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The Cotswolds, England 72-Hour Vacation

Picture-Perfect
Explore One of England's Great Treasures
By Mary Anne Evans


The extensive and impressive Blenheim Palace
The extensive and impressive Blenheim Palace

Rolling green hills, villages of mellow limestone cottages, gently flowing streams and still ponds, small market towns with fine old buildings, and some of the most beautiful gardens and houses to visit in the country. At the risk of sounding like a tourist brochure, the Cotswolds really does offer all of the above, and more. Even the names of the towns and villages are picturesque, though they often have a particular significance: "Ship" is a corruption of "sheep"; "Chipping" denotes a market or trading center.

The region is undoubtedly one of England's great treasures, but don't expect just a picture-perfect landscape; the area has become increasingly fashionable and sophisticated as people buying second homes bring metropolitan tastes and expectations with them. Recent interest in locally grown organic food has encouraged small producers to sell their orchard apple juice, local smoked trout, organic vegetables, home-baked bread and rural cheeses at the many farmers markets throughout the area. Don't miss Stroud on a Saturday for one of the best, but also look out for the likes of Tewskesbury asparagus, Cotswold Brie and single and double Gloucester cheese at the speciality shops and delis throughout the area. Both fine dining restaurants and gastro pubs—many of which also offer very good accommodation, often at a price—have also upped the ante adding to the local pubs and tea shops that the area has always supported.

The Cotswolds roughly starts at Oxford and rises gently to the narrow limestone ridge running across Gloucestershire. The southern part follows the roads west to the Roman town of Cirencester, ultra-fashionable Tetbury and Stroud, then goes north west through smart Cheltenham, along the hidden boundary running beside the old Cotswold Way through Broadway to Chipping Camden, before plunging south east again through Moreton-in-Marsh, Chipping Norton, and Woodstock back to Oxford.

Swan Hotel in Bibury

Swan Hotelin Bibury

Historically self-contained, the Cotswolds was ideal for sheep rearing, and the area grew rich on the wool and the trade it produced from Roman times to the Middle Ages. In turn, the wealthy produced an ambitious crop of imposing manor houses to keep them happy on this earth and grand churches to help ease their way into heaven.

You'll need a car to tour the area; to avoid driving in and out of London, either organize one from Heathrow or take a train from London's Paddington Station to Oxford and hire a car there. There are many very good country house hotels in the area, so expect a "get-away-from-it-all" experience. A cooked English breakfast in your hotel is the best way to start the day; then in the evening, dine at the hotel on the best local produce. Base yourself for the first night at Lords of the Manor in Upper Slaughter, a relaxed, gracious, country house hotel where 20th-century technology is combined with four poster beds and roaring wood fires in cold weather. Afternoon tea on the lawn gives you a view of the old 17th-century rectory, now beautiful extended and restored, and away from the mellow house to sweeping green areas planted with mature trees. An alternative is Charingworth Manor, near Chipping Campden, a glorious old house dating back to the early 14th century.

Go to the southern end of the Cotswolds for the second night. Calcot Manor has gorgeous rooms, two restaurants and a state-of-the-art spa. Its family facilities (full-time crèche, computer games and a tiny cinema for teenagers) are second to none. For a smaller hotel based in a delightful village, try the Swan Hotel in Bibury. It stands right beside the river and has been recently updated with new self-contained suites. Dormy House Hotel in Broadway is a former 17th-century farmhouse which feels just like a home. All these and more can be found in the Cotswolds Finest Hotels selection, www.cotswoldsfinesthotels.com. It's worth keeping all these hotels in mind for afternoon tea stops if you find yourself nearby.

DAY 1

Lords of the Manor

Lords of the Manor

Pick up your car either in Oxford or at Heathrow and make your fist stop at Woodstock, known as the gateway to the Cotswolds, just beyond Oxford on the A44. It's the setting for one of Britain's grandest houses. Blenheim Palace is a baroque masterpiece, the direct result of the spoils of war. It was built by John Churchill, who owed his and his subsequent family's grandeur to his military leadership of the English Army, which roundly and soundly beat the French at the battle of Blenheim in 1704. The rout of the enemy earned him a handsome gift from a grateful Queen Anne. After walking through the seemingly endless but highly impressive State Rooms of a building intended to impress rather than be lived in, refuel with a mid-morning coffee at the creeper-clad Bear, an old coaching inn with a garden for summer months and a roaring fire in the bar for the winter. Nearby Bladon is worth a quick stop to see the graves of Sir Winston Churchill, his wife Clementine, and his British and American ancestors. It's a surprisingly small, domestic English country churchyard setting for such an illustrious family.

The Cotswolds is an area to get lost in (don't worry, it's impossible to get really lost), so branch off the main highways and turn down the narrow single track roads that criss cross the green hilly countryside. You're making for lunch at the Kingham Plough, which you'll find beside the village green. It's run by chef/owner Mary Emily Watkins who worked at the famous Fat Duck in Bray, though the dishes here are mainstream rather than cutting-edge (local beef with chips and garden salad; Cornish turbot with sweetbreads and root vegetables).

Then it's up to Daylesford, a mere couple of miles north on the same road for its extremely high-end farm shop and Spa, offering the best of organic foods and ethically sourced clothing. This is posh living, country-style.

Go up to the main A436, turn left, and after a ten-minute drive, you will arrive at Stow-on-the-Wold (the name means a meeting place on the hill), standing high above the surrounding countryside. Built around an enclosed square to give it protection, the former wool town has some good antique shops and is the center for some excellent walking trails. A scenic drive north on the A429 brings you to Moreton-in-Marsh and the Marshmallow Tea Rooms. It's always a good time for afternoon tea, particularly in this tea room with its old pine dresser and terrace and old-time favorites like toasted tea cakes, apple pie and classic Bakewell tart.

Moreton-in-Marsh

Moreton-in-Marsh

Make your next stop at Chipping Campden, an easy drive about eleven miles north. It's a town full of handsome houses dating from the 14th to the 18th century. Lining the main street, the stone mansions were built by the medieval fat cats whose wealth came from running the Cotswold wool trade. Chipping Campden is highly photogenic; it also has an old Market Hall of 1627 and a long row of old alms houses to house the poor near the splendid church.

Hidcote Manor Garden, a ten-minute, four-mile drive through small lanes north from Chipping Campden is a star among gardens, a place of superb "garden rooms", each distinctly different space boxed in with high hedges and planted with rare shrubs and trees, created in Arts & Crafts style by the self-taught horticulturist Lawrence Johnston from 1907 to 1947. Some seven miles south, back down through Chipping Campden you'll come across the equally interesting but very different Mill Dene Garden in Brockley where the scents of heavily perfumed plants and the sound of the fast running stream that powered the Mill fill the air.

A couple of miles south, Bourton House Garden is another privately owned gem that has been brought back from a former wilderness over the last twenty years by its enthusiastic owners. Bourton House is noted for its interesting plants, its imaginative garden spaces, water features and topiary; it's the kind of place that makes you long to win the lottery and embark on such a horticultural journey yourself. And it also does very good light lunches and cream teas.

Fox Inn

The Fox Inn

There's one more treasure to visit, just one mile south of Bourton House but a complete contrast. For a touch of fantasy, visit Sezincote, an Indian house and garden built in grandiose Moghul style in 1810. It's a full-blown, wonderful folly, all gorgeous domes and minarets, peacock tail windows and pavilions, with a Persian Garden of Paradise. It was the inspiration of Charles Cockerell who returned from India determined to build, rather eccentrically, a corner of Rajasthan in the rolling Cotswold countryside.

If you're after a country pub for a drink at the end of the day before driving to your hotel, drive to Stow-on-the-Wold then make for Lower Oddington east of the town on the A436 about six miles from Sezincote. The Fox Inn here is full of suitably Renard-like decorations and local beers like Hook Norton's best bitter plus a changing list of beers on offer.

At the Lords of the Manor, a drink in the bar followed by dinner offers a good introduction to modern British cooking at its best. The newly arrived young chef Matt Weedon produces dishes like foie gras with eel and apple, or oysters in own-smoke salmon, local lamb or Gressingham duck perfectly cooked, and the lightest of desserts, using local ingredients and suppliers where possible.

Continue to Day 2

MORE COTSWOLDS INFORMATION

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