OS Explorer map OL45, The Cotswolds: Burford, Chipping Campden, Cirencester & Stow-on-the-Wold – I own this map and had visited it before starting this blog. Visited for this post 21st February 2020.
This post concerns a weekend I spent in the Cotswolds, doing the catering for an effective altruism retreat. Attentive readers may recall that in March 2019, I went to West Lexham to attend a similar thing, hosted by Cambridge’s local effective altruism group; the idea of such an event being that attendees would hopefully spend the time learning useful things and making useful connections such that they’ll be able to more effectively use their careers, donations, volunteer time etc. to do good things with. The retreat I’m writing about now was a little different, and indeed sort of one level of meta higher: it was a “UK group organisers’ retreat”: that is, a gathering of the people who run effective altruism groups in various UK towns and cities, to let them learn from each other how best to do that. I wouldn’t normally be attending such an event, given that I don’t run such a group, but I’d volunteered to do the catering!
The retreat was hosted near the village of Luckley, a few miles to the northwest fo Stow-on-the-Wold, at a farm that has converted several of its buildings into accommodation for group holidays, conferences and the like. The surroundings were very pretty: slightly hilly farmland, which is always a good look – though unfortunately I didn’t get out into it much, aside from for one short walk.
Having booked the Friday when the retreat would start off work, I set off for the drive to the Cotswolds in the mid-morning, going via Oxford to collect the main organiser and various boxes of retreat-relevant items. We arrived at the venue in the early afternoon, just in time to receive a truly enormous Tesco delivery – there were going to be around 45 people at the event, and 45 people can eat a lot of food in 3 days!
After a brief rest, things then got busy very quickly, what with some preliminary unpacking and setting up, welcoming attendees when they started to arrive shortly afterwards and showing them around, and then starting to cook the first meal.
I think that, before this weekend, I’d never cooked for more than about 10 people before, so this would be rather a step up. The plan for the weekend was that breakfast and lunch would be cold, help-yourself affairs that I, with my army of volunteers rostered out of the attendees, could just lay out and tidy way afterwards. The Friday and Saturday evening meals, though, I’d be properly cooking, in the commercial kitchen that was fortunately available at the site. I picked fairly simple recipes – a pasta dish with garlic bread one evening, and a shepherd’s pie with peas the next – that I thought would be easy to cook in large quantities, and did a practice run of a scaled-down version of each in the preceding weeks at home. (Scaled-down relatively speaking, that is: each was still a 12-portion batch, which kept my housemates and I well-stocked with frozen leftovers for a good long while afterwards!)
In the end, the cooking went well, with no disasters larger than a small burn on the fingers of my left hand, when I forgot that the handles of the commercial pans aren’t insulated and tried to pick it up unprotected. I was surprised by how much cooking at this scale became an exercise in project management: simple things that I wouldn’t think of as a real step when cooking at home, like just opening all the packets of ingredients, become a task that takes significant time, and I had to draw out little diagrams of what tasks could be done in parallel, when to start each thing, and so on!
I spent most of the retreat doing catering-related tasks (as was the plan), and didn’t attend any of the sessions, but I still got plenty of time to hang around with people, and in one case go on a walk, which was very nice! One evening after dinner, I somehow ended up giving an impromptu class on phonology, Welsh and Irish grammar and historical linguistics, since some people were unexpectedly interested in some individual comment I made and it sort of ballooned from there. It was a slightly surreal experience, with a group of us sitting in a circle around a little whiteboard on the floor, as others clambered around us to get between a lounge and kitchen!
All in all, I really enjoyed the experience – though it was very tiring, so I was glad to have booked the Monday off work too to recover!
The Cotswolds is a fairly easy trip from Northamptonshire and, especially, Oxford, which two places I lived in for the whole of my childhood and first three years of university; and it’s also a well-known visitor area, for its rolling countryside and cute stone-built villages and market towns. Unsurprisingly, therefore, I’ve been there several times before.
The first such time that I can remember or find evidence of – though it’s certainly possible there were others before then – was a holiday with my parents in April 2014. This trip took us mainly down to Winchester, where we stayed for a couple of days, but we stopped off in the Cotswolds on the way back. In particular, we went to Stow-on-the-Wold and had lunch there, as well as spending a relaxed couple of hours wandering around the town and exploring its shops.
Stow-on-the-Wold is a lovely little town, with all the buildings made of the same yellow Cotswold stone, and full of intersting little shops – though it is unfortunate that its little town squares and broad central street are full of car parking, when they could be so much lovelier with some greenery. This trip feels particularly notable because my parents bought me a lovely tweed jacket and waistcoat in the shop Shelleys of Stow, a classic traditional menswear shop of the kind I love browsing. I never really wear formal clothing anymore (which I miss), but at the time I was still a student and would end up in formal halls regularly (see my Oxford post), and the jacket and, especially, the waistcoat, are mainstays of my formal wardrobe to this day!
My parents and I then stayed the night in a hotel somewhere nearby, though I’m not sure exactly where, or even if it’s in this map area. Despite me not knowing where it is, I can tell you thanks to the below photo of my blanket-covered self on a sofa in the hotel room that I was rereading The Railway Children, which is one of my favourite children’s books, at the time! 
I returned to the Cotswolds two years later, on a trip back to Oxford after I’d graduated, to visit friends who were still around.  We hung around in Oxford itself for a while, but also made a trip out to visit Stow-on-the-Wold again; getting the train to Moreton-in-Marsh (itself a cute little Cotswold town) and then a bus down to Stow. I was with my friends Ex-Linguistician, No Longer Hairy, Unicorn and Little S, and the few hours we spent there were unfortunately rainy, but we still enjoyed ourselves, spending our time in a lovely second-hand bookshop and having lunch in a café.
Given the existence of the below photo of us putting on dejected faces in a bus shelter, I suspect something went wrong with our journey back, but I’m not sure what! Maybe it was just cold.
The final time I remember coming to the Cotswolds before the Luckley retreat (I’ve been at least once more since) was another short holiday with my parents, this time in December 2016. This was another holiday to two places, as we spent a couple of days staying in Cirencester, in this map area, before going to London for the night afterwards, to see a show.
I have to say, I don’t have the clearest memories of this trip. I know we wandered around Cirencester a bit, went to the Corinium museum and to the ruins of the Roman amphitheatre – Cirencester is notable for its Roman history, Corinium being its previous name. Oh well, I don’t need to remember everything!
 In mid-2014, I started recording the books I read, noting the dates, a rating, and so on. I also extended this record backwards, attempting to reconstruct a list of every book I’d read beforehand (though of course without the dates and ratings). I think I did pretty well at this, in that I expect I’m probably missing only a handful – this is because of the accident of history that, not living near a library in my youth nor ever really borrowing books from friends, I almost exclusively read books that I owned, so I could just make the list by looking at the bookshelves at my parents’ house and thinking “have I read this?”. A small further gap was plugged by looking at my school homework diaries. So, from 18th June 2014 onwards I could tell you exactly what I was reading at any time from that spreadsheet rather than relying on a chance photo of me reading – but this trip was just a little too early for that!
 I did a three-year bachelor’s degree, but it’s quite common for people to take a year longer, for reasons including doing an integrated masters, taking a year abroad, or taking time out for health reasons. (Indeed I was on an integrated master’s course, but just left before the optional fourth year.) Unfortunately Oxford, and I believe also, though perhaps to a lesser extent, most English universities, are pretty inflexible when it comes to taking time out of a degree, usually requiring it to be for one of the above specific reason. I’m envious of students in the US and continental Europe, who as I understand it in at least some places can just take time out of university at any time because they want to, and resume whenever!