After digesting our first Full English breakfast experience and saying goodbye to Tanmoy, we packed up and rode out of Bath around mid-day. The famed Cotswolds awaited! In addition to being a popular destination for cycle tourists, the Cotswolds is one of England’s AONB’s, or Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (yes, this is actually what they call them). An AONB is not necessarily managed wild land (as with U.S. National Parks), and, in the case of the Cotswolds, quite the opposite. Ascending out of the Avon River Valley, we were welcomed by the scent of green onions and soil, a bucolic landscape of stretching farmland, tiny roads, and well preserved old towns that evoked the life of centuries gone by. A few photos from our first stop:
We shared a ploughman’s lunch (an iteration of my favorite type of meal: varied decadent snacks served on a board) in front of a small hotel and watched the street life pass us by. In this case, in about 30 minutes, this consisted exclusively of one Japanese family taking photos in front of the house across the street, and nothing else. It was a really small town.
We finished our lunch and kept riding, pausing at some beautiful viewpoints:
and onward to our first overnight destination: The Holford Arms. This is a pub in the central Cotswolds which allows camping on its premises. We pulled up around 6:30pm and were greeted warmly by the pub’s bartender, who told us we could pitch up anywhere in the yard. We found a good spot for our tent and set up camp quickly, eager to head back inside for some dinner.
As the sun began to set, the interior of the pub became a cozy haven, with a crackling fireplace, each wooden table set with a single lit candle, and early 2000s alternative music playing softly out of two small speakers that sat on either end of the bar. The bartender was chatting with the only other customer in the pub, and a cheerful teenager who turned out to be our waiter encouraged us to sit anywhere. We selected a couple of pints to drink from the bar, lowered ourselves gingerly into seats near the fireplace (it was a long day on the bike), and ordered with gusto.
A word on pub culture: I have found it to be a great representation of the ‘third space’ concept. Unlike much of the American bar scene, English pubs are typically very comfortable and welcoming businesses – a come-as-you-are space for all ages, where you’re just as likely to be drinking a pint as ordering a cup of tea. There are often board games, children, dogs and at least one local barfly. Pubs also always serve a menu of comfort food, which to our delight and surprise, and contrary to reputation, is almost always good, and sometimes exceptional!
Some breweries and dive bars in the U.S. manage this whatever-goes vibe (as do some pre-third wave cafes) but by and large, drinking establishments in the U.S. tend to be disproportionately places for young people (typically of the same class, race, and sexual orientation) to see and be seen, and there aren’t enough places where people can be without agenda or aggressively prescribed social convention. So, yay for pubs!
After a delicious meal at the Holford Arms, and a rousing game of Backgammon (which we taught ourselves and are only about 50% sure we played correctly) we strolled the lengthy 30 yards back to our tent, and slept very soundly.
We awoke the next morning to our longest planned ride yet ahead of us. It began delightfully, under sunny skies, on a freshly paved country lane with freshly cut grass.
We stopped at a pub called the Bell at Sapperton for lunch, where I ate an incredible beet-based veggie burger, and then we indulged in our first Victoria Sponge. A word on the Victoria Sponge: it was, is, so good. I blame half my caloric intake on this bike tour to date on the Great British Bake Off, for introducing me to all the cakes and desserts that we are now too informed not to eat when we encounter them each for the first (and often second and third) time. Damn you, Mary Berry.
About 20 miles later, in the late afternoon, we arrived in the charming small town of Bourton-on-the-Water where we’d be spending the night. Our campsite for this evening was on a carp farm just on the edge of town. We set up our tent on the edge of a pond in which carp would occasionally jump out of the water, startling nearby birds with their returning splash.
Campgrounds, as we have quickly discovered, are fancy in England. Sometimes they come with a pub! But even when they’re just a lame fish farm with lame abundant flora and fauna, they always include hot showers, clean toilets, and sometimes even wifi. Coming from the U.S., where we associate camping with being off the grid and a little bit smelly, this has been something of a strange adjustment. But these amenities make it possible for us to camp for several nights in a row, and the post-ride-hot-shower is both crucial, and not so hard to get used to!
The next morning, we decided to give our quadriceps the morning off and explored Bourton-on-the-Water on foot. We visited a model version of the town, where everything in the town was replicated in miniature (yes, even the model version was replicated and represented in miniature-miniature). Us urbanists felt like we were in some kind of three dimensional map, and along with a lot of five year olds, pointed excitedly as we recognized buildings and intersections we had, only minutes prior, passed in full size. I particularly loved the way they cultivated real plants to grow in miniature, accurately representing the town’s foliage at a ninth of the size.
With another house-sitting commitment ahead of us, and having covered the town’s highlights fairly quickly, we returned to our carp farm campsite, packed up and headed onward, to Oxford!