Morning brings a Starbucks coffee from a building they don’t deserve, and a disorderly plan that begins at Lower Slaughter, winds its way down to Bath, then heads to our final destination, Southampton.
Lower Slaughter (yes, there is an Upper) is named after the old English word ‘slohtre’, which means a muddy place. It is a peaceful little nook, with the River Eye in its centre banked by stone cottages that we failed to capture from the car.
Bourton-on-the-Water is known as the ‘Venice of the Cotswolds’. I’m not sure about that, but it certainly is charming, with another river, the Windrush, splitting it in two. A crow looks back at me from atop the greenery that climbs across the exterior of the aptly-named ‘Vine House’ and, as Lucy and I cross one of the stone arch bridges to admire the window displays of perfume and pottery, a flock of ducks smack suddenly onto the water beside us.
As I drive, I try to commit names to memory – Hampnett, Tiddleywink, Box…Sheep Street, Blacksmith Close, Hedgesparrow Lane. Around every bend in the road is an untaken photo that will almost certainly fail to capture its subject. We discuss this, and enjoy the feeling of understanding that each moment can only be here-and-now.
Castle Combe, known as one of the prettiest villages in England, is so popular, visiting requires first fighting for a hotly-contested car park, before a downhill walk that promises to hurt on the return trek. We buy a coffee and cakes from a door that opens as briefly as the task allows and stroll around the church, which dates back to 1200s. ‘It feels weird here’, Lucy remarks, ‘like we’re living in another time’. Indeed, it does – I later discover that the village is in demand as a movie set, resulting in an avoidance of satellite dishes and other such markers of modernity. I wish they can taken it a step further, and banned red cars.
Bath, when it comes into view, is as striking a city as I have ever seen. ‘I don’t know what to do’, Lucy says, ‘What do I even do?’ We drive, open-mouthed towards the city centre, trying to make sense of the magnificent, golden blocks of buildings that tower above us and run in haphazard lines and curves across the city. I have stolen these images, to give you an idea, since it is so utterly impossible to capture.
We come across Portofino, and decide we will stop to enjoy a lunch on Jimmy (with the cash he foisted on Lucy, with a ‘if ye dinae tek it, dinae come back’). The Italian owner is a charmer – I overhear him speaking to other diners:
‘Buongiorno! We are open! Come on inside-a.’
‘I was-a married, but my wife-a left me, because I am-a married to my job.’
We make a toast to Jimmy to the sound of chiming bells and a gentle, lilting Eurythmics cover:
Sweet dreams are made of this
Who am I to disagree?
I travel the world and the seven seas
Everybody’s looking for something.
Our final destination, Southampton, is now further away than at the day’s dawn, and we are hurrying when I see the sign for Stonehenge. We detour to catch a glimpse and, suddenly, there they are, stones in a field, ancient and mysterious, ogled by a slow-moving line of cars. I manage a sudden onset of tears and don’t bother trying to figure out why.
In Southampton, we are bear-hugged by family members I haven’t seen since the 1980s, and that Lucy has never known. Their generosity is boundless – open homes, full fridges, thoughtfulness at every turn. Later, eight of us sit around a circular table at Kuti’s Brasserie, down on the water.
We are all older, to be sure, but features and voices and mannerisms peek from beneath the aged edges, and hold their shape. We describe decades with anecdotes, and the events that have shaped us with single sentences.
We are THAT table – the one that makes other diners sigh, and say to one another, ‘Great. So much for our romantic dinner.’ No awkward silences here – it is as though Lucy and I have always lived in the three-mile radius that bounds all branches of our English kin. Later, patient waiters wait as we linger, unwilling to see the evening draw to a close
I drink enough to guarantee the woofits (for the record, this is well worth it).