It’s all down to history…
Pre- history that is. The Cotswolds bore a striking similarity with the Caribbean some 56 million years ago. This green and pleasant land was in fact shallow Ocean lapping over golden sands. Oh how times change, plates moved, climate changed and changed again. The waters receded and the sands became compressed. Sand became stone. Oolitic limestone to be more precise. Oolitic is a descriptive word indicating the small egg like grainy structure of the stone. This stone was hidden beneath the land under a thin layer of soil.
So how did it end up on roofs?
Well it was lying around at the very time it was needed. Early dwellings would have been traditionally thatched in Britain, but these were hill dwellings for sheep farmers and the wet lands used for growing reeds were in limited supply. But landowners knew that in some places on the hills the stone rose out of the soil and had been split by the freeze thaw of successive winters into thin slates or “slats” as they were known. These slats were highly prized and the collective noun was “presents” and they were indeed presents for the landowner. They were thin enough to use as roofing slates and withstood the harsh weather as they had already done their weathering.
By the time sheep farming became profitable in the late 1700’s the local builders had honed their skills and become stone masons, craftsmen that were in demand on the most prestigious municipal and ecclesiastic projects up and down the land. This filtered down to the landowners and merchant houses of the Cotswold Market towns.
As the slave trade got into full swing the cotton brought over from the Americas replaced the wool-trade. The Cotswolds slowly fell into decline. Landowners employed less people on their Estates, workers moved to cities and properties were abandoned and fell derelict.
By the late 1800’s The Industrial Revolution was at its smoggy, smelly peak and frazzled middle class intellectuals were desperately seeking some respite. Romanticism had appeared in the art world but a more encompassing change was sought. The Cotswolds were a reasonable distance from London and became a favourite haunt of William Morris. Along with John Ruskin they became the leading lights in what we know as the Arts and Crafts movement. Where the simplicity of the rural life was extolled as a balm to the crowded and insanitary conditions in the cities.
The emphasis was on conservation and preservation of the craft skills, and as many of the Merchant and Landowners buildings had been constructed using high quality materials and time honed expertise their dereliction was repairable. The fashionable set were so enamoured with the simple life that even worker’s cottages were even in high demand. At the end of the 1920’s Henry Ford stayed at the Lygon Hotel in Broadway and was so taken with the cottage style that he bought a cottage and a blacksmiths, dismantled them had them shipped back to his Detroit Museum of technology. They were rebuilt in what is now Greenfield Village. They are still standing and used as a refreshment house and the country’s oldest working blacksmith shops in one of the US’s most visited museums.
Their work encouraged a revival of local building crafts and quarrying; repairing and restoring the villages and communities in the process. Nearly 100 years later the Cotswolds is still a hub for artisans and craftspeople. The iconic homes that tempt thousands of foreign visitors westwards out of London every year are a living historical throw back to Medieval, Tudor, Jacobean, Georgian and Victorian Britain all preserved in a bucolic setting.