When we were children we used to clamour for my grandmother to tell us tales of her childhood growing up in “the olden days” on the farm in Oklahoma. We were fascinated by a life so different from ours, in a time which seemed like something out of a history book rather than real life. My grandmother would oblige with stories about riding in Model T’s down irrigation ditches and sneaking watermelons by moonlight. She also told us tales of that very peculiar creature known as the hoop snake.
A hoop snake, she informed us with absolute authority, was very dangerous because it could take its tail in its mouth and roll across the plains like a wheel, traveling at incredible speed. This was, of course, what is classically known as an old wives tale, but I was young and gullible enough to believe. It was many years later that I finally realized that hoop snakes were a figment of someone’s overactive imagination. It was a rather sad day when I had to give up the mental image of a vast convoy of hoop snakes traveling across the desert, venomous and deadly as they rolled along.
Another favourite saying my grandmother used to share with us, and which imbedded itself in my imagination, was one she would pull out whenever she caught us making faces at each other. She’d say, “Don’t make faces at your brother, Elizabeth. I made a face once and it froze like that. That’s why I look like I do now.”
The thought that your face might freeze in the middle of a horrible, pull-out-all-the-stops, gargoyle inspired, just-how-ugly-can-I-make-it grimace was truly fascinating – even more fascinating than images of hoop snakes bouncing and tumbling in the act of stalking their prey. It must be admitted that in spite of the danger we continued to pull faces at each other. We lived on the edge, we three children, willing to risk all for the glory of making someone laugh or showing just how deeply we disliked something. I must say that my pig face was renowned, and that to this day I can still do a pretty mean fish-face.
What does all this have to do with the life of a transplanted American in the UK, you ask? Merely to serve as an introduction, and also as an explanation for why a particular village in the Cotswolds piqued my curiosity from the moment I heard of it.
Whenever my husband and I travel north, up toward Birmingham and beyond, we take the A417 until we join the M5 near Gloucester and Cheltenham. It was while riding along this highway that I first spotted a signpost for the village of Duntisbourne Leer.
Duntisbourne Leer? Leer: (noun) a lascivious or unpleasant look
My imagination, which never needs much encouragement, immediately took off in a wild flight of fancy. I pictured a village full of, well, villagers, I guess, all creeping around corners like caricatures from an old silent film, peering out of windows and leering unpleasantly at outsiders.
What exactly, I wondered, did the “Duntisbourne” leer look like? Was it a particular leer? Did you have to learn the secret leer in order to live there, rather like a secret handshake? What curl of the lip, glare of the eye, furrow of the brow would combine into a leer so frightful as to have an entire village named after it?
And so I practiced. Sitting in the car as we sped along I scowled and leered and grimaced with such ferocity that my grandmother would have had about seven different kinds of fits telling me my face would freeze like that. And that kept me amused for about two minutes until we passed the Highwayman Inn and I switched to reciting “The highwayman came riding – riding – riding, the highwayman came riding, up to the old inn-door.”
My husband largely survives these torments of being a fellow passenger with me by pretending to be absolutely focused on driving. Nevertheless, the next time we drove that way I was prepared, and as soon as I saw the sign for Duntisbourne Leer away in the distance I pulled my face into the wildest leer I could come up with and I sat, with my face frozen like that, and looked at Mr. H.
And I looked.
And he just drove the car. Oblivious. The seconds ticked by like hours, the only sound the steady rhythm of the tires on the road and the occasional whirr of the windscreen wipers. My husband peered through the mist and commented that it looked like it might be lifting. He later admitted that he was ignoring me on purpose in order to see just how long I would hold that pose, my face contorted beyond all recognition, looking at him and hoping for the reaction that never came. He’s just lucky my face didn’t freeze like that, because it would have been all his fault. He finally put me out of my misery by glancing sideways and meeting my gaze, at which point we both went off into fits of laughter. I make no secret of the fact that we are simple people, easily amused.
Now, every time we pass the sign for Duntisbourne Leer we shoot each other the most violent of looks, no doubt causing other passing motorists to think we are both in terrible tempers, but we can never hold the nasty faces very long before laughter overtakes us. It helps to break up the monotony of the journey.
And so it was that recently we decided to finally satisfy our curiosity about this mysterious village with the intriguing name. We would do so on foot, striding out valiantly from Cirencester, maps and guide books in hand, picnic lunches stowed away in our rucksacks, explorers boldly going where we had not gone before. The day began propitiously with dense fog hanging low in the still, cold winter air, obscuring the countryside and blurring the views. It was a Hound of the Baskervilles sort of day, perfect for an investigation into deepest, darkest Gloucestershire.
The Duntisbourne Valley takes its name from the River Dunt, more of a stream really, which flows through the valley. The river, in turn, took its name from an Anglo-Saxon chieftain named Dunt. Whether he was Mr. Dunt, or just Dunt, the history books don’t say. There are actually four villages in the region which are grouped together as The Duntisbournes: Duntisbourne Rouse, Duntisbourne Abbots, Duntisbourne Leer, and Middle Duntisbourne.
Our walk quickly took us out of Cirencester along public footpaths toward the village of Stratton. We paused to say hello to a couple of friendly donkeys who wandered over to the fence of their paddock to greet us. One was a very cute little brown fellow who whiffed and sniffed expectantly at our hands in the hopes that we came bearing treats, but when I asked him if he’d make us some waffles he gave me a donkey look which said, “Like I’ve never heard that one before.”
As we walked onward my husband pointed out sights from the guidebook – a Norman church updated in the 1850’s, a spectacular view which was supposed to be there but was hidden by the fog – and I thought how nice it is to be married to someone who walks along quoting from guidebooks. It used to be I was the only one in the family who did that, and it was considered a rather obnoxious trait by many of my well-meaning but bored family members. Perhaps I overdid it. Be that as it may, it’s rather nice to be married to someone who also likes to read guidebooks, so that now I can wander along looking at birds and flowers and gazing at the views in a rather relaxed, lazy fashion, content in the knowledge that someone else has done his homework so that I don’t have to.
After Stratton we continued across fields and alongside streams to the very charming little village of Daglingworth. Here we came across another ancient church with a large, square house next to it which overlooked quite a pretty garden. We shamelessly lifted our cameras up above the hedgerow to take photos of the long reflecting pool and the sculpture of dancing hares before continuing down the lane to pause on the bridge above the stream.
My husband consulted the map and the guidebook while I leaned over the bridge to gaze into the water. I went into the dreamy state which gazing into water always seems to produce in me, while my husband wondered aloud if there were any fish in there. He’s always wondering if we’ll see fish, or kingfishers or water voles. We rarely do, but he never gives up hope or stops looking.
The going became rather muddy from here on, especially when the footpath took us through fields where horses had recently been kept. Animals always seem to congregate and churn up the area around the gate or stile that you need to pass through, leaving a sea of soupy mud behind for hapless walkers like us to try to navigate. At the end of the next stretch we were grateful to come upon a stream where we could wash off our hiking boots from the heavy accumulation of mud that was starting to weigh us down.
At last we abandoned the footpaths and walked along the narrow, one-track lane which led toward Duntisbourne Leer. We encountered no one as we walked through the fog-shrouded villages. Perhaps they were all just smart enough to be staying indoors by a warm fire rather than trotting about the countryside on a cold December day, but it did give us the odd feeling of walking through a forgotten land where all the inhabitants had fled. Only the occasional whiff of wood smoke drifting from a chimney gave evidence of life. This is an area where, as my husband says, it takes a lot of dosh to be able to afford to live, so perhaps they had all traveled to Switzerland for some skiing or Bermuda for some sunshine over the holidays. Whatever the reason, we could have been walking in the Outer Hebrides for all the people we saw. We rather enjoyed the feeling of solitude. It was peaceful and quiet, with only the chattering of birds to accompany our occasional conversation.
When finally we reached it the village of Duntisbourne Leer proved to be just as abandoned. No one peered from behind a lace curtained window; no one leered unpleasantly at us from a dark doorway. The only life we encountered were two elderly long-haired Dachshunds who did their best to stand in for the Hound of the Baskervilles by growling and barking lustily from the safety of their driveway. Their fierceness was belied by their swiftly wagging tails and the happy little hops they gave when I told them how brave they were.
And so it turns out that Duntisbourne Leer is just a very quaint, peaceful Cotswold village whose chief claim-to-fame is a shallow ford, often photographed for calendars and post cards. And Leer, I discovered after a brief online search, was originally Lyre, and the village was named after the Abbey of Lyre which owned it back in “the olden days” of the Domesday Book.
Nevertheless, my husband and I felt obliged to stand by the road sign for Duntisbourne Leer and practice our leers. After all, now that I am an old wife, I feel it incumbent upon me to begin a few old wives tales of my own. Perhaps one day I shall be driving along the A417 with my young nieces and nephews in the car, and I shall make them all practice their Duntisbourne leers, just in case they ever visit the village and need to be able to contort their features into the secret leer in order to gain admission. In a world where hoop snakes are still reputed to exist, anything is possible.