St. Fagan's, Tintern Abbey, & Puzzlewood by Martha Keyes

I studied abroad in Wales back in 2009 a semester before graduating with my undergrad degree (I know—I’m basically ancient!), and I still look back on that experience as one of the absolute best times of my life. It came at a really crucial time for me, and while I remember feeling homesick my first day (my sister Emily and I had traveled for two weeks through Europe, so she left me in Cardiff to head home on her own), I had the funnest and most jam-packed weeks of travel that summer! I made the most amazing friends, fell in love with Wales, and got to spend 7 weeks exploring Wales, England, and Scotland in a 15-passenger van. It was the best, and I have been wanting to return to Wales ever since. When Americans go over to the UK, Wales usually get skipped or forgotten altogether. BIG MISTAKE, people! You are missing out on some of the UK's best-kept secrets. Two things about Wales: 1--there are more castles per square mile than anywhere else in the world. 2--the sheep:person ratio is 3:1. Those stats alone should persuade you!
I wish we could have had a couple weeks to do some justice to the incredible country and people of Wales—I really want to spend some more time up in north Wales—but we just had a few hours there. I was happy to take what I could get though!

We made a quick stop in Bristol on our way there—Brandon needed a raincoat, so we grabbed one at Primark—before heading on to St. Fagan’s. St. Fagan’s is a place we visited on study abroad, and it is a majorly cool museum! It’s the Museum of Welsh Life and is almost entirely outdoors. You get to see how the Welsh (the original inhabitants of Great Britain) lived throughout the centuries. I highly recommend it, especially because it’s FREE!  

We spent time walking the paths, admiring the buildings, and trying to keep the boys happy! 

They had some really cute vintage shops that my mom obviously couldn’t resist. She bought us some delicious stroopwafels (which I affectionately dubbed “toffles” on study abroad since I had no idea what they were called), and we continued on our way. 

We walked toward the castle (yes, there is even a castle within the museum!), and discovered that area not to be very stroller-friendly. But we played by the stream and ponds, letting Jonah run up and down the hill and Micah play near the ducks. 

Next we made our way through the incredibly stunning Wye River Valley toward another favorite site from my study abroad: Tintern Abbey. This place is seriously magical. Despite being a victim to Henry VIII’s vendetta against the Church, the abbey is beautifully intact, despite missing a roof and floor, of course. It’s set in the Wye Valley at the bottom of a hill, next to the Wye River. I so wanted to take out the drone, but they have pretty strict drone laws there.

The boys loved running around the abbey (probably not the most reverent activity). Forgive the picture overload—I couldn’t not!  

We were cutting it VERY close for our last stop. We made it with 2 minutes to spare before the ticket counter closed. The last stop of the day was Puzzlewood in Coleford (technically in England). THIS PLACE. It feels like another world once you enter the forest. JRR Tolkien roamed there and was inspired by it in his vision of Middle Earth. It’s also the location for a number of film sets (Star Wars included). We visited some of the animals (the rooster was a huge hit) before heading into the woods. We were literally the *only* people in the woods, and it was right as the golden light of sunset was shining through the thick trees. I can’t imagine it having been better than it was for us! 

I had no idea how long the trail would be! If I could go back and redo it, I'd definitely wear the boys. Carrying them got to be very tiring, and they had to be monitored *really* closely if we let them down at all. We happened to go when there had been no rain for a couple days, but if you go when it's rained more recently, it will be VERY muddy.
It’s beautiful right as you enter, but the deeper we got, the more mystical and beautiful it became. Such a cool place! I could have spent hours in there. 

If you have the chance, most definitely go to Puzzlewood! We all went home exhausted but feeling very fulfilled from a beautiful day!

Family History Day by Martha Keyes

Day 2 was chock full of small English villages and churches. When my mom had initially wondered about seeing some family history sites, she was disappointed to discover that we had no apparent connections near the Cotswolds. However, thanks to the help of some family history aficionados in her ward, she found a number of connections—one big one just a few miles from our cottage. 

Emley Castle was our first and nearest stop. It was so fun to see the small, Elizabethan-style village with its white facades and dark timbering and some thatched roofs to boot! 

The church, named St. Mary the Virgin, was surrounded by gravestones, dandelions, and a pond. It was beautiful! We had hoped to find the tombstones of some ancestors, but so many of them were eroded past the point of being legible. 

The church itself houses the beautiful alabaster tomb of my 12th great grandfather, William Savage. It was so amazing to see the memorial to him. The boys made it difficult to really savor some of the things I normally would have--this being one example. I wish I'd had more time to enter into the details of family history with my mom before the trip.

I never really get sick of going to churches and cathedrals (at least I haven't yet in my 14 years of seeing them). Brandon feels like once you've seen one, you've seen them all (haha!). But I love the little details, and the windows on this church did not disappoint!

Our next stop was the tiny village of Leigh (pronounced "lie"). The church and the surrounding homes were made of beautiful reddish stone. They still had the font that our ancestor was christened in!

Our last family history stop was the village of Cradley. This was by far our longest stop of the day. The church, St. Edburgha's, was beautiful and surrounded by very charming cottages, a stone fence with lovely purple flowers blooming between, and a hilly cemetery. 

St. Edburgha's was located next door to a Tudor-era schoolhouse which would have been where our ancestor's brothers would have been educated. Our ancestor was a woman and wouldn't have been allowed a formal education, but it was so much fun to watch the boys run around the schoolhouse centuries after their ancestors!

The boys played happily outside while my mom was taken around by Jeff White who had done SO much work locating records and such for us. He was incredibly helpful! 

We plugged Willersey into our GPS and headed home. For whatever happy reason, it took us to the hilltop village of Saintbury--the village right next to Willersey. Boy, were we glad it did! Those were some of the best views of our whole trip--fields on either side with black sheep and white sheep, stone fences, and the hedgerow-strewn landscape of our Cotswold valley! It's often the stops you don't plan on making that end up being the best ones!

For dinner, we decided to try the nearest pub to our cottage which was just a couple hundred feet away and named The Bell Inn. Because I sat between the boys in back of our rental car for almost the entire trip, Brandon and my mom were kind enough to give me a break from them (I feel like all they did was give me breaks from the boys!) while we waited for our food. The took them outside to watch cars and see the pond while I relaxed inside the pub. The food was very good--much classier presentation than I was expecting. I love pub food, and the food here was very good, I thought, but it just seemed more upscale than I'm used to! No complaints here! That was our only sit-down eating out experience, because we learned that it wasn't very enjoyable with the twins wanting to get down and spill salt and touch the wall decor, etc etc etc. 

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Successful second day, we all felt! I'm glad we took the time to fit in some family history. It sure takes a lot of preparation work to make it fruitful, but it's sure a unique feeling to know you're walking where your ancestors walked!

Arriving in the Motherland by Martha Keyes

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I probably can’t quite convey how anxious I was for our transatlantic flights. I’m a control freak (who wants desperately to be a go-with-the-flow girl.) I had very little control over the circumstances of our flights. I had no idea what to expect from the boys. Would they sleep at all? Would they throw constant tantrums? Would they get sick? I also had no idea if we would have to hold them on our laps the entire 10-hour flight. We didn’t pay for separate seats for them, so they were considered “lap infants.” Because of that, I had to expect they would be on our laps, but I was praying my heart out that there would be empty seats next to us! 

We got very lucky and had help from a very kind Delta agent. She rearranged all sorts of things so that we were all on one row, allowing us to bring our car seats on board (normally twin parents with lap infants can’t sit together due to oxygen mask regulations). Bless her! 

Our direct flight to LHR left at 5pm, and since our boys’ bedtime is generally 6:45, I was extra hopeful that they’d sleep a good portion of the flight. That did not happen. They slept 3 hours. I slept half an hour. It was a rough flight (though we happened to be on the same plane and seated a row in front of my Welsh friend Luc and his family—what are the odds?!). Entertaining the boys while also attempting to keep them quiet was a huge task requiring all three adults (my amazing mom came with us!).

I’ll leave the details on the flights for a dedicated post on that topic once we’re home from our next transatlantic trip in June, but suffice it to say, our landing at Heathrow was an enormous relief. Unfortunately, that was just the beginning of a long, very ornery day (on my part as well as the boys’). With the boys having 3 hours of sleep rather than their customary 10.5, and all three adults having zero sleep under our belts, we were in for a rough go. Renting our car took ages, which meant an hour of chasing the boys (ecstatic to be able to walk) around the lobby, so when we finally pulled out of the parking lot, the boys were already asleep (they are rotten car sleepers normally). Brandon was our driver for the entire trip, and he was such a good sport! Keeping awake for the almost-two hour drive was no small task, all while driving on the other side of the (small) roads! We stopped in Stow on the Wold at Tesco for groceries (anyone who knows me knows that this was a happy moment for me—I looove grocery shopping abroad). 

Our cottage rental was in the small north Cotswold village of Willersey, just a mile from Broadway and at the top west edge of the Cotswolds AONB (Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty). I was instantly charmed by the village as we passed the local pub and the little pond opposite, covered in green moss and just a dozen yards from our rental cottage. 

That charmed feeling did not last. First, we were unsure where to park our car, despite instructions from the landlord. Our minds just weren’t in British gear yet, so it took awhile to accept the fact that the small grassy area between a tree and some bushes was meant for the car—two cars, actually, according to the email from the landlord. We parked and spent 15 minutes trying to figure out how to get inside the cottage. Once inside, the very cold air felt less than welcoming. The pictures online had also somewhat overstated the quality of the cottage. The complete lack of phone service was unexpected. And the non-working WiFi was a major hiccup. I had been so careful to select accommodation with WiFi, and Brandon absolutely had to have internet access for work.  

We tried to figure out how to get the heat going, to no avail. No luck on the WiFi or on phone service, either. Meanwhile, all the boys wanted to do was to climb on the steep, turning staircase which I had been under the impression we would be able to block off (not so). The only way to restrict access to the stairs was by confining the boys to one of the very small and not child-proof rooms. 

Cold, sleep deprived, still recovering from the Herculean effort required by a long flight with twin toddlers, and unable to contact the landlord, I started crying and apologizing to Brandon. “I’m sorry I made us come here.” Haha. Low point! He hugged me and reassured me that we’d get it sorted out. And sure enough, I walked up the street a ways where I got phone service and finally reached the landlord who instructed us on how to find and work the old English boiler. We also reset the router and got the WiFi working. We took a drive while the house heated up so the boys could nap again (you just can’t stay depressed while driving around the English countryside!). We popped over to drive the grounds of Charingworth Manor where my mom and dad had stayed with my grandparents many years ago! We ate. We slept. 

I woke up feeling a hundred times better, and the boys did pretty well that night, considering the 7 hour time difference. My memory is a bit hazy of that night, but I believe they woke up once for awhile—perhaps due to the heat turning off. Looking out our window when I woke up to the beautiful morning sun shining on the warm, Cotswold stone cottages across the street was just what I needed.

We had breakfast, got ready, and spent some time at the park down the street. The boys, obviously, loved that!

Bibury

Our first stop was Bibury, one of the better-known Cotswold towns. You may know it from the movie Stardust, but the most popular attraction is Arlington Row—a row of picturesque cottages with a stream and field in front. We parked the car a few minutes’ walk from Arlington Row and first explored the grounds of the church. Growing up in the western US with well-manicured, “new” cemeteries, I’ve had a love for the ivy-strewn, mossy, eroded, crooked headstones of European cemeteries since the first one I visited over a decade ago. I love that every village church is also the resting place for its parishioners. We explored the grounds and the inside of the church, letting the boys walk around the outside while we all ate our sandwiches under a nearby tree. 

Afterward we walked in the direction of Arlington Row, passing by the most beautiful (private) estate that we all wanted to explore so badly! Arlington Row was really charming—but I honestly wouldn’t go out of my way again to see Bibury. I think there are a number of other equally-charming villages I’d rather see!

After Bibury, we made our way to the Cotswold Wildlife Park. We definitely found that our days went best when we had a solid plan for a place the boys could run around and expend energy. The wildlife park was enjoyable for all of us, and it was a really nice day weather-wise, so a definite win. The park is unlike any other place I've been. It was started in 1970 by the owner of the estate--Broadwell Park--who essentially made his home into a zoo open to the public. 
When we first arrived, we were all very well-entertained by the Colobus monkeys. If you know me, you know I'm a huuuuge monkey person, and this time, the monkeys really put on a show for us, tumbling around and even getting into a little bout of fisticuffs :)

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Afterward, we headed for the playground which was a big hit! Lots of slides, a very cool zipline swing, and a little rope-enclosed path for the boys to walk around in. 

We explored as much of the park as we could, though the boys didn't love being in the stroller for very long. I think the next three highlights were seeing the field of daffodils (complete with Broadwell Park in the background), watching the rhinos graze in front of the house, and then getting right up close and personal to the giraffes!

We headed home from the park after getting some yummy ice cream from the concessions stand and, since the boys didn't fall asleep til just before we arrived in Willersey, we detoured to drive past the first destination of our next day's itinerary--Elmley Castle, a family history site for my mom's side. Brandon made us gnocci for dinner, we got the boys down, and then we all slept. We were all tuckered out (and yet the boys decided to wake from 1:30-3:30am) But what a first couple days!