Feeling nostalgic as I write this post, friends from the UK skyped us last night on the occasion of their 30th wedding anniversary. I was best man at their wedding and my wife was chief bridesmaid. They live in the UK in the same place as they got married and have lived for most of their lives, Windermere, Cumbria; technically a town, not a village but my blog so I get to change the parameters! Situated on the edge of the largest natural lake in the UK, Windermere is in an area of unqualified beauty, known as the Lake District. This area is the most popular British National Park, with all year round visitors from all over the world. The area is awash with history, poets, painters, photographers and writers,think John Ruskin, Beatrix Potter, Wordsworth. The craggy mountains, beautiful and in a lot of cases remote, tarns and lakes make an area awash with nature and beauty. Hikers, campers strollers it is a nirvana for them.
Windermere itself is set back a little from the lake but as it has grown it now is not a far walk. Around the lake there are some lovely hotels set in their own grounds that run down to lake edge, it is at one of these we had our friends wedding. A steam boat travels around the lake stopping at the small towns of Lakeside and Ambleside, both worth a visit and sailing on the lake is such a pleasure – don’t try swimming in it though it is freezing whatever the temperature! Another attractive way to travel around the lake is via the Lakeside and Haverthwaite Heritage Steam Railway a really fun trip especially with the grandkids. The town lends itself to the many visitors with attractive shops that if modernised have been kept to reflect the towns heritage, many being made from the local slate. The walks are amazing and for me Windermere is quintessentially British and somewhere I make a point of visiting whenever we are over. In fact looking to return there next year, considering what are the options? The wife wants to be over there for a good 2 months as feels we getting a bit long in the tooth to do this sort of journey in 2-3 weeks, huh she can speak for herself, I am as young as I think I am and today after writing this, thats about 25!!
While we lived in the UK one of our favourite television programmes was Midsomer Murders, a charming, if you can call three to four murders an episode charming, detective serial led by the very English Inspector Barnaby. The fictional town of Causton is the headquarters and the action and episodes take place in a number of idyllic English villages, where not all is at it seems!! The thatch roofed homes and beautiful gardens, alongside stately homes and the quintessential cricket grounds not to mention the typical English pubs are all to be actually found in South Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire. The interesting names of some of these villages bear reference to their historical context, with names like ‘Brightwell Baldwin’ or ‘Little Wittenham” seemed to be names from Agatha Christie novels. Not far from London, both these areas are especially good to visit for a weekend or midweek break. If you fancy walking in the footsteps of Detective Chief Inspector Barnaby then book yourself in a local B & B and then arrange to take one of the guided tours that are available. I thoroughly recommend that you do even if you have never seen the serial – the area is so lovely and so English, from the pub menus to the thatched cottages.
If you fancy watching the series, You Tube has a number of the episodes on and if you get FilmON you can see the new series which has a new Detective Chief Inspector Barnaby – actually a very good transition in this enjoyable romp.
There are typically two reasons that people travel to England for a vacation of any sorts. 1) They want to see the old-world cottages, the old appeal of a simpler time of life, and everything the historic side of England has to offer. 2) They want to see London and everything that it is today, a city only second to New York in world significance and diversity. Well, there’s actually a place in England where you can get both of these aspects with one trip: Brighton.
Brighton is a relatively mediocre town by the sea, by all accounts, until you really dive into what the town is offering. Located south of London, Brighton is like a trip to a modern city – if that modern city happened to pop up around the turn of the century before last. You still have big buildings. You still have modern roads. You still have a lot of diversity. But you also have unspoiled suburbs that give you a taste of old-world England. You have great museums, a Royal Pavilion, and many old-school pubs to break up the city pace.
Brighton isn’t exactly an undiscovered location. Many tourists head here every year. However, it’s nowhere near as busy as London, so there’s plenty of room for sightseeing and typical vacationing.
What’s so special about English villages? It can’t be denied that there is a certain appeal about the quaint brick cottages, winding lanes, stone walls, gentle streams, footbridges and greenery of English villages. There is something unique about village life, perhaps stemming from the history that goes back centuries, sometimes as far as medieval times, that many parts of the world outside Europe just don’t have. Of course those countries have their own unique histories of natives, aborigines, etc, but villages…not so much. Perhaps that’s why they appeal to so many ‘new world’ countries (USA, Australia, New Zealand, etc) which share a language and heritage with England but lack village life. It helps that numerous writers and artists have immortalised the English countryside too, think of Thomas Hardy, William Wordsworth, J.M.W. Turner and John Constable.
Most English villages have certain things in common: they usually contain at least one pub, a church, a park/common/green/square, a groceries shop and a post office. These places tend to provide a feeling of community and many villages have a local sports team or some kind of association that brings people together, and usually has annual fetes, fairs or other events. The pub or church (depending on your sensibilities) seems to be the heart of village life. Cities are more multi-cultural and anonymous, but they lack that quintessential English character. That’s not to say that city-life is bad: it’s ever-evolving, fast-paced and fun, but it’s just difficult to experience the simpler existence of old England. The rural idyll also appeals to many people; the cottages with Tudor beams, immaculate village greens, ancient graveyards, fruit trees, winding rivers and endless fields.
Let’s start off with one of our favourite places in England and an area near where Elaine grew up. Dedham Vale has been classified an ‘Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty’ (AONB) with importance placed on conserving its landscape. The vale is located on the Essex-Suffolk border around the River Stour, surrounded by charming villages, rolling farmland, meadows and woods. The area is commonly known as ‘Constable Country’ after John Constable, the famous artist who was born in the area and made it famous in his paintings. Thanks to its AONB status, the local countryside has changed very little since Constable’s life time around the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, in fact it’s very reminiscent of ‘Wind in the Willows’ too!
Dedham Vale as captured by John Constable
Our favourite part of Dedham Vale is the hamlet of Flatford where Constable’s family owned a mill. It was the inspiration for some of his best paintings. Walking along the river is like stepping back through time, it’s like walking in one his iconic paintings that perfectly capture the landscape. Incidentally, you can view Constable’s paintings at the exhibition in Bridge Cottage, whilst exhibitions by contemporary artists can be viewed in the nearby Boat House Gallery. One of the loveliest walks is to continue through the rolling meadows to Dedham village, there are several panoramic views (and lots of cows!) along the way so take a camera or a picnic on a sunny day. Once in Dedham we highly recommend you check out Sir Alfred Munnings Art Museum, for a very personal look at another famous painter’s home. Finish off the day with a delicious meal at the Sun Inn, a traditional English pub.