England is so much more than its cities.
Most itineraries take in London and one or two more: Oxford or Cambridge, Brighton or Bath. While I love all these places, and live part time in Oxford, it’s the countryside that I truly enjoy. Glimpsed from the motorway it makes a pretty backdrop, but get off onto the country lanes and you’ll find villages filled with history, old inns with great beer, and amazing stretches of natural space.
Oxfordshire is one of my favorite parts of England. While it’s more built upon than the northern counties it is rich in antiquarian landmarks. Yesterday my wife and I set out to explore them with the same two friends who took us out on our last rural ride through Oxfordshire. While I have a ton of work to do this week and next, I can never pass up the offer of a road trip through England.
I thought I knew Oxford University inside and out, but our first stop proved me wrong when we arrived at the university’s Harcourt Arboretum a few miles outside town. Peacocks strutted amid a forest of trees gathered from all around the world. I can’t say I’m a big arboretum goer, and while I prefer natural forests to artificial ones, I did enjoy it. The sight of power lines and the distant hum of the motorway did nothing to reduce the feeling of calm that settled on me. Thoughts of my book deadline and the thousand other things on my to-do list disappeared.
Soon we were off to something I know a bit more about – medieval history. Passing down narrow country lanes flanked by hedges and old, lichen-covered stone walls, we came to the village of Ewelme (pronounced “you elm”). Like many English villages, nobody knows just how old this cluster of thatched-roof relics and Victorian trophy homes is. Ewelme became prominent in the middle of the 15th century when Alice, wife of the Duke of Suffolk and granddaughter of Geoffrey Chaucer, built a church, school and almshouses here.
The church is one of those magnificent little houses of worship you find all over England, such as in Dorchester or Binsey. Like with most of my visits to rural churches, we had it to ourselves, and we wandered at leisure admiring the heraldic carvings, fragments of original stained glass, and the alabaster tomb of Alice herself. The tomb is a bit grim even by tombish standards. In addition to carving her lying in state with her hands clasped in prayer in true medieval piety, the sculptor added a second image of Alice at the base showing her decayed and rotting. This was supposed to be a reminder of the way of all flesh. The creepiness still works six centuries on.
%Gallery-163241%Through a narrow doorway and down a flight of steps we entered a small cloister surrounded by 13 little houses. The charity that Alice set up is still in operation and needy people from the parish still live in houses paid for by Alice’s original donation. They are snug, tidy little homes and worlds apart from the grim concrete monoliths many of England’s poor live in.
The third building is a school that’s said to hold the record for the oldest continually operating school in the country, according to whoever it is who keeps track of such things. Sadly it was shut up for the summer, so we were left studying the worn medieval carvings on the wooden door and wondering what lay on the other side.
Suddenly this peaceful village scene was interrupted by the roar of jet engines. Seven red fighters shot overhead, trailing colored smoke. They were the Red Arrows, putting on a show at the nearby RAF airfield. They banked and looped and resisted all attempts at a decent photograph. After a while I stopped trying and simply watched. As we retired to a nearby pub for lunch (fish and chips and real ale, what else?) the Red Arrows were replaced by noisy relics from World War II that flew so low we could see the pilots. It was good to know the pub was safe from the Luftwaffe.
One-and-a-half pints and 50000 calories later, we headed out through more winding little lanes past curious cows and old cottages to neighboring Buckinghamshire, where we climbed a steep hill to Brill, a village that has one of the region’s oldest surviving mills. The mill has been standing here since the 1680s and while it no longer makes flour, it offers a fine backdrop from which to look out at the surrounding countryside.
The hill itself is pitted and gouged with steep clefts. Brick makers in centuries past dug out great chunks of the terrain in search of clay. This provided a great opportunity for a group of local boys. One half of the crowd tried to kick a football over to their friends on the other side. Each attempt ended with the ball plummeting into the pit and one poor kid scrambling down to get it. They weren’t deterred, though. I got the feeling that whoever managed to kick a football over that crevasse would become a village legend, his boyish exploits repeated and exaggerated for generations at the local pub until he took on the legendary stature of a Robin Hood or King Arthur. Or maybe he’d just impress the local girls. Either way, they kept trying.
A day spent away from the cities reveals England at its best. So if you’re in this or any other part of the country, it would be worth your while to rent a car and see the lesser-known rural sights. Just be careful driving on the left.