I’m sitting on a bench in the Hidcote Manor Garden in Chipping Campden, England, on the last day of a ramble through the Cotswolds with my husband and two other couples. We’ve all been friends for decades. The sun is shining, after a day and a half of rain. The garden, a passion project of its former owner, Major Lawrence Johnston, is the densest display of flowers I’ve ever seen, acres of garden “rooms” that flow into one another, any one of which – the white garden, the poppy garden, the alpine terrace, the bulb slope, the beech allee – would be dazzling on its own. Vita Sackville-West (no slouch in her own gardens, at Sissinghurst) called Hidcote “a jungle of beauty; a jungle controlled by a single mind,” and on this May day, there are so many blossoms, such intense fragrance, and so much teeming life – bees buzzing, sheep bleating, birds singing, pheasants strutting, hawks circling – that a sob suddenly rises in my chest, and before I know it I am weeping.
I didn’t expect this when I’d signed on for four days of walking, eating and garden touring in the Cotswolds, the 145-kilometre swath of pastoral perfection that stretches from Stratford-upon-Avon to Bath. (If England were a face, the Cotswolds would be one of its cheekbones.) Designated an “area of outstanding natural beauty” in 1966, the region is currently an escape for moneyed Londoners, but it’s been prosperous since the Middle Ages, when it was the heart of the wool trade. It sits on a seam of Jurassic-era oolitic limestone, gorgeous honey-colored blocks which make up nearly every building in the pristine villages. (The colour comes from fossilized sea urchins.) Virginia Woolf was a regular visitor. Gustav Holst named a symphony after the place.
We were staying at Buckland Manor in Broadway, an ancient pile that was acquired after the dissolution of the monasteries in 1536 by a Lord Mayor of London, and is now a Relais & Châteaux hotel with three sitting rooms, mullioned windows, a croquet lawn, a staff that comes out to greet you every time you walk up the driveway, and a selection of classic Aston Martins and Bentleys available to rent. (The manor also has access to a fleet of twin-engine helicopters, should James Bond be staying. I’m just glad I didn’t know the room rate until we checked out.)
Drinking fresh mint tea in front of a fire on our first night, I pick up a book about Mary Delany, who’d moved into Buckland with her family in 1715. She would go on to become a renowned letter-writer and a friend of Handel, Swift and King George III.
But first she was married (for money) at 17 to a sloppy, snuff-addled 59-year-old, whom she called in her diary “altogether a person rather disgusting than engaging.” (Of her wedding day, she wrote, “Never was woe drest out in gayer colours.”) At the age of 72, she found her calling: She began making collages of dried flowers, which she called “mosaicks.” Over the next 10 years she made 1,000 of them, many of which are now in the British Museum. Though she is the first flower-addled eccentric I encounter on this trip, she will not be the last.
Every morning, we meet for breakfast in Buckland’s dining room (orange-yoked eggs; whisky in the oatmeal), then set off across sheep fields on routes mapped out for us by our trip planner, the Wayfarers. Some of the paths are well-trod and clearly marked, with romantic-sounding names (Heart of England Way, Monarch Way and the Cotswolds Way, a 164-kilometre-long trail that follows the spine of the region); others are merely flattened grass suggestive of paths. We tramp from field to field, among sheep shorn or shaggy, with young lambs everywhere. We baa at them, they baa back. I didn’t realize my friends knew so many sheep jokes.
The lilacs are in bloom. The roses are in bloom. The hawthorns are crazy with blooms, and their white-and-pink fragrance hangs in the air. At the Mount Inn, we eat a ploughman’s lunch served on planks at an outdoor picnic table overlooking the gem-like village of Stanton. At the Horse and Groom pub in Bourton on the Hill, we eat mushroom soup and salmon, and are invited to dry our wet boots by the fire. (We end up drying them on the blowers in the ladies’ loo.) In Chipping Camden, we eat sticky toffee pudding at Eight Bells, a slant-ceilinged pub that was built in the 14th century to house church bells.
After lunch, we visit a house or garden. One of these, Stanway House, was owned by Tewkesbury Abbey for its first 800 years; for the past 500 it’s belonged to the Tracy family. Its current occupant, the 13th Earl of Wemyss (pronounced Weems), is not in attendance – he’s skipped town to make room for a BBC film crew, who are here shooting the miniseries Wolf Hall, based on Hilary Mantel’s bestseller, starring Mark Rylance as Cromwell. (Prop people haul in boxes of furs and jewelled velvet, and hang movie tapestries over the real, 18th-century Flemish tapestries. The next night in Broadway, we see Rylance himself, taking a stroll in a pink baseball cap.)
But though we don’t meet Wemyss, as he calls himself, we feel like we do. Photos of him, looking rougish, litter the tabletops: at the age of 11, dressed in a pageboy’s breeches, holding the Queen Mum’s train; in his 40s, grinning on a camel. His two-page family tree begins in 640, and includes Charlemagne (768), Aethelred the Unready and William the Conquerer. The first de Tracey, who shows up in 1170, may have participated in the murder of Thomas Becket.
The earl ignores the threadbare rugs, cracked ceilings and water-stained walls, and busies himself with things he likes – he revived the property’s 18th-century cider press, and restored a gravity fountain that now shoots the tallest plume in England, 91 metres on a still day. (Today it’s windy, so it only reaches 150 feet. Swans swim in the spray.) The house contains, among many things, a spring-loaded exercise chair designed by Thomas Chippendale; William Morris tulip wallpaper hung by Morris himself; charcoal drawings of Wemyss’s grandparents done by John Singer Sargent in 1911; and a priceless collection of china painted with herb botanicals that the Queen Mum coveted.
Wemyss’s eccentricities, however, pale beside those of Charles Pagett Wade, who owned Snowshill Manor, which we visit the next day. The house dates from 821, and was given by Henry VIII to Catherine Parr. Wade, an architect whose fortune came from West Indies sugar plantations, amassed an enormous collection of hand-made artifacts, and wanted a place to display them. He bought the house in ruins in 1919, restored it and in 1951 donated it to the National Trust.
What crazy collections they are: room after room, 22,000 items, none of them labelled. “So you’ve got to just enjoy looking at what you enjoy,” one of the many volunteer guides says. One cabinet holds nothing but little cloth shoes. The Green Room contains 26 suits of samurai armour. Visitors to Snowshill, including John Betjeman, Graham Greene and J.B. Priestley, dressed up in the 2,000-piece costume collection and did amateur dramatics. There’s a collection of wooden boxes, which rests on the canopies of a collection of canopy beds. There’s a collection of ink drawings on playing cards, and another (my favourite) of dollhouse-size spinning wheels and dominoes, carved out of dinner bones by French prisoners.
We learn that Wade – who in photographs looks like a rakish Ian McKellen, with a pipe in his teeth and hair curling around his ears – never lived in the manor house; he lived in the adjacent priest’s house, a squat dark box with no electricity and a commode with a drawer for emptying. A “bachelor” until he fell ill at 64, Wade then married a local caregiver – but continued to sleep in his single wooden box bed, while his wife slept in a separate box, in a separate room, behind a locked door. “There were no children,” a guide says dryly. No kidding.
We also learn that the name of the house was once pronounced “Snozzle.” Though we are six responsible adults, we become snorting eight-year-olds, and spend the rest of our trip composing raunchy odes built around “snozzle” – noun or verb, equally funny. (The poems are too foul to print, but the one that gets the most laughs contains the line, “Until his snozzle came a-cropper” and ends with something unspeakable happening to a pauper.)
We go to the nutty little Mill Dene Garden in Blockley, which bills itself as “the essence of the Cotswolds.” We go to the elegant Bourton House Garden in Bourton-on-the-Hill, where deep purple flowers are the trend, the lawn is so lush it feels like walking on a mattress and three gardeners in matching black macintoshes weed the topiary in the rain. We go to the Falconry Centre down the road. The falcons won’t fly in rain, but we take turns holding an enormous owl on our gloved hands. “Their eyesight is rubbish,” their keeper tells us, “but they can hear a mouse’s heart beating from high in the sky.”
Our last day of touring commences at Kiftsgate Court Gardens, the home of the largest rosebush in Britain, and the creation of “three generations of lady gardeners” – Heather Muir in the 1920s, her daughter Diany Binny in the 1950s and her daughter Anne Chambers beginning in the 1980s. Chambers and her husband, preternaturally hale 60-somethings in tweeds and enormous Wellies, happen to be here, taking friends on a tour of the multitiered acres. Standing by the swimming pool on the lower tier, overlooking more fields of sheep, I overhear Chambers say, “Mum planted these trees to block out the village,” as she sweeps her arm past a forest.
The sun breaks through the clouds as we cross the road to Hidcote, which has been run by the National Trust since 1947, and is doing all it can to exploit the big-bucks garden-tourism craze. Buses pull in and out, and workmen are setting up the screen for a “movie under the stars” night (they’re showing Grease, complete with a Danny and Sandy costume contest).
Hidcote’s former owner, Johnston, was an American raised in England and a veteran of the Boer War. His family bought the place in 1907 and he spent the next 30 years travelling the world to find plants. The gardens are so vast that I immediately lose my friends. After an hour, I’m drunk with colour, stoned on scent. I collapse onto a bench, overwhelmed by the sheer mass of life around me, and the herculean, hugely generous effort to increase its beauty by bringing order to wildness. The longer I sit there, the more grateful I feel: to Major Lawrence. To all gardeners. To my friends, whom I’ve loved half my life, and who’ve had their share of birthdays, health scares and setbacks, but who’d rather laugh than do anything else.
After I stop crying – it lasts only a few moments, like a sun shower – I remember what Donna Tartt writes at the end of The Goldfinch, which I’ve just finished: that loving a thing of beauty, whatever thing it may be, connects you through time to everyone who’s ever loved that thing. A flower, like all life, is ephemeral. But a garden, if loved, can live forever.
IF YOU GO
A six-night Cotswolds walk in September organized by the Wayfarers (thewayfarers.com) runs $3,995 (U.S.) a person, double occupancy. To find other companies that do the same thing, try Costwold Walks (cotswoldwalks.com) and Cotswold Journeys (cotswoldjourneys.com).
Where to stay
Buckland Manor A stay at this Relais & Châteaux estate in the midst of the Cotswolds is to know how the other half lives. Fifteen lush, luxe rooms from £260 ($473) a night. bucklandmanor.co.uk