The Cotswolds begin at Burford. For me there is nothing better than the moment on the long straight drive west from London, when I turn right down the steep hill into the village and see the yellow face of the big clock above the Tolsey.
It is best at night, when the street is empty and the windows are lit, here and there, in the seventeenth and eighteenth century buildings. There is a strong sense of the past, but the past as part of the present, I love the continuity of the Cotswolds – that the place is as ancient as the oaks that suit the clay ground.
When I first came to live here in 1994, my neighbour, ancient then, now biblically old, shook his head at my choice and pointed to the empty road and pronounced it ‘hell in the night’. Trembling,
I waited about six hours for a tractor to come by, followed by a Morris Minor. My neighbour flew out of his front door like a figure on a Swiss clock and pointing at the two offending vehicles, said, ‘bumper to bumper.’
But the Cotswolds is remarkably quiet, and I cannot even hear the A40, perhaps a mile away.
The A40, and what is now the M40, was a droving road from Hereford and the Cotswolds into London, and Burford was an important resting and watering place. I always pause at the top of the hill, as so many must have done before me, but herding their sheep, when the wool trade was the backbone of England.
Traditional Cotswold sheep are known as ‘the lions of the Wold’, for their large, noble, quite unsheep-like heads. The shepherd in the field opposite me keeps a flock for show, but tells me that show is the only thing he can do with sheep these days, because we don’t wear the wool and we prefer the cheapness of New Zealand lamb.
The Lamb is one of a number of very pleasant pubs with rooms in Burford, and on Friday nights when friends visit, I pick them up at Charlbury Station, and take them to The Lamb for fresh fish and home-made chips.
My own station is further down the line at Kingham, where in spite of the ugly aesthetics of Railtrack, who think nothing of chopping down beech hedges and turning country stations into versions of a Tesco car park, there is still a feel of beauty and peace. This is mainly due to Leon, the stationmaster, who supplements the municipal rent-a-plant approach of the contract gardeners, with seasonal annuals. And if there is a lost cat or dog or sheep or goat, Leon will take it in and put a sign in the window. The guards who work the trains all know Leon, and what is in his lost and found, needing a new home, and so the Cotswold line, though slow and fitful and annoying, is a little less depressing than many of Britain’s railways.
The clue, as ever, lies in relationship – that we take time, make a bit of extra effort that is not pay-related, treat each other like human beings. I believe that this happens more fluently in the countryside than it does in our cities and towns, and although I am sure I am biased, I believe it is a feature of Cotswold life that it is not accidental. People tend to settle and stay round here, not come and go, and so there is sense of community, whether at the station or at school, shopping, in the pub, or at the many local fairs and shows.
Going shopping in Stow on the Wold, it doesn’t matter if I forget my purse because everyone knows me – and that is because I have supported the local shops for the last fifteen years. I don’t think you can put a price on trust; to me it is priceless, as is the easy gossip and banter, the time taken to do shopping in the old-fashioned way, which is slower, but less stressful, and even children prefer it. My god-children, who are thirteen and ten, put up the usual howls of protest at the supermarket run, but love to trot round Stow, especially if they end up at the Borzoi bookshop, where Anthea has never minded running an informal crèche and dog pound.
We are still lucky in the Cotswolds to have plenty of real shops and small family run businesses, but it is so important to go on supporting them. The margins are always tight, and in a recession they get tighter. The one single thing that Gordon Brown could do for small shops, especially food shops and farm shops, in this recession, is to cut the business rate by half. It would keep what’s left of this nation of shopkeepers behind the counter till the better times roll.
The Cotswolds is wealthy, but it needs more than the old money on the landed farms, and the tourist money in the tea-rooms, to go on thriving. Like anywhere real, it needs to be a place where everyday people live and work – not only a weekend or holiday destination. I am keen that my spend stays local, whether it’s in the nurseries at Batsford’s glorious arboretum, where I buy my plants and seeds, or at the CountryWide store in Bourton on the Water where you can get jodhpurs and chainsaw oil along with bulk dog food.
I like the practicality of the Cotswolds as well as its astonishing beauty. I like it that people with very little money manage to keep their horses somehow, though they ride them in sweatshirts and Wellingtons. I like it that the Master of the Heythrop Hunt, who lives up the road, makes her own cheese for sale, and will turn out with me, and several others, looking for an elderly neighbour who has taken her dogs out and forgotten where she is.
I found the neighbour and put her in the Landrover, dogs in the back, and she said to me, ‘You’re the writer’ (the only one in the village), ‘Yes’, I said. ‘You have to sit on your own, without any notes, just writing things?’ ‘Yes’ I said. There was a long pause and a sigh. ‘How awful.’
And I thought of her, taking her fences at full pelt in her prime, and of my hell-in-the night neighbour whose wife was a war-time landgirl on that landed gentry farm, and then there’s me, and there’s Jayne from Yorkshire who does my books, (not the awful ones I have to write), and whose passion is terriers and doing animal impersonations. And there’s my handyman who works for a local haulage company and whose family, without any fuss, has been in these parts for three hundred years.
It’s all part of the Cotswolds that I love, and it’s why I live here.