Hedgerows define the winding path up the hill for our compact car. We slow as we see the antique sign announcing "Red Lion Pub" and, just beyond it, the small sign attached to a wide, wooden gate that declares "Red Lion Cottage". The crunching gravel under the tires, the English roses climbing the brick wall around and over the door , the plethora of assorted blooms that line the edges of the lawn all add to our impression that we are home - in England.
Of course, it isn't "our" home; it's a magical place we've been lucky enough to stay in on four separate vacations. It is owned by our dear friends, David and Sharon, who rent it out to people they like. We consider ourselves blessed to be on that exclusive list.
The cottage itself is at the end of a larger, two-story structure that encompasses our friends' residence. Originally, we are told, this building housed what would be called, in American parlance, four townhouses. Three were gutted to create their home, but we are lucky that they kept the last; a separate source of income for them, an idyllic destination for us.
We first stayed there in 1985, on our first trip to England, to celebrate our twentieth wedding anniversary. Great care to detail, a friendly welcome, and the ambiance of the tiny rooms inside all served the impression that this was our home for a brief time. Stepping over the raised front door entry, seeing the fireplace, the chintz covered sofa, the winding staircase to the bedrooms above and glimpsing the kitchen beyond, we experienced an immediate cozy kinship with the place. Those sentiments have deepened over the 20+ years that we've been lucky enough to return. Improvements have been made to the cottage; an added bath upstairs, a small conservatory off the kitchen, and amenities upgraded, but it's the same comfortable haven we all look forward to spending time in, if always too briefly.
Our longest, and most recent stay was over four years ago. R.J. and I had just moved back to the Midwest, having sold our house in Virginia, and we decided to splurge on a much-overdue vacation to our second favorite country. That allowed us to book the cottage for three weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas, and our time together there created memories we will always cherish. The weather was cold, which we love, our hosts happy to see us and congenial as always, balancing their friendly, welcoming personalities with a respect for our privacy and comfort. Whenever we left for a day to explore new sights in London or the English countryside, we always looked forward to returning in the evening to our snug, safe home. Our favorite days were those when we just stayed in, enjoying the beautiful grounds, the quiet of the country, and the atmosphere those protecting walls provided us.
When the depression of the economic downturn gets to me, I think about our home away from home, and I'm instantly transported to a happy corner of my world, where time stands still and good memories abound. Its images spur me on to climb out of our financial hole, do whatever it takes, to make certain that I'll soon be able to enjoy the respite it gives my life. I know I share these feelings with our children, who've been lucky enough to visit there as well. In fact, our son and his wife spent their honeymoon in it. We all dream of the next stay. Residing there evokes a timeless warming of the heart and soul. You have to have been there to understand. And I hope to be there again - anon.