In medieval times, the thick, curly, golden fleeces of the ancient Cotswold Lion breed of sheep produced the finest wool in the world. It was as prized and prestigious as precious metals and jewels. Cotswold merchants amassed great wealth by exporting wool throughout Europe.
When I first moved to Hawkesbury Upton, I didn’t realise that three of the four roads into the village were partly single track with passing places. Learning to drive in suburban London, my lessons had been exclusively in built-up areas. In my company car, I was clocking up most of my miles on motorways. Negotiating rural lanes required a recalibration of my driving skills.
However, I soon learned to love the local lanes all year round, enjoying seeing the seasons change in the hedgerows and verges – from snowdrops to primroses, from wild garlic to cow parsley.
A few months after moving to the village, with the smugness of the newly-converted, I laughed at a visiting townie friend perplexed by the etiquette of country driving. “Do you really know everybody round here?” he asked, having seen me exchange the usual waves of thanks with drivers who pulled over for me, or to whom I gave way.
When another driver refused to give way despite being closer to a passing place than we were, my friend was about to express his feelings in the international sign language of the angry motorist. “Best not to do that so close to home,” I advised, “as actually it is quite likely that I will know the other driver.”
He said that if he had to live in my house, he’d never leave the village at the wheel of a car.
Three decades later, meeting traffic on single-track roads doesn’t bother me, but I do prefer to have the lanes to myself, not for road rage reasons, but because when they’re deserted, there’s something other-worldly about them.
Not always in a good way: on dark, moonless nights without the familiar markers of urban streets – no streetlights or road signs, no road markings or kerbs – the lanes can be disorienting. Add thick fog, snow or torrential rain, and it can feel as if you’re heading for a Hammer Horror film set, where the undead are waiting to greet you.
But in the right light and weather, these narrow lanes can feel perfectly magical.
Earlier this year, a pleasant drive in the spring sunshine with cow parsley brushing the sides of my car gave me the idea for my new novella, Mrs Morris Changes Lanes, in which a rural journey transforms the heroine’s life by taking her to a surprising destination – and I don’t mean Chipping Sodbury Waitrose.
In my Young By Name column for this month’s Tetbury Advertiser, I wrote about a sight I’d like to spot more often in the Cotswolds – although they are beautiful enough as they are!
Driving along a lane in the high fields near Newark Park, I spot a mirage-like splash of blue big enough to fill a field. Or is it mauve? Rippling in the late afternoon breeze, the flowering crop is changing colour as readily as the two-tone tonic suits favoured by Mods in the 1960s. Oil poured on water morphs from black to rainbow hues because the floating film is just a molecule thick, but when I park alongside the field, these plants are chest high.
I’m used to seeing cars stopping on the roadside in early summer to photograph swathes of pillar-box red poppies among the crops. A few years ago, a field just off the A46 was as densely carpeted with poppies as the famous scene in The Wizard of Oz. An instant tourist attraction, it triggered a proliferation of social media selfies.
The mauve flowers – or are they blue? – in this field by Newark Park have a far subtler beauty. It is of course a field of flax, the first I’ve seen for a long time, and an increasingly rare sight in the Cotswolds. How I wish I could substitute flax for the ubiquitous rapeseed, whose vivid flowers look all wrong in our gentle landscape. They also make me sneeze like one possessed, a yellow morning mist floating above their fields like mustard gas. While I don’t expect farmers to choose crops for their good looks, I do wish flax could be more profitable.
Flax, aka linseed, is certainly a useful and versatile crop. Chez Young, we add linseeds to our breakfast cereal and salads for their health benefits. Linseeds are rich in fibre, protein, Vitamin B, minerals and Omega 3 fatty acids.
I wish the latter didn’t sound so unappetising: “Mmm, fatty acids,” said Homer Simpson, never.
Research indicates that linseeds improve digestive health and lower blood pressure, bad cholesterol and cancer risk. If that’s not enough to win your heart, linseed oil goes into paints, varnishes, animal feeds and cricket bats.
The stalk, with fibres three times stronger than cotton, is the source of linen. The Ancient Egyptians considered linen a symbol of purity and allowed only priests and mummies to wear it. Much as I love linen clothes, that’s not a sacrifice I’d be prepared to make. Flax fibres are also used in the manufacture of cigarette papers (boo!) and teabags (hurrah!)
So why don’t we grow more flax on the rolling hills of the Cotswolds? When I google its preferred growing conditions, I discover it’s not just a matter of money. Flax thrives on alluvial soil, ie rich in sediment deposited by running water on a floodplain. With an average elevation of over 100m in the Cotswolds, I’m guessing alluvial soil is not our long suit.
As the sky begins to darken ahead of a thunderstorm, I realise I must make the most of this rare scene, so I capture it on my smartphone before returning to my car – and, like a tourist on my home turf, to social media.
SERIES OF GENTLE MYSTERY NOVELS INSPIRED BY THE SEASONS IN THE COTSWOLDS
Watching the changing seasons in the Cotswolds is one of the inspirations for my Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries series, which follows the course of village life from one summer to the next through the eyes of newcomer Sophie Sayers.
In my Young By Name column for this month’s Tetbury Advertiser, I shared the heartwarming experience of taking my father to visit his boyhood haunts near Moreton-in-Marsh, Gloucestershire. His love of the Cotswolds from his experience as an evacuee during World War II is the reason I grew up wanting to live in the Cotswolds myself. I moved here over 30 years ago.
Here’s one way you can stop foreign travel restrictions spoiling your summer holiday this year: take a trip back in time instead. You don’t even need a time machine, HG Wells style.
Instead, take yourself to a place in this country that was important to you in your past. Such trips can spark treasured memories that lurk in the back of our locked-down brains, as well as providing the opportunity to create new ones.
A couple of weeks ago, I did exactly this, albeit by proxy. I took my 88-year-old father for a day trip to the Cotswold village of Todenham, near Moreton-in-Marsh.
Two days after his seventh birthday – and the outbreak of the Second World War – my father, his two sisters and their mother had been evacuated to Todenham from the London suburb of Sidcup, on the edge of Kent. They considered themselves fortunate to be able to lodge as a family with my grandmother’s stepfather and his second wife, rather than being separated and sent to strangers, as so many evacuees were.
This year (2021), on a glorious early summer’s day, together with my sister and my daughter, we toured territory that was still very familiar to my father.
The little village has not changed much in the last eighty years, at least on the outside.
We enjoyed listening to my father’s recollections of his time at the village school, watching the village blacksmith at work, hunting for souvenirs from an enemy plane that crash-landed in a nearby field, and enjoying cosy family evenings playing games, reading and drawing by lamplight around the kitchen table.
When we knocked on the door of the cottage in which he had lived in those days, the current owner – whom, we were glad to see, was taking excellent care of the house and garden – was hospitable and sympathetic. Although relatively new to the village herself, she was able to share news of many people he remembered from his childhood. His friend Dorothy Duckett had become a primary school teacher, for example, and his younger sister’s friend Valerie Poole had moved away but later returned to retire to the village they all loved.
We strolled around the village, going to visit the village school (now the village hall) and the parish church which as a young evacuee he had attended every Sunday. Inside the church, an elderly lady, one of the churchwardens, was welcoming visitors.
After a few moments of chatting to her, my father asked in sudden recognition, “Are you Valerie Poole?” Indeed she was, and together they shared memories that had lain dormant for over 80 years.
We returned from our day trip as refreshed, moved and inspired as from any foreign holiday. So if you’re wondering where to go this summer, you could do worse than visit your old haunts, wherever your roots may be.
As L P Hartley said in the famous opening line of his novel The Go-Between, “The past is a foreign country”. Best of all, there’s no compulsory quarantine when you return.
Footnote: We’re now planning a return visit including my father’s younger sister.
My father’s love of the Cotswolds inspired the watercolour painting that I used for the covers of my collections of columns for the Tetbury Advertiser.
HOW TO ORDER
Both collections are available to buy in paperback and ebook.
Order the paperbacks from Amazon via the links below or ask your local bookshop or library to order copies in for you (available from their usual stockists).
As regular readers of this blog will know, once a month I share here my latest column for the Hawkesbury Parish News, our local community magazine that is possibly the best-read journal in our little Cotswold village of Hawkesbury Upton, the real-life village that inspired my Sophie Sayers Village Mystery novels.
If you’ve been following my blog for more than five years, (and if so, gold star to you!), you may also recall that I gathered together my earlier columns into a book called All Part of the Charm. The columns in that book ran from January 2010, when I gave up my last full-time day-job to write, through 2015. I also included some essays I wrote about moving to the village in 1991.
As the end of 2020was approaching, being a fan of round numbers, and also to celebrate 30 years of living in Hawkesbury Upton, I decided it was time to collate my next batch of columns into a new book – 60 columns in all, one each month from 2016 to 2020. Rereading them to refresh my memory of their content before writing the introduction, I realised what an extraordinary five years they had been, and how much change – turmoil, even – they had brought to our lives. Yet throughout my columns, written for a local audience in our small corner of the Cotswolds, ran a common thread:
In an ever-changing world which seems to be lurching from one crisis to the next, it’s comforting to have some events in life that are dependably consistent – and to live in a community in which everyone looks out for their neighbours, not only in the season of goodwill, but all year round.
Wherever you are in the world, if you’d like to feel like an honorary or adoptive member of the parish of Hawkesbury, reading this little book will take you there as surely as the back of a certain wardrobe transports us to Narnia.
Below I’m sharing the introduction I wrote to this new book, which you can order now in ebook and paperback.
The paperback is now available from Amazon at a special launch price of £3.99 or equivalent in your local currency until the end of January.
It’s a slimmer book than the first volume, as it doesn’t include any additional essays, and I’ve changed the layout to be less extravagant with paper, but I hope you’ll think it’s great value at that price – and that you will be what it says on the cover: still charmed.
Foreword to Still Charmed:
Thirty Years On
This week, in celebration of 30 years since moving to the Cotswold village of Hawkesbury Upton on 4 January 1991, I dug out my old diary to revisit my initial impressions of village life, starting with a hectic first day in our new home.
“The log man came, bringing 15 sacks of logs, then the sweep came and cleaned both chimneys amazingly cleanly. I’d expected him to be covered in soot. Felt a little out of place when I realised that not only was I straining to understand his accent, but he was straining to understand mine.”
Next day, my husband “went to the shop for eggs and bread. Lots of people friendly there – one man knew he was from the old post office already.”
The house, unoccupied for eighteen months before we bought it, was somewhat spartan, the only heating provided by a vintage single-bar electric fire in the bathroom and an inefficient open fireplace in the front room. For several weeks, we slept on the floor in front of the fire, as everywhere else was too cold and damp. But by the second day, I was already acclimatising to our new home, a mid-nineteenth century stone cottage:
“Even though it seems in some respects that we’re roughing it, the convenience and comfort are infinitely greater than they would have been for the original occupants. When I put off going to the loo here as it’s so cold and damp, I ought to remember they would have gone down the bottom of the garden to the privy.” (Two outdoor toilets, buckets beneath holes in wooden planks, were still intact when we moved in.) “I understand the attraction of chamber pots for the first time.”
In the intervening 30 years, the house has been transformed to modern standards of comfort while we’ve retained many original features and added whimsical new ones of our own. My husband is building a mezzanine floor above the kitchen as I write. We’ve also become completely immersed in village life and are charmed by it.
During that time, I’ve served on many committees and volunteered for various community organisations in one way or another, and for the last 11 years, I’ve been writing a monthly column for our local parish magazine, the Hawkesbury Parish News, which, despite our village now boasting a high-speed internet connection, is just as much the hub of local news as it was when I first moved here. If you want to know about events, developments, future plans, and the traditional hatches, matches and despatches in our community, all you need to do is invest 50p a month in the parish mag, a fee that also includes optional delivery to your door. These days, electronic delivery is also available.
Although I often write articles for the various local organisations I’m involved in, such as the annual Hawkesbury Upton Literature Festival which I founded in 2015, my monthly column has no particular brief. I just write about whatever is front of mind as the deadline looms, which is usually seasonal or otherwise topical. The aim of my contribution is to entertain, amuse, divert and share experiences that I think will make my local friends and neighbours smile. There are plenty of jokes at my own expense, and my chosen topics are often village-centric.
But although Hawkesbury Upton is surrounded by fields and reached only by winding country lanes, most of them single track, our rural idyll does not escape the harsh realities of the outside world. The period this volume covers began in the run-up to the EU referendum and ended literally on the day we in the UK left the European Union. One of the last things I did in 2020 was apply for a new passport, as my old one was due to expire on 2 January 2021. The new one will be blue, not red, and will not bear the words European Union on the cover.
Also, as I wrote the first column shared here, the US presidential election that resulted in a win for Trump was in full swing. As I wrote the final piece, Biden’s victory was assured.
Collating these columns for the collection last week, I gasped when I realised the first entry would be titled “Flu Fury”, a jokey piece written while I was on the mend from a dose of winter flu. I’m glad I didn’t know then about the coming Covid-19 pandemic, nor the disruption and devastation it would bring to the whole world. Even Hawkesbury Upton, tucked away in the Cotswolds, with its moat-like surround of agricultural land, has not escaped unscathed, and my heart goes out to all those who have lost loved ones or suffered long-term health complications.
During this extraordinary five-year period, I have lost count of the number of times I have said to my daughter while watching Trump supporters invade the Capitol, “Take note of this, we’re witnessing history in the making”, and last night, as I was planning what to write in this foreword, I said it again.
This time, she replied in her teenaged wisdom, “Everything is history these days”.
Yet truer than ever are the pieces I’ve written celebrating the joy of coming home to Hawkesbury after holidays away and my gratitude for living “in a community in which everyone looks out for their neighbours, and not only in times of crisis or the season of goodwill”. (Who Needs Wifi When You’ve Got Good Neighbours, January 2018). I also often remark upon the continuity of village life. “In an ever-changing world which seems to be lurching from one crisis to the next, it’s comforting to have some events in life that are dependably consistent.” (The Comfort of Consistency, July 2019)
During the pandemic, we may have lost the events that provide the consistency – the Hawkesbury Horticultural Show, the Hawkesbury Upton Literature Festival, the midnight carol singing on Christmas Eve – but the community spirit is stronger than ever, not least due to the continuing presence of the Hawkesbury Parish News, which appeared as regularly as ever throughout lockdown, a comforting dose of normality in the midst of the most abnormal of years. In the absence of events news to fill the pages, the editor, Colin Dixon, persuaded more villagers to write articles, reproduced copy from the archives, and kindly shared extracts from my novels to help keep people entertained.
On a brighter note, the five years represented in this volume have included the culmination of my lifelong ambition to become a novelist, with the first of my eight novels published so far unveiled on 1 April 2017. It may have been no surprise to anyone familiar with my columns that my novels have been inspired by my delight in village life, although I hasten to add that all the characters, settings, and situations in my Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries, my Staffroom at St Bride’s series, and my Tales from Wendlebury Barrow Quick Reads are entirely made up. So if you enjoy reading these columns, you should find my novels just your cup of tea – and vice versa. (You’ll find a full list of the novels published so far in the back of this book, and there are plenty more to come.)
Now writing my ninth novel, and with the deadline of my 134th column for the Hawkesbury Parish News looming, I’m grateful for the enthusiasm and support of its readers and production team spurring me on. First Fiona Rowe and now Colin Dixon have worked tirelessly and meticulously, with the support of a hardworking and efficient team behind the scenes, to take the magazine from strength to strength, growing it thicker and more interesting each year. Whatever history has in store for us, I will be proud to write for the Hawkesbury Parish News for as long as I am able, and may it forever be a source of comfort, entertainment and pleasure to its readers.
COMING SOON: Travels with my Books – a new monthly series of guest posts by authors talking about the setting for their novels
First on the list: B M Allsopp, author of the Fiji Islands Mysteries – follow my blog (click button in the sidebar to the right of this post), if you don’t already, to make sure you don’t miss this intriguing exclusive interview!