The literary life of EDWARD JAMES, author,reviewer, occasional poet and former pension adviser to the government of Kyrgyzstan
Here is my contribution to the 50 rides in BPBRA.
Above is Kevin, the driver of my bus, and the Swanbrook bus parked alongside Balliol College.
A DREAM OF ENGLAND
Across the Cotswolds to Oxford
Gloucester – Cheltenham – Northleach – Burford – Witney – Oxford
Service 853 Swanbrook
Cheltenham – Oxford 3 coaches each day, Mon-Fri, 4 on Sat, one on Sunday
Journey time 1 1/2 hrs
Gloucester – Oxford 2 coaches each day, Mon- Sat, one on Sunday, journey time 2 hrs
Single fare £7.50, Day return £10.00
OS Explorer OL179 and OL45
I grew up in a working class family in South London and we never strayed far from the metropolis. Yet even then I knew the grey stone cottages of the Cotswolds; I knew them from birthday cards, calendars, chocolate boxes and the lead illustration in the article on ‘England’ in my encyclopaedia. Likewise I knew the dreaming spires of Oxford long before I became a student there. The Cotswolds and Oxford may not be typical of England, but they are everybody’s dream of England, in England itself and across the world.
So come live the dream with me and join me on a ride from Cheltenham to Oxford on the number 853 Swanbrook bus.
Gateway to the Cotswolds
The service usually starts from Gloucester, but I join it 14 miles onward at Cheltenham, because I live here. Not that you should miss Gloucester, an ancient city where householders dig up Roman pots in their gardens and whose glorious cathedral has the oldest and finest late Gothic east window in England.
Much as I love buses I have yet to find a beautiful bus station. Cheltenham’s Royal Well bus station stands alongside Cheltenham’s grandest building, a fine white Regency terrace which is now the council offices, but alas all we see from Royal Well is the back view of drainpipes and back yards. In compensation there is a glimpse of the Gothic granite of CheltenhamLadiesCollege. Nineteenth century Cheltenham was a spa town and an educational centre, hence its motto Salubritas et Eruditio. Today it specialises in gambling (the racecourse) and electronic spying (GCHQ). Any suggestions for a new motto?
A small crowd is waiting for the bus, mostly young people. Despite its reputation as a retirement centre Cheltenham actually has a younger age structure than most English towns. A party of Korean students from GloucestershireUniversity are making their first trip to Oxford. They have been in England only three weeks. One of them sits next to me and she delights in every mile. I meet her again on the return journey and she shows me her photos – ‘they’ll love these in Seoul!’ She too is living the dream.
At first Cheltenham looks much less than elegant as we weave through the one way system in the city centre, but once we strike the London Road we find ourselves cruising past the white stucco Regency terraces with their black wrought iron balconies which are the Cheltenham trademark. This is not the road George III and the Duke of Wellington took to take the waters at the newly opened spa, that road came via Cirencester over Leckhampton hill (poor coach horses!). We take the road Thomas Telford laid out in the 1820’s, going almost due east. The modern A40 mainly follows Telford’s route, but the present alignment by-passes the villages through which Telford’s coaches once galloped. We will take the old way, down the village high streets.
The Cotswolds wrap close around Cheltenham on three sides, so we are soon into a steep climb through thick woods, passing the only lake on our journey. This is Dowdswell Reservoir, the source of Cheltenham’s water, built to tame the river Chelt which has flooded the town on several occasions. The hill we are climbing is the scarp face of the Cotswold, a giant ruckle in the blanket of sedimentary rock covering southern England, a distant ripple from the cataclysm that created the Alps. Once we reach the crest we break out onto a broad upland with views which seems to stretch for ever. Before long we are looking down to the left into the broad, shallow valley of the Windrush on its unhurried way to join the Thames.
The High Cotswolds
Our first village is Andoversford and then comes Northleach, which the local people insist is a town not a village; a good part of the local website is devoted to explaining that villages just grow but towns are planned. As we enter we pass the 18th century prison (see inset) and then down the High Street to draw up beside the town sign in the market place. The grey stone buildings with their stone tile roofs look too good to be true, like a specially designed mediaeval town, as indeed it is, designed by the Abbot of Gloucester in the 13th century. The garden fences still follow the boundaries of the plots he laid out for his tenants. Not everything is mediaeval, however. The Wheatsheaf Inn was recently described by The Times as ‘the most chic new place to stay in the Cotswolds’.
We go back onto the modern A40 and this time, disappointingly, we keep to the main road and don’t go through the centre of Burford, although there is a brief view down the High Street from the round-about. Nearly all of us on the bus seem intent on reaching Oxford and few people get on or off en route. This is a pity, although today I’m a through passenger as well. Next time though I will get off at the Burford round-about and walk down the steeply sloping High Street with its fine Georgian houses to the river and then turn right to the church, in front of which Cromwell shot down the mutineers from his ‘Model Army’ – as if he didn’t have enough trouble with the Royalists, and then I’ll take lunch at one of the many attractive restaurants. I haven’t done this walk since I was a student and I couldn’t afford a restaurant then.
Next comes Witney and this time there is no by-passing; we halt right up beside the market hall, in the midst of a busy street market The town was long famous for its blankets, which were popular with the North American Indians in the days of the fur trade. The last blanket mill closed in 2002 but Witney remains a thriving town with good shops and tearooms. Once again I’m tempted to disembark, but Oxford beckons.
And now here we are, gliding through the genteel suburbs of North Oxford to end our journey outside Balliol College, right beside the Martyrs’ Memorial, where Archbishop Cramner was burnt at the stake in the reign of Bloody Mary (‘we will light such a candle . . .’). Everything, colleges, libraries, theatres, shops and parks is just a short walk away. The last bus leaves at 6 p.m. from the Taylorian Institute, part of the newly refurbished Ashmolean Museum, just across the road, so you have the whole afternoon to enjoy Oxford even if you have arrived at 12.30 (time for a matinee at the Playhouse or a couple of lectures at the Literary Festival), or much of the morning as well if you come on an earlier bus.
Kevin, the driver, welcomes me back aboard. He has driven this route for three years and has made the run four times this week. ‘I never tire of it, it’s a wonderful run. It’s nice at any time but you should see it in the Summer!’
BOX I CHELTENHAM
Cheltenham was once best known as a retirement centre for ex-Indian army officers and Colonial civil servants. Several of its finest Regency terraces were built by the East India Company for its pensioners. Today, however, the term ‘vibrant’ does not come amiss.
The town is at its busiest during race weeks, climaxing in the Cheltenham Festival and the Gold Cup (12-15 March), but this is by no means the only festival in Cheltenham. The Literature Festival in October is the oldest in England and it has since been joined by the Jazz (May), Science (June) and Music (July) Festivals, and most recently the Poetry Festival (April). Whatever the season there is always a good reason to visit Cheltenham.
BOX 2 OXFORD
Nobody can ‘do’ Oxford in a day, let alone an afternoon, so you must be extremely selective. I recommend a tour of the incomparable Bodleian Library, 30 and 60 minute tours daily and extended tours of 90 minutes on Wednesdays and Saturdays. It is only a short walk from the bus stop and if you arrive on the 12.30 bus take care to book your afternoon tour before you have lunch (try my old ‘local’, the nearby Kings Arms owned by WadhamCollege). For the best view of the ‘dreaming spires’ climb up to the cupola on top of the Sheldonian Theatre, the hall where all Oxford graduates take their degrees. And if you’ve seen all the colleges, try the prison, which is now a museum, a shopping centre and a luxury hotel (yes, you can sleep in one of the former cells). It was once a Norman castle and the motte still looms over the highway, giving another Oxford panorama. For a myriad further ideas call at the Visitor in Broad Street.
BOX 3 NORTHLEACH PRISON
It looks like an Oxford College lost in the Cotswold countryside, but Northleach House of Correction was once a model prison that influenced prison design throughout the Empire. Later a police station and a magistrates court it most recently housed a cafe, museum and the Lloyd Baker Collection of rural artefacts (wagons, farm implements, etc). Cotswold District Council has decided to sell the site for redevelopment and currently a community group is trying to raise the money to buy it and keep it as a community resource. By the time this book is published the result should be known.
Edward James is a former pension scheme adviser to the governments of Kyrghyzstan and Albania and lives in Cheltenham