If you really want to slow time, go to Ascott-under-Wychwood. It was our second and final village on our Cotswolds tour, and our hotel was located well off the beaten path. We’d gotten booted from the White Hart Royal before 11, and arrived at the Swan well before the 5:30pm check-in. Luckily, the owners were accommodating.
In fact, the entire place was accommodating. We walked in to a friendly black lab and one of the owners, an amiable man from the Netherlands named Mikhail.
“We can have the cleaners do your room first. We’re serving lunch now, so you can eat while you wait.” He turned to the dog and gently remonstrated, “You know you’re not allowed in here. Go on.”
I liked it immediately. I had a pie for lunch – and nearly had one for dinner, until Jamie said he’d start calling me ‘Nicole Two-Pies.’ The pub itself was typically English, according to Jamie.
“English pubs are usually filled with clutter and lots of decoration, like all of those tools by the fireplace,” he pointed out. The walls were covered with pictures of people, most notably a framed photo of David Cameron standing in the parking lot outside with the two owners.
The rooms were situated above the pub and were warm and cozy. Ours was carpeted all the way through the bathroom and had windows facing out that let in bright sunlight. I was tired and needed a nap after getting up so early and being rushed, but after, we were bushy-tailed and ready to go explore. The nearest town was a short drive away. We found ourselves in a hilly village called Burford, where we let the afternoon unravel slowly by exploring shops and pubs. By dusk, we decided to find a place to eat, where I did not order a second pie, but did opt for dessert.
Back at the Swan, Jamie and I ordered two pints of Stowford Press and sat down at the chess board. This is what I love about pubs and inns like this: they’re stocked with games. I’m not a fan of sitting around drinking unless there’s excellent conversation – note, not merely good, but excellent – or there are games to be played. Jamie and I always have excellent conversation, but we hadn’t played chess since Finland and this was one heck of a chess board.
I didn’t fare well during the first game, but the second game was looking favorable until I noticed one of Jamie’s pawns.
“What happens to your pawn when it makes it across the board?” I asked.
“Um…I get my queen back,” he said, much to my astonishment. “I thought you knew.”
“I didn’t know!” I protested. There was nothing I could do about the pawn. Or his zombie queen. I ended up losing, so we moved on to Scrabble where I won handedly both times. Jamie then grabbed a deck of cards and introduced me to a game he calls Shithead. I was so bad at it that Mikhail came around from behind the bar and attempted to help me. Jamie was a champion Shithead, though, and left victorious.
The next morning, for the first time on our entire trip, we made it downstairs for breakfast. And I’m glad we did. Mikhail and the other owner, Richard, cooked breakfast to order. I got scrambled eggs with toast and beans while Jamie opted for a plate full of meat. It was so filling, in fact, that we returned to the room to watch Come Dine With Me so we could digest everything.
Since we were staying outside of Wychwood, home to the Hobgoblin brewery and namesake for a town in my fictional novel, I wanted to actually go into Wychwood. We’d driven around the day before and had not found the town itself, only towns that seemed to revolve around it: Shipton-under-Wychwood, Ascott-under-Wychwood, etc. My phone wasn’t helpful either, but it did suggest we take a trip to the Wychwood Wild Park.
This we did, and with great pleasure, as it was exactly the nature-filled part of the Cotswolds I came to see. We had to park the car outside a nursing home and walk a little ways into the park, which was marked with a gate and some free pamphlets. We followed a path around a lake and through some trees until it exhausted itself. Back on the dirt road, we followed another path that led us into acres upon acres of corn (at least it looked like corn), grass, and endless fields. It was a gorgeous early afternoon.
After, we followed signs for Chipping Norton, for no reason at all, and wandered around the town before having lunch. It looked a lot more like a town than a village, which made it rather unlikable for me, and we were in town at 3, right smack in the middle of Cotswolds afternoon closing time. We managed to find a place for lunch anyway and walked and drove around for a bit before returning to the Swan.
With nothing left to do, we ate dinner and decided to take a walk around the Swan. The sun was setting, the temperature cooling. We crossed the railroad tracks and followed a footpath down to a farm before turning around and heading down a small street bisecting rows of very expensive looking cottages with well-tended gardens. In his quest to find the village green of every village, Jamie finally located ours – a beautiful and sprawling park with a very sophisticated wooden playground and fields for football, cricket, and volleyball.
I was dying for a ball to play with at this point, but it looked like a game of football had just ended, as sweaty men were leaving the field and getting into their cars. We focused instead on the playground. Jamie was somewhat unenthused, but he agreed to play on the seesaw with me if I could make it across the monkey bars, which I did.
This was the kind of town you could grow old in yet still feel young. There wasn’t a whole lot going on, but that was what made it appealing.
Back at the Swan, the pub was livelier, with some of the footballers sharing pints on a bench outside and a few of them inside at the bar. Jamie and I dug through the board games where we played Shut the Box (no one won), Connect 4 (Jamie won every time, even against Mikhail and me), and Shithead, where I conquered. Not sure where that came from. We ended up chatting to both of the owners, and one of the footballers bought me a pickled egg from an old-looking jar on the bar.
I said I’d eat it if I lost the next round of Shithead, which I did. It was disgusting. It had probably been in that jar since the 1500s or something.
It was our last night, and it was memorable because the two of us had our own fun, but the owners got in on some friendly banter. It felt like I was hanging out with extended family. We later found out that the owners had purchased the pub from what sounds like an ornery fun-hating old man. The previous owner had wanted to sell it to build townhouses, but the town was against it. (The town. I like stories about villages banding together to save pubs.) Then the owner closed the pub one night, so for three years, the town was pub-less. (The horror!) Then, Mikhail and Richard saved enough money to buy it, and the townspeople could purchase shares in it. So the pub really does belong to the village. They were getting ready to host a wedding that weekend. I wish we could’ve stuck around for it, but I was flying back to the US the next day.
It was a lovely end to our vacation, which had felt slow while we were in the middle of it, but suddenly seemed to be over too soon.