Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Day Sixteen: The Cotswolds

Saturday, August 16, 2008

The Cotswolds
Saint John The Baptist Church, Cirencester
Saint Edward’s Church, Stow-On-The-Wold
“The Merchant Of Venice” At The Courtyard Theatre

This day will be devoted to a leisurely drive through The Cotswolds as we make our way from Bath to Stratford-Upon-Avon. Along the way, we will stop at one Cotswold market town and two Cotswold villages that lie directly on our route. Our day will end in Stratford with a performance by The Royal Shakespeare Company.

We plan to leave our hotel at 9:00 a.m. Within an hour, we should be in Cirencester, the largest town in Cotswold District and an important market town.

Cirencester was an important Roman town—in fact, it was the second largest settlement in Roman Britain, with a population of 15,000 persons—and there is an excellent Roman museum in the town (that we will not visit).

We will walk around the center of the town for an hour, after which we will visit Saint John The Baptist Church, known informally as “The Cathedral Of The Cotswolds” owing to its size and grandeur.

In The Middle Ages, the profitability of the wool trade made The Cotswolds the wealthiest area of Britain. This vast wealth resulted in small towns and villages erecting magnificent houses of worship of a quality and on a scale normally unimaginable in small localities. These imposing Cotswold edifices became known, over time, as “Wool Churches”, and the most impressive “Wool Church” of all is Saint John The Baptist at Cirencester.

Saint John The Baptist Church is one of the most elegant medieval churches in all of England, as well as one of the largest. It was erected around 1520 in the English Perpendicular style, the fourth or fifth church to be erected on the spot since the Roman Era.

The church lies just off the central market square, and was constructed in the style of a cathedral, with a nave, side aisles and chapels. There is a large central tower with twelve bells, and a lavish church porch, the largest and most complex such porch in Britain. The Gothic exterior is prominent for its amazingly-intricate stone carvings. The church is one of the greatest masterpieces of the English Perpendicular style.

Saint John The Baptist Church is known for its four medieval chapels. The chapels were created by wealthy locals, who used their vast fortunes to create elaborate chapels (and tombs) devoted to their own memories. Some of the tombs, memorials and monuments in Saint John The Baptist are among the finest and most important to be found in all of Britain.

We will spend an hour or so exploring this great church, after which we will depart Cirencester and head for the village of Stow-On-The-Wold.

Stow-On-The-Wold lies on the highest elevation in The Cotswolds, and was formerly the site of the largest and most important sheep market in England, where as many as 20,000 sheep changed hands in a single day. The sheep market has been long gone, but the town is today one of the most popular Cotswold villages for visitors. Stow-On-The-Wold has a population of only 2,000 persons, but the town is filled with excellent restaurants, excellent booksellers, antique shops and what must be Britain’s finest shop for handmade chocolates.

We will have lunch on our arrival. After lunch, we will spend an hour walking around the village, situated around an enormous central square. Stow-On-The-Wold is a beautiful village, the most charming of all Cotswold villages my brother and I have explored, and we look forward to a return visit.

During our time, we will explore Saint Edward’s Church, an 11th-Century Norman church (the tower is 15th-Century) associated with The Civil War. Stow-On-The-Wold was the site of the final battle of The Civil War, and Parliamentary forces defeated the Royalists in a battle in the town’s market square. After the battle, 1000 Royalist soldiers were locked in Saint Edward’s Church as prisoners until, one by one, they were walked to the town square and executed. According to eyewitnesses, after the slaughter was over, the ducks of Stow-On-The-Wold swam in rivers of blood in the market square for days.

From Stow-On-The-Wold we will drive to Broadway, the final Cotswold village we will visit. We will walk around Broadway for an hour or so, another of the most attractive of the Cotswold villages.

Several renowned persons resided in Broadway at some point in their lives. Among the village’s former residents are John Singer Sargent, Edward Elgar and Ralph Vaughan Williams. E.F. Benson spent time in Broadway, too, and the village of Broadway was the model for the fictional village of Riseholme in his “Lucia” novels, where his heroine Lucia resided before departing Riseholme and moving to the fictional village of Tilling (taking her legendary recipe for Lobster A La Riseholme with her).

We won’t miss any E.F. Benson associations on this trip!

From Broadway, we will complete our drive into Stratford-Upon-Avon and check into our hotel.

We will walk around Stratford-Upon-Avon a bit, have an early dinner, and proceed to The Courtyard Theatre to attend this evening’s performance of Shakespeare’s “The Merchant Of Venice”, performed by The Royal Shakespeare Company.

The Courtyard Theatre is a two-year-old theater erected near the permanent home of The Royal Shakespeare Company, built as a temporary home for the company while the original theater complex undergoes extensive restoration. My brother and I have not visited Stratford-Upon-Avon since 2004, so we have never seen the Courtyard Theater. It will be torn down once multi-year restoration of the permanent facility is completed.

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