had one.  We have no idea of their language or whether they were farmers or traders, whether they kept slaves or it was built by volunteers or for payment.  We don’t know what happened to them.  All we know is that somehow there was a culture with sufficient organisational ability and longevity to build something a dozen times bigger than Stonehenge.  It’s initially not as impressive a sight as Stonehenge – the stones are not as high and spread out further – but given the scale must have been a similar mammoth undertaking.

In the Middle Ages the locals created a road through the middle and built a village, using many of the stones as building material.  Other stones were buried around 1300 AD either for religious reasons or because they spoiled the view.  By 1900 only 23 stones were left standing.

In the 1930’s archaeologist Alexander Keiller, he of Dundee marmalade so to speak, had a poke around and liked it so much he purchased Avebury Manor and spent a great deal of his fortune digging up and restoring stones to their original positions.  Concrete markers indicate the position of stones lost.  Thanks to Keiller, there are now 74 stones standing.  Some of the remains of others can be seen in the walls of houses in the village.  Keiller lived in Avebury Manor until his death in 1955, when the site passed into the care of the National Trust.

It really is an astonishing creation  It is the largest circle of standing stones in the world.  It contains the heaviest standing stone in the UK.  Nearby Silbury hill is the largest artificial prehistoric mound in Europe.

The standing stones started to appear on the verge of the road, and in the fields behind, as we approached the village.  Sheep grazed amongst the stones, we saw only the occasional dog walker.  We parked in the vast National Trust car park with half a dozen other cars and walked around a couple of fields, taking photographs and marvelling at the scale.  Roads and houses are spread throughout the site, so you have to cross busy roads and take paths behind houses to see the whole thing which rather spoils an understanding of the scale of the monument.

We had it almost to ourselves.  Unlike nearby Stonehenge, you can go up and touch the stones, scratch your initials, chip of a bit to take home.  I got out my hammer and chisel but Madam told me off, so instead I sat in a cleft in one of the stones and made these notes while Madam pushed on a stone trying to feel vibration in the hope of being transported back to 1745.  If you haven’t seen the TV series Outlander you may have missed that reference.

Nearby is Avebury Manor, also under the care of the National Trust.  The building dates from the 16th century and has each room furnished and decorated in different periods ranging from the 1550’s, through 1712, 1798, 1912 to 1939. Unfortunately it was spoiled for everyone visiting the house by two women and half a dozen unruly children who were running around screaming and shouting.  Every room we visited, they seemed to follow us.  They were not, as the Queen Mother might have said, of the lower orders, but appeared to be educated and wealthy.  As we were leaving the children were running up the exit-only stairs, still screaming.

“Do you think the mothers don’t notice, or just don’t care?” I asked Madam.

“They probably think nobody matters but them,” she replied.

“In that case, the children will probably grow up to be Tory MPs. He could be Conservative Prime Minister one day.” I said, pointing to the child pulling a picture off the wall.

The car park was almost full when we left the site at lunch time and lots of people were wandering amongst the stones.  I was glad we got there early and could see the stones in isolation. 

We drove around the corner to Silbury Hill, an artificial Neolithic hill constructed over a period of 2400 to 2300 BC.  It is 130 feet high, about the size and height of one of the smaller Egyptian pyramids.  It has no known purpose.  It’s not a burial tomb as was first thought, it’s just a great big man-made hill.  Archaeologists have calculated that it took 18 million man-hours to move and shape the 248,000 cubic metres of earth and chalk.

You can’t climb the hill nowadays due to its fragility, you can only admire it from 100 yards away or so. I stood and looked at it for a while and said to Madam “Why on earth would a bunch of people spend a hundred years building an artificial hill.  The site is surrounded by natural hills.”

“You can ponder all day and still be none the wiser,” she replied, turning to walk back to the car.

I took this to mean she was hungry and needed her lunch, so we started the car and headed into nearby Royal Wootten Bassett, which must have been the winner of a competition to name a town with the most double letters.

“This isn’t what I expected,” said Madam.

Unless we missed something the town consisted of a busy main road with shops down each side.  I wasn’t sure what she was expecting. Maybe based on the royal prefix she expected a palace or two.  Perhaps a few minor royals shopping in a branch of Fortnum and Mason or walking a brace of corgis.  All we saw were discount stores, charity shops and bookmakers.

We found a small cafe down a twitten and took the last available table.  There are two reasons why a cafe is crowded.  One, it is really good and all the locals eat there.  Two, it is the only place open.  In this case it was reason two.  Still, on the plus side, parking was free. 

Refreshed by a Tesco value scone, a dob of cream and a cup of tea (£3.60) we got back in the car and continued to our hotel for the night in Cirencester.

We were staying in Cirencester for a couple of nights but didn’t have a specific agenda for the next day.  I looked on the Google using such search terms as ‘Places to visit in the Cotswolds’ and ‘Prettiest villages in the Cotswolds.’  I skipped past several sites offering to book me a hotel in London or a tour to Stonehenge.  Most of the rest of the results were near-identical ‘listicles’ all of which mentioned nearby Bibury as a place to visit.

Wikipedia tells me that William Morris once called Bibury “the most beautiful village in England.” The village, known for its honey-coloured seventeenth century stone cottages with steeply pitched roofs, is popular with Japanese tourists, largely attributed to Emperor Hirohito having stayed in the village on his European tour.  One row of cottages, Arlington Row, is currently featured in the UK passport adding to its popularity. 

It is a bad sign when you pass four parked coaches as you enter the village.  “Park anywhere,” I told Madam.

“Just as soon as I see a space I will,” she replied somewhat testily.

We drove through the village.  Every parking space was taken.  We reached the outskirts and started to head out of the village. “What now?” asked Madam.

“Try down here,” I said, pointing to a narrow lane leading to the village church.  We managed to find what was probably the last parking space in the village, right outside the church, and walked back down into the village.  A sign pointed to Arlington Row and we headed down the footpath.

I tried taking some photographs of the cottages in Arlington Row but it was crowded with tourists,  mostly Japanese, who were all insisting on taking numerous Instagram worthy pictures.  Every time I raised my camera someone would jump in front of the cottages and start the first of dozens of poses and extravagant twirls.  I ended up standing at the back and taking recursive pictures of people taking pictures of people taking pictures of people taking pictures.  If you look closely, you can see the cottages in the background.

We walked further into the village along the busy main road dodging tourists and cars.  Two smiling Buddhist monks dressed in orange robes were feeding bread to ducks in the river. 

“Have you seen enough of Bibury,” asked Madam.

“Some time ago,” I replied, as I dodged a coach which seemed intent on running me down.

“Let’s go and see some Roman remains,” I said. “Buildings, not people,” I added by way of clarification.

We drove to the Chedworth Roman Villa through some of the nicest countryside that England has to offer.  Golden fields of wheat nestled alongside dark green woodland copses, all fringed by rolling hills.  Thick luxuriant hedgerows and honey-coloured dry stone walls divided fields.  Purple wildflowers grew in the verges.  One field was a deep brown where the farmer was ploughing after the wheat harvest.  A flock of seagulls was following behind the tractor.

We drove down narrow lanes, many of them only one car wide with passing places every few hundred yards.  We only saw a handful of other cars during the seven mile journey so I expected the villa to be deserted. 

A guide was standing at the entrance of the road leading to the Villa.  “The main car park is full.  You will have to go and park in the overflow area.  It’s a bit of a climb I’m afraid,” he said.

It was obviously more popular than I thought, maybe everyone was avoiding the coach tours in the villages.  We went into the ticket office and the women on the desk said “there’s a guided tour at 12:00… or maybe 12:15… it really depends when the volunteer turns up… you’ll have time for a coffee in the cafe.”

We did have a cup of coffee in the small crowded cafe – there’s a rule that all National Trust properties have a cafe, however small and remote – and looked for the guide.  12:15 came and went with no sign of anyone guide-like appearing, so we had a wander round ourselves and very interesting it was too.  It wasn’t as busy as the crowded car park implied – maybe they were all still in the cafe waiting for the guided tour.

Chedworth is one of the largest Roman villas in Britain.  The villa was discovered in 1864 by a gamekeeper who was digging for a ferret, as you do, and it was excavated and put on display soon afterwards and acquired by the National Trust in 1924. 

It was built in the 4th century AD, arranged around three sides of a courtyard. It includes two heated bathing suites – one for damp-heat and one for dry-heat, heated by underfloor heating.  Only the outline and small sections of the walls remain but you get a good impression of the scale of the buildings and the use of each room.  You can see the pillars supporting the raised floor and part of the mosaic covering the floor above in the pictures on my photography page. Mosaics were installed in a dozen of the rooms and some of these can be seen via a covered walkway.

A few yards away on a small hill above the villa is a natural spring, still flowing, which was the source of water for the villa. The Romans installed an apsidal shrine to the water-nymphs by the spring including a two metre high wall which was unearthed by the excavations.

Soon after we left the Roman Villa, we drove through a village just as pretty as any Cotswold village we had seen but completely empty of tourists.  It had obviously escaped mention in the guidebooks and listicles from the internet.  “Don’t tell anybody about this place!  It will be ruined by hordes of tourists if you mention the name!” said Madam.

I think she overestimates the reach of this blog so I think I will be safe in telling my seven readers the name of the village.  Just don’t mention it to anybody else, okay?  The name of the village is {REDACTED}.

We checked out of the hotel in Cirencester and headed north, intending to take in a couple more towns from one of the listicles before spending the night in Stratford Upon Avon, birthplace of William Shakespeare.

Our first stop was Bourton-on-the-Water.  The road started to get busier as we reached the outskirts. A mile from the town there was a large sign outside of a pub.  It read ‘Mousetrap Left, Tourist Trap, Straight on.’  It proved propitious. 

We drove through the town slowly in bumper to bumper traffic, finally reaching the only town car park on the far side of the town.  We found one of the few remaining spots and I went up to the pay and display machine.  Several people were standing around frowning, their phones in their hand.  ‘Out of Order.  Please Use Another Machine’ said the succinct message on the machine.  In small print underneath was a phone number where we could pay by credit card. “The other machine isn’t working either,” somebody volunteered, “and they aren’t answering their phone.”

Directly opposite the car park was the local cricket field, a sign outside said ‘Parking £3 All Day,’ adding rather oddly ‘Ideal for Picnics.’

Two young men were collecting money from the steady stream of cars driving into the field.

“I wonder if they broke the machines?” asked Madam.

The town was packed.  Nowhere to sit and hardly room to walk.  We reached the first of many gift shops.  One man said excitedly to his wife “we’ve not been in this one yet!” before dashing inside.  A couple were trying to get their dog to sit still while they took a picture of him on a stone bridge. 

Bourton-on-the-Water straddles the river Windrush and has been described as the Venice of the Cotswolds with its series of low stone bridges that cross the gently flowing river.  It was pleasant enough, crowds aside, but every shop, practically every building, was targeted at tourists.  There were tea rooms, restaurants and gift shops, all of them packed.  Madam looked in a couple of gift shops while I waited outside.

We passed a shop with a large sign advertising a model railway layout.  “Do you want to go in there?” asked Madam.

It was £3 and looked crowded so I passed.

We crossed the river and walked down a less slightly crowded side street.  “There’s a motor museum,” I said, “do you think it’s free?”

Madam gave a snort of derision and said “of course not.”

I looked.  It was £6.25 each.

It started to rain so we headed to the closest coffee shop and, by some miracle, found two seats near the window.  We sat and watched the rain, glad of a rest from dodging the crowds.  I swatted away a wasp trying to eat the remains of my scone and said “Is there anything else to do in Bourton, apart from the tourist traps?”

Madam looked at the Google on her phone.  “There’s a cemetery that gets good reviews,” she said, “one of the top reviewers says her grandparents are buried there.”

I looked out of the window.  The rain had stopped and there was a hint of weak sunshine showing through the clouds.

“I’m going to look at Stowe,” she continued, “there’s a church with doors there that gets good reviews.”

I’m not sure how many more crowded Cotswold villages I could take in one day, pretty as they were.  Even if I got to see a church with doors.

“How about National Trust?” I asked.

Chastleton House.. It’s…” she started to say.

“Sounds great! Let’s go!”

We drove north along the Fosse Way, a Roman road that linked Exeter in the South West to Lincoln in the North East, via Ilchester, Bath, Cirencester and Leicester.  The word Fosse derives from the Latin word for ditch (Fossa).  It was the western boundary of Roman controlled Britain and was indeed a defensive ditch running in an almost straight line between the cities.  We don’t know if the road was built to run alongside the ditch or whether the road was later built over the filled ditch. 

Luckily it has been re-surfaced once or twice since then and we encountered neither ditch nor cobblestones.  The outskirts of Stowe-on-the-Wold flashed by in a blur of Cotswold stone. We passed a couple of other villages, just as attractive as any other, but free of tourists and gift shops.  When I looked on the internets I saw the same half dozen towns and villages repeated again and again in the listicles.  They were no better or worse than many others that never had a mention. What are the chances that the authors actually visited the Cotswolds, or did they just copy from some out-of-date guidebook they found in the library?

Chastelton House was built of Cotswold stone, around a courtyard called the Dairy Court, by a chap by the name of Walter Jones in 1607.  It is reported that Walter was the first and last of the family to have any money, so the house stood largely unchanged for the next four hundred years.  It was inherited by Alan and Barbara Clutton-Brock in 1955.  Alan was a professor of fine art at Cambridge and was more concerned with his painting than upkeep of the house, so it continued to decline.  Following Allan’s death in 1976, Barbara continued to live in the cold and draughty house with her twenty cats and pet parrot while the house fell into further disrepair. 

In 1991, she handed the keys to the National Trust with the words “don’t move anything.  Once you have disturbed the dust, you won’t know where to put anything back.”

The neglect has left something of a Jacobean treasure house.  None of the family had enough money to alter the structure or replace the contents. Flemish tapestries from the sixteenth century hang in the bedrooms, Pewter plates and original kitchen equipment remain on the shelves in the kitchen.  In the library of 4,000 books and journals are fourteen books from the 16th century.  The earliest, printed in Venice in 1513, is a volume from Macrobius on Cicero and the Roman feast of Saturnalia.

In one room, safely ensconced in a glass case, is a Juxon Bible – one of a set of only fifty printed in 1629 and given to bishops.  This one is said to have been used by Charles I in the last days of his reign.  Legend has it that the Bishop of London read from it to Charles I on the morning of his execution.

Apart from some essential maintenance and repairs – it took them six years just to make it safe for visitors – the National Trust have left it unchanged apart from the lightest of dustings. They left plenty of dust and unpolished surfaces to deliberately give a feel of arrested neglect rather than restoration.

It’s a slightly disconcerting mix of family stuff from the 1950’s and original untouched contents inherited with the house.  One minute you will be walking past a pile of Tatler magazines from 1956, then the next past a 17th century copy of Dugdale’s Antiquities of Warwickshire. I enjoyed it a lot more than shuffling around Cotswold gift shops.

I asked Madam what she thought of the house.  “It was… weird… and a bit creepy.  I didn’t enjoy it really.  It was all a bit sad.  The National Trust could do so much more with the house… as could the family.”

“But I’m glad they got rid of the cats” she added with a shudder.

Madam sneezes at the very thought of dust or cats.

A few miles after leaving Chastleton, the houses were built of brick instead of stone.  We were out of the Cotswolds and into self-styled Shakespeare country. 

Our hotel was ten minutes walk from the centre of Stratford-Upon-Avon and we were standing outside of Shakespeare’s birthplace soon after it opened the following morning.  The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust has a combined ticket to visit all of their properties for only a couple of pounds more than a single entry ticket. 

This wasn’t just his birthplace but the house he grew up in and spent the first five years of his married life.  There is a modern visitor centre next to the house which has detailed exhibits of Shakespeare’s work and life. The visitor centre is very well done and we spent some time lingering here watching and listening to an audio-visual presentation of extracts from his works. 

The house itself, although small by modern standards, would have been quite substantial for the late 16th century.  His parents bedroom, assumed to be the birth-room, is upstairs next to his childhood bedroom.  Each is populated with period furniture.  The reproduction of his childhood bed is about the size of a modern single bed but would have been also for his two brothers.  I guess it was one way of keeping warm on the cold nights.

His father John was a successful glove maker and part of the house reproduces a glove-making workshop in a downstairs room.  In another room is the original window from the birth room inscribed with the signatures of visitors to the house over three centuries.  Apparently it was the fashion to scratch your name on the window of places you visited.  And who says graffiti is a modern phenomena.  Amongst the scratched signatures are Charles Dickens and Sir Walter Scott.

Outside in the gardens are a resident group of Shakespearean actors taking requests from the audience.  Madam requested the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet and I a speech by Lady Macbeth.  I’m not at all sure what that says about our respective personalities.

Once Shakespeare started to make some money from his skills, he purchased his own, very grand, house nearby called New Place.  Think about that for a minute.  One of the greatest poets and playwrights of all time.  One who was known for having a bit of a way with words and his new home is called… New Place.

Our ticket included admission to New Place so we walked a few minutes down the road and stood by the entrance.  It quickly became apparent that, not only was its original name a touch unimaginative, but the name is now completely misleading.  It should be called New Space.  It’s an empty space, well, actually a very nice garden, where the house used to be or not to be.

We had a look round the gardens and tried to imagine a house where there was now only an empty space,  We listened to a guide tell us how the house might have looked had it been there.  He admitted that nobody really knows because there were no pictures.  They have placed a large ornate bronze chair in the garden that might have looked like Shakespeare’s writing chair where his writing room might have been and where he might have sat should the room have been where it might have been where the house might have stood.  I sat down in the chair, perchance to dream of something interesting to write, or maybe just to rest my feet.  Then I realised that the metal chair had been in the hot sun all day and I could smell my leg hairs burning.

Included in our ticket was Hall’s Croft, a 16th century timber framed house owned by John Hall, who married Shakespeare’s daughter Susanna in 1607.  Hall was a local physician and the house contains a number of exhibits on Tudor medical practices as well a furniture of that period.  I looked round the medical equipment and cures on offer in the 17th century and decided that anybody with any sense would have kept well away from doctors of the time.

Popular cures included blood-letting, either with leeches or by cutting a vein with an unsterilised knife.  Rheumatism was treated by the patient wearing the skin of a donkey.  Smallpox was treated by hanging red curtains around a victim’s bed and jaundice by drinking lice mixed with some ale each morning.

Little wonder that only 10% of the population lived beyond their 40’s.

Hall, according to the information boards in the house, seems to have been a little more enlightened and used mostly herbs as a treatment.  Diagnosis included inspection of the patients urine.  The look, the smell and the taste of it giving clues as to the patient’s ailment.  I might have stuck to the lice and ale.

Nearby was Shakespeare’s grave in Holy Trinity Church.  There’s a welcome sign at the door and no charge for admission… until you get closer to the grave.  An elderly woman, credit card reader in hand, sat at the start of the passageway to the grave, waiting for a ‘voluntary’ donation of £4 each.  The grave itself is marked by just a flat stone up by the alter.  You would miss it had they not surrounded it with a decorative black cord and a large sign.  His wife, Anne’s grave is beside his.

I was standing in the shade of a tree in the churchyard.  It was hot and my feet were tired.  “How far is it to Anne Hathaway’s Cottage?” I asked Madam.

“A couple of miles I think,” she replied.

“That’s a bit of a walk,” I said.

“I wonder if they have Uber here?” asked Madam somewhat rhetorically.

Madam did something clever and Ubery with her phone and 20 minutes later we were walking into the cottage.

Anne’s family home before her marriage was a timber-framed thatched cottage that remained in her family until 1892 when it was purchased by the Birthplace Trust.  It has been preserved as it was when she lived there.  It is likely that Anne’s family were well-off judging by the twelve rooms in the cottage – large by Elizabethan standards.  The house has been furnished in the style of the Elizabethan period, using original furniture where possible. An upstairs bedroom contains a wooden bedstead believed to be the bed of Anne’s birth.  In a downstairs room, next to the fire, is a settle which Shakespeare is said to have sat on while he courted Anne.

“Back to the hotel then my sweet?” I asked as we left the cottage, “Can you do the Ubery thing with your phone again?”

She poked at her phone and frowned.  “No cars available,” she said, “I’ll try a taxi company.”

“Nope, nothing available.”

She called another.  Same story.  I started looking around for bus stops and wondering quite how we were going to walk the two miles back into town.  Normally not a problem but we had been on our feet all day and were exhausted.

Finally, after the fourth try she got the reply, “Sure!  Be there in ten minutes!”

It was closer to twenty minutes but we sank into the taxi seat with a sigh of relief.  He turned out to be the friendliest taxi driver we’ve ever had.  The meter read £5.30 when we stopped and he quickly turned if off and said “Call it £5.”  I tried to offer a tip – I would have happily paid £10 to save my legs but he refused to accept a penny more.  If you find yourself needing a taxi in Stratford, call ‘Ideal Taxis’ and ignore the rest.

“We’ve been in one place too long when you know the traffic light sequence,” I said to Madam as we were watching the traffic and waiting for the pedestrian light to turn green.

She smiled and said “I was just thinking the same thing.”

“Where to next,” I asked.

“I was thinking Milton Keynes,” she replied.

“Milton Keynes?  Home of shopping centres, concrete cows and 130 roundabouts?  I don’t think I like the sound of that.”

“I was thinking Bletchley Park,” she replied.

“I like the sound of that,” I said.

But first we had two other places to visit. 

Sulgrave Manor is a Tudor house built around 1550 by direct ancestors of George Washington.  Madam tells me that Washington was something important in the colonies.  The link is somewhat tenuous as Washington’s great-grandfather emigrated to the Virginia colonies in 1656 and it’s unlikely that George ever saw the house and perhaps was even unaware of it.  That doesn’t stop them from stressing the connection in the house.  There is a George Washington exhibition by the entrance with a handle from his coffin, a tiny scrap of material from his wife’s wedding dress and what may be – or may not be – an ink stand he used.  Portraits and busts adorn the walls.  There were seven other visitors while we were there and it only took an hour including a fifteen minute talk on Ladies Who Lunch by an earnest guide.

“How far is Althorp from here?” I asked Madam as we were leaving.

“I was just wondering that myself,” replied Madam.

We were planning on visiting Althorp in the morning before we travelled down to Bletchley Park, but it was only a little after 1pm so we headed there now.

There’s no parking in the grounds of Althorp for commoners like us, so we parked in a bumpy field opposite and walked up the entrance.  Extensive grounds spread out from each side of the driveway.  Those would make a great car park, I thought as we trudged up the half mile or so up to the house. Two entrance tickets were £37.50, a guide book £5.95.  A sandwich and a drink for each of us another £11.40. 

Althorp is the current home  of Charles Spencer, the ninth Earl Spencer.  The house and estate run to about13,000 acres and contain 28 listed buildings and structures, including nine planting stones.  The 500 year old home is filled with antiques and paintings by Rubens, Van Dyck, Reynolds and Gainsborough.  It is perhaps more famous though as the teenage home and final resting place of Diana, Princess of Wales.

“She danced on this floor!” exclaimed Madam excitedly.

“She walked down this corridor!” she continued.

I didn’t have to ask who ‘she’ was.

Piles of hardback books were artfully arranged in several rooms with Charles Spencer books on top, as though casually left there by the last reader.  A sign on each table in the cafe had suggested we should buy books by the ‘best selling author Charles Spencer.’

We left the house and walked down to the lake where Diana is buried.  A Doric-style temple with Diana’s name inscribed on top is situated across from the lake, and was receiving a steady stream of visitors.  People were queuing to pose for pictures in front of the memorial. Her tomb is on an island in the middle of the man-made lake.  It was like she had her own moat.  It was a sensible arrangement as otherwise they might have a stream of women of a certain age prostrating themselves on the grave and wailing inconsolably.  I kept a close eye on Madam as the lake looked fairly deep, but she seemed more interested in finding an oak tree planted by Nelson Mandela during a visit to the house.  I am pleased to report that the tree is doing well.

A pleasant young man with a booming voice cheerfully relieved us of £36 and welcomed us to Bletchley Park.  “You can come back anytime in the next year with those tickets.  We would love to see you again,” he said, “but you’ll need to sign them.  We’ve had people selling them on eBay!”

Now, there’s an idea, I thought.

Bletchley Park housed the codebreaking operations during World War II and was the birthplace of modern computing.  Historians believe the work there shortened the war by two years, saving many millions of lives.  At the peak of operations some ten thousand people worked there intercepting and deciphering enemy radio signals.  Although very much a team effort, a few individuals stand out:  Alan Turing, John Tiltman, Bill Tutte, Tommy Flowers and Dilly Knox to name but a few.

Bletchley Park was crowded with visitors and we shuffled round the displays of Enigma machines and equipment used at the site.  One of the Enigma machines was stamped with ‘Made in Germany’ in English.   There is a reproduction of a Bombe machine (the original machines were dismantled after the war), designed by Alan Turing and Gordon Welchman, which was used to help break the Enigma machine code.

There is a special exhibition in the park dedicated to Bill Tutte and a larger one to the life and work of Alan Turing. 

Turing is considered to be the father of theoretical computer science and artificial intelligence.  Despite his accomplishments at Bletchley and afterwards, he was not fully recognised in his home country during his lifetime, partly due to his homosexuality and because much of his war-time work was covered by the Official Secrets Act.  In 1952 he was convicted of ‘gross indecency’ for homosexual acts.  He accepted chemical castration as an alternative to prison. His conviction led to the removal of his security clearance and barred him from entry into the United States.  On the 8th June, 1954, Turing’s housekeeper found him dead at the age of 41 from cyanide poisoning. The verdict was suicide.

In 2009, following an internet campaign, the Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown made an official public apology on behalf of the British government for “the appalling way he was treated” and he was pardoned posthumously.  It was recently announced that Turing would be depicted on the new £50 note which pleased me immensely. 

When I started to learn about computers in the 1960’s and early 1970’s all of the books told me that the first computer, technically just a digital electronic calculator, was the American made machine called ENIAC.  It wasn’t, but information about one built at Bletchley two years previously, the Colossus, was kept secret until the 1970’s.  Ironically, information about Colossus came from the USA.  In 1995 the American National Security Agency was forced by the Freedom of Information Act to release thousands of World War II documents, including one by Albert Small which was a complete description of Colossus.

Non techies may want to skip this paragraph.  Colossus was a two-bit (in its literal, not colloquial sense) computer capable of reading 5,000 cps from paper tape. With its 1700 valves it could perform a hundred Boolean calculations simultaneously.  Due to these parallel calculations it was probably as fast as a modern desk PC albeit with a very specialist hard-wired program.  It was used to break the codes of the German Lorenz cipher machine that was used by the German High Command and played an important role in breaking coded message between Hitler and his generals.

We had hoped to go to the computing museum on the same site but it was almost 4pm by the time we had finished at Bletchley and we were tired, so I just added it to the travel wish list for a future visit.  I’m putting my ticket, valid into 2020, in a safe place, just in case.

We spent the night in Milton Keynes and planned to head home that day.  “Do you need to go into the town?” I asked Madam.

“Is there anything worth seeing there?” she asked.

“Lots of roundabouts,” I said, “and some concrete cows.”

“No, let’s go home,” she said as she pulled closed the zip on the suitcase.</span

Pictures from the trip can be found here


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