2014 in Review: the first six months

So another year is almost over and it certainly has been a busy one for me.  Living and working in the spectacular Cotswold countryside, a classified area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) is a great treat and one of which I never tire.  It’s also nice to go off exploring other places so 2014 found me in other parts of the UK and  Ireland too.  One of the first places I visited, however, was only twenty miles down the road but light years apart in reality!

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typical Cotswold countryside

Like many people that live close to tourist attractions I don’t often visit the ones on my doorstep but last January found me walking the streets of Oxford.  I hadn’t come to explore the colleges but the covered market which dates back more than two hundred years.   The history of the market and the building is fascinating and is well worth making the time to visit – especially if you like a bargain.  To read more about it and to see other photos click here.

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One of the fathers of ecological writing died tragically young and in February I matched quotations from his work to images I had taken (to see them, click here).  My favourite was noticed by the Society that bears his name and reprinted in their journal.  I felt very honoured!

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Wild and rugged scenery is often best appreciated over cake and coffee and at Watersmeet in Exmoor National Park you can do just that.  Two rivers collide spectacularly besides the Victorian fishing lodge that is now owned by the National Trust and run as a café. March found me walking through beautiful scenery as well as indulging myself and the link to this remote but very accessible place is here.

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Dublin, the capital city of Ireland is a favourite place of mine and in April I visited the Casino Marino, one of the most impressive and perfect neo-classical buildings in Europe.  Everything about it was designed to deceive so although you only see one window on each side you actually have – well, click here to find out what plus all the other deceptions the Georgian architect managed to fit in.

Casino Marino

Planting trees is a long term project for they rarely mature during the life of the planter.  Of all the hundreds I have done in my professional life none has given me as much pleasure as this particular one.  I have waited for years for it to flower and in May it did so for the first time.  I felt quite emotional – it was a case of finding a handkerchief.  Take a look by clicking the link here.

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The Cotswolds are world renowned for their ‘chocolate box’ village scenes and Lower Slaughter must be one of the contenders.  Despite its name it is a beautiful and tranquil place to visit for it has everything from crystal clear trout streams to olde-world stone cottages to a mill complete with working water wheel. If you choose the right time to explore you can have the place to yourself.  To learn more click the June link here.

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Brasserie Blanc Cheltenham

Cheltenham, on the western edge of the Cotswolds, is full of historic Georgian buildings which make it an interesting place to visit if you are readily bored by the now characterless towns that have had their hearts ripped out in the interest of modernisation.  Although it has all the major chain stores there are still very many smaller, independent shops which help to make the centre busy and vibrant.  There are, however, plenty of opportunities to escape the throng of shoppers by relaxing in its parks and green spaces which are close to hand and beautifully maintained.  With so many positive attributes, it is not surprising to find that there are also numerous cafes, bistros and restaurants – great news if, like me, you prefer your relaxation to revolve around food and drink.

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One street that incorporates all of the above elements is The Promenade, a wide tree-lined boulevard.  We made our way to the top end of it, walking past the splendid Town Hall with its fountains, to reach Brasserie Blanc where we had booked a table for a Saturday lunch.  Set in a delightful Georgian townhouse, it has very recently been completely refurbished and, judging by the number of diners there, has retained its loyal clientele.

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Any culinary venture that has Raymond Blanc’s name attached to it is bound to be a good choice and Brasserie Blanc didn’t disappoint whether in its understated interior design, the friendliness and efficiency of the staff and, most important of all, the quality of the food.

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The huge arched windows and high ceilings give a feeling of space and natural light, both of which prevent the L-shaped marble bar, which runs almost the full length of the building, being too dominant.  It is visually impressive and imparts a delightfully informal atmosphere to the dining area.

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Our Italian waitress, Chiara, who was both charming and efficient, guided us through an extensive menu.  For the starter my partner selected the cheese soufflé with a rich cheese sauce which came with the most wonderful, crispy outer crust.  I went for the salt beef salad, chosen to test the chef’s expertise for, having a Jewish grandmother, I consider myself to be rather an expert when it comes to salt beef.  It didn’t disappoint, the combination of flavours being both subtle and mouth-watering.

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For our mains, I chose the slow-braised Scottish venison casserole.  I was impressed when Chiara advised me that it was both quite gamey and rich which wouldn’t suit everyone’s taste but was just perfect for me.  My partner had scallops with poached, smoked bacon.  In the interest of research, I insisted upon tasting and it was beautifully soft and tender.  Puddings also didn’t disappoint.  My pears with salted caramel would be worth a special trip to Cheltenham just for those and my partner’s meringues were just as they should be, soft and chewy.

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Brasserie Blanc Cheltenham is one of twenty mostly situated in London or the south of England.  This does, for me, create rather a problem: do I return to Cheltenham or do I try some of the other locations?  One thing is certain, I will definitely be returning!

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Brasserie Blanc Cheltenham is located at The Promenade, Cheltenham GL50 1NN

All photographs of Brasserie Blanc are taken from their website.  More information including booking details can be found here

The Sleeping Fairground

It is a very long time since I went for a ride on a Big Wheel.  I was twelve when I bravely called an older cousin a coward because he wasn’t too keen on the idea.  Once aboard, we slowly climbed to the top and as soon as we reached it he had he rocked it violently backwards and forwards until I’d begged forgiveness.  Now almost fifty years later, I was determined that I would go for my second trip but on my own so there would be no witness to my fear – but first I was due at a meeting.  Meeting ended and bolstered by a visit to the pub for a pint or two of beer, I ventured forth only to be thwarted: the fair had closed for the night.

Chipping Norton, here in the Cotswolds, comes to a standstill for three days every September when the fair comes to town.  Dating back to statutes in medieval times, the annual ‘mop’ or hiring fair was originally the time when agricultural and other workers would be hired for the forthcoming year.  In time, they became social events too and, nowadays, they are just a good excuse for enjoyment.  The rights of the fair to be held annually are carefully safeguarded and despite considerable inconvenience to traffic, the centre of the town is blocked by numerous stalls and rides.

Funfairs are noisy, active places.  There are flashing lights, music and the screams and shouts coming from the fair-goers, people of all ages reduced to childish delight by all that is happening around them.  But then it closes for the night and what happens then?

Oddly enough, once the fairground has closed the town centre becomes deserted.  Perhaps all the excitement and exhilaration has been too tiring but quite suddenly, there is silence and no-one to be seen or heard.  This is what I found when I wandered through the fair this late night.  It was a strange, surreal experience – almost as if the world had ceased to exist – and the more I looked at the dodgems and rides, stationary and empty, the more a feeling of unease came over me.  Even the helta skelta took on a threatening appearance.  Was I really alone here?  Would a person confront me from the shadows and, if they did, what then?  Telling myself I’d been watching too many horror movies I quickened my step and walked around a corner to come face to face with the only other ‘human’ in the place. 

Turning sharply away the sight of Star Slush, the only sign lit up, brought back the pleasure to be found in the artistry of fairgrounds too.  Travelling people  of all types, whether fairground, Romany or bargemen have a highly developed form of decoration, all closely connected and worthy of further contemplation.  But not then – time for home with the vow to return next year for my ride on the Big Wheel.

Back at the Secret Valley, where the only light was that of the moon, there is never a feeling of unease and, the night being warm, I decided to walk down the lane to the river.  As I did so, I mused on why I felt so uncomfortable being alone in the town centre.  Many visitors comment on how silent and brooding the valley is at night with no street lights, houses or familiar sounds.  It is all about belonging: I have lived ‘in the middle of nowhere’ all my life, it is where I belong and the silence and darkness here is my comfort blanket.  I’m obviously not yet ready to become a city boy.

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Tibet in the Cotswolds

The Cotswolds are full of surprises; they are around every corner. Often it is a beautiful, old stone building, a dramatic view or a colourful cloudscape.  Occasionally it is something else and at the tiny village of Todenham near Moreton-in-Marsh it is the sight of tall, Tibetan flags fluttering in the breeze.

After exploring the Himalayas and Nepal in particular, Alain Rouveure, a Frenchman living in the Cotswolds, felt a real need to help the less privileged families he met there.  Am admiration of their craftsmanship and tribal art led to the creation of the Alain Rouveure Galleries some twenty-five years ago.  Today it is a thriving business whose profits are returned to the country which supplies the clothing, jewellery, gifts and rugs that make the galleries a treasure trove of colour, texture and scents.

More recently, he has set up the Alain Rouveure Nepal Relief Fund which is funding the building of schools as well as caring for the health of poor children and their families.  A relatively small amount of money goes a very long way: repainting a classroom £45, desks and benches for four students £55.  However, it isn’t just these practical issues that funding assists for, as Alain says, just knowing that there are people from far away taking an interest in their remote communities makes a huge difference not just to individuals but also to the whole village.

Surrounding the galleries are small but very lovely and tranquil gardens.  The calendula in the photographs were grown from seed given to Alain by Nepalese gardeners at Lumbini, the Buddha’s birthplace, and it is interesting to see such a disparity of size and colour all of which help to create a splendid show.

On my visit, I spent a long time trying out the numerous Tibetan singing bowls deciding which sound I liked the best.  It was something I’d always wanted to own but I hadn’t realised before then just how much they vary both in their size and their ‘ring’.  In the end I realised that it was going to be a bowl choosing me rather than the other way around.  Traditionally, the bowls are used in meditation and prayer and the sound – and the vibration from them – is mesmeric. The YouTube clip is of Tibetan bowls being played alongside Native American flutes.  The method of generating the pulsating ‘singing’ is shown at about 10:30 into the video. The combination of sounds from two cultures is fascinating and memorable especially when wild birds start to sing in the background.



The visit ended with lunch at the Himalayan coffee house where a very good home grown salad – followed by a ‘to die for’ cake – was had at very modest cost.  Recently treatment rooms have been added and there are also fund raising concerts – the next to be held is Songs and Arias with the mezzo-soprano, Cerys Jones accompanied by harpist, Tanya Houghton on Saturday 14th September, 7.30pm.

For more information about the galleries have a look at their extensive website.

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Behind the Scenes at ChipLitFest

It hardly seems possible that a week has passed since the Chipping Norton Literary Festival (or ChipLitFest as it is affectionately called) took place.  For four days the small, market town situated on the edge of the Cotswolds hosted eighty of the best authors to be found anywhere – a remarkable feat for a festival still in its infancy.

A quiet back street in the centre of Chipping Norton

For the eleven of us on the committee the past year has been an endless round of meetings, venues to be visited, volunteers to be found and co-ordinated, emails to be sent, publishers and agents to be contacted and authors to be booked.  Fortunately, our meetings have always been enjoyable and any stress negated by copious amounts of food, wine  and strong coffee.  These are an absolute necessity for none of the committee receive any payment whatsoever so meetings have to be fitted around busy work schedules in the evenings.  Perhaps if we had ever worked out how much the meetings cost the individuals hosting them there would have been a mass resignation.

The information point in the market place

The first two days of the festival are focused on children with authors visiting all of the local schools, speaking and reading and encouraging them to become better readers and writers.  The story writing competition was well supported; the winning entries can be read by clicking here.

Mountaineer Nick Bullock and explorer Jason Lewis discuss their exploits with Sue Cook

The authors and patrons were guests of honour at a reception held in the town centre on Friday evening and gave them the chance to network and to meet the committee and sponsors in a relaxed and informal way.  My role in the festival has been  Author Liaison so I was especially keen to speak with as many of them as possible – it was good  to be finally able to meet face to face after many weeks of messages and telephone conversations.  The following evening myself and Merilyn Davies, the children’s programme co-ordinator, hosted a dinner for the authors and, as many events had taken place by then, we were all realising just how successful the festival was becoming.

At the reception our designated charity Storybook Dads gave a short explanation of their amazing work inside some of the UK’s toughest jails.  Their film was uplifting and heart-breaking all at the same time and it was wonderful that the festival was able to present a cheque to them for five hundred pounds.  They are now out in Afghanistan too, helping servicemen keep in touch with their children.  A short video montage of their work can be seen here.

Sharon Berry, founder of Storybook Dads, talks to author Clive Aslet about their work

It wasn’t just the committee that welcomed our guests for the whole town has taken the festival to its heart: the local window cleaners had put up yards of bunting, shops and cafes were offering special promotions and the farmer’s market was held over two days instead of the usual one day. Festival goers were appreciative of this and with warm, spring sunshine finally making an appearance the atmosphere was electric.

One of the drawbacks of being involved in putting on an event – and I wouldn’t have changed places for a second – is that there is little time for us to actually see any of the talks or workshops.  However, I did manage to sneak into a few places to take a quick photograph or two.

Julian Fellowes meeting festival goers and signing books after his Downton Abbey talk


Both the local and the national press came to town too.  David Freeman, past presenter of Sky television’s The Book Show, was busy interviewing and filming authors.  I, too, was interviewed by him about my forthcoming book Why Can’t My Garden Look Like That? published next month.

David Freeman being filmed during an author interview

The festival ended on Sunday evening and we all returned home utterly exhausted.  This state of affairs didn’t last long for within twenty-four hours emails from the committee were pouring into the inbox discussing how well it went and how we could make 2014’s even better.  Even more gratifying were the huge number from the authors, volunteers and public saying how much they had enjoyed it and asking for the dates of the next one.  So here it is:

Chipping Norton Literary Festival 2014 – April 24-27

If you want to take part or visit follow the information on the links to the websites: ChipLitFest, Facebook or Twitter

The actress, Lalla Ward, caught having a quiet moment at the Chipping Norton Literary Festival

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Chipping Norton – One Week To Go!



Chipping Norton, one of the gateway towns of the Cotswolds often gets overlooked on the tourist trail.  It is not surprising in some ways for many of the region’s towns and villages look as if they have come straight off the lid of a chocolate box – all golden, mellow stone crouched under a heavy hat of deep thatch, devoid of much of twenty-first century life.  Chipping Norton – or Chippy as it is affectionately known by the locals – is different: a bustling, working town full of people going about their everyday lives , whether shopping or working.

Look beyond the modern shop fronts and traffic and you find a gem of a town; raise your eyes for every building has a different façade and, yes, they too are built from Cotswold stone.  Explore the side streets and you find almshouses and a magnificent church and both the 16th century Guildhall and the Town Hall are as glorious a building as you will see anywhere.  Bliss Mill,  a former tweed mill now converted to flats, is surrounded by common land that reaches into the heart of the town.

Chippy is a busy place socially too and for a small town with a population of only 6000 there is always something taking place.  Perhaps one of the most ambitious of recent events is the Chipping Norton Literary Festival (ChipLitFest), the first of which was held last year to great acclaim.  This year it is bigger than ever and starts in just seven days time on the 18th April and continuing throughout the weekend.

 

Because the town is so small, the festival is held in numerous venues.  It is fortunate to have an award winning theatre to stage larger events and an award winning bookshop, Jaffe & Neale, that holds workshops – and sells the most delicious coffee and cakes.  It seems everyone is involved in one way or another: the Chequers pub, the Blue Boar Inn, the Crown & Cushion Hotel, the Vintage Sports Car Club, the local churches, the library; even the shoe shop is hosting a children’s event.  Incidentally, there are free things going on for youngsters all weekend and the festivals designated charity this year is Storybook Dads, which connects prisoners with their families through books and reading.

So who is coming to the festival? There is an amazing choice of eighty authors so there is bound to be someone to interest everybody.  Sir Julian Fellowes of Downton Abbey fame will be there; Fern Britton will be talking about her latest book – and perhaps her experience in Strictly Come Dancing.  For detective novel buffs, Mark Billingham will be discussing murder with Val McDermid, Stuart MacBride and Martyn Waites.  Did you see the film We Need to Talk About Kevin?  Author Lionel Shriver will be discussing her new book, Big Brother, which tackles the subject of obesity.  For foodies, Xanthe Clay, Henrietta Green and William Sitwell ask “are we a nation of food fashionistas?”

Prue Leith – one of our Festival patrons

Two events that especially appeal to me are Ursula Buchan’s talk ‘How England’s Gardeners Fought the Second World War’ and the Extreme Travel team of Nick Bullock and Jason Lewis discuss their adventures with Sue Cook.  Jason, incidentally, has just been recognised by the Guinness Book of Records as the first person to circumnavigate the world using only human power and described by the Daily Mail as “the most remarkable adventurer in the world today.”

Sue Cook, another of our Patrons

One of the especial pleasures of coming to the festival is that because both the town and the venues are small, you are able to be close to the authors, to chat with them and to get them to sign your books.  You can also meet me (!) for, as Facebook followers of this blog know, I am part of the organising committee.  ChipLitFest also has a Facebook page or follow them on Twitter.

Tickets for all of these events are selling fast and for more information about them and the other authors and host of workshops visit the festival’s website by clicking here.

I look forward to seeing you at the Chipping Norton Literary Festival, 18th-21st April – do come and say ‘hello’.

all photos, apart from Bliss Mill, from the ChipLitFest website

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Stonehenge – 5000 years later

Stonehenge is one of the most important and instantly recognised ancient sites in the world yet those of us that live in the British Isles tend to take it rather for granted.  Perhaps this is inevitable with anything that is on your doorstep, however it is strange that whereas many of us long to see (or perhaps have been lucky enough to have visited), say, the Pyramids of Giza or Machu Picchu, very many Brits have never visited Stonehenge.  Perhaps if they had made the trip they would have been rather surprised at what they saw – and I don’t mean the majesty of the stones.

Over the years, the numbers of visitors to the stones has increased dramatically from twenty thousand a year in the 1920’s to over a million last year.  As numbers increased so erosion and vandalism began to take its toll and access within the circle was stopped.  Now it is only possible to enter the stones on special occasions, such as the summer solstice.  This means that the majority of visitors are only able to walk around the perimeter of the henge.  The memory of my first visit as a child is of running amongst the stones, of being able to touch them and to look up at their immense height – would I remember it now if I hadn’t had this intimate contact with them then?

To view a video of how the Stonehenge area is being transformed into a spectacular, world-class attraction, click the link here

Some years after that early visit and with numbers rapidly increasing a ‘temporary’ visitor centre was built in the late1960’s.  This, along with inadequate car parking  and lack of modern interpretation facilities makes the first impressions of this World Heritage Site poor, to say the least.  Two busy main roads also pass closeby the stones destroying much of the quality of the landscape.  Traffic jams are frequent.

Now this may all sound rather depressing (which it is) and a good reason to cross a visit to Stonehenge off your list of ‘must see’ places.  Fortunately, despite everything, the grandeur of the stones remain and it is an awe-inspiring place to be, especially if you are able to arrive early in the day or when the stones are shrouded in mist.

Now the good news!  After many years of discussion, Stonehenge is about to be ‘returned’
to its original landscape: the visitor centre, car parks and main road leading to them are being swept away and landscaped back to open grassland, giving the stones a greater sense of isolation.  A new centre with educational and other facilities are being built further away and  a low impact shuttle service will transport those visitors that don’t wish to – or are unable to – walk.  This may be a few years away from completion but work has started.  In the not-so-distant future, Stonehenge will have the facilites and landscape that such an important site deserves.

Stonehenge is part of a vast conservation area with over three hundred burial mounds and also includes the Avebury stone circle (link here).  It is about 85 miles south-west of London.  Although not as huge or as frequently visited we have many ancient stone monuments in the Cotswolds too.   The Rollright Stones, a stone circle, photos below, are also 5000 years old, their shapes distorted and lichen covered with age.  To read my earlier post about them, click here.



For information on visiting Stonehenge and its history (and how some of their huge stones are thought to have been dragged 150 miles from Wales), click here

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A Year in Review: 2012 July – December


Where does the time go?  Christmas has been and gone, as have the New Year celebrations and here we are already at the end of January’s first week. I’m beginning to understand those lines of William Davies’ “We have no time to stand and stare.  Not that my life has too many cares fortunately and, of course, I’m exceptionally lucky living where I do and working outdoors – I have plenty of time “… to see, when woods we pass

Continuing on from my review of the first six months …

July: we had a rare fine evening in a year filled mostly with rain, an opportunity for the lucky few to go hot air ballooning.  We had a surprise visitor when Charles Teall, who lives a few miles away, dropped unexpectedly into the secret valley.  We joined him and his balloon team for drinks by the river, a lovely way to end a flight.  Some years earlier Charles had flown me across the Cotswolds before landing to a champagne breakfast – but that’s another story.

Another surprise was when I found an abandoned bantam egg and hatched it out, capturing the moment on video, now uploaded to YouTube.  You can watch it by clicking here.

August: You don’t go on holiday to Ireland for the weather, especially the west coast lashed as it is by frequent Atlantic Ocean storms.  To everyone’s great surprise, we had unbroken sunshine and high temperatures day after day.  We even swam in the millpond calm sea.  At night we were treated to the most glorious sunsets, every evening more dramatic than the previous one.

 

September:  Britain has a long and proud history but we tend to forget about the days before the Conquest in 1066.  We had been invaded and settled many times prior to that but the Romans left us with a road system that is still much used today.  Their houses have long since disappeared although there are many excavated ruins that can be visited.  Cirencester was one of the premier cities of the time and the museum there houses many artefacts including some remarkably intact mosaics, the subject of a post.

October:  Their are numerous new diseases affecting our trees and one species that has been hit badly is the Horse Chestnut.  The leaves become infected with leaf miners and cankers weaken the tree further.  This, in time, may kill the tree but short-term affects the quality of their fruit – the conkers of childhood games.

November:  Trees also featured this month along with a visit to my earliest schooldays.  The larch was my introduction to nature cleverly made magical by my school teacher, Miss Vine.  Larch still are my favourite tree: we have a good number of them here in the secret valley where they give me still as much pleasure at all times of the year as they did all those years ago.

December: With the year whizzing by there were no posts this month other than to wish you all a happy holiday and start this review with the first six months of the year.

Every year has its memories but 2012 will be recalled  as the year of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and the London Olympics.  2013 looks like being an especially memorable one for me but you will have to wait a little longer before I reveal all!
 

And just in case we are all rushing about far too much let us remember the words of William Davies:

What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.

No time to stand beneath the boughs
And stare as long as sheep or cows.

No time to see, when woods we pass,
Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass.

No time to see, in broad day light,
Streams full of stars, like skies at night.

No time to turn at beauty’s glance,
And watch her feet, how they can dance.

No time to wait till her mouth can
Enrich that smile her eyes began.

A poor life this if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.

Leisure from Songs of Joy and Others, 1911
  

 

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The Roman Mosaics of Cirencester

The making of mosaic patterns is often associated with the Romans although the earliest known examples pre-date them to 3000BC.  Associated with many cultures, mosaic artists still flourish today, an unbroken tradition of five thousand years.

The Hunting Dogs mosaic: head of Oceanus  2nd century AD

In Britain, one of the finest collections of early mosaics can be found in the Cotswold town of Cirencester, situated 93 miles west of London.  With a population of 18000, it is one of the larger hubs in the Cotswolds yet has maintained a lot of its old charm for there are still many independent shops as well as the usual High Street chain stores.

History oozes from the very fabric of Cirencester: home to the the oldest agricultural college (Royal Agricultural College) in the English speaking world, founded in 1845; it is also home to the oldest polo club in England (Cirencester Park Polo Club) which was founded in 1894.  The charter for the market, still held twice weekly, was first mentioned in the Domesday Book in 1086.

The Hunting Dogs mosaic:  Sea Leopard   3rd century AD

However, when the words Cirencester and history are linked together it is the Romans that predominate for their town, Corinium – now modern day Cirencester – was the second most important city in Britain.  Corinium lay at the centre of their great road network where Akeman Street,  Ermine Street and the Fosse Way all meet, still busy roads today.  There are still the remains of a number of  their villas in the region that are possible to explore.

The great Roman ampitheatre here was also the second largest in the country with tiered wooden seating for eight thousand spectators.  Today, all that remains are a series of banks and ditches, still impressive and well worth visiting.

The Seasons mosaic:  2nd century AD   Actaeon being attacked by his own hunting dogs

If there is not a huge amount to see of the original splendour of the ampitheatre, you will not be disappointed by a trip to the town’s Corinium Museum which has recently been extended and refurbished making it one of the best museums in the country.  The museum holds over one and a half million artefacts but the most impressive of all of their exhibits have to be the Roman mosaics.

The Seasons mosaic: 2nd century AD

The Seasons  is one of the most impressive mosaics in Britain, discovered in Cirencester in 1849, with pictures of goddesses depicting spring, summer and autumn.  Winter is missing.  In the museum the floor has been laid in an area reproducing a room in a Roman villa.

Detail from the Hare mosaic, 4th century AD

The hare is frequently used in Celtic art and fables but was rarely used by the Romans, making this central motif of the mosaic floor unique.  If you click on the photo above to enlarge it, you will see that there have been shards of green glass laid into the hare’s back.

Detail from the Hare mosaic, 4th century AD

The Hare mosaic, 4th century AD

The museum does not just hold Roman aretfacts, it also covers finds from pre-history as well as more recent times such as Saxon brooches and a large hoard of coins dating back to the English civil war, subjects of a later post.  The Cirencester Museum is really worth making the effort to visit – you can find out more details by visiting their website, here.

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Dropping In Unexpectedly

We are sociable animals here in the secret valley and nothing pleases us more than when friends call in unexpectedly as they pass by.  It doesn’t matter whether there is just one or twentyone, we can always find enough in the store cupboards to water, and feed them too if needbe.  More often than not, they are on their way somewhere so a cup of tea, or something a little stronger, is all that is required.

Not the secret valley but still in the Cotswolds.  If you click on the photo to enlarge it you can see that the river Windrush has as many twists and turns in it as our little river

Most of the time visitors arrive by car or on foot for the lane that brings you into the valley is as inviting and sinuous as the little winding river itself: it takes you across cornfields, through trees which create, at this time of year, a leafy tunnel before entering a fold in the hills lined with an avenue of cherry and lime trees.  It is here that you get your first glimpse of the river and beyond the meanders the lane turns sharply over the bridge taking you a few more yards to the door of our home.

The villages of Lower and Upper Oddington – you can clearly see the lines of the old ‘ridge and furrow’ field plough marks that can date back a thousand years or more

The secret valley, as I have mentioned before, is a landscape in miniature.  Everything is small – the road, the hills, the views, the river, even the stone built bridge you can pass over without noticing it.  If it all sounds very idyllic that is because it is.

A couple of weeks ago we had some very unexpected guests although we could hear them arriving for quite a while before they finally did so.  It was the unmistakeable sound of a hot air balloon losing height.  Hidden by trees we could not see who was landing but went off to investigate – She-dog leading the way – and to assist if required.  The multicoloured stripes told us it belonged to Charles Teall who lives some miles away and who had once taken me for a flight, although on that occasion we had not landed on our doorstep – for details of that flight click here.

Charles’ wife, Liz, incidentally, is a very talented potter and we have some very nice pieces of her work.  She, like myself, is interested in traditional folk music but, unlike me, she can sing and play the whistle and tabor; she also belonged until recently to a local Morris dancers side.  Have a look at her work by clicking here.

By the time we reached it, the balloon had already landed.  It never fails to surprise me just how large it is and just how small the basket is.

She-dog is normally fairly cautious and we thought that she would be nervous of the balloon.  As always, she proved us wrong and felt it important to inspect every part of the balloon: below, the folding meets her approval.  Talking of approval, those of you that follow She-dog’s exploits may have been wondering what is the latest on puppy news: there isn’t any.  On the last two occasions she has refused to co-operate.  She obviously felt that once was quite enough!

I am always surprised how neatly everything folds away and into such a small space.  There is always a mobile support team to assist where necessary so our help wasn’t required.  Once packed we were able to catch up with the latest news over a drink and reminisce about our trip flying over the Cotswolds.  The aerial shots were all taken on that day.

The counties of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire, which form the greater part of the region known as the Cotswolds, have some of the best surviving examples of ridge and furrow.  To find out how these were created, click here.

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