The Telegraph once determined that thanks to Inspectors Morse & Lewis, Oxford has a fictional murder rate 11 times higher than New York City’s actual rate. That’s a lot of corpses tucked behind ionic columns. Which means that if you’ve read the Morse novels and decide to go for a walk around Oxford, you experience constant jolts of excitement as you recognize locations where something nefarious happened. I love this. Not the murder part, but the idea that the British landscape is so richly chronicled that wherever you go you’ll see someplace that already exists in your imagination. This is just as true in the country as in the cities, and there may be no square mile of British countryside that does not feature in literature. If every page written about the British countryside were torn from its book and placed at the spot it describes, it would be a heavy snow falling across the kingdom.
The countryside has a firm hold on the British imagination, but this passion gets expressed in many different ways. Beatrix Potter and Susan Allen Toth are among the purveyors of an over-the-top tweeness that imagines the rural landscape is dotted with hedgehogs on their way to tea, whereas James Herriot and The Archers focus on the agricultural foundations of the country, giving us simple folk with simple values. Laurie Lee draws a vivid picture of the horrors, joys, and hardships of between-the-wars small village life, while Agatha Christie fills her fictional village of St Mary Mead with the venal and the dead.
We decided to spend our last day wandering around the rolling hills of the Cotswold Area of Natural Beauty (an official designation), and our first stop was the fetching town of Burford. It quickly became clear that Misses Tiggy-Winkle and Marple were nowhere to be found and that the only fictional characters we might encounter were Simon and Minty Marchmont from the BBC’s Posh Nosh series. Ostensibly a cooking show, Posh Nosh is actually a razor sharp satire of Hunter Barbour Land Rover Aga fetishists – toffs and wannabes who imagine that the brand of stove they own sets them apart from the great unwashed. Burford has a lot more charm than the Marchmonts, but it’s easy to see where the stereotype comes from. After lunch at The Cotswold Arms, a pub miraculously offering gluten free granary bread in their Ploughman’s Lunches, we headed north.
Passing through the village of Little Rissington we saw a public footpath, so we parked and headed into the fields. We passed a charming little church and graveyard before heading out into open pasture land. Farmers and land owners have historically taken a dim view of the “right to ramble”, a concept which gives the public limited access to private (generally uncultivated) land. Some of this suspicion dates back to a time when protecting hunting and fishing grounds was an economic necessity, but many landowners simply figure that their land is theirs to do with as they please. So significant though is the countryside to the British self-image that the 1949 Countryside Act and the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 have enshrined public access to the countryside in law. Clever landowners make a virtue of public access by directing walkers to farm shops, tea rooms, and pubs that they own. And even those landowners who only grudgingly grant access to their land probably benefit from it in the form of a larger population of voters sympathetic to countryside issues.
After a quick stop in Bourton-on-the-Water (which bills itself as the “Venice of the Cotswolds”), we arrived in the Slaughters. Upper and Lower Slaughter are in many ways the quintessential Cotswold villages because they so fiercely guard their rural, non-commercial character. Where Burford might have a few too many shops selling souvenir tea towels, Lower Slaughter wouldn’t allow a single icebox tricycle (a bicycle-mounted ice cream vendor) to take up position in the village because “the selling of ice creams and lollipops is totally inappropriate for the village of Lower Slaughter”. The parish council even argued that the tricycle “could be a danger to young children who might climb on the trike and then fall into the river.” So growing up in Lower Slaughter might not be a lot of fun, but it is a bewitchingly beautiful place to visit.
In Upper Slaughter we found a bridleway draped in green and decided to walk along it for a while. Though we needed to turn around and get back to Oxford, I would have been very happy to just keep walking.