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England at its best: the idyllic Cotswolds

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Thanks to the Cheltenham races, the idyllic Cotswolds are an English gem the Irish know well.

There’s an abundance of delightful and affordable holiday lets plus, if you want to be truly cosseted, some of the England’s best country house hotels and dozens of welcoming inns. Honeyed stone, beamed ceilings, roaring log fires, shady beer gardens for the warmer days of summer – it’s all exquisitely picture postcard.

Straddling Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire, this delightful region is quintessential rural England. And, thanks to the M4, M40 and M5 motorways that skirt its flanks, it is very accessible, whether you fly in via Bristol, Birmingham or London.

If the latter is your choice, the peaceful beech woods of the Chiltern Hills and the dreaming spires of Oxford might tempt you to tarry en-route but don’t eat into your time too much because, despite the area’s compact nature, the steeply undulating uplands – once the home of a massive and highly profitable wool industry – and the dozens of secret little valleys demand lots of time and an easy pace.

Set off the A40, just west of Oxford, the busy market town of Witney, once world-renowned for its blankets, makes a good kicking-off point.

History abounds here. A little further along the peaceful banks of the burbling River Windrush, the ancient honeysuckle-bedecked Old Swan and Minster Mill Hotel ((01993 774 441, oldswanandminstermill.com) complex was lovingly restored last year by the De Savary family – a clan renowned for their sympathetic and commercially successful refurbishments of country house hotels across the country and currently engaged on a super-luxurious high profile development at Mount Cinnamon, on the Caribbean island of Grenada.

The traditional Old Swan has 16 guestrooms while, just across the street and on the banks of the delightful River Windrush, the more contemporary Minster Mill has 44 comfortable rooms.

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The gem here is the massive mediaeval Great Hall, with its cathedral-like hammer-beamed ceiling.

It’s could have been all too tempting to relax in the comfy armchairs in the lounge or out in the flower-filled gardens, sink a few beers, get to know the locals and unwind from the week’s cares. But the open road was calling.

Our first stop was at Burford, with its broad tree-lined main street – dropping steeply down to the river and lined with proper local businesses, without a Starbucks, KFC or chain store in sight. The market charter here dates back more than 900 years while the magnificent St John The Baptist Church was built around 1175.

Call at the Tolsey Museum and learn about this picturesque little town’s once flourishing bell-founding, brewing, rope-making and woollen industries. Two miles away, Cotswold Wildlife Park (01993 823006, cotswoldwildlifepark.co.uk) is set around a lovely listed Victorian manor house standing in 160 acres of gardens and parkland. Here you’ll find a fascinating collection of mammals, birds, reptiles and invertebrates.

Also nearby is the National Trust’s 4,000 acre Sherborne Estate, with its 17th Century Lodge Park, a rare structure built by Civil War politician John Dutton as a grandstand for watching deer coarsing.

Prime places to stay in Burford include The Bay Tree Hotel (01993 822791, costwold-inns-hotels.co.uk/baytree) and The Angel (01993 822714, theangelburford.co.uk).

High on a ridge, Stow-on-the-Wold is another interesting old town, set on the old Fosse Way Roman road at its crossing point with six other roads. Many buildings here date back to the 16th Century

The little town’s St. Edward’s Church, whose 88-ft tall tower was completed in 1447, dates back even further, its foundations having been laid in the 11th Century.

A local institution worth checking out is The Pudding Club, at the Three Ways House country house hotel in MIckleton (01386 438 429, threewayshotel.com / puddingclub.com) with its utter dedication to delectable desserts and especially such classic puddings as jam roly-poly, sticky toffee and date, Eton mess and Sussex pond. Established in 1985, the club is open to all and meets weekly.

Choose your direction and drop down off the ridge to busy Moreton-in-Marsh, tranquil Bourton-on-the-Water with its stream running parallel to the main streets, or, just over the border in Worcestershire, head for elegant Broadway – famed for its antique outlets and The Lygon Arms (01386 852 255, barcelo-hotels.co.uk), an old coaching inn which was formerly a country offshoot of London’s Savoy Hotel.

Confusingly, there’s also a former coaching inn called The Lygon Arms (01386 840 318, lygonarms.co.uk) in Chipping Campden – another handsome market town.

Campden hosts major literature and arts festivals (May 3-8 and May 8-21 respectively). These events are followed by the famed and quirky Robert Dover’s Olimpick Games, on June 4. Bands march, cannon fire, rustic activities and wrestling take place, and the evening is brought to a close with fireworks and a torchlight procession into Campden followed by dancing in the square. The next day sees Scuttlebrook Wake (June 5), which has been held every year since 1612.

Edging the Cotswolds are such appealing destinations as Evesham, Cheltenham, Cirencester and Bath.

We ended our own three-day sojourn in Woodstock, with a stroll round this pretty little town and a visit to its prime attraction – the majestically Baroque Blenheim Palace (01993 810 570, blenheimpalace.com), designed by Sir John Vanbrugh. It is a vast edifice that was gifted to the First Duke of Marlborough by a grateful nation after his greatest Continental victory and which was later the birthplace of Sir Winston Campbell.

Besides the great house, built between 1705 and 1724 and today home to the 11th Duke and Duchess of Marlborough, there are 2,100 acres of Capability Brown designed parkland to explore.

Why should I visit the Cotswolds?

Honeyed stone villages and busy market towns, woodland, meadows, pastures and broad vistas: it’s everyone’s vision of the idyllic English country retreat

Factfile

  • Thanks to the M40, it’s an easy hour and a half drive from London and Birmingham is just as close, but as this is such great walking country you might opt to leave the car at home and take the train (there are several services from London Paddington and Birmingham International running through the area).
  • Working with upland Escapes, the Old Swan and Minster Mill (01992 724441, oldswanandminstermill.com) has a selection of delightful Windrush Valley self-guided walks on offer.
  • Go mid-week to avoid summer’s pressing crowds. Alternatively get off the main roads into the maze of byways and discover delightful little villages like Upper and Lower Slaughter and Upper Swell.

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