The Charming Cotswolds

On July 2, we passed the three-month mark of our year abroad and, while we we find that it’s always exciting to move on to a new destination, it’s little sad to leave behind a place we’ve enjoyed.  This was especially true in Cambridge where we situated ourselves for three weeks. Little did we know that our days in the Cotswolds would bring surprises we couldn’t have imagined, including meeting the man who holds the Guinness World Record for making tiny sculptures and visiting the manor house of Charles Paget Wade who was, possibly, the most advanced hoarder in the history of the world.

But, back to wrapping up Cambridge. Over the weeks we were in Cambridge, we took the train to London three times and saw Hamilton, Come From Away, and the Royal Opera production of The Marriage of Figaro. We also visited the British Museum, the Tate Modern, and the Globe Theatre, and had a wonderful lunch with a former colleague from my many years in the consulting firm. These London trips were certainly a highlight of our stay, but we were always happy to get back to the village-like feel of Cambridge.  We rode our bikes all over town and even ventured out to the nearby villages of Coton and Watersbeach.  On a Sunday afternoon, we enjoyed a cream tea fundraiser for the local church in Coton, offering excellent tea and cakes and featuring what may have been the worst town band we’ve ever heard. It was a great afternoon. In addition, we discovered an excellent local bakery, The Norfolk Street Bakery, and became regulars, buying bread there almost daily. Just a couple of blocks away, we enjoyed, the Geldart, a friendly little neighborhood pub with a lovely garden.

Moving on to the Cotswolds

We picked up a rental car on Sunday morning and took off for the Cotswolds, a move that brought on many adjustments, chief among them driving on the left side of the road.  No sooner had we gotten far enough away from the heavily-trafficked highways outside of London than we began to encounter serial roundabouts, always a challenge for American drivers. In one particularly complex and busy roundabout, it took three tries before we took the correct exit.  After each unsuccessful try, the female British voice on the navigation firmly, but patiently, redirected us.  Wouldn’t it have been great if she had chimed out “Well done!” when we finally succeeded? She didn’t.

The Tolkeinesque St. Edwards Church in Stow-on-the-Wold

We reached our destination of the Cotswolds town, Bourton-on-the-Water, by midafternoon.  Driving into the village felt as though we had been suddenly dropped into the middle of an Old English theme park.  The town is picture-perfect in its beauty, and yet there were people everywhere.  People spilling out of beer gardens, clogging the sidewalks, lapping up ice cream on park benches, lounging in the green spaces, and splashing around with their dogs in the Windrush River.  I was horrified.  I had booked a place in this overrun tourist village for five nights!

We drove through the crowds and got to our B&B on a quiet street just off the main tourist area.  The B&B is called Webby’s Windrush Way (I can’t say or think of this name without thinking of Elmer Fudd) and we were greeted by the proprietor, Peter Webb, aka Webby.  We remarked on the crowds and he chuckled.  “They’ll be gone by this evening,” he promised.  And they were.  This is a place that draws tourist busloads of crowds during the day and carloads more of local day-trippers on the weekends, but quiets down completely in the evening, leaving the town and its lovely pubs and restaurants all to us.

Our days in the Cotswolds

The Cotswold villages are beautiful with their historic buildings made of honey-colored Cotswold stone, complete with charming thatched roofs. Public footpaths criss-cross this area of the country making it easy to walk from one village to the next.  Each village has its own charm and character although, in a few cases, all of the small houses have been sold off as holiday cottages and the larger homes as hotels, leaving no community of full-time residents.

We went to Stratford-Upon-Avon and walked the streets where the Bard himself once strolled. We saw his birthplace, visited his grave, and attended an excellent Royal Shakespeare Company production of Measure for Measure.  

Skateboarding on an eyelash

On our last day in the Cotswolds, we went to the town of Broadway, known for the Broadway Tower, a castle-like structure on the highest hill in the Cotswolds.  The tower is a “folly,” commissioned by Lady Coventry who wondered if a beacon of light from a tower on this site could be seen from her house twenty-two miles away. The result? It could be seen clearly and has been drawing tourists ever since to see the tower as well as, oddly, a nuclear bunker left from the Cold War era.

We had lunch in Broadway and, on a stroll down High Street noticed that the town museum has an exhibit of the world’s smallest sculptures – tiny works of art which fit into the eye of a needle or on the head of a pin. If this this sound like the domain of Ripley’s Believe it or Not, it definitely is. Just as we were entering the museum, the artist of the micro-sculptures, Willard Wigan, walked in.  The docent in charge introduced us and suggested that Willard tell us a bit about his sculptures.  I will not go into Willard’s story, which was fascinating, but a bit lengthy.  Well, it was more than a bit lengthy. It was so lengthy I began to be concerned that we not would make our evening dinner reservation and we met him right after lunch. We eventually walked upstairs to see his artwork which is viewed through a series of microscopes – the artworks literally cannot be seen with the naked eye. Willard’s work has to be seen to be believed. He once hollowed out one of his hairs and used it to frame a microscopic bicycle made of gold. Another sculpture is a castle carved from a grain of sand. He has even created 21 angel sculptures that – yep, you guessed it – dance on the head of a pin.  Willard has had an audience with the Queen of England and has created a sculpture of her crown as a gift for her. I encourage you to Google him to read his story and view his TED Talk.  He is also the subject of a video made for British Television called The World’s Tiniest Masterpieces, which can be downloaded and viewed.

Robin Hood in the eye of a needle
Skateboarding on an eyelash
The Last Supper in the eye of a needle

Hoarder extraordinaire

Next, we moved down the road a few miles to visit Snowshill (pronounced Snows Hill) Manor, which houses a collection of over 22,000 items collected by Charles Paget Wade.  Born in the late 19th century to a British family that owned sugar plantations in St. Kitts, Charles was a poor little rich boy who was sent to live with his grandmother for the sake of his education. He grew up to be an architect, artist, and poet and, above all, a collector of hand-crafted items.

Charles Paget Wade

His collections include twenty-six Samurai suits (purchased from a plumber for £1), clocks, tools, musical instruments, household items, bicycles, furniture, Asian artifacts, costumes, and more. Each item in the collection was chosen for color, design, and good craftsmanship. If it’s possible for hoarding to become an art form, Charles Paget Wade mastered it.

Mr. Wade inherited the family business in 1910 and later fought in World War I.  After the war, he bought Snowshill, a dilapidated manor house, for the express purpose of housing his ever-growing collections.  Mr. Wade never lived in Snowshill and never intended to live in Snowshill.  Instead, he lived in a small cottage on the property that lacked electricity. He spent the rest of his life adding to and curating his collections and renovating the manor house.

He hosted visitors frequently and, the ever-theatrical Mr. Wade enjoyed greeting the guests at the door, dressed in one of his costumes and in character.  Later in the evening Mr. Wade would disappear, possibly through one of the hidden passages he built in the manor house, and would then reappear in a different costume. Virginia Woolf visited and later complained that she missed her train home because Mr. Wade could not tell her the time. Although he had more than a hundred clocks in the house, they were all set to different times so that they could be heard to chime and strike individually, leaving everyone clueless as to what the time really was. Queen Mary visited in 1937 and remarked that Mr. Wade himself was the most remarkable piece of the collection. We couldn’t agree more.

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