I have this thing about starting off my year right. It’s not quite the same as having New Years’ Resolutions. I’m definitely part of the cliche that drops the resolution ball a few months in, coming up with excuse after excuse about why I couldn’t stick to my plans. So, I’ve learned my lesson and stopped suffocating the excitement of a new year under the pressured weight of ‘resolutions’.
Instead, what I do is pick a word. A word that I’d like to define my year. A word that is flexible and can cover a lot of ground. My word for 2024 is experiment. There are many reasons why I chose this word but one that works well with it is my desire to experiment with my role at work.
And that’s how I ended up in the Cotswolds on a frosty winter day in January with one of my best friends. Starting my year off right. Seeing how I might take other skills I have and use them at work... such as photography. Writing. My avid desire to explore.
The Cotswolds is the kind of place you kind of need a car or tour bus to take you... which was music to my ears, seeing as I adore driving. Hugged by several major English cities, Steph and I decided to meet in Bristol and go from there. Steph had always had an interest in exploring Bristol, so we took a few hours at the start of our journey to walk between some of the highlights of the city.
Now, I’m not a big city person in general. And when it comes to choosing where to live, there are even fewer cities that I like. But Bristol had a little something. Walking down by the harbour, a group of young men hauled their scull boats out of the River Avon under the watchful supervision of three unperturbed, fluffy swans. Locals peddled breezily on by, enjoying what was a gorgeous day for England in winter. Families and friends lined up for their little river-side-trailer-bought coffee and cake.
As we approached the water’s edge, Steph and I stopped in confusion and glanced down at the map on her phone where it specified that we should be able to cross the river here. Alas, there was no bridge. But very quickly we realised... there was a wee boat. Just a man and his tiny little punter. Back and forth he goes all day. A quick tap of the card to his machine and we were off, less than a minute later landing on the other side. A little bit of the unexpected... now that’s what I’m talking about.
After a kickass pizza at PizzaNova and an error with my car booking (promptly corrected), we were on the road to the Cotswolds. Steph was put in charge of the playlist and very quickly discovered a pre-made Spotify one called “Cottage in the Cotswolds” that became our soundtrack for the entire weekend.
Castle Combe was the only place we had a little trouble finding parking, so keep that in mind if you’re driving yourself there. However, if you go on tour, you can sit back and laugh at all the other drivers as they struggle to find a spot, as you easily pull up. While I love driving, this was one of those moments where I wish someone else was taking care of it for me.
In saying that, we persevered and eventually found a park. It’s a busy little town any time of year, so be prepared for that. And yet it was that vibrancy that I quite enjoyed. There are only a few places for food and drink, but to be honest... you want to be outside wandering about. Taking pictures. Soaking in the quaintness of it all. I was quite enamoured by the beautiful doorways leading to each little home and ran about taking pictures of all but half of them.
It’s one of those places that feels quite alien to most since it’s so far from the way that we live. But at the same time, it’s familiar as you recognise scenes from movies like Stardust and War Horse. Maybe fangirl a little bit like I did.
We thought about staying in one of the quaint Cotswolds villages for the night, but decided instead to stay in Gloucester mostly because we wanted lots of food options. And after a delicious meal at the High Orchard and a lovely overnight stay at The New Inn, we departed the next day happy with our decision.
First up was perhaps my favourite stop of the trip: Bibury. Still not quite sure how to pronounce it but the name doesn’t matter, the place does. You don’t need much time here, and yet you could spend the whole day, I’m certain of it. We wandered the famous line of houses known as Arlington Row. This is where my true fangirl came out, as this street is easily recognisable from one of my favourite movies called Stardust.
We decided not to rush out of Bibury and that was honestly because of the marshmallows. Right in the centre of town is a cute little shop and cafe side-by-side. The cafe was hard to miss, and the marshmallows were even harder to miss.
Tip: You can buy yourself a small bag of marshmallows and roast them then and there on the outdoor fire pit.
I admit I’m not sure if this is something that’s available all year round, but we were lucky enough to be here during winter when firepits are expected. Lucky for me, Steph only wanted one of the gooey treats, so the rest were left to me to devour.
Also high on our list was to have a classic English scone while in the Cotswolds and low-and-behold, the cafe not only supplied them, but provided the cutest riverside cafe setting for us to dine out in. Sitting on a fur-covered chair, I savoured the richness of the clotted cream (the only way to go) with a steamy cup of berry tea beside me.
The day had got away from us so by the time we reached Burford, we had one thing on our minds: lunch. Burford is the kind of place where your wallet screams in mere anticipation of how much it’s going to be used. I admit we wandered into several stores, including a funky antique store and past a B&B with an intriguing entryway, before finding ourselves at the Mermaid Inn.
Of all the pubs and cafes on offer, why did we opt for this particular establishment? As it was a Sunday, it was the large sandwich board out front declaring “TRADITIONAL SUNDAY ROAST” that lured us in. Inside was the ideal English pub for us to partake in this local tradition. A local man sat with his beer on a stool by the bar. A family struggled to juggle games and meals and conversation in the corner. A hearth crackled by the dubbed ‘Naughty Corner’ on the far side of the pub. And Steph and I gazed in near-horror at the size of the Sunday Roasts that were put down in front of us.
We laughed awkwardly, realising we could have probably shared one meal between the two of us. In saying that, I devoured most of mine and it kept me full until lunchtime the next day. Value for money, anyone? Besides, it was utterly delicious and made for a great photo.
After waddling back to the car, we made for Stow-on-the-Wold. As the sun was starting to make its rapid descent from the sky, we knew we didn’t have much time left to see all we wanted to see, but we’d come to this little village to see one thing in particular: the door to Narnia.
That’s what I’m calling it, at least. If you head to St Edward's Church, you’ll find what is affectionately known as the Tolkien Door. I know the locals must be sick of tourists coming to snap photos of this iconic door, but can they really blame us? It’s their ancestors’ fault for creating such a place, ancestors who couldn’t predict that social media and travel blogging would become a thing.
This part of the church was built some 300 years ago. Wee yew sapling trees were planted on either side of this epic fantasy door to enhance its entrance. Little did they know it would turn into something so majestic.
The story goes that this door was the inspiration for Tolkien’s Doors of Durin, the gate into Moria that fans may remember as the start of a truly horrible underground journey that ended in (temporary) tragedy. But is this the truth? We know that Tolkien visited the area while he studied at Oxford University nearby... but perhaps he never once stumbled across this door. Still, I like to believe he did. As a fellow writer, I know I’m always on the lookout for inspiration and I’d bet good money that there’s a ‘Dear Diary’ moment somewhere in Tolkien’s possessions that recounts his discovery of this magical doorway.
As the cool winter sun was just about to abandon us, we arrived in Bourton-on-the-Water. Thanks to a particularly nasty storm in the prior weeks, nearly every body of water I’d seen in the Cotswolds that weekend had been overflowing or near-bursting. River Windrush was no exception, and the archways of the adorable little bridges were all but hidden beneath the running water below. But I don’t know... there was something nice about it. Beauty almost lost, but still holding on. Travellers wandering about, snapping their photos. A large tree in the centre of it all, adorned with Christmas lights that were about to be confiscated at any moment for another year. A perfect end to a movie-inspired weekend.
Above all, I’m so grateful I went with my friend Steph. Both passionate photographers, we thoroughly enjoyed seeing such a place through the lens. People have asked me before if I feel like I miss out because I’m always looking through a camera. Quite the opposite, if you’d believe. Looking through the lens forces me to focus. To find the best angle. The most beautiful spot. To see things others miss. The hidden story among the weathered stone homes and cobbled streets. The quiet door that no one else really notices. The crooked sign and the quiet alley that is often overlooked.
Looking through the lens pulls me into a kind of daydream. I forget where I am for the moment. How many times have I stopped in the middle of a quiet road to take a photo... and then had to dash out of the way of oncoming cars? Too many times. And the Cotswolds is that kind of place that, when looking back at the photos I took, makes me question if it was even real at all... or if it was just a daydream.