Saturday May 12, 2012

GREAT BARRINGTON

James Lazenby met us at the Charlbury train depot. We’d taken the rail from London. Jim and I hadn’t seen each other for nearly 30 years. After a warm greeting, we popped into his car and he navigated us along narrow winding roads ("Single track road with turnouts," the signs said) through the gently rolling countryside. We glimpsed sheep through gaps in the hedgerows. First stop: The small Anglican church in Great Barrington.

Great Barrington in the Cotswolds, that is.

Donna and I had collected youngest daughter Darcie, who has been studying for the past year at Bader Interna tional Studies Center in East Sussex, and we had a full week of activities planned. We were now Jim Lazenby’s guests for the day.

n

Lazenby and a pub landlord friend, Mervin Garratt, had come to our Great Barrington in 1983. While here, Richard Zucco took them for a ride in a police cruiser and Richard Watson provided a flight out of Great Barrington Airport.

Back during World War II, Lazenby’s mother, who was postmistress in the U.K.’s Great Barrington, became penpal with Hazel Wheeler of our Great Barrington, and her husband, Robert K. Wheeler. Wheeler granddaughter Pat rice Mullin recalls her grandmother belonged to the St. James Church parish war re lief committee and "sent regular parcels during the war to Great Barrington in the U.K. Jim’s mother, being the postmistress of Great Barrington," became a primary contact.

"At some point," Lazenby said, "word got out that little Jimmy collected stamps. And stamps by the envelope full soon began to arrive for him at the post office." Various Wheel ers including their daughter, Roberta (Pat’s mother), and Pat herself visited Great and Little Barrington several times. Zucco and Watson visited Lazenby. At last it was our turn.

Jim and I exchange chatty Christmas cards each year. Sometimes I send him one of my local history books. He wrote two local history books himself, one about his school days, another about the war years.

Jim’s father operated a garage and livery, and Jim as soon as he got his license at age 17 drove soldiers and military brass to one place or another. The family garage was beside the Inn for All Seasons Free House in Little Barrington. A service station there today sells petrol for 1.50 pounds a liter. My arithmetic says that’s about $9 a gallon.

Great Barrington and its sibling Little Barrington in the Windrush valley are enormously attractive towns. Inside St. Peter’s church, with its Norman arch entry door, Jim showed us a plaque to his grandfather, Henry James Bennett, school headmaster and church organist for 58 years. We peeked over a wall to see the Barrington Park manor house. Great Bar rington in the U.K., you see, is not a town. It is a private, working estate of some 10,000 acres or so. The owners, the Wingate family, manage farms and forests and rent the small estate houses. The place is frozen in time, thanks to a rigorous English Heritage Listed Building designation.

The venerable old stone homes outside the estate are a hot ticket on the real estate market. Prices Jim quoted would knock your socks off.

Our host took us to the home he and his late wife, the former Mavis Wilkinson, purchased some 45 years ago. It’s upwards of 400 years old (as the low ceilings attest), though it is equipped with modern conveniences.

After tea and cakes, Jim’s neighbor Greg loaded us into his BMW for a buzz through neighboring villages including Sherbourne and Bourton-on-the-Water, and wee Wyck Ris sington. Some 6,000 Ameri can Army Engineers biv ouacked in Barrington Park during the war, prior to the 1944 invasion of Europe. We saw where two large aerodromes had been created on the hilltops.

After the war, Jim and his father developed a ready new business. They purchased surplus Army Jeeps, repaired them and sold them to eager local farmers. They fixed and sold about 160 Jeeps.

n

We adjourned to Jim’s local, the All Seasons. I lunched on black pudding, fried egg, smoked bacon, toast and fried tomatoes and enjoyed every bite. Jim told of the previous estate owner, the colonel, who during the war years would on occasion chauffeur to meet a train. If they were late, as indicated by the locomotive’s smoke trail, he would have to hustle the Austin 10 to a station further up the line.

As it turned out, the Bar rington Park owner, John Wingfield, in his 70s and a dapper dresser, was dining at the pub too. Jim introduced us. Wingfield listened with interest as I told him about our Great Barrington’s recent 250th anniversary. I showed him my commemorative 1761-emblazoned baseball cap, given to me by John B. Hull. Wingfield searched his memory then told me, "Our family, you know, established Yorktown, Va." What could I say to that? Yorktown, as I would later look up, dated from 1691, when our Great Barrington was a mere fording place on an Indian trail.

Our visit to Little Barring ton was the same week Smithsonian magazine de clared our Great Barrington the Best Small Town in America. That counts for something, doesn’t it?

Bernard Drew is a regular Eagle contributor.