As a child who grew up reading and watching the likes of Beatrix Potter, Paddington Bear, Malory Towers and Enid Blyton favourites, I had a rather specific view of what the English countryside must be like – green and spacious presenting plenty of opportunities for exploration, wet and muddy with occasional puddles – the perfect surface for wellies offering serious splashing potential, quaint houses owned by equally quaint people and their even quainter accents, and, of course, a multitude of animals, most notably big, furry, enthusiastic bear-like dogs.
Now that I’ve actually explored some of the English countryside as an adult, I find that my childish notions are actually not too far off the mark – although perhaps the beauty and charm of the countryside has exceeded my expectations. The English country surroundings, often drenched by morning dew, are gloriously lush and leafy, sometimes peppered by bursts of colour, depending on the seasons. Narrow roads wind through sloping hills, dotted with grazing farm animals. Old, wooden gates provide entry to vast land, in shades of green and yellow, stretching endlessly ahead and offering unending miles for leisurely walking. Matching brick houses line peaceful streets while spacious cottages stand isolated, enjoying vantage points over gorgeous fields and quiet streams.
My first experience with the English countryside occurred soon after my arrival in London. I joined my brothers and a large group of their friends in the Cotswolds, but closer to Gloucester and the border of Wales. It was close to spring time then, meaning the temperature was sometimes cool but glorious in the sun. I attempted to run one morning and soon realised that new challenges lay outside London – no longer were roads generally flat, but the countryside consisted of rolling hills and steep climbs. I wandered off course and found a beautiful church. I strangely ended up surveying its graveyard, gawping at some of the dates engraved on stone. Fresh flowers picked and placed by human hands intermingled with equally fresh flowers and younger ones still, blooming in preparation of springtime.
Later that day, the entire group headed out for a stroll, taking our time across one expanse of grass after another, the boys stopping for sporadic games of Frisbee. Fun and games soon came to a frightening end, however, as farm lads (or farm hands, we’ll never know) chased us on their tractor, yelling some kind of obscenities we assumed translated to a PG rated version of, “get off, you’re trespassing”. Apparently we lacked a certain degree of education where the English countryside was concerned.
You can take the South African out of Africa, but you can’t take the braai out of the South African it seems. We may have been in the Cotswolds and it may have been cooler than the average African temperature, but since 90% of the group consisted of South Africans, we thought that was reason enough for a braai. And braai we did. For anyone unfamiliar with the term ‘braai’: think barbeque, but much, much better and double the meat.
That first-time Cotswolds experience was a wonderful introduction to the English countryside and left me hungry for more. It was later that year that my English aspirations were satisfied. Although I had my brothers and other family in London, I didn’t spend Christmas at home that year. My close friends, some I’d known for fifteen years, considered themselves orphans with their families living elsewhere, and we set our sights on the Lake District that festive season. We took the train to Manchester and hired a car from there, choosing to drive the rest of the journey to Windermere, where we would find our cottage and home for the next few days. Those typical winding roads soon came into vision, farmland hills expanding into the distance on either side of us, the occasional wellington-boot-clad pedestrian crossing our path and traditional English pubs calling our names as we passed charming villages. As we continued deeper into the Lake District, those roads narrowed into widths I thought nearly impossible. Fortunately they were manageable, only just, and we arrived at our sweet cottage in time for our first meal.
Having shopped in advance at the biggest supermarket in our local neighbourhood back home, we were fully stocked and ready to eat to our heart’s delight – assuming our hearts are delighted with an overabundance of meat and sweets. But really, we were quite healthy. We chose to indulge in mostly homemade meals. I cooked us up an enormous lasagne on the first night, which ended up lasting us two. This was only a faint preview of the delicious Christmas meal to come, however. That morning of my first Christmas in the UK began with a service in a beautiful church in the village, reminding me of the day’s origin and the very first Christmas in existence. What came after consisted mostly of food, and lots of it.
My friend, Lynn, is an expert in the kitchen. I took on the position of assistant chef, chopping up vegetables when needed and generally being on hand should she require my services. Out of the members of our little Windermer group, she was best for the role of head chef. Not only were her cooking skills marvellous, but her parents were born in England (they still carry the accent to this day, though they’ve lived in South Africa for many years now), and she knew what a traditional UK Christmas meal consisted of. The rest of us – three South Africans and one Kiwi – were able to experience feasting on a homemade traditional Christmas lunch that day, my first ever. We continued on eating that day for as long as we could, until our stomachs could do nothing more but protest.
I loved the Lake District. Although our days there were generally cloudy and wet, it seemed nothing could tarnish the splendour of the surrounding scenery. We wandered through the village streets, stopped for tea and scones, visited the World of Beatrix Potter and walked along a country trail, soaking up not just the rain but breathtakingly gorgeous natural beauty.
Although I’ve had the privilege of day trips or short weekends exploring the countryside south of London, as well as the beach beauty of Cornwall and Devon, a relatively long gap existed between the Lake District getaway and my next proper encounter with the English countryside. But it was worth the wait when I finally returned to the Cotswolds earlier this year. I joined my family, parents included – during their annual trip to visit their children in the UK – in a lovely self-catering farm cottage in a tiny village known as Notgrove.
In typical Knight family style, we tried to explore as much as possible. Unfortunately, being that we were in England, our holiday was dampened by rain again. But that didn’t stop us from going on adventures. One afternoon, we took a walk around our area. It had been raining that day but the sun chose to escape from behind the clouds at the end of the afternoon, soaking the tall, leafy trees and yellow, rapeseed fields in beautiful light. My brother promptly suggested we take advantage of the opportunity by going for a walk. We did, but unfortunately, the sun again disappeared and it was soon raining again. On the upside, my other brother and his son rescued us in his car, and transported us to the local pub. Having a toddler means often having to take the car, which worked out well for us. Another afternoon, family friends, also from South Africa originally but currently in Kingham, spent the afternoon with us. And, of course, we did what any group of South Africans do best – we had a braai. We also managed to see a few, lovely villages nearby including Bourton-on-the-Water, Chipping Camden and Broadway, all beautiful spots and well worth a visit.
Every time I tell an Englishperson I went to the Cotswolds, their face seems to change instantly as it takes on a dreamy, smiling expression. People love the Cotswolds and I can see why – wide, open spaces, colourful nature, peace and quiet, quaint homes and villages, pubs, dogs in pubs, dogs everywhere (always a good thing), and people who actually smile and say hello when you walk past them. No one seems too bothered if it’s raining either – they just slap on their wellies and go for a muddy stroll. And although my parents seemed a bit upset about the weather (“this is not summer!”), it did give them what they felt was a valid excuse to light the fire and get those heated towel rails going. If not, why not?! No matter that it’s around twenty degrees outside and we’ve created a sauna – it’s England, we’ve got a fireplace and we’re going to use it.