‘The Most Beautiful Village in England’

Arlington RowOver recent months, this blogger has extolled the glories of Inglesham Church and discussed the merits of Kelmscott Manor. Both of these have something in common and that is the influence of William Morris. The village of Bibury, too, has a connection with the great man, for he famously is supposed to have called it ‘the most beautiful village in England’. That is a big claim and whilst the village has much to commend it, Morris’s observation is overused. Nonetheless, I thought it would be interesting to see if might be possible to link Bibury with Kelmscott on foot, and so present a route that would pass through the countryside that he would surely have known well.

Bibury is charming: the trout stream (the crystalline River Coln) runs fast through the heart of the village, overlooked by Arlington Row, an impossibly picturesque row of medieval weavers’ cottages that could usefully have been used to set a scene in ‘The Lord of the Rings’. Up Awkward Hill into the countryside and then to Coln St. Aldwyns, Quenington (and a church with two magnificent Norman doorways) and so to Fairford, in the flatter part of the region, with its wool church that has the only complete set of medieval stained glass in the country.

From Fairford, too, all went well, until I tried to find a way to Lechlade through the Cotswold Water Park. On paper, this looked straightforward enough, especially as I had understood that the park was mostly a public amenity. Not so. For one thing, a busy road entails a life-threatening, cowering-in-the-ditch walk along it in order to link one footpath with another. Having survived that, the footpaths beyond it turn out to have been diverted in the interests of property developers and others to the point where what should be a pleasant meander among lakes is a nightmare of unruly undergrowth and wire fences. Some of this is temporary (presumably) but it does seem that a vast part of these former gravel pits have been handed over to private interests and the extreme wing of the health and safety army. The result is the inevitable built-in contradictions – where it would make sense to be able simply to cross the aforementioned road onto a track clearly visible beyond a line of trees, you have instead to face down oncoming lorries (not much given to deceleration, it seems); and the endless warnings on unfriendly fences about ‘deep water’ and unspecified ‘dangers’ ignore the fact that the footpath, where it exists, can be mighty treacherous and could easily tip the unwary into the very same deep water. I am not against development or conservation or fishing but it seems pretty pointless when vast, largely empty tracts of non-agricultural countryside become effectively inaccessible to the casual visitor. There is something wrong there somewhere.

Anyway, I got to Lechlade and then followed the Thames to Kelmscott. I don’t know if Morris was over sentimental about the past: there is always the danger of regarding change as invariably bad, when it is obvious that nothing can stand still for ever. Old does not always equal beautiful or worthwhile – after all, what are now the lakes of the Cotswold Water Park were originally gravel pits. Still, ‘progress’ can sometimes seem to be a synonym for ‘desecration’, a lesson we should have learnt from the ruin of our town centres in the sixties and seventies.

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August 2, 2012 | Christopher



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