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  • -Hi. I'm Rick Steves, back with more of the best of Europe.

  • This time, we're exploring a gorgeous region,

  • where druids dance and waterwheels turn.

  • It's the West of England.

  • Thanks for joining us.

  • ♪♪

  • If you like England and you want to mix its natural,

  • historic, and cultural wonders,

  • you'll love the West.

  • While everything in this episode's

  • within a couple hours of London,

  • out here, it feels a world away from the big city.

  • After hiking through picturesque Cotswold villages,

  • we'll play shuffleboard with an eccentric lord.

  • Earl of Wemyss: That's a nice one.

  • We'll tour a striking cathedral,

  • and attend evensong.

  • After going way back to the Neolithic Age,

  • we'll zoom into the new age.

  • And we'll top it off with some hard apple cider

  • straight from the farmer.

  • Great Britain is made of England, Scotland, and Wales.

  • And we're exploring the West of England.

  • Starting in the Cotswolds,

  • we visit Stow-on-the-Wold and Chipping Campden.

  • Then it's south to Wells, Glastonbury,

  • and the prehistoric stone circles

  • of Stonehenge and Avebury.

  • The Cotswold hills are dotted

  • with enchanting villages and bucolic farmland.

  • And it's all laced together by wonderful trails.

  • This is the quintessential English countryside.

  • And it's walking country.

  • The Cotswolds are best appreciated on foot,

  • and that's how we'll tour the area.

  • The region's made to order for tenderfeet.

  • You'll encounter time-passed villages,

  • delightful vistas, and poetic moments.

  • You'll discover hidden stone bridges,

  • cut across fancy front yards,

  • and enjoy close encounters with lots of sheep.

  • The English love their walks,

  • and defend their age-old right to free passage.

  • And they organize to assure

  • that landowners respect this law, too.

  • Any paths found blocked are unceremoniously unblocked.

  • While landlords have plenty of fences,

  • they provide plenty of gates as well.

  • You'll encounter all sorts of gates on these hikes.

  • This one's called a "kissing gate" --

  • it works better with two.

  • Lower Slaughter is a classic example

  • of a Cotswold village, with a babbling brook,

  • charming gardens, and a working water mill.

  • Just above the mill,

  • a delightful cafe overlooks the mill pond.

  • As with many fairy-tale regions in Europe,

  • the present-day beauty of the Cotswolds

  • was the result of an economic disaster.

  • Wool was a huge industry in medieval England.

  • And Cotswold sheep grew the very best.

  • According to a 12th-century saying,

  • "In Europe, the best wool is English.

  • And in England, the best wool is Cotswold."

  • It's a story of boom and bust, and then boom again.

  • Because of its wool, the region prospered.

  • Wealthy wool merchants built fine homes

  • of the honey-colored, local limestone.

  • Thankful to God for the riches their sheep brought,

  • they built over-sized churches nicknamed "wool cathedrals."

  • But with the rise of cotton and the Industrial Revolution,

  • the region's wool industry collapsed.

  • The fine Cotswold towns fell into a depressed time warp,

  • becoming sleeping beauties.

  • Because of that, the region has a rustic charm.

  • And that's the basis of today's new prosperity.

  • Its residents are catering to lots of tourists,

  • and the Cotswolds have become a popular escape for Londoners --

  • people who can afford thatched mansions like these.

  • In England, "Main Street" is called "the high street" --

  • and in Cotswold market towns,

  • high street was built wide,

  • designed to handle thousands of sheep on market days.

  • The handsome market town of Chipping Campden

  • has a high street that's changed little over the centuries.

  • Everything you see was made

  • of the same finely worked Cotswold stone,

  • the only stone allowed today.

  • Roofs still use the traditional stone shingles.

  • To make the weight easier to bear,

  • smaller and lighter slabs are higher up.

  • A 17th-century market hall,

  • with its original stonework from top to bottom intact,

  • marks the town center.

  • Hikers admire the surviving medieval workmanship.

  • You can imagine centuries of wheelings and dealings

  • that took place under these very rafters.

  • Continuing our walk,

  • we come to the quaint village of Stanton.

  • Travel writers tend to overuse the word "quaint."

  • I save it for here in the Cotswolds.

  • A strict building code keeps towns

  • looking what many locals call "overly quaint."

  • Village churches welcome walkers

  • to pop in and enjoy a thoughtful break.

  • This church probably sits upon an ancient pagan site.

  • How do we know? It's dedicated to Saint Michael.

  • And Michael, the archangel who fought the devil,

  • still guards the door.

  • Inside, you get a sense that this church

  • has comforted this community in good times and bad.

  • Pre-Christian symbols decorate the columns,

  • perhaps left over from those pagan days.

  • And the list of rectors goes way back,

  • without a break, to the year 1269.

  • This church was built with wool money.

  • In fact, they say generations of sheepdog leashes

  • actually wore these grooves.

  • I guess a shepherd took his dog everywhere,

  • even to church.

  • Throughout this region,

  • a few of the vast domains of England's

  • most powerful families have survived.

  • The Cotswolds are dotted with elegant,

  • Downton Abbey-type mansions.

  • Today, with the high cost of maintenance and heavy taxes,

  • some noble families have opened their homes

  • to the public to help pay the bills.

  • Stanway House, home of the Earl of Wemyss,

  • is one such venerable manor house.

  • The Earl, whose family goes back centuries,

  • welcomes visitors two days a week.

  • Walking through his house offers a surprisingly intimate glimpse

  • into the lifestyles of England's nobility.

  • And the gracious and likeably eccentric Earl has agreed

  • to personally show us around his ancestral home,

  • including a peak at some touching family mementos.

  • Earl of Wemyss: Hair, cut off at a death in the family.

  • Rick: That was a tradition?

  • Early of Wemyss: It was, certainly in this house it was a tradition.

  • And it's kept in this drawer, here. And, um, for instance, this is,

  • this says "Papa's hair. My sister gave it me March the 11th, 1771."

  • Rick: This piece of paper is from 1771? Earl of Wemyss: Mm-hmm.

  • And then that's the hair inside. Rick: Oh, my goodness!

  • Earl of Wemyss:...just as fresh as the day it was cut off.

  • Rick: Whoa! Earl of Wemyss: And that's his hair,

  • cut off on the day his wife died of pneumonia.

  • Rick: So this is a huge table. Earl of Wemyss: It is.

  • It's 23 feet long. Rick: And what's the game?

  • Earl of Wemyss: It's called "shuffleboard" or "shovelboard."

  • Rick: Mm-hmm.

  • Earl of Wemyss: It was known in Henry VIII's time.

  • This one was built, we think, in 1625,

  • just the beginning of the reign of Charles I.

  • And you use these 10 pieces

  • and you try and... Rick: Let's try a game!

  • Earl of Wemyss:...shovel the lot to the far end.

  • That's a nice one.

  • Rick: It may be a game for English aristocrats.

  • But this Yankee commoner is gonna give it a try.

  • Earl of Wemyss: Very good. Very good. One point.

  • Very good.

  • Very nice, but two foot short.

  • Rick: Another interesting artifact

  • is what was called a "chamber horse,"

  • a sprung exercise chair from the 1750s.

  • Earl of Wemyss: And you did that. You'd bounce up and down.

  • And your liver gets shaken.

  • Rick: For 100 years, fine ladies would sit on here and...

  • Earl of Wemyss: Yep. Rick:...get their liver done.

  • Earl of Wemyss: And fine gentlemen, too.

  • Rick: Fine gentlemen too, yep.

  • A "chamber horse."

  • I guess that makes sense, doesn't it? Yeah.

  • Earl of Wemyss: It's just like going to the gym nowadays.

  • Rick: Lord Wemyss has rebuilt the old fountain in his backyard,

  • and today -- as one of the highest gravity-fed

  • fountains in the world rockets 300 feet into the sky --

  • it's the talk of the Cotswolds.

  • For commoners, the Lord's sprawling parkland backyard

  • makes for a jolly-good day out.

  • While not quite in a noble mansion,

  • we're sleeping plenty comfortably just down the road

  • in the village of Stow-on-the-Wold.

  • Stow mixes medieval charm with a workaday reality.

  • A selection of traditional pubs,

  • cute shops, and inviting cafés ring its busy square.

  • For centuries, the square hosted a huge wool market.

  • The historic Market Cross stood tall,

  • reminding all Christian merchants

  • to trade fairly under the sight of God.

  • And stocks like these were handy

  • when a scoundrel deserved a little public ridicule.

  • People came from as far away as Italy

  • to buy the prized Cotswold wool fleeces.

  • You can imagine, with 20,000 sheep sold on a single day,

  • it was a thriving scene.

  • The sheep would be paraded into the market

  • down narrow "fleece alleys" like this.

  • They were built really narrow 'cause it forced

  • the sheep to go single file,

  • so they could count them as they entered the market.

  • And ever since those medieval market days,

  • pubs have been the place to gather [and]

  • enjoy a meal, and a pint of beer.

  • Tonight, we're checking out a gastropub --

  • that's a pub known for its fine food.

  • While many things that pubs provide, like the cozy ambience

  • and community-living-room vibe haven't changed,

  • other things -- like the quality of the food -- certainly have.

  • This isn't your grandmother's pub grub.

  • Pubs are putting more effort into their offerings.

  • Creative chefs are shaking up England's reputation for food,

  • and you won't find mushy peas anywhere on this menu.

  • We're enjoying guinea fowl

  • and artfully prepared fish with fresh vegetables.

  • A short drive south take us into Somerset

  • and to the wonderfully preserved city of Wells,

  • dominated by its glorious cathedral.

  • Wells has a charming medieval center.

  • The stately Bishop's Palace is circled by a park-like moat

  • and sports an impressive front yard.

  • It's a market city -- and has been for a long time.

  • The peaceful Vicars' Close is perfectly preserved,

  • lined with 14th-century houses.

  • Locals claim this is the oldest,

  • complete medieval street in Europe.

  • Originally built to house the cathedral choir, it still does.

  • This overpass connects it with the cathedral.

  • England's first completely Gothic church dates

  • from about 1200.

  • The west portal shows off

  • what's said to be the greatest collection of medieval statuary

  • anywhere in Europe --

  • about 300 13th-century carvings.

  • This entire ensemble was once painted in vivid color.

  • It must have been a spectacular welcome --

  • a heavenly host proclaiming

  • "welcome to worship."

  • Stepping inside, you're struck by the unique

  • and ingenious "scissors" arch.

  • This hour-glass-shaped double arch was added

  • in about 1340 to bolster the church's sagging tower.

  • Nearly 700 years later

  • it's not only still working, it's beautiful.

  • [ Bell chimes ]

  • The chimes draw your attention

  • to one of the oldest working clocks in the world -- from 1392.

  • The clock does its much-loved joust on the quarter hour.

  • More medieval whimsy is carved into the capitals:

  • This man has a toothache.

  • Another pulls a thorn from his foot.

  • And a farmer clobbers a thief so hard,

  • his hat falls off.

  • [ Choir singing ]

  • And under glorious stained glass,

  • you can enjoy the cathedral's evensong.