Olivia Balsinger | July 30, 2015 3:02 PM ET
England As You Like It
I had believed my infatuation with England had reached its peak. Having previously lived in London, I had climbed Mount Helvellyn, frolicked around Oxford University, and even posed for that clichéd red phone booth photo in London. I thought I had done it all.
It was only following a recent trip to the Cotswolds and Shakespeare’s England that I realized that I had more ardent passion for the English countryside, as it too holds magic for the explorer in all of us.
My flight landed at Birmingham International Airport (BHX), which is a much smaller, less busy facility than London Heathrow or London Gatwick. I was surprised to learn that BHX, endearingly referred to as the “Gateway to the Cotswolds,” has direct flights from the New York region on both American and United Airlines, as well on Icelandair via Reykjavik as a stopover.
It also was easy to retrieve my bag at BHX and maneuver through customs in just a half hour. To top it off, the drive from the airport to our first stop in the Cotswolds took a mere 40 minutes through the English countryside, without the congestion and noise pollution of a larger city.
I used to think the Cotswolds would feature thatched-roof houses, lots of sheep and rolling hills. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
I had underestimated the charm and unique personality of the region. Chipping Campden is an elegant small market town brimming with history and tradition dating back to the 14th century. For 400 years the Cotswold Olimpick Games have been staged just north of the village on Dover’s Hill, where locals and tourists partake in such classic games as “ Shin Kicking.” And yes, you really need to prepare for some sore shins if you want to compete. (Just be glad you didn’t play in the 19th century when contestants would wear boots tipped with iron!)
Another, arguably less dangerous and even tastier tradition is found in the walls of the Three Ways House Hotel in Mickleton. It was here 30 years ago that members who were devoted to the pursuit of decadent puddings first established the Pudding Club. Visiting the sacred grounds of this hotel really is a “see it (and taste it) to believe it” type of experience.
PHOTO: A sampling of three of the puddings on the menu at The Three Ways House Hotel. (Photo by Olivia Balsinger)
Visitors from around the world come to share an entertaining collective meal culminating in seven homemade puddings, including Spotted Dick and Sticky Toffee Pudding. The hotel also prides itself on a themed Chocolate Suite, complete with organic chocolate shampoo and bath foam. I had never before discovered such a haven for my sweet tooth throughout all of my travels.
As a self-proclaimed J.K. Rowling groupie, my inner Hermione was released when I learned Daniel Radcliffe had stayed in my luxurious suite at the Greenway Hotel and Spa. In fact, I felt like a princess while tiptoeing around the lavish hallways, eating a five-course tasting menu in the hotel’s garden-view restaurant and enjoying a croquet match on the lawn.
Just short drive from the Cotswolds, Stratford-upon-Avon is, of course, the home of William Shakespeare, who crafted 38 plays and 154 sonnets. The town, the heart of Shakespeare's England, is a must-visit for the literary connoisseur, as well as those of us who are more familiar with the Spark Notes version of Shakespeare’s writings.
I got an incredible sense of what it was like to live in Tudor times during a visit to the farmhouse of Mary Arden, Shakespeare’s mother, which is part of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. Actors in costumes of the era portray what life was like back then, right down to fingernails dirty from chores.
Our guide, Mistress Sarah, cooked an aromatic stew, scolded the servants and engaged in flirtatious banter with a local metalworker. I also toured the cottage of Anne Hathaway, Shakespeare’s wife, where other actors were quick to engage in town gossip about the love affair between the older (and pregnant) Anne and the younger William.
No visit to Stratford-upon-Avon is complete, however, without both a guided tour of the Royal Shakespeare Theater and a performance by the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC). During my tour, I learned about all the great actors and actresses who had graced the stage in the past at the RSC. And after seeing the RSC production of “The Merchant of Venice,” I came away understanding Shakespeare as performed the way he might have hoped it to be.
Also in Stratford-upon-Avon, I discovered my favorite hole-in-the-wall pub, The Dirty Duck, right across the street from the Royal Shakespeare Theater. Not only did I enjoy the quintessential fish and chips meal prior to the performance, but I found out this is spot where RSC actors congregate following the performances, and where they are willing to talk and share a local brew with their fans. It was the perfect way to end my visit to the Cotswolds and Shakespeare's England!
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