Adam Henson: Curling up with a good book for Christmas

Arlington Row, Bibury, in winter

Arlington Row, Bibury, in winter - Credit: Archant

MC Beaton’s victim is an over-zealous Health and Safety officer who orders a crackdown on everything from wooden shelves to toy money

Christmas in the countryside is hard to beat. But when that countryside is the Cotswold hills then there’s no contest. I love spending the holiday at home on the farm, and checking the livestock first thing on Christmas morning is a wonderful way to start the big day. It’s not unusual to wake up on the 25th to a severe frost or even a light dusting of snow high up on the hills here. It adds a really festive touch.

The short days of December mean that once dusk starts to dim the views across the landscape, there’s a good excuse to curl up by the fire with a good book. Although Dickens and Hans Christian Andersen are firm favourites, I think stories which are set locally really suit the festive mood. So I’ve been asking friends and doing some homework on the way Christmas in the Cotswolds has been portrayed over the years.

I suppose the most famous are Laurie Lee’s memories of carol singing in the Slad valley in Cider with Rosie. It conjures up images of crisp December nights, twinkling lights and the Christmassy smell of roast apples and hot mince pies. It’s so beautifully written. It’s a section of the book which is regularly read aloud at Christmas concerts throughout the county and it always goes down a treat. But Laurie Lee isn’t the only author who has created visions of yuletide in Gloucestershire.

A Cotswold Village is a wonderful and evocative glance back at a bygone world. Written by a talented cricketer, J Arthur Gibbs, it was published way back in 1898 and depicts life in the hamlet of Ablington, near Bibury, in the closing years of the Victorian era. Gibbs describes one Christmas Day that was so warm and mild that the sunshine and the call of the birds made him imagine that it was April. The air was so still that he could hear the Christmas bells ringing two miles away in the village of Barnsley. He paints a vivid picture of the countryside around him with bleating lambs in the meadow, a pair of fantail pigeons ‘of the purest white’ and the sound of a great brown trout splashing about in the stream. As he describes them, you can almost hear the caw of the rooks, the cry of the plover and the scratching of a one-legged cock pheasant which comes up to his feet and takes bread from his hand.

The festive period always has us reaching for scare stories and murder mysteries. I’m not sure why the season of goodwill encourages the reading of grim and gruesome tales but it’s a tradition that’s here to stay. So if you like a fright with your figgy pudding, there are a couple of current authors who are happy to oblige.

The Agatha Raisin mysteries by MC Beaton are based in the fictitious Cotswold village of Carsely and one of them features a Christmas murder. The victim is an over-zealous Health and Safety Officer who annoys the locals when he orders a Christmas crackdown on everything from wooden shelves (splinter risk) to toy money (counterfeit banknotes). But he goes too far when he bans the annual Christmas tree from being put up on the church tower.

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An altogether more serious range of books are the Cotswold mysteries by Rebecca Tope. This time the locations are real and all the stories feature an unfortunate house sitter called Thea Osborne who seems to attract misfortune. The hamlet of Hampnett, near Northleach, in the depths of midwinter, is the setting for Fear in the Cotswolds; as the weather becomes more extreme, Thea discovers a dead man lying in a snow-covered field. Gripping stuff, especially when you know the places involved. But if tradition is your thing, then J Arthur Gibbs summed up the festive season in the Cotswolds perfectly when he wrote: “Christmas is Christmas still, in the heart of old England”.