The M4 is a British motorway that snakes its way across the south of the country, starting in London and passing near a number of major towns and cities before petering out just past Swansea. Chippenham is one of those towns in the middle, located just a few miles south of this main artery that ferries people east and west across England and Wales. Indeed, Chippenham’s proximity to both the M4 and the main railway line was one of the town’s selling points when MrElaineous and I left Bath for pastures new.
Yet there was something we only found out about after moving to Chippenham, and that’s what we refer to as the magical land above the M4. Cross over this river of tarmac and you find yourself in the rolling hills of the Cotswolds, with its thatched cottages made of honey-coloured stone, winding country roads, and many, many sheep.
Like Hogwarts and its Room of Requirements, you never quite know what you’re going to find when you set off for this magical land. Westonbirt Arboretum manages to showcase new seasonal surprises each year. The Queen of the Cotswolds herself, Painswick, introduced us to the wonderful Rococo Gardens and St. Mary’s Church, with its 99-ish yew trees. And we still talk about the not-so-glorious mud of Malmesbury.
But we’ve barely had the opportunity to explore above or below the M4 this year. Last year, we tried to get out a few times each month to visit somewhere new, whether on our doorstep or further afield. In 2020, proper adventures have obviously been few and far between, but, with good weather in the forecast and a free day on our hands, we decided to change that.
We set out for a walk in one of our previous discoveries, the Cotswold Water Park. Despite its name, this is not a place for lazy rivers and ultra-fast log flumes. That honey-coloured Cotswold stone had to come from somewhere and, in extracting tonnes of it from the ground, it made a mark on the landscape in the form of pits and quarries. Over time, these have naturally filled in to form lakes, which in turn attract wildlife, waterfowl, and walkers like us who wish to explore the scenery.
Every proper adventure starts with a proper breakfast (or brunch if you prefer to start your adventures later in the day – no judgment here). Our quest for a fortifying morning meal brought us to the Gateway Café, one of our favourite places to grab a bite in this part of the world. Although alterations had been made since our last visit to take Covid guidelines into account, we were pleased to see that the good food and great views hadn’t changed.
While eating, we pored over a local map while plotting out the walk, only for something to catch my eye: Cotswold Sculpture Park. I didn’t know that the Cotswolds had a sculpture park, let alone one that was barely ten minutes from where we now sat. The weather was beautiful, but we knew we would only be able to do one activity: should it be the planned walk or the park? This is another hallmark of a proper adventure: plans can change on a dime. We abandoned the walk and headed for the sculpture park.
As you approach the ticket counter at the Cotswold Sculpture Park, your view is dominated by a car caught in a giant tree made of auto parts. It clearly isn’t going anywhere, and I couldn’t decide whether it was a symbolic representation of the current year or an ode to the Whomping Willow.* Regardless, it hinted at the delightful weirdness and all-around wonderfulness that was contained within.
Over 150 sculptures are on display throughout the ten-acre garden, called “The Land” by owners David and Serena Hartland. They have brought together an amazing collection of contemporary pieces made of what seemed to be every medium: stone and bronze, glass and ceramics, cloth and auto parts. The 2020 exhibition of Elemental showcases a little of everything, from pieces that were so realistic they caused us to do a doubletake to the most abstract of abstractions. [Numbers in this blog post refer to the catalogue numbers listed here.]
As an outdoor venue, nature also becomes part of the show. The lighting changes from one moment to the next, bringing out different colours in the material. Shadows likewise shorten or lengthen as the day goes on, becoming part of the art in unique and unusual ways. Even one of the owl sculptures had a smattering of real feathers below it that I don’t think were part of the show, but it added to the feel of art and venue working together. The last of the late summer flowers completed the scene.
We wandered through this wonderland of art for nearly two hours, and I took more photos in that time than I did in the previous six months combined. Indeed, it was the first time in half a year that my brain, my eyes, and my hands felt properly engaged with my camera as I had to remember how to change the setting to contend with the brightness of a September day.
Picking a favourite is difficult, if not impossible. Matt Duke’s bronze Hunter (25), paired with The Great Escape (26), perfectly capture the fluidity of birds in flight. John Williams’ Metamophoman (27) emerging from the earth called to mind The Awakening near Washington, D.C. (insert your own political joke here). Ed Elliott’s larger than life Guardian Angel (63) took my breath away, and Brendon Murless’ Mother was perfectly positioned in a grove of trees, calling to mind an ancient dryad or nymph and making the space feel sacred. As a cephalopod fan, Joseph Hayton’s Octopus (82) was fantastic to see, especially as a real dragonfly delicately landed on its tentacle, bringing air and water together in unexpected harmony. Martin Duffy’s bronze Boxing Hares (107) kept catching my attention as these leaping leporids seemed different from every angle. All of these and many, many more could be seen with each new turn in the path, and each new vista brought with it a feeling of exploration that I didn’t realise I had been missing.
But what really made it a proper adventure happened at the very end: there was cake. Grabbing a piece or three of locally produced cake and eating them while sitting in the sun at one of the quirky tables was a slice of normality in what has been the most abnormal of years. Right now, I can’t think of anything more adventurous than that.