The first ostensible objective (as if we needed better reasons to travel than sunshine and free time) was Badgers Hall, a supposedly well-regarded and undeniably mustelid-mentioning tearoom in the sleepy Cotswold village of Chipping Campden.
You may just be able to make out the two toy badgers in the window; as far as we could tell, these constituted 50% of the tearoom's sett (the others were two china ornaments of anthropomorphic badgers in the cabinet full of fancy china). At no point were we offered a discount for having brought our own badger, but then, we weren't charged brockage either. It was, however, a friendly little café, with pleasant staff and delicious food. (It's debatable whether a bowl of soup can be delicious enough to merit charging £7.50 for it, but it was certainly nice.) Owen sampled the 'Badger's Bottom' cider, and pronounced it 'vinegary'; I liked the taste of it, but couldn't indulge as I had further to drive before the day was done.
Chipping Campden itself proved a lovely place to spend an afternoon wandering aimlessly, soaking up the spring sunshine like the warm Cotswold stone. The village church was pretty, with a quiet, well-kept graveyard, and from the back wall of this we could see an imposing stately home in the middle of the fields, but none of our maps could tell us what it was. I was all for scrambling across the fields to find out, but Owen quite sensibly refused to risk adding any more blond tufts to the barbed wire:
Though he was happy to stand inside a hollow tree for the sake of a photo opportunity:
Once you've started thinking about trying to work your way around fences to find out what's in the grey areas on the map, though, you just can't stop; so having seen Burnt Norton marked on the map we had to go and see if we could find it. I was under the impression that the place was abandoned, though admittedly I was basing this knowledge on the rather unreliable source of "a web page I think I remember seeing some time in about 1998", but was hoping that we could at least peer over a fence or through the crack in a gate or something. Little did we know...
According to the map, Burnt Norton was in the middle of a large patch of woods and farmland. There was a public path that skirted around it one way, and a bridleway that skirted around it another way, and we were sure that by judicious use of one or both of these we could at least see something. Parking my car
If I spend too long scrambling up hills, though, I become convinced that what I want is at the top of them. In this case there was a steep bank up to the point where the land seemed to level off, and I was sure that if I could only get to the top I'd see the house and grounds of Burnt Norton in all their imagined ruined glory, laid out before me like a poem on a page. So I ran on ahead of Owen, up to the top of the bank, and saw...
... nothing. Just miles of flat farmland for as far as the eye could see. Had we gone in completely the wrong direction? Or was there simply nothing there? A few minutes of consulting compass and map failed to enlighten us as to where we'd gone wrong. Disappointed, we carried on around the path that we now seemed to have joined, and eventually found our way back to the roads. You'd think that at that point, with the light fading and no obvious way to proceed except to start again from the beginning of the other possible route, we'd have done the sensible thing and given up. Instead, we drove round to the beginning of the other path and walked along it for what seemed like miles, the sun setting and the air getting colder, until we came to a group of houses; obviously not derelict, obviously inhabited, and with absolutely no indication of any connection with T. S. Eliot, angst, or other manifestations of the poetic urge. Was this it?
There was no way of knowing. We couldn't go any further without wandering into somebody's back garden, and there was no sign of anything to suggest that this was the place. As we walked, we talked about whether the path was public or private, and what our possible excuses or reasons for being there could be; of course, in the event of it, nobody asked, nobody cared. Cars came past us and did not stop, and night fell almost without us noticing.
We returned to our own car and set off to find our hotel. I'd found the King's Court Hotel, in Kings Coughton (the village where, allegedly, the Gunpowder Plot was originally hatched), while doing increasingly desperate websearches for bed-and-breakfasts in the area which might escape what I can only infer is a 20% Cotswold Tax on accommodation. It proved serendipitous: for substantially less money than any of the other places we'd been able to find, we ended up with a small 'chalet' (huge bedsit plus bathroom) in a charming hotel. The staff were all friendly, the restaurant was pleasant (and, while slightly overpriced, almost certainly better value-for-money than wandering around the dark streets of Alcester attempting to find somewhere better and then not being able to drink because I had to drive back), and we had excellent personal service from the waiting staff ... though this was helped by us actually being the only people in the restaurant (everybody else had apparently arrived and eaten much earlier). The hotel also had its own pub, which achieved a combination of qualities quite unusual for an English pub: lighting bright enough to see one's conversation partner, a cheery atmosphere, and reasonably good beer.
The next morning, thoroughly refreshed, we consulted the maps and planned the day's journey, which first took us to Kenilworth Castle. Ruined castles are so often slightly disappointing: there's only so much the imagination can do to bolster statements along the lines of "here stood the majestic keep" when confronted with a slight darkening of grass and a few scattered stones. With my expectations set at this sort of level, I was bowled over by the appearance of Kenilworth on the horizon, its strong straight walls starkly outlined against the pale spring sky:
Inside the castle's walls, there's a lot to see, though I confess that as always I was more interested in aesthetic considerations than the precise location of the scullery. A building of this size in this state of decay is a symphony in space and form, a set of variations on the theme of an interior relentlessly made exterior. The contours of the land may be shaped for defence, but the walls have been breached, and new light shines through old windows:
The sun shone as we scrambled up walls and down winding stairs, and by the time we'd exhausted the castle's secrets (and ourselves) it was warm enough for us to sit outside with ice-creams. It was just as well we had enjoyed the weather while we could, though, for by the time we came to look for lunch it was raining hard. Driving through the rain and getting mildly confused by maps we eventually found a pub which was not only still serving food (our main criterion by this point) but serving a quite bewildering range of better-than-average pub food; I eventually settled on an avocado, prawn and brie bake.
Still determined to squeeze more experiences into the weekend, we made a detour through Green End (which didn't even have a sign to photograph, and was not remotely sinister) and, as already blogged by Owen, Meridan -- the so-called "Centre of England" -- which did.
However, these were only brief stops on the way to our final objective, the Astley Book Farm. In my scattershot approach to planning the holiday I'd googled for second-hand bookshops in the area, and my meanderings had led me to this; not only was it a converted farm full of books but it had the entertaining distinction of being situated on the Arbury Estate. No, not the leafy and affordable area in the Northwest of Cambridge (which often receives reviews which reflect worse on the reviewer than the reviewee) but the lands belonging to Arbury Hall. One of the estate's claims to fame is being the birthplace of George Eliot, and the bookshop dutifully dedicates a small bookcase to her works and related criticism. However, being as I am permanently scarred by having had to read Middlemarch in a day and a half for a long-overdue essay, I gave Mary Ann's shelves a wide berth, instead searching for works by my preferred choice of Eliot (and eventually buying The Film of Murder in the Cathedral by T. S. Eliot and George Hoellering).
The bookshop was vast, and still expanding as its owners continued to convert the seemingly limitless farm buildings (a new barn devoted to Science Fiction and Fantasy is planned in the near future). It was well-laid-out enough to make it possible to search for specific books, but not so rigidly organised to remove the possibility of serendipitous browsing; the prices were reasonable; they even sold coffee. There should be more bookshops like this, and preferably somewhere nearer than Nuneaton.
There are several viable routes back to Cambridge from the outskirts of Coventry, but very few of them could be said to go via Oxford. Undeterred by geography, however, we took a circuitous route back home which allowed us to stop and say hello to barnacle and monkeyhands, who welcomed us with open arms (and open nearby pub). It was a shame we couldn't take up their offer of a spare bed for the night, but Cambridge called; we drove home in the dark with a car full of music and memories.
The mystery of Burnt Norton was later solved by some diligent research (okay, googling) on Owen's part. It turns out that the house is by no means derelict, but is open to the public only for quite specific purposes. (And there I was thinking the sign had said "public bridleway".)