The Magic Carpet

Holidays for most of us are at home this year but we would like a real change. So, hey presto, and away we go. The old dog-eared map is a magic carpet on which we can escape from toil in grey cities and be whirled into dreams of more spacious days. Unfold it and we are far from all the frenzies of life.

We take the open road and the steep ascent; caressed by sun and wind, we are once more free men on the hills. Looking down, the world lies spread out like a patchwork quilt, rich in colours, green pastures, silver sinuous streams, dark forests and the white-winged sea. Now for adventure in an enchanted world, careless of time, finance and space. Free from all demons of disillusion, we can set off on our magic carpet for the island of our dreams.

If we land on Skye we can visit Boeraig and lie on the long flat Hoe above the sea; smell the salt tang and the sun-scented heather; dream of the pipers who used to march and fling their pibrochs far out across the waters to the misty Hebrides.

But if you’re a delicate man, And of wettin’ your feet are shy, I’d have you know, before you go, You’d better not think of Skye.

So then, choose some rocky little Cornish cove, with a name that sets a spell on your fancy. A lonely Crusoe with Man Friday, watch the foaming sea-horses break on a tawny shore; whilst far out on the horizon great ships pass slowly, homeward bound.

The hour is ours: we may climb Snowdon’s summit and see the sunrise. The white shoulder capes of the peaks blush from a rose-tinted dawn.

Away, away where we will on our magic carpet, no Sultan from the East had such beauty to choose from. If we wish we can go on a holiday in memory. Look, here on this wizard map is the village where we shouldered our burdens and set off for a glorious tramp “far from the madding crowds.” Pale yellow sunlight danced up and down on the grey walls of Winchcombe cottages and coloured the golden tufts of lichen on the old slated roofs, while grotesque faces leered down at us from the gargoyles of the old church.

Gatehouse of Sudeley Castle

There goes our track past Sudeley Castle (once the home of Katherine Parr); along this curling country road with its banked hedgerows rich in flowers, through the picturesque Guiting villages with their little Norman churches. Here is Stow-in-the-Wold “where the wind blows cold” and how sharp the wind as we climbed Maugersbury Hill, when the white clouds merged into each other, blotting out the sunshine. No wonder the Cotswold walls are so thick.

We crossed the market place where once twenty thousand sheep were sold at a single fair and, passing by the old parish stocks, we took the road, with its twisty stone walls, over the hills – see on the map how lonely it is – no farm or cottage for miles. Here, the Old Plough at Ford, where we drank the potent nut-brown ale of its famous sign:

‘Twill make your lagging trotters dance As nimble as the sons of France, Then will ye own, ye men of sense, That ne’er was better spent sixpence.

What a sharp pang of pleasure in Stanton’s sunshadowed street with the quiet stone house mellow and beautiful as if they had lived on, unsullied and unconcerned through the ages. Here is the pathway through the hilly wood on the pilgrim’s lonely way to Hailes Abbey, and, see, more magic names: Birdlip, Chipping Campden, Cranham, Tewkesbury, the Vale of Evesham, with its prim orchards laden with fruit. As we pass, do we hear dark damsons drop in the heavy grass?

It is time to fold up the map. We are travelling citywards, filled with memories of spacious days in sun and wind, of harmony and beauty seen on Cotswold hills.

This piece is no masterpiece and has the air of Jim scribbling it off in a hurry, reflecting her mood at the time. However, it evokes a picture of beauty in the countryside. Her extract from Alexander Nicolson’s The Isle of Skye, slightly misquoted, shows that she must have been familiar with the poem. The last section echoes a more detailed account of her Cotswold holiday, described in an article published in March 1939 under the title Arcadian Adventure in a £10 car. Jim recollects how she and a companion garaged their car in Winchcombe before setting out on their walk. Rucksacks and maps were the only equipment for the round trip which took them to Stow-on-the-Wold where they found a night’s lodging. The cross-country route via the Slaughters, the Rissingtons and Bourton-on-the-Water must have necessitated at least twenty miles a day. This is her draft:

A Cotswold Holiday

The car was very old; it creaked ominously as we clambered in with rugs and rucksacks. It cost £10 in its palmy days, when we first knew it. But it had a proper pride and snorted scornfully as it shook the grey dust of the city behind.

A bitter breeze blew round our ears, the rugs flapped and the wind-screens rattled, but we sang with joy. We were adventurers, like Odysseus, sailing into unknown tracts and this car was our Argosy.

We sped on through Bridgnorth to Stratford-on-Avon where we visited Shakespeare’s birthplace. From there, we drove slowly through a green tunnel of a lane to Ann Hathaway’s Cottage and its beautiful old-world garden, scented with the fragrance of a thousand blossoms.

We motored on, in the gathering dusk, to Winchcombe, and, as it was dark when we arrived, we were glad to find a cyclists’ hostel where we could stay and garage the car.

Early next morning, pale yellow sunlight danced on the grey walls of the cottages as we walked through this old village, dreaming in a slumberous content. Here the curfew bell is still rung in winter, and grotesque faces leer down from the gargoyles of the old church.

A gargoyle, Winchcombe church

We left our impediments, including the car, at Winchcombe and set off with rucksacks and maps for a long day’s tramp. We ate up the road in our stride; it was so exhilarating to be alone, to wander freely in this green country with its woods and winding roads.

We followed the country road to an inn where we stopped to assuage our thirst with Cotswold cider. We found a farm labourer seated inside, clad in corduroys. He did not look old though his apple-cheeked face was lined and seamed with who knows how many winters. He was gap-toothed and slow in speech but strong like a hoary old oak. Whilst we drank our cider and tested our skill at the dart board, he tried to make us understand his Gloucestershire dialect.

We said goodbye and tramped on through Upper Slaughter into Lower Slaughter with which we particularly fell in love. It has a brook running through, crossed just in front by a low stone bridge. A sharp wind blew a handful of cherry-blossom into the water and a line of black ducks paddled up, leaving rippling trails in the sunlit stream.

Bourton-on-the-Water, dubbed Venice of the Cotswolds, in spite of its neat little greens and low stone bridges, lacked the unsophisticated charm of the Slaughters. Leaving Bourton, we walked through Little Rissington into Wyck Rissington, well-remembered for a delightful cottage tea. There were not enough chairs inside so we sat on a sunny bench outside the quiet little cottage whose grey walls were almost hidden by a pear tree white with blossom.

Stow-in-the-Wold, where the wind blows cold, we found quite true to its name. We separated hastily to seek a lodging for the night. Meeting together again, we compared notes and viewed the most likely place for poor travellers to rest. Soon, with that incomparable feeling of satisfaction and achievement, we supped in front of a blazing log fire before climbing drowsily upstairs. The wind howled outside and inside the Cotswold stone; it curled even down the bedclothes, freezing the toes.

We woke next morning to find a white world and frosted window-panes. Our shoes clattered on the stones and Stow was not yet awake. A hardy thrush was singing in the churchyard yews, its throat throbbing with joy as the sun struggled through the clouds, warming the grey stone and throwing patches of light and shadow in the wind-swept street of this old market-town.

The Cotswolds throw a secret spell on all who love them. There is magic in the air, in the white roads curling and dipping through the fields. We felt it as we clambered up the stony Cotswold uplands, for the scenery opened out and the magic of the countryside lay crystal clear before us. The Plough Arms was a welcome sight and the cider together with a roasting fire made us feel a little above the earth and full of unalloyed happiness. We walked out of the old stone-flagged bar, a trifle unsteadily, to read the famous sign.

Ye weary travellers that pass by With dust and scorching sunbeams dry Or benumbed with snow and frost, With having these bleak Cotswolds crost, Step in and quaff my nut-brown ale, Bright as rubys mild and pale.

All the best things in life come when you least expect them.

The complete poem is still there at The Plough at Ford. Inside is the original sign which Jim saw. A new one fixed to the outside wall.

The Old Sign at The Plough at Ford, Gloucestershire
Sign on the outside wall of The Plough at Ford