Castles, Manors and Farms

It was a spectacular spring Saturday morning in East London and I was positively giddy: I was headed for the countryside. I’d hopped in my rental car - because yes, I was crazy enough myself around England. I turned up the music and hit the road, preparing myself to sit in several hours of traffic and trying to remain calm at the turnabouts I’d feared from afar for months. The first time I hit one with five exits in a busy London intersection, I yelled “Dios to salve, Maria!” and hoped for the best. I got the hang of it though and felt like a badass once I did; shout out to the hundreds of YouTube videos I watched leading up to the trip, they’re the real MVP.

I was headed towards Alderton, a delightful little neighborhood in the historic market town of Chippenham in the county of Wiltshire in the south west of England. The area was all farmland and trees and winding roads through flower fields that I kept slowing to photograph clumsily. I oohed and ahhed at every adorable cottage, tiny chapel and cobblestoned street, all of which looked like something out of a Disney movie. If Belle had come around a corner singing “Little town, it’s a quiet village,” I wouldn’t have batted an eyelash. I mean I might have been like, “Hey girl, how’s things? So your town is actually quite enviably perfect but don’t worry, I got this next part - EVERY DAAAAY LIKE THE ONE BEFOOOORE!”

I was in the middle of entertaining myself by saying the names of nearby towns out loud in my best British accent (Luckington, Badminton, Little Badminton – those tickled me) when I pulled into the driveway of Manor Farm. This was the 17th century farm house B&B I’d be checking into for the next three days whose address was simply “The Street.” Adorable. I was immediately greeted by a couple of dogs, the sounds of clucking chickens and then a warm and smiling man named Geoffrey; I’d arranged my stay with his wife Victoria, but he’d be helping me get settled since she was out visiting a friend.

My man Geoffrey was kind enough to withhold judgement when he hauled my large embarrassment of a suitcase up the winding staircase to my bedroom. He left me to get comfortable invited me to come downstairs in ten minutes for some tea. I was immediately smitten by the room’s very English floral décor and spaciousness. The absolute best part of the room was a window overlooking the property’s front lawn. I already felt at home.

I grabbed my Kindle and made my way to the sitting room, a warm and inviting space with more of the same English florals and abundant natural light. The shelves teemed with books and numerous family photographs adorned the walls and tables. I was admiring all of these comforting elements when Geoffrey brought in a beautiful tray of tea and Biscoff biscuits (what we’d call cookies) for me to enjoy. I sat there on a perfect, cushy chair in front of the fireplace for an hour sipping and reading in silence. The adorable family Chihuahua nuzzled me and we became fast friends. The cat sat on my Kindle repeatedly and then stared at me in disgust when I dared to pull it out from under him. I swear I heard it meow, “Peasant.”

It was early in the afternoon when I finished my tea and set out once again to explore. I drove to Castle Combe, a tiny village in Wiltshire that I’d stalked online for the better part of a year. Photos of this place pop up when you query beautiful English villages and I’d plastered them all over the backgrounds of my many electronic devices. I’d get to see it at last and I was beside myself with excitement.

The walk from the car park down a curving, sloped road was laden with beautiful trees. Birds chirped so loudly that I half thought a nature soundtrack was playing through hidden speakers. I was almost tempted to hum a melody like Snow White to see if they’d respond in kind. After a few minutes’ walk, the road opened up and I stopped dead in my tracks. I grabbed my phone, tapped the home button and verified that the very scene that covered my phone’s lock screen, the one I’d stared at day after day, was the one right there in front of me. I was all goosebumps and unintelligible noises.

I got my legs to work again and began walking down the adorable high street from that photo. The chirping of birds was now joined by the gentle babble of the Bybrook River that runs through the village. I gushed at the charming buildings as I gave my iPhone camera a workout. I’ve said this so many times but don’t know how else to describe the experience but to say that it was like a dream.

It was then that I saw a sign for The Old Rectory, a tea room inside of a private home that dates back to the fifteen century that I’d been eager to visit. I’d emailed Anna, the owner, a week prior to see if she could squeeze me in for tea; she regretted to inform me that she was booked solid for two days with private parties and closed on Sunday for British Mother’s Day. She did however invite me to stop by and take a look at the gift shop and to check out a children’s book she’d written, if I was into that sort of thing. HA. Yeah, you could say I’m into it.

I approached the tea room and could hear the chatter and light clinking of china from the private party enjoying their afternoon tea. I peered inside from the open half of the Dutch door to see the tiny anteroom that served as a gift shop. It was packed to the gills with beautiful cups, saucers, pots and entire tea sets in varying patterns and colors plus jewelry, accessories and other assorted gifts. I had just laid eyes on Anna’s book, Mouse Tails of Castle Combe, when a woman called out, “Hello love, feel free to come in and take a look around but I’m all booked up for tea!” I smiled at her accent, the charm not yet lost on me, and asked if she was perchance Anna. “Oh are you the American girl travelling on her own? Come in, come in! Have a look about and I’ll be right round to check on you.”

I entered the room as she scurried off to attend to her guests and immediately grabbed a copy of Mouse Tails. I picked out a couple of saucer sets, stopping at that only because I had stupid luggage restrictions to think about. Anna returned and asked what I owed her for my selections. Instead of ringing me up, she whispered, “You know, I hate to see you leave totally empty-handed so to speak. My tea room if full but if you don’t mind, I have a private room that I use for myself off to the side here. Would you like to have tea for one in there?” I beamed. I replied that I very much would – she didn’t know I’d only just had tea like an hour ago so I figured carpe tea-em. See what I did there? It’s a wonder I’m still single.

Anna set me up with some beautiful photography books filled with shots she’d taken of Castle Combe during the filming of the film War Horse and Downton Abbey (you may have heard of it). I browsed from the comfort of a large leather couch as Anna brought in the cream tea, a term I now knew to mean a light afternoon meal that includes tea and scones with clotted cream and jam. The warm tea’s deep amber color lighted to milky perfection as I added a drop of cream and sugar, its malty flavor now deliciously familiar. The scones were warm and buttery, melting in my mouth with each delectable bite coated in the thick, sweet cream and jam.

I was savoring every sip and every bite when Anna came in to check on me. We engaged in fifteen or twenty minutes of comfortable conversation. She gave me a list of things to do and places to eat perfectly attuned to the interested I shared with her. When I’d finished my tea and she’d packed up my purchases, I hugged Anna goodbye and thanked her for her hospitality. I floated through the rest of the village, strolling along the river and back up the high street in the late afternoon.

The sun had started to set as I was getting ready to call it a day when I stumbled upon St. Andrew’s Church. I walked through the front gates and strolled through the cemetery, taken aback by how beautiful a space devoted to the burial of the dead could be when framed by lush greenery and majestic trees. I then entered the church and took a look around, learning from an information table that it dated back to the 13th century. I stood in awe of the stone archways, the intricate woodwork of the pews, the soft light flowing through stained glass windows. I sat down to pray almost subconsciously and thanked God for bringing me here. This is no exaggeration: I was brought to my knees with gratitude.

I stood after several minutes and walked over to a table at the far corner of the church offering gifts and literature in exchange for donations. I placed a five pound note in the donation box and took a Castle Combe recipe book for myself. A notebook on another table nearby was left open with a pen beside it and a note inviting visitors to write down a prayer. I picked up the pen and wrote down the first words that came to mind: “Dear Lord, I pray for my loved ones – for their health, safety and their lives’ enrichment. I pray for the healing of the world – that it may know peace and unity. I pray for courage, for love, for the confidence to live life fully and beautifully. I pray for clarity and the fulfillment of my life’s purpose.”

I made my way back up the hill towards the car park and gave some Brits a good shock as I made to leave. I’d plugged my phone into the USB port and the car decided to play “No Lie” by 2 Chainz and Drake at full volume, breaking my English reverie and that of those nice folks with a loud and unexpected jolt of hood shit. Whoops! I turned the volume down quickly and smiled nervously as I put on some Coldplay, laughing pretty heartily to myself as I drove back to Manor Farm. I got over my embarrassment pretty quickly and I l sang my face off for the entire drive.  

When I walked in the door, Victoria was standing in the kitchen and greeted me warmly. I gave her the run-down of my perfect day and she invited me to sit down and have a slice of yummy cake that her daughter had made. I realized at that point that I’d only had carbs and tea to eat all day but did that stop me? Sure didn’t. Before long we were joined by Geoffrey, the daughter and her boyfriend and another couple that I believe were the boyfriend’s parents. We sat there in the farm house kitchen talking and laughing for about everything from how surprised they all were that I’d endeavored to rent a car (“My word, aren’t you an enterprising young lady!”) to how universally disgusted we all were with the man who’d just taken office as the president of my country. I had to remind myself that I was not indeed talking to family. I might as well have been. It was wonderful.

After an hour, it was time for the family to depart for their dinner plans, but not before Victoria could procure me a table at a local pub called the Fox & Hounds. We arranged a time for me to come down in the morning for one of her famous farm house breakfasts and we parted ways for the night. I got lost on the way to the pub but they kept the kitchen open an extra half hour to accommodate me, serving me the most delicious and massively portioned fish & chips I’ve ever seen. I was so, SO full when I finished but had my eyes on this ridiculous profiterole and ice cream concoction that the party next to me had ordered. When I said as much to my server, he said he knew just the thing: he had a miniature version made for me and I relished every last bite.

I took a hot shower as soon as I got home and collapsed into bed in my toasty room. I meant to read for a bit but fell asleep almost immediately, waking up in the same position I’d laid down in with my book in my hand and my glasses still on my face. I stretched my limbs and then stood to admire the sunrise that had been my natural alarm clock. If the rest of the trip was a drag, I could still confidently say I’d had the time of my life.

Of course, it would only get more wonderful.

Details from the sitting room

Details from the sitting room