30 October, 2006

glorious Cotswolds

Why oh why did we ever have to come back! No, that's not fair. Poor old London cannot begin to compete with the charms of Gloucestershire. But it's hard to leave the gorgeous countryside, fresh air, deliriously good food (and no litterbox, no laundry, no beds to make!) of our holiday and on top of that, to have school start today. Alas, real life beckoned and so we came back. But we had the best weekend.

Lords of the Manor is one of my favorite places in the world, set in one of my favorite places in the world, the Cotswolds. Which means literally in whatever old language it is, "cuts through hills." And the land is very, very hilly, making any drive absolutely stunning, with vistas of cultivated green fields, ancient stone walls, hedgerows and plenty of sheep, cows and horses on which to feast the eye. And any walk through the fields is a workout because the land does go up and down, up and down. So you put together a top-hole location, perfect but delightfully changeable weather, the two people I like best in the world and a nice added attraction of Avery's friend Ava, and it was just an idyllic weekend.

We picked up Ava on Friday afternoon, leaving her mother with a crying hungry three-week-old baby, poor thing. But she looked pretty thrilled with her lot, and handed Ava over with a bulging knapsack, riding helmet and little handbag filled with, as it turned out, a virtual electronics store of entertainment items. How long we can hold out against Avery's having a Nintendog, or an iPod, I do not know. We can but try. What with our two bags of clothes, books and riding gear, it was an extremely tight squeeze in Emmy! Not much of a boot. But the girls bundled up in their tartan rug and we were off, top down and music blaring. I have to say right now that the only downside (a word I really hate, should say "negative aspect," I suppose) to the entire was the girls' obsession with a Suzanne Vega track that details her experience in a diner on a rainy day with a cup of coffee and someone comes in with a dripping umbrella... argh! It goes on an on. And even worse, she got a whole host of other annoying musicians to COVER the dratted song in their own even more irritating ways. But the girls absolutely love it, and had soon memorized it all and insisted (in a very charming way of course) on listening to it ad nauseam, which state I have to admit it didn't take very long for me to achieve. Oh, what can you do? They're kids. We stopped in the adorable little town of Woodstock, passing the impressive gates of Blenheim Palace on the outskirts, and in deference to John's parents (whose gift the whole weekend was, thank you), said as they always do, "You know, we should really visit Blenheim someday." We have probably passed those gates ten times in our 17 years of marriage, many times with John's parents in the car, and without fail, one of us always utters those words. But we never go.

Now, every American expat living in the United Kingdom has to offer the obligatory complaint each fall that, firstly, the British don't call it "fall" but instead "autumn," and then secondly, there isn't the gorgeous colorful foliage that we've all come to count on as the harbinger of whatever you call the season. It has something to do with the fact that Great Britain, or at least Southeast England, does not get what you'd call a good hard killing frost. I know, I sound like Garrison Keillor, but every once in awhile my midwestern upbringing surfaces with a vengeance. Anyway, as I was saying, the frost just never descends here in the way it does in the northern bits of America. So the leaves do not, in general, get to be brilliantly colored before they fall. Hey, maybe that's why they call it autumn: there's not much to write home about in terms of the leaves actually falling.

In any case, normally I do feel this sort of complaining homesick feeling about October in England. But in the Cotswolds, and in particular on the ivy-covered walls of Woodstock, it was glorious. Red, orange, and yellow ivy festooning all the old, old hotels and pubs and yarn shops that people all the little towns, and plenty of fallen leaves for little girls to scuff in. We had a truly awful lunch of watery shepherd's pie and fish and chips "like hockey pucks," restaurant critic Ava proclaimed, then the girls got ice cream and felt quite fine again. They shopped extremely laboriously in a darling art supply store, touching I think every SINGLE item on display, in search of whatever was worthy of their spending money. John and I took turns supervising them while the other lucky grownup got to exit the shop and wander around the town. John finally made motions through the shop window of peeling back his eyelids and putting hot needles in his eyeballs (he hates shops full of little things), so we got the girls to decide on various mechanical pencils and googly eyes, and were ready to go. We hopped back in Emmy and whizzed along, arriving at the hotel just at dusk, when it was looking particularly welcoming. The lovely Julia behind the desk who had helped us with reservations and the girls' extra bed came out to greet us by name, which was awfully professional and pleasant. In with all our clobber and through the remembered white-painted, book-lined rooms with massive fireplaces, lots of winding hallways that ensure I will be lost whenever I leave the room, and into our bedroom, on two cozy levels with a big four-poster for us and a nice plump pullout sofa for the girls, already made up. And a huge spray of beautiful flowers and a bottle of chilled champagne, from John's parents!

We settled in, which meant mostly that the girls went through all the sample toiletries and divided them up with a minimum of acrimony and lots of negotiations, whereupon I had to beg for just a tiny bar of soap to wash my hands. Gorgeous dark-red bed appointments, curtains and carpets, and golden wallpaper, and double leaded-glass windows opening out onto the hedge by the side of the drive. Just perfect. Avery and Ava quickly switched on the telly to find the usual Friday evening's assortment of dreadful English quiz programmes, so they were in heaven. John and I opened the champagne and sighed with contentment, albeit with the girls' swinging feet clunking us in the head as they lay on their stomachs on our bed, all agog with details of Welsh history, Latin American geography, and distinctions among various types of pasta shapes. I especially loved Avery's wry comment, "I don't have so much common sense. What I have is general knowledge."

Then they forced us to watch something called "Strictly Come Dancing," where for the benefit of some charity, celebrities learn to dance and then perform before a panel of deliberately cheeky judges. I was tempted to find out how much they thought they would raise for charity and offer to donate the whole thing if only they'd take the programme off the air. And even worse: we happened upon an "episode" where they wasn't even any dancing! Just interviews, and analysis. I complained, "This is just 'Strictly Come... Chatting,'" which cracked the girls up. All was well with the world. Except. I had forgotten to book for dinner! Oh no! And they were fully booked in the hotel's divine restaurant. Julia came to the rescue, however, and booked us at what she described as "a new place, or rather a refurbished old place," that the staff had been invited to last week and had reported favorably upon. So we headed out cautiously, the girls having got very dressed up in their favorite dresses: Avery in a lettuce-green linen dress that I had made for her one Easter (long ago, she could hardly breathe in it), and Ava in, she informed me, Bonpoint from head to toe. Lucky girl. I walked into the shop in New York, on Madison Avenue on the hottest day of the year this summer, just for the air-conditioning and had to leave immediately upon seeing that the coat I liked for Avery was $978. Oh my. They both looked extremely lovely.

The restaurant was, well, a pub. "The Coach and Horses," no less, the most boring of all pub names in a land where "The Slug and Lettuce" is not considered odd. John and I looked at each other in some consternation, not being devotees of pubs even now that smoking is banned in some of them. I just don't like watery warm beer and bad steak and kidney pie, nor the blare of some sporting event on the telly and the suspicious glances of the inevitable locals, not that I blame them. But there were were, so we descended the steps and went in, to be greeted with fervor by the waitress who anxiously assured us the hotel had called and we were most welcome. Uh oh, I thought, being, as a New Yorker, accustomed to the wait staff's chilly demeanor providing an exact barometer of the excellence of the food. The dining room was painfully newly-done up, with glaring shiny new wall sconces and a truly repellent flowered carpet. And it took the waitress a very long time to remove, item by item, all the unnecessary glasses, cutlery and chargers once she'd taken our order. However. The food came and it was simply superb. However this place got its new chef they must do whatever they can to keep him.

At first glance the menu looked hopelessly pretentious, but that was just in contrast to the surroundings. Actually the food was very simple, and quite, quite perfect. I ordered something called a "cannon of lamb," a name with which I wasn't familiar, but hey, lamb is lamb and I can't have it at home anymore with my soft-hearted daughter. It is essentially half a saddle, the best part of the fillet which in my Frenchy experience is called a "noisette." I have found in trips back to America that lamb is really not popular and I can never understand why. My parents report having it shoved down their throats drowned in mint jelly after being cooked for several days while the family went to five different church services in a row. Perhaps that has something to do with the country's general avoidance of the meat. Because of my parents' shared childhood experiences they shielded me from birth from both the Methodist Church and lamb. Now I cannot attest to the lack in my life of Methodism because I am ignorant of what I'm missing. To willfully deprive me of lamb, however, is an actionable offense. And this at the Coach and Horses was the real deal. A long fillet cut in small slices, pink and juicy and meltingly tender. The menu John snagged for me claims that it was presented with a rosemary puree, but this was not true. It was served with the same full-flavoured, tart and complex red wine sauce that came with Avery's fillet of beef, also perfectly cooked. John had the lamb as well, and we both savored the buttery potato puree nestled underneath, but were chilly on the "tian of vegetables" on the side, an odd sort of vertical pile of an aubergine slice, some red onion, and a yellow courgette, topped weirdly with melted cheese. Ah well, we can't expect perfection from a pub! Even, as they are known here so preciously, "gastropubs." I myself find that designation impossibly twee, and will not use it. Either you're a pub with a great restaurant or a pub without a great restaurant.

As it was, this place was like a fancy foreign cousin recently bereaved of both parents and forced to live with poor relations. The locals in the "pub" part of the establishment downed endless pints of lager and looked askance at us, putting their heads to one side and peering around the doorjamb. Something tells me there's still fish and chips available to them. I cannot see them getting on the outside of "pan-fried sea bass with ratatouille, potato galette and herb oil." Ava went for tagliatelle with goat's cheese (I love the English insistence on the possessive apostrophe, as though the goat might come back for it) and baby cress salad, and while she immediately dismantled the gorgeous presentation with wild mushrooms piled on top and issued a "yucky" decree, the pasta underneath was more than acceptable to her. We all happily plundered one another's plates and among the four of us ate every bite. Divine!

Home through the dark curving roads, we discussed accents. Now Ava is full-blown English, both parents, both sets of grandparents. But she has inherited, I think from her urbane and sophisticated father, an incredible talent for mimicry. She can be a perfectly English girl, with cut-glass vowels. But she can also be quite a good native Moroccan girl, gleaned from her incomparable nanny Fati, as well as a good French accent speaking English. So we decided to ask her some pronunciation questions. "Do you say 'gull' or 'gel' for 'girl'?" She says "gull," but I have heard Lord Peter Wimsey (in his Ian Carmichael incarnation) say quite plainly 'gel,' with a hard g. So I don't know about that. She produced a convincing Yorkshire persona, with "ayuh, lass," rolling out of her throat. She even could provide really good instructions on how to produce certain sounds! Maybe we have a linguist, or a speech therapist on our hands. Although something tells me Ava is destined for a more glittering future. "Do you say 'glahhss' or 'glass'? 'Tomahhto' or 'tomato'?" Very funny. We stopped at a forlorn little petrol station with a leaky broken-down ice cream freezer, so the girls had to abandon their plans for ice cream and have chocolate bars instead. Plus horsey magazines, so that all the conversation before they went to sleep was reading aloud from pony classifieds. "Oh here's one, Avery, that you could have. 'Fine scopey jumper, 13.4 hands, a lovely little chestnut mare with 40 rosettes.' And only 5500 pounds!" Quite the perfect day.

Saturday saw us at the luscious breakfast provided by the hotel: a cold buffet with many cereals, pastries and fruits, including a really good apricot stewed in cinnamon and honey. Then I had boiled eggs and toast soldiers, as did Ava, but she immediately objected, with a true English girl's specificity, to the width of the soldiers. "They are too big to get in the egg top!" And of course she was right, plus the bread was very fancy-dancy whole-grain, and I'm sure the proper deal is nice white toasting bread from Warburton's. John had the Full English complete with black pudding, roasted tomatoes, fried eggs, sausage and incredibly flavorful English rashers of bacon. Avery contented herself with massive numbers of pains au chocolat, and then we ran out into the countryside for the long refreshing walk to Lower Slaughter. Because naturally Lords of the Manor is in... Upper Slaughter. This walk is one of my favorite in the world, passing as it does through several sheep fields and affording many opportunities to chase them. Well, not chase of course because that would be scary and cruel to the sheep. No, we just... pursue them diligently. But someone stole a march on us and all the sheep were across an annoying body of water! Ah well, we'll come back in spring when the lambs are out. Much more trusting.

We passed through all the obligatory kissing gates, where the person passes through and has to offer a good-luck kiss to the one coming after. There was much strategizing about who went in what order to get the desired kisses. On the way we stopped at the Old Mill Museum and Shop and invested in several 50 pence bags of "duck feed," and thereby chanced on the single most satisfying bit of the girls' entire weekend! Take them to a four-star country house hotel with gourmet food, decked out in French finery, and what do they like best? Yep, a 50-pence bag of cracked corn. They just kept buying more and more, and feeding the little beasts right out of their hands, on the banks of the low beautiful River Eye that winds through Lower Slaughter. It has been named many times as "The Best Conserved English Village," and it's true. Perfection everywhere in the window boxes, front gardens, thatched roofs. They even lay on the occasional horseback rider who comes clip-clopping down the street, splashes into the river, and comes out on the other side, sending up sparkling droplets into the air. Weeping willows line the river which is spanned by several picturesque old footbridges, one of which the girls sat on to throw their duck feed. Pretty adorable. "Here's one hungry little adorable baby, Avery!" "Oh, Ava, this little white one misses you! Come back!"

Off finally to get in the car and go to their horseback riding lesson! On the way we stopped to try to have lunch at the Mount Inn, high above darling little Stanway, another perfect village. But no sooner had John dropped us off and driven away to get cash, than it turned out first there was no fish and chips, and secondly, anything we ordered would take 40 minutes. Grrr. Avery took a spill on the lawn and bruised her coccyx, a word that actually made her feel better. Naturally the child can ride enormous horses over huge jumps, but flat on the ground she gets injured. John picked us up and took us to Jill Carenza's stable for their lesson and frabjous day! there was time for a ham and cheese toastie in the barn's little cafe. Bliss. Avery got on a nice gray pony called Buttons, and Ava on Blue, and they were off. A good lesson, under at first cloudy then gradually clearing skies. Lots of high jumps! In fact her highest ever, we think, 30 inches. Quite high enough, thank you.

Back to Lords of the Manor for high tea, a ritual when we stay there and even when we're just passing through. Eclairs, meringues, fruit cake, shortbread, pound cake, and of course scones with clotted cream and strawberry jam. "Kristen," Ava asked earnestly, "Do you say 'scone,' or 'scawn'?" "I have to say I say 'scawn,' how about you?" I replied. "Oh definitely 'scawn.' How about 'the sun shone,' or 'the sun shawn'?" "Shawn," we agreed. The beauty of English books on tape: thank goodness I got it right for Ava!

Well, I am starving so I am going to go make some tuna salad with chick peas and lemon zest, and a side of oven-roasted beets with balsamic vinegar. Want to join me?

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