Each March at Gold Cup time the gentile Gloucestershire spa town of Cheltenham becomes the surrogate second city of Ireland for a few days, as race fans flood across the Irish Sea in what has become an annual pilgrimage of almost religious devotion.
Those race goers who can drag themselves away from the track for a few days will discover this charming town, with its handsome white painted mansions, is the gateway to two of England’s picture postcard gems – the steep escarpment and rolling uplands of the Cotswold Hills, straddling Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire, and the softer but equally beguiling countryside of Warwickshire to the north.
The region formerly known as Heart of England has rebranded itself as Shakespeare Country – an astute move, judging from the hordes of guide book waving Japanese, Chinese and American tourists flooding into Stratford-upon-Avon (www.visit-stratford.co.uk) and the surrounding countryside in a late starting summer that’s since been unusually blessed with hot, sunny days.
Stratford was, of course, the birthplace of the Great Bard – and the ever-bustling town has a wealth of associated attractions. There’s an abundance of half-timbered mediaeval buildings, including the surprisingly large house in which the great man first saw light of day, in 1564; the thatched-roofed chocolate box cottage that belonged to Anne Hathaway, his wife; the home where his mother, Mary Arden, grew up; the school where Shakespeare was educated and, of course, the world-renowned and recently refurbished Royal Shakespeare Company Theatre (www.rsc.org.uk) – a once controversial but now well loved modernistic edifice sited right on the banks of the broad and tranquil River Avon.
The Swan Theatre and the 1,000-seat Courtyard Theatre complete a trio of venues staging a comprehensive range of drama – ancient and modern, classical and contemporary.
If you have a taste for Shakespeare’s era then schedule a visit to the intriguing Falstaff Museum (www.falstaffexperience.co.uk), set within a Grade Two listed building and marketed as Tudor World. Visitors experience the often-horrible truth behind life in Tudor England in an educational, accessible and atmospheric way. Various aspects of that tumultuous period, from Elizabeth I to the plague, are shown through reconstructed sets and multi-sensory equipment in what was once the real life home of Shakespeare's famous comic character John Falstaff.
Not all of Stratford’s high spots are associated with the great playwright. For starters, there’s excellent shopping, with local products much in evidence. Then there’s the wealth of boating activity on the river – from rowing boat hire to supper cruises.
Stratford has a wide choice of accommodation. Set in steeply undulating parkland a mile from the bustling town centre, Menzies Welcombe Hotel, Spa & Golf Club (www.menzieshotels.co.uk) is an elegant 78 guestroom haven of serenity, overlooking a colourful Italianate formal garden, sweeping lawns and its own highly rated 18-hole golf course.
Originally a railway property with ‘Grand Hotel’ pretensions, the massive red-brick mansion was constructed in the 19 Century – 1866 to be precise – with huge windows and towering ornate chimneystacks in a Jacobean Revival style.
Despite the grandeur, it’s a friendly place with all the starch ironed out and a young staff ever attentive and wanting to please – which quality led to a hilarious Fawlty Towers’ moment when I ordered “Full English, with two poached eggs, please” from our youthful Spanish waiter and he returned 10-minutes later with the biggest big breakfast I’ve ever confronted. There alongside the bacon, sausages, tomatoes, mushrooms et al sat a fried egg and a huge dollop of scrambled eggs while my two poached eggs were served on a side plate. All I needed to complete the set was an omelette and two boiled eggs!
The previous evening we had dined in rather more refined fashion in the hotel’s two star AA rosette rated restaurant before retiring to the best sleep I have had in month’s, courtesy of a superb king-size mattress in one of the hotel’s spacious and beautifully appointed four-poster rooms.
Sadly, we did not have time to use the large and award-winning spa but a quick site inspection revealed a superb facility, replete with a large indoor pool, an outdoor vitality pool, foot spas, thermal experience rooms, a selection of treatment rooms, heated loungers, a gymnasium, an aerobics studio and all-weather tennis courts, as well as a spacious and relaxing conservatory lounge.
As you drive south from Stratford towards the quaintly named – and, in reality, quaint – little town of Moreton-in-the-Marsh, the red brick and black-and-white half-timber architecture of Warwickshire gives way to the mellow, honeyed stone of the Cotswolds.
Dive off into the criss-cross web of narrow, winding lanes – with barely a car in sight – and head to bustling little Chipping Camden, in my view the prettiest of all the picturesque towns and villages of this outstandingly beautiful region.
Wander round the delightful bijou shops and visit the local arts and crafts centre, where you can watch exquisitely designed glassware being made. Try to catch a market day – and sample regional cuisine at one of the town’s popular eating-places.
At the Noel Arms Hotel (www.noelarmshotel.com) there’s a homely little patisserie, ideal for an afternoon cream tea. Master of the kitchen at this welcoming hostelry is talented Sri Lankan chef Indunil Upatissa, current title holder and the only chef to have won the ‘Pub Curry Chef of The Year’ award three times.
After a good night’s sleep in a spacious and well appointed room, I opted for Indunil’s Asian breakfast special – milk rice, coconut roti, yellow egg curry and fried onion relish – exotically different but delicious.
Indunil has his own highly creative take on contemporary British cuisine too and at dinner the previous evening I went for the pan-fried Cotswold pork tenderloin, with Dauphinoise potatoes, red cabbage, apple sauce and Calvados gravy, while the missus plumped for the shoulder of light horn lamb, which came with garlic mash, peas and beans, glazed onion and lamb jus. Both dishes were triumphs of the culinary art form, beautifully presented, with just the right portion sizes.
Immediately across the street from the Noel Arms stands the sister Cotswold House Hotel & Spa (www.cotswoldhouse.com), a thoroughly contemporary four-star property housed in an elegant Georgian mansion. Out front is all the busy life of this delightful little town, out back are carefully tiered and lovingly maintained gardens, a tranquil retreat leading off the spacious terrace, which is a perfect spot for al fresco dining. If autumn proves chilly, you may prefer the sophisticated stylishness of the high ceilinged dining room or the less formal ambience of the grillroom.
If you are seeking an out of the ordinary experience, book the hotel’s Hot Tub Cottage or the equally romantic Hot Tub Suite.
The hotel’s exceptionally well-appointed modern spa recently won the ‘Spa of the Year’ accolade in the LateRooms.com ‘Best Kept Secrets 2012’ awards.
On the way back to Cheltenham, spare some time to browse in Broadway – renowned for its profusion of antique shops and art galleries. Other Cotswold places worth a visit include Burford, on the River Cherwell, whose delightful banks inspired ‘Wind In The Willows’; hill-top Stow-on-the-Wold, with its lovely square; Woodstock, set beside Blenheim Palace, the birthplace of Sir Winston Churchill, and the twin villages of Lower and Upper Slaughter, whose forbidding names belie their postcard charm.