Tourists are familiar with Gloucestershire because of the much touted beauty of the Cotswolds. The villages of the Cotswolds, with wonderful names such as Lower Slaughter and Stow-on-the-Wold, are indeed, very quaint and picturesque, but, unfortunately mass tourism has discovered them. Bourton-on-the-Water has become a frenzy of tour buses and gift shops, spoiling its tranquil beauty. It is still worth a visit, but in summer especially, when the days are long, wait until late afternoon when the buses leave and you can stroll the village in peace and quiet and really appreciate it. The gift shops might close, but really this only makes it better as you don’t need to waste your time perusing mass-produced knick-knacks.
Gloucestershire holds many other attractions though. Cheltenham is a spa town; not old, but established in 1716 when mineral springs were discovered. Attractive Georgian architecture and parks make it a very pleasant place to visit. See the fish clock in Regent Arcade in the city centre. As it strikes the hour bubbles float forth. The clock is, in itself, intriguing, but watching the reactions of small children to the bubbles is just as fun.
In April 2005 I found myself in Cheltenham with my son, without a car. Although it was technically spring, and the daffodils confirmed this, it was bitterly cold and staying indoors was sorely tempting. Despite learning how to play Nintendo Mario Kart (semi-competently), I was determined we would not stay indoors all week.
We caught a local bus from Cheltenham to Tewkesbury just to see what was there. What a find; a gorgeous little town with some wondrous Tudor buildings and a very nice Abbey.
We found a sign for a river boat trip (a very small boat, not at all like a Mississippi paddle steamer!) Being April we were the only passengers on what was a very pleasant trip. The boat took us to a large pub on the waterfront (remember this is England) with a small village behind. We strolled through the village (unremarkable) and then had lunch on the terrace overlooking the river. The pub also had a large aviary housing several chipmunks. Australia doesn’t have chipmunks so we spent ages entranced by these small creatures as they leaped hyperactively around the enclosure.
I noticed a leaflet posted in the local shop windows advertising a mediaeval fair in July, which was when we would return with the whole family. What a great day! Frequented by a large crowd of locals who were, to our amusement, unused to the 29°C weather and, sans hats and sunglasses, turned interesting shades of pink and red! Made worse of course by the men’s habit of removing their shirts the instant the sun comes out. One lady, admiring my hat, was disappointed to find I had bought it in Australia and not at one of the stalls.
Stalls selling all sorts of mediaeval merchandise were in abundance. There were demonstrations of tool and weapons making, costumes, music and mock fights – just in case you ever wondered how to use a halberd.
In 1471 Tewkesbury had been a significant battle ground during the Wars of the Roses and the day culminated in a battle re-enactment complete with halberds and pike men. The only problem I had with this was, that in their enthusiasm, the soldiers who had been “killed”, miraculously got back up and rejoined the melee! If only it had been that easy.
Back to April, my son and I also caught a bus to Cirencester, a small town originally established by the ancient Romans. There is an excellent museum in Cirencester; we had been there before with the whole family in 1996. In 2005 the museum had just reopened following a £2 million refurbishment and it didn’t disappoint the second time round. Among the highlights of the museum are some absolutely stunning mosaic floors from Roman times.
We discovered that a curious thing to do in England is to visit a pet shop! In Australia we do not have hamsters and gerbils which are stock standard pets for British households. They are cuter than mice and more inside-friendly than guinea pigs. Whilst the hamsters and gerbils were the impetus for entering the shop we found a very strange animal we had never heard of: the degu, a rodent from Chile (thanks Google). It resembled a cross between a squirrel and a rat. It had a rat-like tail but was the size of a small squirrel and sat on its haunches and nibbled nuts the way squirrels do. We were fascinated.
In another shop we found a chinchilla. These South American animals are critically endangered in the wild, so I am not sure how I feel about seeing one in a cage in a pet shop, however … what a beautiful creature with the most luxurious coat you’ve ever seen.
Gloucester itself is a city like most others. It has a magnificent cathedral which, when we visited in 1996, was not high on most tourists’ to do list. I imagine this has changed considerably since the cloisters were used in the filming of the first two Harry Potter films. In the vicinity of the cathedral is the house which inspired Beatrix Potter to write The Tailor of Gloucester. The house is a Beatrix Potter museum and gift shop.
Just south of Gloucester is Robinswood Hill Country Park, which comprises 250 acres of countryside with superb views overlooking Gloucester, the Malvern Hills and the Cotswolds. There are way-marked nature trails and it is a habitat for foxes, badgers and red kites. We visited in November 1996. Being winter we scored a personal guided walk with a ranger from the Gloucester Wildlife Trust, who also invited the kids (ages 6 and 9) to assist with the evening feeding of the farm animals. They had a ball.
With Christmas approaching, the visitors’ centre had activity days for the children. We participated in a great day with varied activities to learn about the local wildlife. Coming from Australia it was a great opportunity for my children to discover a whole range of new animals. The activity they couldn’t get enough of, and still talk enthusiastically about today, was where they dressed up in a mole costume and entered a tunnel to forage for grubs (plastic centipedes and beetles). The aim was to learn how moles, which are blind, forage for food, however my kids just enjoyed dressing up and crawling through the tunnel! They left with a gift of a pottery hedgehog each – which they still have – and some great memories.