DM and MM's Britain 2009 Diary

Day 13 - Stow-on-the-Wold to Abingdon

Friday, 12 June, 2009

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Tall Trees Bed & Breakfast. 07:57

Ladies: How often have you been playing competitive tennis while pregnant and realised you need a racquet of slightly different weight and balance in order to maintain that game-winning edge? Forget the expense and hassle of buying several different racquets to allow you to perform at the peak of your athletic ability throughout your pregnancy. With the new pregnancy-adjustable tennis racquet, you can perform careful micro-adjustment of your racquet throughout the full term of your pregnancy to sustain maximal performance and balance! Keep winning well into the eighth month of pregnancy with your new adjustable racquet!

This scathingly brilliant idea brought to you by the inspired dream I had during the night. I think I'll make a fortune with this idea.


Breakfast here was good. There was a sort of bran flakes with fruit in it, which I tried instead of the muesli today. I had the full English breakfast to go with it, while M. had an egg on toast. Full English breakfast of eggs, bacon, sausage, mushrooms, and tomato sounds big, but the portions are small and it doesn't really end up being too big - although it is filling for the day ahead.

English Breakfast
Full English breakfast at Tall Trees B&B

The plan this morning is to check out of Tall Trees, but leave the car here for a bit while we walk back to Stow-on-the-Wold and have a coffee at a cafe we passed last night that advertises free Wi-Fi in the window. We need to check our e-mails to get the plans for Sunday, meeting Mike in Peterborough.

Pizza Express, Abingdon, Oxfordshire. 19:13

We're just sitting down for dinner of "Etna" and "Padana" pizzas at this decent-looking pizza chain. We found ourselves some accommodation here at Abingdon, just south of Oxford, after a day of exploring the Cotswolds.

Unfortunately, our initial plan of checking e-mails in Stow-on-the-Wold fell foul of Internet connection failure at the cafe. We sat down to a coffee for M. and a strawberry smoothie for me after a walk around the village to walk off at least a bit of the breakfast first. The Wi-Fi worked fine, but the server only had connection to the net long enough to allow M. to download e-mails and died before she could send any. We'll need to find somewhere else to get connected in the next day or so. At least the strawberry smoothie was good.

We took to the road, heading south to Bourton-on-the-Water. One thing hammered home to us again today was how little British drivers seem to use their blinkers. They just turn any old direction without signalling - particularly on roundabouts where it seems almost anything goes once you get past the basic "give way to the right" rule. At least it makes us and our sudden unannounced turns caused by marginal navigating seem to fit right in.


The small town of Bourton-on-the-Water is extremely picturesque, with a babbling stream running right along the High Street, flanked by a swathe of grass on which people can picnic, eat ice creams, and feed the numerous and very fat ducks. This scene of rural English tranquility is surrounded by numerous souvenir shops, cafes, and so forth - the town has gone over fully to the Dark Side and embraced the tourist pounds. Tour buses full of people dutifully pull up in the immense car park carefully hidden by screens of thick hedges and disgorge their hordes to snap photos and eat cream teas and fish & chips by the water. But is is very pretty and a delight to the eye despite the crowds.

Mallard, Bourton-on-the-Water

Upper Reaches Hotel, Abingdon. 21:36

Now we are in our room here at the Upper Reaches Hotel in Abingdon. It's so named presumably because we are on the upper reaches of the River Thames. Quite literally, since the hotel is on an island between two branches of the river that split and then rejoin.

We ended up here after reaching Abingdon a bit after 18:00 seeking a place to stay for the night. The idea was to repeat our trick from Bath of finding a room outside the ring of Park & Rides that surround Oxford and then using that service tomorrow so we don't have to negotiate the inner streets or find parking in there. A quick drive through Abingdon revealed nothing particularly exciting, but we passed the Upper Reaches on our way out the far side of town and decided to go back and try that.

A few minutes drive and a U-turn later, we were pulled up in the driveway leading over a narrow bridge over one of the Thames branches into the hotel car park. We dared not enter the car park on pain of being charged for parking - which would be terrible if they enforced that simply for stopping in to ask if they had a room free and then being told there wasn't one. M. raced out of the car while I idled in the driveway and hoped nobody wanted to drive either in or out. She returned a few minutes later with the tale of securing a room. As we drove into the car park, she said that they'd quoted her a price of £100 for a room for the night. She'd looked disappointed and the woman at reception asked her how much we were willing to pay. M. replied that we were hoping for no more than £80, at which the receptionist declared the deal done!

So we unloaded our bags and settled in briefly, then headed out for dinner, finding the aforementioned Pizza Express just down the street and deciding yes, we could do pizza again. The pizzas came on a thin and crispy base - better than the ones at Bella Italia in Cardiff. And the toppings were delicious. My "Etna" has chili, prosciutto, and red capsicum, and maybe something else - I didn't look too closely at the menu - while M.'s "Padana" had goat's cheese, spinach, and caramelised onions. They were large and filling and we declined dessert before walking back here to our room for the night.

Oxford Pizza
Pizza at Pizza Express, Abingdon

Earlier, we left the tourist-laden buzz of Bourton-on-the-Water to take a leisurely walk across some fields to the tiny village of Lower Slaughter. A public footpath led between fields covered in blooming clover and daisies and a few other plants I couldn't identify. The clouds had parted and the sun beat down on us, but the air was chill enough that we both wore jackets the whole time. M. began eating a loaf of walnut bread that we'd bought in Stow. The footpath was away from any road and the peacefulness of the countryside combined with the bucolic rural scenery was very relaxing.

All journeys begin with the first step
Public footpath from Bourton-on-the-Water to Lower Slaughter

About twenty minutes into the walk (timed from where it left the road - it was another 15 or so to there from the centre of Bourton) we passed into a hedgerow shaded by trees. Then a trickling stream passed under the path and turned to run parallel to it, leading us all the remainder of the way into Lower Slaughter.

This was an even more pretty village than Bourton, helped along by a lack of crass commercialism. In fact, the only shops there at all were two sharing quarters in the historic old mill (whose waterwheel still turned in the dainty stream) - a craft shop and a shop selling general souvenirs and ice creams.

Lower Slaughter
Lower Slaughter

M. browsed the shops while I sat outside to eat my half of the walnut bread. An old man with a pipe and walking stick came out and sat on a bench opposite me. His face was so time-worn and characterful that I went over and asked if I could take his portrait. He happily agreed and we got to chatting a bit - his name was Bernard McManus and he lived in a tiny village somewhere not too far away with his wife (also browsing the shop). They'd moved there to be closer to his daughter and son-in-law. The three mentioned relatives returned from inside the shop and Bernard introduced us all and we had a brief chat until M. appeared.

100 Strangers #14: Bernard
Bernard McManus, Lower Slaughter

We parted company and continued on a walk around the village, ending up in St Mary's Church, where the graveyard offered some good shots of gravestones that might make moody images later. Before returning across the field to Bourton, we ducked into a hotel (the only accommodation we'd seen in Lower Slaughter) to use the toilets. We could have walked on to Upper Slaughter, but we wanted to get going again before too long.

Returning to Bourton, we did a quick peruse of the touristy shops. M. went into a sheepskin place that did lots of leather goods and found a nice lambskin leather jacket that was half price. After trying it on a couple of times, she decided to buy it. I said the good thing is that now she won't need to buy anything in London, so we can save all that time looking at shops there to do something else!

Bourton Cross
Church cross, Bourton-on-the-Water

Leaving Bourton, the next stop was the nearby village of Bibury. This was another tiny place with really not much there beyond some houses, one or two small shops, and a hotel, arranged scenically around another babbling brook - this one flowing over interestingly shaped lumps of rock covered with river weeds and populated by ducks and also what looked like grebes (found to actually be Eurasian coots when we got home, based on the photos I took). There were also large trout in the water and part of the village included the Bibury Trout Farm, which was apparently a big attraction judging by the people around it.

Bibury cat
Cat in Bibury

The real showstopper, however, was a quaint row of old drystone-walled and slate-rooved houses arrayed along the mill stream that branched off the main riverbed. A couple of groups of tourists filed past them and we couldn't help but wonder what it would be like to live in one of those houses, having hundreds of tourists walk past, gawk, and take photos of your house every day.

Bibury houses
Row of houses in Bibury

Before leaving Bibury, we ducked into the Swan Hotel for an afternoon tea. They didn't do the "cream tea" thing where you get tea plus scones, so we ordered two serves of scones plus some tea for M., while I made do with a glass of iced water. The scones here were different again to both the others we've had. These ones were somewhat crisp and crusty on the outside and more like the scones we get back home on the inside. Either way, delicious with the jam and thick, rich clotted cream.

From Bibury, we trekked south in the car, leaving Cotswold country and heading towards the Uffington White Horse. This is a spectacular stylised horse figure scraped into the side of a hill in the Berkshire Downs to reveal the white chalk beneath the grass, created some 3000 years ago. The road leading here was a fairly minor one and the signposts only appeared at the turn, giving us no time to turn with traffic behind us. So we had to pull over and back up a bit. The parking area had space for about 100 cars, but there were only a scant handful there.

Berkshire Downs
Grass on the Berkshire Downs

A walking track led right across a grassy field, giving decent vantage points to the carving a few hundred metres away. Being a figure carved into the ground, it is difficult to get a good view of it from ground level, but we could at least see the shape and that it resembled a stretched out horse. The field we were walking across was populated by sheep. As we approached the horse figure, we were astonished to see sheep grazing right on it - one was standing inside the rough square of chalk delineating the head, almost on top of the eye! The path led us right up the hill to the chalk figure, where we could appreciate the size and details of construction.

Uffington White Horse
Uffington White Horse

No fence stood between us and the horse. We could have walked right on it, only being warned not to by a small sign stating that the sculpture was delicate and to avoid damaging it. Besides the sheep, there were only five or six other people in sight, also wandering over the hillside to observe and admire this astonishing piece of prehistoric artwork. For something so amazing and significant, it was nice to be able to get as close as we wanted with no fences or fees or officials standing by.

Oxfordshire vista
View of Oxfordshire from the hills of Berkshire Downs

While admiring the horse and also the fantastic panoramic view to the north over the patchwork English countryside, we were buzzed by a light plane - presumably giving people an aerial view to appreciate the overall shape of the White Horse. We walked slowly back to the car, noting the location of a curious small hill below us shaped like a flat-topped cone with steps leading up to it, which seemed like it should provide a good viewing position for the Horse. At the car, we navigated the roads to get to this hill and sneakily parked for a few minutes in a widening of the road meant only to allow cars to pass. Racing up to the top of the conical mound gave us another good view of the surrounding landscape, but only a moderately good view of the White Horse. It seems you can only really get a good angle from the air. When we arrived home, I discovered that this hill is known as Dragon Hill, and upon its flat top is apparently where St George slew the famous dragon, according to local legends.

Stormclouds over Uffington
View over Berkshire Downs from the Uffington White Horse; flat-topped Dragon Hill is on the right

From there, we drove to the southern outskirts of Oxford, stopping only to fill the petrol tank of the car to about 3/4, calculating that that would be roughly enough to see us through the remainder of our trip and into London so we can return the car with an empty tank (since we'd paid for a tank of fuel up front to remove the pain of having to find a petrol station in London near the car drop-off point).

We reached Abingdon and found ourselves a room here at the Upper Reaches Hotel as previously chronicled.

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