Pam Ayres on her love of the Cotswolds

Pam at the Gloucestershire Warwickshire heritage railway

Pam at the Gloucestershire Warwickshire heritage railway - Credit: pamayres.com

If you were a TV company wanting to make a programme about the hidden gems of the Cotswolds, what better tour guide could you choose than Pam Ayres?

I love Pam Ayres’s village home. We’re in the huge kitchen, French windows onto the garden: beautiful, bright, streaming with morning light; elegantly Georgian in its proportions; just a few miles outside Cirencester. And of course I love all that. 

But, nope. None of those adjectives reveal the clincher. 

Instead, take a moment to look more closely. At that garden – pinks, whites, purples; a garden whose overriding aim (you begin to notice) is to please the bees. 

At the hole in the wall – not an item on the ‘to-repair’ list but a carefully thought-out bypass for hedgehogs wishing sensibly to avoid the road. 

At the goldcrest (if you’re lucky enough to catch a glimpse); at the treecreeper frisking crannies in the cedar for covert spiders. Or the pheasant, a species never destined for university, who has nevertheless sussed he’s safe from the barrel of a Browning here. 

Oh! And at the sofa on which Pam and Izzy the Jack Russell – ‘Cheltenham Animal Shelter’s finest product’ – are snuggled, one of them occupied with hard-core chewing. 

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Pam points to a cushion speckled with fine gold dust: ‘Those dandruff-like flakes are from a hard lump of Parmesan you buy for dogs. Although we live in some chaos, we don’t usually have Yak Snack over the sofa.’ 

(Tbh, if I had noticed, I’d have gone some distance before identifying it as dog Parmesan.) 

‘It’s rock-hard and supposed to take the tartar off their teeth. Solidified yak’s milk. ’ 

Izzy has taste. 

Pam with Darren of Sally Narrowboats, Bradford-on-Avon

Pam with Darren of Sally Narrowboats, Bradford-on-Avon - Credit: pamayres.com

Pam Ayres is a bit bushed. Not that she seems it. (Tired – but happy-tired.) 

She’s just finished filming a TV series – four one-hour episodes to be screened this autumn – entitled The Cotswolds with Pam Ayres. (‘They were going to call it the Cotswolds Uncovered but I thought that could sound a bit sleazy.’) 

They only finished yesterday – up at 5.30am ‘because the make-up lady would be here to disguise all flaws at 7 o’clock’); often filming until 7 in the evening. 

‘I’ve heard actors and television people say, ‘Filming is so tiring’. And I always thought, ‘Yeah, yeah. It’s not like breaking up rock, is it... Or sitting in a call centre all day.’’ 

She’s now feeling more understanding. 

‘It’s taken over my life – but it’s been absolutely gorgeous. I’ve loved it! I was approached out of the blue by Channel 5, who said they wanted to make a series about the beauty of the Cotswolds but didn’t want to parachute somebody in who had no connection. Would I be interested? 

‘I jumped at it.’ 

Well, there can’t be much Pam Ayres doesn’t know about the Cotswolds, can there? For a start, Stanford in the Vale, where she grew up, is waving distance. Then there was that wonderful smallholding, tiptoeing on the edge of Cirencester, that she and Dudley Russell, her husband, bought back in 1988 (home for nearly 30 years before downsizing). Here, they not only raised two sons; but numerous other family members – among them, Myrtle the Cotswold sheep; Spotty and Dotty, the Gloucester Old Spots; and Wingit, the hen who lost a wing to the local fox but hung firmly onto her derring-do. 

Pam Ayres at Winchcombe Pottery

Pam at Winchcombe Pottery - Credit: pamayres.com

And, yes, Pam agrees. She does know tons and tons about the Cotswolds. 

Even so, she managed to uncover gems for the telly that she’d never so much as stumbled across before. 

Such as? 

‘Didn’t know the American Museum outside Bath. Or Catherine Zoraida, who makes beautiful gold jewellery – and not fabulously expensive – in Quenington. She showed us pictures of Catherine [Duchess of Cambridge] wearing her earrings; a life-changer for her.’ 

And then there’s Winchcombe Pottery, ‘which surprised and enchanted me. It’s just an old industrial shed – there are no frills – where two men make everything by hand.’ 

One of the two potters is Matt Grimmitt, whose great-great grandfather, Elijah Comfort, helped bring the pottery back to life in 1926 after it had fallen into disuse. 

‘I’d like a husband called Elijah Comfort because he’d really look after you, wouldn’t he…’ 

Pam reaches for a jug from one of her shelves, gorgeous in its glazed purity. ‘This is some of Winchcombe Potteries’ stuff. Simple, functional; and surprisingly affordable. You pick up lots of pottery and put it down quick because it costs a fortune, but not theirs. I got my daughters-in-law a salt-pig each.’ 

Pam Ayres at the American Museum and Gardens, Bath

Pam at the American Museum and Gardens, Bath - Credit: pamayres.com

She and the film crew visited canals at Bradford-on-Avon; called in to Hook Norton Brewery (the dray horses got their own poem), and the Gloucestershire Warwickshire heritage railway. Spent the day with beekeeper, Chris Wells, in Mickleton, with his 120 colonies: ‘A lovely, gentle man, who has an arrangement with farmers that they grow what the bees like. Then they all share the proceeds from the honey.’ 

And she visited Blur bassist Alex James, in Churchill, who’s (mainly) swapped rock for cider – and cheesemaking. 

‘Alex was charming – made us all a cup of coffee. We talked about farming and about the sheep; then we went to this little log-cabin he’s got by the water, where his PA had laid out a selection of cheeses and cider he makes. Oh, it was delicious! I’m not that much of a fan of cheese but I’d recommend it to anybody. 

Pam Ayres with Alex James

Pam Ayres with Alex James - Credit: pamayres.com

‘I took the dog because I thought: We’re going to be on a farm so it will be fine – but he’s got eight cats. Izzy was up on her back legs, screaming; she wanted to get at them so that was a bit embarrassing.’ 

Even the places Pam thought she knew well were up for surprising her. Blenheim Palace, for one, where historian Antonia Keaney not only showed off Churchill’s flowing ringlets – they didn’t cut his hair until he was five – but shared a little-known nugget about the pillars either side of the entrance: each contains a circular staircase leading up to a narrow ledge beneath the windows. 

Pam with historian Antonia Keaney outside Blenheim Palace

Pam with historian Antonia Keaney outside Blenheim Palace - Credit: pamayres.com

‘The palace was occupied by a school during the war. Antonia was telling me how an old boy came back, by this time an elderly man; he described how boys were made to crawl along the ledges, perilously narrow, to bring down blackout blinds. 

‘He said how frightened he had been. And that was such a vivid image: this little boy, petrified, high up above the marble floor, crawling around this ledge beneath the windows.’ 

She shudders, before turning to Izzy gnawing Parmesan like a true pro. 

‘I’m not sure how much I can stand of that chewing,’ Pam says, with infinite kindness. ‘Take it out, darling.’ 

I know everyone’s had enough of lockdown, but I’ve got to tell you this. Just to finish. A lockdown story with bells and whistles. 

The thing is, Pam’s a home-bird. ‘I love my garden, my family, my dog; I’ve got all travel inclination out of my system.’ 

But Dudley had always wanted to sail to Australia. (They’ve flown there more than a few times, mind you – Pam is one of the few female comedians to have played Sydney Opera House.) 

‘Laurie Lee went on one of Concorde’s inaugural flights. He said it was amazing but it diminishes your sense of distance and wonder – and I thought that was a gem of a statement. Because you fly to Australia. You have a kip; you watch a film; you have your dinner; you get off, you’re in Australia. And you’ve gone right above all those cultures, all those time-zones, all those climate changes… 

‘I knew Dudley wanted to sail instead, so I said, ‘Right, we’ll go!’’ 

Pam Ayres with Chris Wells of Cotswold Bees

Pam Ayres with Chris Wells of Cotswold Bees - Credit: pamayres.com

They left Southampton on the Queen Mary 2 on January 10, 2020 – ominous from the off. The ship was late because people had had to be helicoptered off, ill. 

‘So we sailed off, me homesick as usual. Within four days, I got pneumonia, complete with nebuliser, steroids and a drip in my arm.’ 

Goodness! Luxury liners have hospital suites? 

‘And a morgue. You don’t get a lot of young thrusters on a world cruise.’ 

She never loses her sense of humour, Pam Ayres, and I love her for it. But it was grim. She couldn’t catch her breath. Missed Petra – ‘I’d always wanted to see it but couldn’t manage the walk.’ Felt much better by Sri Lanka, only for the boiling-hot streets to be thronged with demonstrating students. 

‘After that, we were supposed to go to Vietnam, Hong Kong, Thailand. But the captain started coming on, saying, ‘There is this disease called Covid…’ 

‘Gradually, all the destinations on the itinerary were withdrawn. We ended up sailing round the Indian Ocean for 15 days non-stop.’ 

They did finally get to Sydney, where Pam managed one performance. Her sold-out appearances in Adelaide and Perth, however, were casualties of the virus. 

But two good things stand out about the ill-fated trip. 

The first is that she used her enforced downtime to write the words to a new musical version of Peter Pan, teaming up with local composer Louis Mander, commissioned by Minchinhampton’s Beaudesert Park School. 

Pam Ayres on board the Hook Norton Brewery dray

Pam Ayres on board the Hook Norton Brewery dray - Credit: pamayres.com

The second happened in Sydney: it was March 14, her birthday, ‘And I was in the hotel, sitting in bed in my nightie, feeling pretty gloomy because I was homesick. It was breakfast-time, and suddenly the door burst open.’ 

There – to her phenomenal surprise – were her two sons, over from Gloucestershire just to wish her happy birthday. ‘It still makes me teary to talk about it. They’re diamond geezers, my boys are.’ 

She and Dudley finally got home – an ‘undignified’ scramble to get a last flight – just as borders began to close. 

Home sweet home, complete with grateful bees; hedgehog bypass; and Izzy, yak-milk-gourmet. 

‘As I got off the plane, I felt like doing that thing the Pope does and kissing the tarmac.’ 

Sounds like poetry. 

Pam Ayres’s latest book of poetry – Pam Ayres on Animals – with colour illustrations by Ellie Snowdon –  by Ebury Press, is out now £16.99 in hardback; pamayres.com