Don’t Be Put Off By Its Name…

Slaughter may not sound the most promising of names but Lower Slaughter situated in the heart of the Cotswold Hills is one of the prettiest and most unspoilt villages you can visit.  Its unusual name is a derivation of the Old English word ‘slough’ meaning muddy patch but, if it was many years ago, it is certainly not one now.  In fact, three years ago it was described in a poll as having ‘the most romantic street in Britain’.

Although there is some more recent housing discreetly tucked away most of the buildings date from the mid sixteenth to mid-seventeenth centuries.  Its origins are even older  for it was well established even before being recorded in the Domesday Book; this means that it has been continuously inhabited for over a thousand years.

Many of the oldest houses cluster around the the River Eye which, although shallow, is powerful enough to feed the undershot waterwheeel of the mill.  This building, which now houses a small museum, is made from red brick – an unusual building material in this area – and was working as recently as the the late 1950’s.  It is a comparatively modern building having been built in the 1800’s although a mill was recorded on the site in 1086.  The tall chimney was built to give the mill additional steam power.
A similar tale can be told of the picturesque church with its tall spire which also dates from the ninteenth century.  There are a few traces of the original building within it: an arcade of four bays dating back to the early 1200’s.  The lichen encrusted gravestones in the churchyard also belie their age for burial rights were only granted in 1770 – before then villagers were buried in nearby Bourton-on-the-Water.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

The countryside surrounding Lower Slaughter, and also the village itself, may not appear to have changed much in centuries but there is no doubt that they are very much ‘tidier’ than they once were.  An old Pathe News clip shows the banks of the Eye overgrown – there probably wasn’t the same enthusiasm for cutting its grassy banks when it has to be done by scythe.  Another change the film shows is the ‘locals’ sitting on the benches: nowadays, many of the houses are owned by the wealthy as weekend retreats and those exploring its lanes are visitors. 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Lower Slaughter, despite its obvious attraction, has done very little to encourage tourism.  It is still possible to sit there or cross its little stone footbridges or paddle in the ford and be transported back to a time when life ran at a much slower pace.  It makes a very refreshing place for visitors to recharge the batteries after the crowds of its larger neighbours, Bourton and Stow-on-the-Wold or, for us lucky enough to live in the Cotswolds, to do the same after a hard day’s labour. 
 
Lower Slaughter is just 2½ miles north of Bourton-on-the-Water and 3 miles west of Stow-on-the-Wold.  The Old Mill sells great ice cream!
To see the Pathe News Clip from1939 click here

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"The Most Beautiful English Village"

The tiny village of Bibury has long been recognised as one of the prettiest places in the Cotswolds and is much visited by tourists.  It is everything you might magine an old English village to be; so much so that some visitors, according to local gossip, not realising that it isn’t a theme park creation, walk into people’s homes to have a look around.

Ancient cottages in mellow Cotswold stone, a crystal clear, trout-filled river running alongside the main street, an old mill and a great pub offering food and accomodation all make Bibury “the most beautiful English village” as William Morris, the Arts and Crafts textile designer described it when he visited during the 1800’s.

The old cottages are so perfect and their setting so tranquil that they appear to have created an ethos amongst their owners: each house and garden has to be more well maintained than their neighbours.  The only weeds I saw there were across the river in the marsh and, of course, not only were they growing where they belong – in a wild setting – but there were only the most attractive ones such as Yellow Flags, the bog irises and the flat, white heads of the hogweeds.



No English village is complete without its church and pub and Bibury has both.  The church of St Mary’s dates back to the 12th century and is well worth seeking out for it is tucked away down one of Bibury’s few side streets.

 

If the church tries to remain hidden, no such claim can be made for The Swan, one of the landmark buildings situated on the bend where the road crosses the River Coln.  The creeper covered pub/hotel is a good place to watch the world go by although, rarely does a car go by without its occupants stopping to explore the village.  This is quite a problem for there are so many visitors and cars that to experience the tranquility of the place, or to get photographs such as those on this blog, you either need to stay overnight or to visit the village early in the day.  Looking at the online reviews for the Swan, I was amused to see that the only gripes were complaints about old furniture, no street lighting and no wifi or mobile phone signals – surely, some of the very best reasons for visiting!
 

 
It can almost be guaranteed that every calander of the Cotswolds will have a photograph of Arlington Row – probably on it’s front cover.  Set back away from the road, it is reached by a footbridge: a terrace of former 16th century weavers cottages which, in turn, were converted from a 13th century wool store.  The importance of wool in creating the wealth of the Cotswolds and its churches, including the development of the Cotswold breed of sheep, now endangered, has been described in earlier posts on this blog (click here).  For more on the Cotswold sheep and the work of the Rare Breeds Survival Trust to preserve them, click here.
Arlington Row’s importance in history of vernacular architecture was recognised by the Royal Society of Arts in 1929 when they purchased and restored it.  A plaque, commemorating this is set into a nearby wall.

Exploring Arlington Row gives visitors an opportunity to see just how higgledy-piggledy the construction of old house are.  The old stone walls and mismatched rooflines and windows are juxtaposed seemingly at random – a modern planning departments nightmare.

Despite, the large numbers of tourists (for we all like to believe that we fall out of that category and will be the only persons there), Bibury is well worth making the effort to visit.  It is situated close to Cirencester, one of the most important Roman towns in the UK, with its wealth of history and it is also within easy reach of Oxford.  If I had to choose only one place to take a visitor to see, I think that Bibury would be highly placed on the list. 

Let me know – especially overseas readers, please – which would be the one place that epitomises old rural living in your country.

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Two Updates……..

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First Update – Ancestors!
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Regular readers of this blog may recall my post about discovering not only my great (and also great-great) grandparents graves but also finding that the church that they had been instrumental in building still there and thriving. Great-great grandpa Wright had also been Deacon at one time.
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To recap, I did not have time to visit the interior of the church and vowed to return. How pleased I was that I did. Members of the congregation were so friendly and welcoming and interested in my connection. It was Harvest Festival, always a joyful time and the service was delightful. How surreal it was to sit there – in a church interior that, miraculously, had remained virtually unaltered since the day it was built in the mid 1800’s, worshipping in the place of my ancestors. Their presence felt very strong and I think they would have approved that I, not a very religious man (although I like to think quite a spiritual and good one) and now the ‘elder’ of the family, had returned. I was so pleased that my first steps inside the building had been to join others in prayer.

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Since then, I have returned once again, this time with a friend, to hear an organ recital. It was a joy to see the church filled with so many people. As a cousin, who works with the poor in Afghanistan, said “God is holding you in the palm of His hand, you never know when He will release you”. By coincidence – or perhaps not – the opening hymn was ‘To God Be The Glory’, a hymn sung a few weeks earlier at the last of my aunt’s funeral. A deeply religious woman, her greatest wish was that I might have the same depth of faith as she. How heartly I sang although I doubt if my aunt would consider me yet saved!
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On my last visit, I also found the house where my grandmother had been raised. Overlooking the River Thames, our great river that runs, 30 miles downstream, through London it was just a few yards from the paper mill that my ancestors owned before the Second World War. All was sold long before I was born – a pity, it would be amazing to live there now!
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Second Update: She-Dog!
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After delays for one reason and another, the precious She-Dog may be in pup. She has met a handsome lurcher of similar colouring – not the original choice but just as dashing – and spent a few days away on extended honeymoon. Fingers crossed, I may finally become a father. Watch this space!
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Searching for Granny ….

….. well, great-Granny actually. I hadn’t exactly lost her for I had ‘discovered’ her in old census records when researching our family history. I also remembered being told, as a child, that “Granny used to live there”. What I hadn’t realised was that Granny and my more distant ancestors were some of the most important mill owners on the River Thames, the premier river of England. The family owned Marlow Mills, which they converted from corn to paper production in the early 1800’s.
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Marlow Mills survived many mishaps ranging from a very destructive fire to withstanding the riots that were a spill-over from the agricultural riots of the 1830’s. Other mills in the area had their machinery destroyed – the ancestors were obviously made of tougher stuff, for they surrounded the mill with vicious man traps. The traps could still be seen hanging in their offices in the early 1900’s – perhaps as a warning to any other miscreants! What it didn’t survive was the craze for redevelopment and in the 1960’s they were bulldozed and luxury riverside homes built in their place. Sadly, we no longer owned the mill by then: if we had I might be living in luxury for the 17 properties on the site sell now for around one million pounds each.
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Yesterday, I found myself in Marlow on business but, with time to spare, decided to explore. How odd it felt walking these once familiar roads and riverside walks now knowing that two hundred years ago my family were doing the same. This street view probably hasn’t changed much although, as the family were so religious, I can’t imagine that they sat outside the local pub drinking alcohol in the warm, summer sunshine!
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The view of the river, the church and the bridge must have changed even less, although they would have watched with interest the suspension bridge, designed by William Tierney Clark, being built in the 1830’s (the old wooden bridge collapsed into the river in 1828). Ten years later, he designed and built a larger version of the bridge in Budapest, with which Marlow is twinned.
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This old post box must be one of the very earliest ones made for, even in Victoria’s reign, the design became more elaborate. This one looks ancient but is still in everyday use – the VR stands for Victoria Regina, she reigned from 1837 – 1901 and is our longest reigning monarch. If it is one of the earliest it could date back to 1853, the year that post boxes were first introduced. Incidentally, by tradition, all British post boxes bear the initials in Latin of the reigning monarch at time of manufacture. I wonder how many of my family had posted letters here?
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I knew, from an old record found on the internet, that Joseph Wright – my great-great grandfather – had been instrumental in building a free church in the town. To my delight, not only did I find the church still thriving, I was able to speak with a senior member of the congregation who, by chance, happened to be there. I was shown a history of the church but there was no mention whatsoever of the Wright family connection, a name not even known to them. Had I got the right place?
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Searching through old gravestones, I first came across one with the initials J W and M A D carved in the base. The initials turned out to be for Mary Ann Downing (not for death by insanity!), a name I’d not heard of and, frustratingly, the husband’s name had been damaged and was barely legible – I could just make out the name Joseph. However, it had obviously been a smart grave once for there were the signs that it had been surrounded by iron railings. But why Downing and why J W?
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Then I came across the grave, below, that looked so recent. To my amazement it wasn’t new at all but over 130 years old. The marble and the railings of such high quality that they showed no sign of wear. Here the names were clear – they were of William, Joseph Wright’s brother and partner in the milling business, and his wife.
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Further along was another grave in good condition, although more modest. It was unusal for it was very long and narrow. Almost overlooked in my excitement, this was the grave of Ellen Wright my ‘own’ grandmother’s mother. I had found great-Granny! I knew of Ellen for she had been born in Finland, which had always been something of a mystery. I found that she had been born there because her father was, for a few years, at a paper mill there before returning to the mill at Marlow. Was he learning new techniques or was he there advising?
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The final pieces of the jigsaw came into place when, at home, I found that after Joseph’s death, Mary Ann had remarried (hence the Downing surname). Her widowed husband obviously agreed to her wishes and she was laid to rest with Joseph, her first love.
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Feeling extraordinarily emotional (strange, really, for I did not know them in the true sense), I reported back my discoveries to the gentleman in the church who was equally delighted to discover that these unknown benefactors were still present within the church they had helped to create.
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Now all that is left to close the circle of 200 years is for me to attend a service, something I hope to do in the very near future.
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Skiing in the Secret Valley

I never thought I would see the day when I was able to ski through the secret valley.

How I wish that the photo above was a possibility here. Well I don’t, to be completely truthful – I rather like having the secret valley to myself! This shot was taken many years ago in the Kandersteg area of Switzerland when I could ski reasonably well. It is typical of my luck to discover a sport I was good at but couldn’t practice easily in my own country!

But for a short time, at least, the ski trails start from my door. And suddenly the valley appears transformed. Perhaps it is due to the mesmeric sound of the skis swishing their way along but the scenery is seen in quite a different way. And the silence is more noticeable too – all is still and quiet apart from the tinkling of water and ice.

Until you reach the mill race where the water thunders down leaving mini icicles clinging all along the splashed and steep banks. It seems a far cry now from when, on hot days, we dam the water’s exit to raise its level, and swim in the torrent. A jacuzzi spectacular! Oddly enough, the water is warmest where the water crashes down upon you which is invigorating, to say the least.
Onwards to tranquility again and the split willow – my favourite tree in the secret valley and featured in an early post, Willows, which describes how they become these extraordinary shapes. The river is quieter again now and the semi-domesticated geese that belong to someone a mile further downstream take advantage of having survived yet another Christmas feast…..


Home exhausted, but more aware of my surroundings, I notice that even everyday items, such as our rather boring garden furniture, look more interesting when covered in snow. And we have icicles too – haven’t seen those in years!


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Into the Secret Valley

One of the joys of going away is the pleasure of returning home. The main road that cuts across our bit of the Cotswolds follows the ridge of the hill, which gives the appearance of being plateau like. There are few hints that just a little way off to the side is the secret valley and the little lane leading to it gives few hints either.

To call it an avenue would be rather pretentious, but the roadside plantings of beech and cherry create the first thought that you may be going somewhere rather special. And as you begin to pass beneath their canopy, the hills start to rise on either side. These are rarely, if ever, treated with any chemicals and wild flowers, including orchids, abound.

But there is still no hint of our little, winding river. Then, as the avenue ends and on a sharp bend there it is! The first glimpse is of the old sheepwash, where the river was widened and deepened although still almost jumpable, for everything about the secret valley is miniature: the hills, the river, the road. Beyond the sheepwash come the meanders – the photo of these snake like bends are in the blog’s header title.

Our little stone cottage lies further along the road – and this is now the original old drove road, for the one that we have travelled so far has probably only been in place since about the late 1700’s. More of the drover’s in another post. Below is the view from the house looking back towards the meanders – we may only have just one other house nearby but there are dozens of sheep for neighbours!
Just below the cottage, the river passes beneath the lane and snakes its way around us, travelling through lush meadows. Watercress and meadowsweet grow along the water’s edge and little rickety, make-do bridges made from old telegraph poles criss-cross from one bank to another. Ancient, gnarled willow trees line the banks, more about these can be found in an earlier post: Willows
And tucked away beyond the bridges are the remains of the old mill workings. The culvert is barely noticeable until the river levels rise and the water diverts towards the mill. We’ll travel there another day.

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