The Cotswolds are a range of hills, in the middle of Britain, which define a region. They rise from the Thames to an escarpment called the Cotswold Edge, above the Severn valley. As with many things in Britain, they’re characterised by their ill-defined boundaries. Several places on their fringes, or honestly nowhere near, claim, for the purposes of tourism, to be part and parcel. The Cotswolds are the home of crafts, dry stone walling, rolling hills, small market towns, country inns with good restaurants, hideaways for the rich. They’re laid back and gorgeous, like an aging slab of good cheese.
This is the region in which reside myself and my wife. She’s the vicar of a glorious parish church in a glorious Cotswolds market town. The only problem is, we have to solve so many surreal and whimsical murders. (Whenever I say that to Americans, they look anxious for a moment, as if it might be true.) My upcoming novella for Tor.com, Witches of Lychford, uses a very similar Cotswolds town as its setting. It’s an attempt on my part to connect with our new home and the people here, and to communicate some of the flavour of the place to those who’ve never been here. It’s about three women with experience of the other-worldly coming together to fight supernatural evil, said evil being, obviously, in the form of a chain of supermarkets.
I assumed, when I set out to write it, that I’d be joining in with a longstanding tradition, but there’s surprisingly little fantasy or science fiction set in the Cotswolds. J.K. Rowling, so good on the weight of every British signifier, has only one mention of the area, saying that many trolls live here, and that they clubbed to death, in 1799, while she was sketching, a specialist in their ways. Rowling lived here as a child, so she knows of what she speaks. Christopher Priest’s The Quiet Woman (1990) is set in the fictional Wiltshire village of Milton Colebourne, which has a Cotswolds feel to it, albeit a dystopian, indeed, radioactive, Cotswolds feel. It’s about the troubling things that lie underneath the comforting blanket of Englishness. Of course it is, it’s Christopher Priest.
Wilkie Martin’s humorous Inspector Hobbes novels go in the opposite direction, having fun with quaintness, as an ‘unhuman’ policeman keeps order in the town of Sorenchester, the name of which echoes the real-life Cirencester. John Buchan’s The Gap in the Curtain (1932), a rare venture into slipstreamery from that most belligerent of British thriller writers, features a drug-based attempt to see into the future at a Cotswolds country house. Chavenge, A Tale on the Cotswolds, 1648 (1845) by Richard Webster Huntley is set in a real location, a country house near Tetbury, and tells, in the form of a ballad, what’s meant to be a true story. One Colonel Nathaniel Stephens, a reluctant conspirator in the death of Charles I, and Lord of said manor, was, upon his own death, visited by a fine hearse driven by a headless man, which took him off, presumably, to hell. Every head of the family since is meant to have departed in the same manner, which makes it just as well the place is now owned by someone else. (You can imagine the conversation with the estate agent.)
On television, the fictional town of Leadworth, in Doctor Who the bucolic home of Amy Pond, is half an hour from Gloucester, and so could well be in the Cotswolds. Stockbridge, often featured in the Doctor Who Magazine comic strip is (sometimes) in the county too, and (sometimes) looks like it’s in the region. It’s possible Terry Nation was thinking of Evesham when he set the episode ‘The Android Invasion’ in Devesham. The thing all these places have in common is they’re absolutely not where you’d expect an alien invasion, if you’d expect one anywhere. The heroine of BBC children’s drama The Changes (1975), in a Britain where all technology has been rejected, journeys through the Cotswolds on her way to a confrontation with something truly terrifying in a cavern. It was described as being ‘for older children’; having seen it at the time, I still don’t feel old enough.
In comics, the region really gets exciting. In Thor (volume one) #347, part of Walt Simonson’s definitive run as writer and artist, we discover that Svartalfheim, home of the Dark Elves, led by Malekith the Accursed, can be accessed by a portal in the Cotswolds, though we don’t see much of the local scenery apart from a ruined castle. In the movies, Malekith is played by Christopher Eccleston, who doesn’t sound like he’s from Gloucestershire. Maybe lots of dark realms have a north. At Vertigo, DC’s mature readers imprint, streetwise mage John Constantine’s mate Rich the Punk, the true king of Britain, strides the same countryside as part of his drug-fuelled quest to find the Holy Grail, in Hellblazer (volume one), #112, part of Paul Jenkins and Sean Phillips’ run on the title.
In real life terms, from way back when Patrick Troughton was the Doctor and ‘The Invasion’ was filmed at Fairford’s local air base, to now, when that royalty-haunted manor I mentioned plays host to Poldark, the Cotswolds have a long history of standing in for other places on screen. But it seems strange that a region that touches on the numinous in such a British way, through a closeness to nature and enough calm for contemplation, shouldn’t have more of its own fantasy. (If you know of other titles, I’d love to hear from you in the comments.) Perhaps that sense of comfort seems to limit the possibilities. But I think J.K. Rowling got it right: In these hills, there are trolls.
With thanks to Geoff Hawkes, Alison Hobson and Graham Sleight.
Paul Cornell is a writer of science fiction and fantasy in prose, comics and TV, one of only two people to be Hugo Award-nominated for all three media. He’s written Doctor Who for the BBC, Action Comics for DC, and Wolverine for Marvel. He’s won the BSFA Award for his short fiction, an Eagle Award for his comics, and shares in a Writer’s Guild Award for his television.