When we think of rural England, we are thinking of the Cotswolds; when we think of the Cotswolds, we are thinking of Blockley.
The Cotswolds is an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (ANOB) located about a two-hour drive west of London. It’s a walker’s paradise, renowned for its honey-coloured stone villages tucked into dells between rolling hills. Step outside the door, stroll down the lane, and you’ll soon come to a public footpath to take you across the fields and into the next village.
Each village has a unique personality. Some are wealthy enclaves, ringed by horse farms with well-tended thoroughbreds grazing in the paddocks. Others feature Norman-era churches and pubs on the village green.
The Village Green, Snowshill
We happened on Blockley quite by chance. By the time I got around to booking accommodation in the area, it was mostly gone. I had the choice of a flat with a bathtub in the bedroom — not as rare as you might think — and a one-bedroom terrace house in Blockley. Later, I read that Blockley is considered a “hidden gem.” It’s a bit off the beaten track, which may explain why it isn’t over-run on weekends by Londoners in Land Rovers and wellies.
Blockley has a real community, the elderly gentlemen assures us when he spots us unpacking the car. He’s lived here 24 years and just got his “passport.” I laugh; as a former resident of a fishing village, I know that incomers are not readily welcomed.
Later we stroll down the High Street to the village shop. Like many villages, Blockley lost its official post office and green grocers a couple of decades ago, so the locals opened a co-operatively run store and post office. The kids are just out of school for the day. Girls named Francesca and boys with their shirt tails hanging out race up and down the narrow aisles. Harried mums round them up as they pick up what they need to put tea on the table that night.
The Women’s Institute has a display in the 10th century church, honouring the women who have made contributions to Blockley life. They’re mostly earnest: the lady-of-the-manor who built cottages for the silk mill workers; Lucy Russell whose legacy brought clean water to the village. Then there’s Anne, a high-spirited daughter of the local Lord who swore off marriage after she was jilted for her sister. (One can only imagine Christmas dinners) Later she embraced her spinster status; in a scrapbook she recorded, “Wife and servant are the same/ But only differ in the name.”
Women artists especially seemed to find a home in Blockley. One designed the emblem for the Suffragette movement. Another made stained glass windows for the Church. She lived in the village with her “friend” Miss Whitfield until they were in their 90s.
A mile or two down the road, near the village of Snowshill, is the estate of Charles Wade. It’s operated by the National Trust, a charitable organization devoted to preserving a version of England that died soon after WWI. Wade was an illustrator and architect. He also was an outsider. His grandfather made his fortune exporting sugar cane from the West Indies. He fathered ten children with his free black housekeeper, including Wade’s father.
Wade was a collector of junk shop finds. He bought the 16th century house to display his collection and lived in the tiny cottage out back. One room is filled with nothing but Samurai armour. Another with model wagons, and a third with costumes that Wade and his guests donned to put on amateur theatre productions. It’s better than reading PG Wodehouse for glimpsing the life of the aristocracy between the wars.
The Garden at Snowshill
We head back to Blockley. It’s Saturday night, and the Audis and Porsches are jockeying for parking spots on the high street. My heart sinks.
Earlier in the day, I’d leafed through a book of old photographs. Each documented the decline of the village. The former post office, now a private residence; the former butchers, closed in 1988 and now a private residence. The mills, gone. The businesses that give a village its soul, mostly gone. Only the co-op, the primary school, two pubs (always the last to go) and the doctor’s surgery remain.
Incomers like the concept of an English village, but not the messy intimacy that gives it life. They don’t want to know their eccentric/lesbian/mixed race neighbours. They want the peace of a village, but the anonymity of a city.
One new resident has erected a barrier — concrete planters, pylons and a stern notice — to stop people crossing the bottom of his driveway where the footpath momentarily disappears.
Blockley is becoming another Tidy Town — a Disneyfied version of an English country village.
I’m glad we visited before it’s gone.