I recently holidayed in the Cotswolds. Now, I hate a great deal of the Cotswolds - or rather I hate what has been done to the Cotswolds over the last 20/30 years. There is no doubt that at one time it must have been a truly stunning area; beautiful pastoral farmland enclosing time-forgotten little villages, looking as though they had grown out of the landscape and peopled by honest hardworking country folk of a modest and good humoured bent. Today though, virtually all that once made this area special is gone, swept away under a tide of London money, suburban housing, Farrow & Ball, pony paddocks, tourists and Range Rovers. Business (ecumenical stonework mainly) has taken me to this part of the world on many occasions meaning I can safely say that, bar a few little islands people have forgotten to spoil, the Cotswolds must vie with Cheshire, Surrey and Knightsbridge for the title of most over-moneyed, culturally barren and disconnected of lands in Britain.
One morning, the group I was with requested to leave the nice little corner of north Gloucestershire we were staying in (actually the Vale of Evesham, but has been enveloped by the Cotswolds thanks to the work of greedy estate agents who keep expanding its boundaries) in order to ‘see the sights’. Regrettably, the warnings I issued about the dinky bourgeois tourist towns clustered around the Fosse were not heeded and I found myself on a sticky Monday afternoon in August trapped in one of the worst places I have ever had the misfortune to enter: Bourton-on-the-Water.
I would rather spend a cold wet afternoon wandering around the fish gutting yards of Peterhead than 10 minutes of Bourton in the height of tourist season. The little town was utterly engulfed; bus after bus lined up in the car park, pouring two thirds of Coventry, half of Birmingham and most of Japan into the single long street by the river. The average age was 65, the average weight 19 stone. Every scrap of grass was covered with sprawling people, every bench occupied, every pavement an impassable morass of the doddery, the camera-wielding and endless ranks of pushchairs. It was as though a madman had built a little market town in the middle of a large municipal park, or else created a huge open-air and overly popular exhibition of Richard Curtis’ England. I found myself wondering, as I absentmindedly kicked small children into the stream, what brought all these people to this nasty little town? Why here, what’s the attraction? Clearly I was missing something.
It cannot purely be a sense of history, after all lots of places in England are old - indeed some far older than Bourton and have a much more interesting narrative than this sleepy little backwater. By the same token, it cannot be the ‘unspoilt’ nature of the place - the town is like looking over the ravaged carcass of what England once was, a corrupted and ruined husk trampled underfoot by the hoards and cynically usurped for the purposes of fleecing the gullible masses who pass through. To that end, the town’s shopping is beyond a joke- where once there would have been butchers, bakers and candlestick makers, there now exists a vast parade of pointless and pretentious boutiques selling the very worst kind of tasteless crap, artfully displayed in delicate little gatherings; the kind of shops which ought to trade under the single generic name ‘Tat: Old and New, Equine and Chintz’. In fact the nearest thing to reality on the main street is a lone branch of the ever present Spar, left almost ironically and presumably for the convenience of restaurant and shop workers - no one can possibly live here.
Finally, I am aware this blog is primarily about pubs. Bourton’s pubs are certainly not worth travelling for - in fact there aren’t any. There are a few buildings which outwardly profess to be pubs, but in reality they are like the rest of the town, a shoddy and risible sham trading on the lure of jam, Jerusalem and a delusion of adequacy to hoodwink the weak-willed, the unimaginative and the naïve.
To those who maybe planning a trip to this part of the world, go anywhere else but here: the Slaughters are pretty (but poncy) the Swells are pleasant and the Guitings are genuinely lovely. If it is a town you are after, Stow on the Wold is slightly less ghastly than Bourton and has one good pub (Donnington’s Queens Head), Chipping Camden is pleasant though disgustingly rich while Winchcombe, a 20 minute drive away, is a real delight. My advice to those who may find themselves trapped here would be to do as I did; kill or estrange yourself from whom ever inflicted a visit to this ungodly place upon you, get out quickly and never go back.