A moment or two of quiet reflection on the banks of the Coln provides a calm yet compelling reminder of the gorgeousness of the Cotswolds, says Clive Aslet
RECENTLY I FOUND myself in Bibury, which William Morris regarded as ‘surely the most beautiful village in England’. Earlier visitors had not made so much of it. Alexander Pope, writing to Jonathan Swift in 1726, remarked on its ‘pleasing prospect’, nothing more. The diarist John Byng, the future Lord Torrington, who visited in 1794, enjoyed ‘two basins of snail tea’ (good for the lungs) and the ‘pastoral trout stream full of fish (for this is a famous spot for fly-fishing)’.
There was no suggestion, however, that Bibury was anything out of the ordinary. It took Morris, descending on Kelmscott Manor, to see the poetry in rows of Cotswold stone cottages, no doubt highly insanitary at the time but redolent of the pre-industrial England of handcrafts that was disappearing elsewhere.
Physically, Bibury isn’t so different from Morris’s day, if you allow for the better state of the stone roofs in this age of prosperity. Thank the National Trust for that: it has kept it in aspic. But Morris would have been astonished to discover how many tourists now swarm over the paths and riverbanks. When I was there in the summer, it had become the subject for a party of Japanese watercolourists — one was completely swathed in a black veil to keep off the insect life, while a dozen or so had stationed themselves at strategically picturesque spots. You only have to say the words ‘Cotswold stone’ to evoke a world of old rectories and carved urns. But it has other characteristics. I’ve just been been on a trip to look at the rivers.
I spent part of the day in the company of Jack Selby, who was brought up on the Coln, owns a wild stretch of it and spends his working life organising fishing expeditions (largely to Iceland) for fishermen. Whatever may have been the case in Lord Torrington’s time, the rivers of the Cotswolds aren’t now as celebrated for fly-fishing as Hampshire’s Test and Itchen, ramped up by fishing writers in the late Victorian years. But they are in some ways all the better for being relatively undiscovered. Little in Britain can be considered a wilderness, and farming dictates that rivers can no longer meander at will, forming their own courses.
Even so, there are degrees of management. The Test might be considered over-manicured; the Coln, the Churn, the Windrush and the Leach — to name a few of the Cotswold streams — remain relatively farouche. From the garden of the Swan Inn we observed what must have been a score of trout lying with their noses upstream. Gulp, splash, and a fly that had been sitting on the water a moment before disappeared. Even at midday there was plenty of bug life: a good sign.
There are two views about Cotswolds rivers. To Jack, they have improved over the past five years. Otters are back. Kingfishers, once so rare that you could go a lifetime without seeing one, now dart up and down parts of the river like rollerbladers on the King’s Road. There are probably too many greedy herons for the good of the fish.
Otherwise, the great challenge for the stretch around Bibury is presented, indirectly, by tourists. During the summer they feed the ducks, whose numbers multiply — and when the tourists have gone, the birds strip the riverbed of the weeds where fish also expect to find some of their dinner. The muddy Thames, which rises in a damp patch of field near Kemble called Thames Head before flowing towards Oxford, gathering the water of the streams that come off the south-eastern flank of the Cotswolds Hills as it goes, has a problem with crayfish.
THE AMERICAN SIGNAL crayfish was released into Sweden and Finland to counteract the effect of crayfish plague in the 1960s. Since then, it has spread throughout Europe, overpowering the native crayfish in British rivers and eating fish eggs. I watched a couple fishing for them at Lechlade. They would chuck in a piece of fish on a line, then pull it on, with a crayfish clamped to it; a wiggle of the net and they had another addition to the barbecue. I suppose these must be the same as the ‘mud bugs’ that are so common in Louisiana that heaps of them are served as bar snacks. Fortunately, they don’t thrive in rivers with gravelly bottoms, so the Coln has escaped.
But two views: I’ve heard some say that the level of the river isn’t nearly what it was, due to abstraction to swell the reservoirs that supply Swindon. You know what? I don’t want to listen; I’m with Jack. There is little enough to cheer the spirit in these recession-tossed islands without making us guilty about rivers. They’re transforming, they’re beautiful, they bring peace.
A friend described a performance of The Wind in the Willows in the garden of his house, in another village on the Coln. A figure of Pan was floated downstream on a raft by four hidden men wearing wetsuits, and Pan emerged through the mist playing panpipes (‘It was wonderful’). I hope Pan recovered after a hot bath and a vapour rub. I feel, though, that his nobly endured sufferings must have been worth it.
We may know that much of the Cotswolds — its adorable villages, its topiary, the rural charm that rests on a bed of affluence — is make-believe, but let’s suspend disbelief. We need all the enchantment we can get.