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Vacation Rentals: England

Just Their Cup of Tea

Becoming (almost) just one of the villagers by calling a leased cottage home for a week

April 12, 1998|NAEDINE JOY HAZELL | HARTFORD COURANT

STOW-ON-THE-WOLD, England — We didn't make any fast friends during our week's stay in the English countryside, but it felt like we left one behind: the cottage.

The two-bedroom rented stone house had been a perfect companion: quiet, comfortable and cozy. On the morning we left, each of us said goodbye in our own way. I lingered longest at the kitchen window, trying to press the views into my memory like flowers in a book.

As I looked out at waves of clover-green hills edged with honey-colored stone walls, I thought back to our evenings before the crackling fireplace, to dewy mornings chasing the rooster off the patio, to hours watercoloring in the garden.

After the obligatory group photo, we headed out for the last time. We nodded to the stone lion we had greeted each morning on our way to various day trips and turned down the long, daffodil-edged drive. At the end, I looked back to say goodbye to "our" house.

I have never said goodbye to a hotel room.

*

That feeling of affection for a house, a village and faces that become familiar, tops the list of reasons to rent a place that can be both home base and home.

Besides, long after you've forgotten the awe inspired by cavernous castles and palatial palaces, chances are you would remember your house, your village, your daily routine. And because you only knew it for a short while, its quirks remain funny, its sights refreshing, its people interesting.

For example, if you lived in or near "our" village northwest of London, you might meet Mr. Peggums, who operates a tea shop with his wife.

And, while out on errands one weekday morning on the village's narrow and winding streets, you might spot him (natty in a bow tie and tweed pants) bicycling down Sheep Street. He might be heading to the fields. That's where he picks the raspberries that become the homemade jam that plops onto your perfectly plump scones.

And you would know from your afternoons at his place that Mr. Peggums tells everyone who orders tea--no matter which they choose--that they have ordered well.

"Ah, orange pekoe. The champagne of Twinnings tea," he beams at a couple.

To a family across the room, he repeats the day's specials, taking care to note that one cake has Tia Maria filling ("Not for those who are driving," he says with a smile).

"And for tea?

"Ah, Earl Grey. The champagne of Twinnings tea. Very good," he says.

Around the corner, standing in line (queuing, actually) in the post office, you could smile knowingly and nod when someone comments on how well the band played at the previous day's St. George's parade. Maybe you first heard the music while exploring the narrow alleyways once used to shepherd sheep from the fields to the village's market square.

When you hear people talking about an upcoming church get-together, you are familiar with that church, but you are not familiar enough to the congregants to be invited.

*

It's a good bet that the day you visited the noble 13th century church, you probably were ignored by the guard, an elderly woman needlepointing another cover for a kneeler. So, you read about the church's history and how its fortunes have risen and fallen with the rhythms of the region's wool trade for the last 600 years.

You might stay long enough to learn that the organic food store that sells the delicious lemon cookies closes at 6 p.m., which is just about when the local pubs start filling with tourists. The regulars show up later, after supper.

And, if you care to chat about what it's like to drive on the wrong side of the road, you'll find that the convenience store clerk knows exactly how you feel. She and her boyfriend went to Germany last year and had to drive on the wrong side (for her) of the Autobahn, and she's still getting over it.

You would learn that the bakery opens at 8 a.m. and that the cucumber and corn sandwiches dripping with mayonnaise are gone by noon. After a week, the woman behind the counter might greet your daughter with a cheery "Good morning, luv. Back for another cookie?" but she won't have put a gingerbread man aside for her.

Because you aren't actually passing through and you aren't exactly living there, you won't lose your wonder at the marmalade-colored stone buildings that press up close to the roads or the tiny, tended gardens in back.

And you might appreciate the dignity of the village square even when it's teeming with tourists and traffic because you've seen it deserted on an evening when the shop lights glowed in the dusk and a few teens danced to a radio perched on the medieval monument.

If you stayed in a hotel you might wonder what it was like to visit the butcher and the vegetable market every day and to walk home and draw the lace curtains.

But if you rented a place to stay for a while, you would know. You might even know what it's like to arrive in a village on a cold, misty Saturday afternoon in late April, as we did, and find your cottage snuggled into the hollow of a hill.

Outside the cottage, it was quiet in the nearby fields as sheep chewed grass and looked out placidly over the stone walls at the new arrivals.

Inside, we found a basket of eggs fresh from local chickens, a cake from the village bakery, the makings for tea and a place we could call home abroad.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

GUIDEBOOK

Household Hints

Where to stay: Our rental in Stow-on-the-Wold, called Bothy Cottage, is a two-bedroom home filled with antiques that sleeps up to four people in two bedrooms. To book it, we used an agency called British Travel International, P.O. Box 299, Elkton, VA 22827; telephone (800) 327-6097, fax (540) 298-2347. We paid $5 for a catalog of their rental properties. Bothy Cottage currently rents for $950 per week during off season (we went in late April), and $1,930 or more during summer or holiday weeks. Reserve well in advance for Bothy Cottage, which is booked up to six months ahead, or any other rentals in the British Isles.

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