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Christmas in London

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Photo: Jasper James

At the Landrys’ 17th-century stone cottage, Susie, Charles’s wife, opens the front door, "I’m thrilled to see you" on her face. "Merry Christmas. I’m so sorry, but I am really ill," I say, and surprise everyone, myself included, by bursting into tears.

In the next five minutes Susie administers homeopathic drops, performs Reiki over my stomach, and lights a jasmine candle for the table in my room. It’s about two in the afternoon. Five or six hours later, I wake up and venture downstairs to the dinner table for a few minutes, where an archetypal holiday scene of joviality, roast goose, and wine is unfolding by unscented candlelight. I pick up a few clues about these friends Elizabeth is so crazy about: Susie is a witty ex-model and serious student of the healing arts; Charles, a world-traveling livable-cities expert and author; their dashing son, Max, an online stationery entrepreneur; and their tall, dark daughter, Nancy, a student of physical theater in Paris, at the École Internationale de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq. Lecoq is one of my heroes. Cheered by affinity, I head back to bed for 12 more hours.

The Cotswolds are walking country, and there are a zillion guidebooks to prove it. The next day, Boxing Day, the Landrys supply us with wellingtons and outerwear, and coax everyone outdoors. It’s still raining a bit, but the air is fresh—reviving Jane Austen air. We tramp along through pastures that have held sheep for centuries. The region was long known for its wool towns before royalty and celebrities discovered its hideaway merits in the 1960’s and 70’s. "Stroud was famous for its sturdy blue and red fabrics," Charles says. "There used to be acres of scarlet stroud cloth drying on racks outdoors. It’s still worn by the Queen’s guards." Speaking of red, we draw closer to a bit of it in the distance, which materializes into Santa Claus. He is, disconcertingly, sitting alone on a stump in the middle of the woods, smoking. Farther along we pass an old tunnel, the stone dark with age. Mere miles away is the source of the River Thames, Charles explains; on the canal that once connected to the river at Thames Head, bargemen would pass through this low tunnel, walking their hands on the ceiling to pull their boats along.

The hike ends suddenly at the Kings Head Pub, in the village of France Lynch, where the whole neighborhood is already gathered, along with their many, mostly well-behaved dogs. Exactly which British novel we have entered eludes me—perhaps a Mitford one; the sisters lived in the Cotswolds—as everyone piles onto benches at picnic tables and says hello and orders pints and unconsciously shows off pink cheeks.

Barnsley House, the estate of the internationally renowned English gardener Rosemary Verey in nearby Barnsley, has been turned into a hotel of the same name with a promising restaurant, run by chef Graham Grafton, late of Bibendum in London. I’ve booked a room and invited the Landrys and Elizabeth for dinner that night. My room has its own wee Christmas tree and an iced bottle of champagne, and big, deep-set windows overlooking the front lawn. Sleeping in it is a bit difficult; the stone walls are a foot thick, but plumes of cigarette smoke and loud conversation shoot straight up through the wide-plank floors. The good news is that there are other, quiet rooms in new outbuildings edging the garden.

Dinner is wonderful, and much of it comes from the garden: creamy squash soup and vegetarian strudel; nouvelle beef and chips, and vincisgrassi maceratsese, the chef’s take on a traditional baked pasta dish. The next morning, after a breakfast of soft-boiled eggs with jumpers, I visit the garden.

Despite its fame, it’s smaller than I expected, a 10-minute, unhurried walkabout. I’m partial to the ornamental vegetable garden, for its espaliered Laxton’s Fortune trees, splashy cabbages, and profusion of appealingly trimmed boxwoods. Curved bushes nestling into each other look like so many green sheep huddling in pens against a storm.


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