Being fellow anglophiles many of you have either traveled to the Cotswolds, dreamed of traveling there, or perhaps are fortunate enough to live in one of the charming villages. It is the most magical place on earth. Following is my strange tale of the Cottage in the Cotswolds. Have you ever journeyed somewhere totally new and felt sure you’d been there before? Cue the music from Twilight Zone.
In 1981 I took my first trip to England. It was a childhood dream I was finally able to realize. I went alone as I have always enjoyed traveling on my own for it allows me to move at my own pace, dwelling on things that catch my interest without feeling as if I am delaying anyone.
I rented a car just outside of London, got behind the wheel on the wrong side of the road and headed out the M40 for the villages of Upper and Lower Slaughter.
What drew me to those particular hamlets? I do not know, I just knew I had to be there.
By the way, the name Slaughter appears to have confusing roots: is either a family name, the name of a farm, or it comes from the Saxon word Slohtre meaning a muddy place, and it is.
I checked into the Lords of the Manor in Upper Slaughter, near Bourton-on-the Water, in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire. For over 200 years this manor house was the home of the Witts family, historically Rectors of the Parish. Since I had read The Diary of a Cotswold Parson by F E B Witts, first Lord of the Manor, many times, I felt as if I were visiting old friends.
I donned a woolen, ankle-length plaid skirt, tugged on a warm jumper, and sensible walking shoes. Checking myself in the mirror, I was sure I looked decidedly British and no one would take me for – gasp – an American tourist!
I hiked a short distance in Upper Slaughter on muddy pathways that have since, unfortunately, been paved. My destination was St. Peter’s Church for I have a passion for old churches and their graveyards. The church tower was barely visible over the trees, and looked as I imagined it did during Norman times. I strolled through the small village of yellow-stone farm buildings with dormers, mullions, and front yard walls covered with white, frothy flowers. The buildings dated from the reign of Elizabeth I.
Ahead I saw a cluster of honey colored cottages that appeared to lead to the church.
The buildings turned out to be a group of pauper’s cottages that were three hundred years old, built around a courtyard, and adjacent to the church.
As I approached the first cottage an uneasy feeling caused me to stiffen. I held my camera at the ready, expecting something, but I wasn’t sure what. Then I froze—not from something I saw—but from some memory that played in the corners of my mind. I could not shake the feeling that I had been in that old cottage before and that it held sadness for me.
Try as I might I could not walk past the old stone cottage; my legs refused to move but my heart raced. I took the picture shown at the top of this post on that very day. Call it an overactive imagination, but the feeling of déjà vu was so intense I became ill. I had clear memories of standing inside that cottage, looking out through a thick glass window, and crying.
With a severe case of the shivers, I backed away, and was able to walk to St. Peter’s Church through a lane behind the cottages, and then along a sunken path between the graveyard mounds. I remained in the church a long time, trying to gather myself. Then slipping out the side door, I avoided the cottages and made my way to the edge of the River Eye, which is more like a brook than a river. I sat on the bank struggling to pull together memories that could not belong to me, as I had never been in the Slaughters before.
Every summer for the following six years I returned to the cottage and attempted to walk by it, but each time my legs froze and I could not move. The third summer, I brought a friend with me. She had no problem with the cottage and urged me to walk to her, but it was as if I were on a tightrope over the Grand Canyon.
I became obsessed with knowing why the cottage haunted my thoughts. Not just the structural things—I could not recall a second floor—but the clear recollection I had of standing in the tiny rustic kitchen, looking out the window, and weeping.
I visited the Gloucestershire Record Office, needing some closure. Leaving my backpack in a locker, I told the kindly attendant what I was looking for. Big as a minute and older than time, she lugged out a huge plat book and put it reverently on a library table.
With shaky hands I turned through the pages seeking some answers to pieces of the puzzle. The record book description written, in about 1915, describes the cottages as: “A Picturesque Group of Eight Stone-built Cottages known as Bagehott Cottages or the Square, Upper Slaughter, situated next to the Church and forming with the old English Cottage Garden, around which the Cottages are grouped, a feature of this delightful Village.”
The record indicated the cottages were re-built in 1906 under the direction of the renown architect, Sir Edwin Lutyens; and the second floor added at that time. Now I knew why I did not recognize the upstairs. One mystery down and one more to go. I thought to knock politely on the door and say—what to the residents?
Instead I did nothing but wonder about the place and what memories it might hold for me. I have always kept the picture of the cottage on my desk, thinking someday the memory would tumble into place. In preparing this post I googled Upper Slaughter and found my mysterious cottage, but now it is a charming, completely renovated holiday rental. I am stunned.
From the photos, Cottage 8 in The Square looks lovely. The outside has barely changed but the photos of the inside are contemporary. The thought of staying there intrigues me. Has my connection to the cottage been sheet-rocked over? Will the new appliances interfer with my memories of why I stood at the stone basin under the kitchen window—crying?
I would love to hear from readers who may have had similar déjà vus experiences. I imagine someday I will return to Cottage 8… and put the puzzle together.
P.S. I just released my Christmas book in my Mister Darcy series!