13 June 2016

England Day Five: The Cotswolds and Stratford

When you think of England, you probably think of the Cotswolds.  Thatched roof Tudor style cottages or stonework homes loaded with flowers and surrounded by fields of sheep. They're just as overly cute as you could possibly imagine.  Except, unlike a Thomas Kinkade painting, they're legit.  I love the Cotswolds.  There is a simple and elegant peace that comes with this part of the world.  It's almost an Eden - flowers grow out of stone because it's wet enough here that it doesn't take much work to get anything to thrive.  (Gardeners around here probably spend more time killing things than they do coaxing them out of the ground, lucky devils.). If you ever plan a trip to England, a few days meandering the Cotswolds are a must.

Before we came we invested in the National Trust touring pass, which was really smart.  Once you've paid for the pass you can get in free to any National Trust site - it's already more than paid for itself since admission to these places is usually at least £10. The National Trust is a kind of hybrid between the American National Parks/Heritage Sites services.  Over the years, homes have been given over to the trust so that tourists can come see them and areas of land have been protected from further development in an attempt to preserve, in essence, what makes England England.  You can thank Beatrix Potter of Peter Rabbit fame for much of the northern part of England being as pristine as it is, for example.  I'm sure the National Trust makes some elements of life for the Brits inconvenient, but as a lover of history, it makes my life pretty wonderful.  National Trust sites are everywhere.  Really.  Look up the website - there are hundreds.  There's no way we could possibly see them all.  With the combined efforts of Rick Steves, the National Trust app, our hostess, and our own gut instinct, we settled on three places for today's visits: the town of Chipping Campden, Hidcote Manor, and Charlecote Park.

Chipping Campden is a great example of a cute Cotswold town.  It would be fun to stay there when I come back to this area again.  There wasn't much traditional touring to do, but the town itself is adorable.  There were great artisan style shops (including a cheese and book store - I made it out without spending any money, though - if you can possibly believe my self control!).  There was, as always, a church to go see and an "oldest house" to go see - in this town the oldest house dates back to the 1300s, which is pretty impressive.  Apparently, Chipping Campden was once a great world center of trade when wool was the thing to buy - tradesmen came from as far away as Italy to buy wool in the Market Square, which still stands.

After Chipping Campden we went to Hidcote Manor.  This was by far my favorite place of the day.  Even though it was raining intermittently, Hidcote was perfect.  Ironically, Hidcote is the standard of English gardening, but it was designed by Major Lawrence Johnson - an American.  Johnson was a horticulturalist who promoted the idea of creating "rooms" in a garden - using shrubbery mazes to set "rooms" aside, he developed rooms dedicated to color or specific regions of plants - plants from all over the world grow there.  I even saw a palm tree (who knew that those could grow in such a cold, wet location?!) Walking through each room led to one surprise after another in flowers that smelled amazing or that I'd never seen before.  (Or had, but not in that variety.  A huge blue poppy, for example.  Or sweet peas in a deep magenta.) I adored Hidcote.  I would love to go back.

Our final Trust site for the day was Charlecote Park.  The home is more than 900 years old and has been with the same family for all that time (though this is really only still true because they turned over their home to the National Trust and only live in part of the house now). Touring the house was a treat because it was kept in such excellent condition (or has been restored well, at least.) My favorite room was, naturally, the library.  My favorite room is always the library. This one was particularly nice as it had lots of comfy chairs, but also felt cozy enough to actually enjoy a book in.  So many libraries in these old houses feel like they're just for show.

We get lots of people asking us about where we're from when we show up to these sites since many of them are off the beaten path enough that Americans don't bother to tour (or even know the place exists).  Everyone wants to share their Utah stories.  Today involved a super awesome/awkward discussion with a man who talked about how he wanted a copy of the "Mormon Bible" (but didn't want to give his home address and all that), and how he saw a picture of "Holy Joe" and thought he looked as charismatic as Bill Clinton.  Haven't had one of those kinds of chats in a looooong time.

One of the other features of this house are some tamed deer.  They roam the fields just outside the house and let you get fairly close to watch - they were beautiful.  They were also, apparently, on sale in the kitchen.  Or, rather, their old friends.  Fresh venison.  Oy.

By the time we made it to Stratford all the tourist options were closed, but we did at least see Shakespeare's birthplace.  The house itself stands out rather awkwardly on an otherwise normal street.  I didn't miss the tour - I don't remember being that excited by it when I went through last time.

The highlight of the day was definitely Doctor Faustus at The Swan theatre, performed through the Royal Shakespeare Company.  The production opened with two men dressed identically walking on stage with mirrored mannerisms, eventually lighting each lighting a match.  Both actors are ready to play either Faustus or Mephistopheles - but they don't know who will play whom until the match burns out.  Whichever burns out first plays Faustus.  No pressure.

Faustus is a man in search of all knowledge and power and he finds it by selling his soul to Lucifer (through Mephistopheles).  He is promised many years of power and fortune and pleasure in exchange for damnation.  The play is a little thin on character development (at least compared to what Shakespeare was doing at roughly the same time), but Marlowe's play translated well to this avant-garde style production, which really was fantastic.  They used a chalkboard stage so that plans and devilry could be worked out in reality, not just mime.  The costumes for the seven deadly sins were phenomenal.

Technical production values aside, my favorite moment of the show comes as Faustus realizes what he has lost in his quest for power, or, what Christopher Marlowe seems to suggest is the purpose for being: connection to other people.  There is a servant that comes in to beg Faustus not to continue with his work, for example.  Later on, Faustus meets with Helen of Troy.  First she fights him - then hugs him fiercely - then fights, and finally "dies" or goes limp every time he touches her.  They whole thing quietly, almost silently showing that Faustus has completely lost his chance to connect with a pure, good human being in any legitimate way.  Shortly after this he makes a mad attempt to stab Mephistopheles and find a way to reclaim his possibility of ascending to heaven, only to find that the act of stabbing at this devil only injured him - he stabs Mephistopheles, but he is the one that begins to bleed and ends up dying.

There are, I think, several elements to this play that I didn't fully grasp, but I'm anxious to go read it and study it out.  I do find it funny, though, that the most wild production I'm likely to see (there are still eight more ahead!) is this one - the play from more than 500 years ago.  Go figure.

Tomorrow is Oxford day.  Glorious!  I love Oxford.

Things that make me want to move to England:

The National Trust
Clotted Cream Fudge
English Gardens  

Things that keep me from being an ex-Pat:

I miss the interstate.  Driving here is a mess of roads and side roads.  You get to drive through really cute towns, I guess, but I don't know how anyone ever gets from one place to the other without a GPS.  It took us an hour to get twenty miles home tonight because there was no direct path.  The longest we stayed on a single road was nine miles.  Oy.

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