Adventures in Arcadia
With its honey-stone villages and manor houses, its rolling landscape of sheep-nibbled hills and its handsome churches, the Cotswolds is heart-tuggingly beautiful. Who wouldn’t want to visit for a short break – or a long one, for that matter? The 800 or so square miles that make up the region are criss-crossed with footpaths and bisected by dry stone walls, about 4,000 miles of them, adding architectural embellishment to the natural artistry here. There’s a wealth to explore, from Roman remains at Chedworth to contemporary craft in Cirencester – and a cornucopia of great country houses to visit as well.
But you couldn’t possibly take in the entire region over a couple of days. So home in on an appealing part. To the north are the delights of exquisite Chipping Campden and the glorious gardens of Hidcote and Kiftsgate. To the east is historic Burford, lined with fabulous old coaching inns. To the west is Laurie Lee’s Slad Valley and pretty, creative little Painswick. Further to the south east is Tetbury, royally connected and oddly off-radar to major tourism for its charms. And wherever you go you’ll find immensely pleasing, if often pricey, places to stay, from boutique and country house hotels to characterful pubs and elegant b&bs.
Hot right now . . .
Harriet O’Brien, our resident expert, offers her tips on the top things to do and best places to stay and eat this season.
Cheltenham has upped its cool quotient with the opening of The House at No 131 (131 Promenade; 01242 822939). Eight chic bedrooms are arranged around a Georgian town mansion now reconfigured as an extension to hip No 131 Hotel next door.
Gracious Dormy House Hotel (Farncombe Estate, Willersy Hill; 01386 852711) has been wowing the Cotswolds with two new restaurants. The Back Gardenis stylishly informal and offers slow-cooked fine dining and great flavours from the area. MO is a gourmet haven, an intimate 12-seater restaurant providing a seven-course tasting menu and an immersive experience – you sit at a counter and watch the chefs at work.
Drive around the Cotswolds in a classic car from the fleet of 20 at Great Escape Cars (01527 893733). Hire a Triumph TR6 and put the roof down on a sunny day, enjoy the quirks of a Morris Minor with its half-timber styling, or opt for the pizzazz of an E-type Jag. From £199 per day.
48 hours in . . . the Cotswolds
Start by exploring handsome Tetbury. It’s a small market town with big appeal ‒ and it is perfect pottering territory. Begin with a wander around its ancient centre where the splendid 17th-century Tetbury Market House (3 Church St), strikingly set on pillars, looks out over old stone houses that were once the homes of wealthy wool merchants. Stop for a pick-me-up at Veloton (22 Market Pl; 01666 504343) – this cheerful and mildly eccentric café-cum-bike shop serves seriously good coffee. Then meander northwards to take in picturesque Chipping Steps, a steep cobbled lane lined with old weavers’ cottages.
Tetbury offers brilliant browsing, particularly along Church Street and Long Street, from a rich array of eastern homeware at Artique (17 Church St; 01666 503597) to a wealth of antiques and designer goods at Top Banana (1 New Church St; 0871 288 1102), Brownrigg (14 Long St; 01666 500 887), Treacle George (21 Market Pl; 01666 838524) and more.
Make time, too, to drop by the Highgrove Shop (10 Long St; 01666 505666), the gift and gardening accessories store of Prince Charles’ Highgrove estate two miles south of town – it’s posh and a bit pricey but its jams and chutneys, complete with Prince of Wales fleur-de-lis packaging, make excellent presents. Book well in advance to visit the prince’s Highgrove Gardens (£27.50 per person), one of the most glorious gardens in the Cotswolds, which are open on select days.
For lunch head a few miles south to Westonbirt Arboretum (entry £10; 0300 067 4890), one of the world’s most magnificent tree parks; here the rustic-looking Westonbirt Restaurant (01666 880064) serves an appealing range of soups, toasted sandwiches, healthy casseroles and more. It’s a decent pit stop before you start exploring the national treasure that is Westonbirt, home to about 15,000 trees including prodigious redwoods, rare acers and a lime avenue. There’s a network of about 17 miles of footpaths, as well as a 42ft high treetop walkway.
Alternatively (or in addition, if you’ve got time) make for Rodmarton Manor (01285 841442), five miles northeast of Tetbury. This exquisite Arts & Crafts honey stone country mansion contains early 20th-century furniture specially crafted for the property, and has a breath-taking eight-acre garden divided into outdoor 'rooms' that variously offer fabulous herbaceous borders, abundant roses and fine topiary.
For a foodie treat reserve a table at Wilder (Market St, Nailsworth; 01453 835483), about 15 minutes’ drive north of Tetbury. You’ll need to arrive by 7.30pm, along with the other guests at this intimate restaurant, and you’ll be taken on a taste adventure with an eight-course surprise menu (you discuss allergies or food foibles on the phone beforehand). The innovative dishes of chef Matthew Bearshall are mini works of art packed with flavour contrasts, such as smoked eel with roasted beetroot and chestnut mousse with butternut squash ice cream.
Go north to Laurie Lee country. Tucked into pastoral landscape of rounded hills and patchwork fields, the wonderful Slad Valley is celebrated in Lee’s best-known book 'Cider with Rosie'. The author largely grew up in little Slad village, squeezed into a tiny cottage with his mother and six brothers and sisters. Lee returned to live in Slad in later life and became a passionate conservationist, buying land in the valley to safeguard it. After his death in 1997 some of it was given to the Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust.
Max out on country air and follow the trust’s Laurie Lee walking trail from the village. It’s a five-mile circular route taking in woodland, limestone grassland rich in wild flowers (including rare orchids) and steep hills with terrific views – and it’s dotted with posts inscribed with Lee’s poetry.
Back in Slad, have lunch at The Woolpack (01452 813429), Lee’s much-loved local. It’s a creaky old place with settles, vases of wild flowers and whitewashed walls hung with vintage photographs. There’s a small menu offering sandwiches, battered haddock and more elaborate options such as quail with celeriac remoulade.
East of Slad is the halcyon Miserdenestate. The 15-minute drive there is glorious, twisting through narrow valleys grazed by sure-footed sheep. Head to the 17th-century manor in Miserden village – the house isn’t open to the public but the garden is year-round – with its impressive trees and stunning planting, it’s much loved by true horticultural enthusiasts yet it remains off-radar to mainstream tourism so you feel a hugely satisfying sense of discovery. Wander the grounds and then have tea at the greenhouse café.
If the weather is uninviting, there’s a wonderful indoor alternative further south. Chavenage House is an Elizabethan mansion five miles north of Westonbirt (and two miles northwest of Tetbury). You’ll know it when you see it; the house has featured on screen many times, from the 2008 series of Tess of the D'urbevilles to the 2015 adaptation of Wolf Hall and, most prominently, as Trenwith Manor in the four (soon to be five) Poldark series. Members of the resident family whose ancestral pile this is take small groups on guided tours to see highlights such as the tapestried room where Oliver Cromwell once slept, sharing tales of Chavenage’s ghosts along the way.
For real Cotswold flavour head to Shipton Moyne, three miles south of Tetbury, and have dinner at the Cat & Custard Pot (The Street; 01666 880 249). The much-loved village inn belongs to a couple of local families who have ensured it remains a proper, unfussy pub. The well-priced menu is very much based on ingredients from the area – pork belly with apple and tarragon compote; potato pancakes with spinach and walnuts.
Where to stay . . .
You sink into laid-back glamour and supreme comfort at Calcot & Spa about an eight-minute drive from Tetbury. Here a former farmhouse and outbuildings have been beautifully translated into a 35-bedroom contemporary country house hotel. It has a tremendous range of facilities, from a large and lovely spa to swimming pools, tennis courts, disc golf, nature trails – and for those with small children, a wonderful Ofsted-registered crèche.
Doubles from £209. Calcot, near Tetbury; 01666 890391
The Close, right in the heart of Tetbury, combines a great sense of style with good value. It’s a pleasing property dating back to the 16th century and now with 18 chic bedrooms. There’s a snoozy sitting room with fireplace, a welcoming bar, a brasserie-style restaurant and a hidden back garden that really comes into its own in spring and summer.
Doubles from £115. Long St; 01666 502272
On a hill above Tetbury’s Goods Shed art centre, The Royal Oak is a 1780s inn with retro-stylish furnishings, a warm community spirit and six well-priced bedrooms in an annexe that once housed the skittles alley. There’s much appeal here: an arty vibe, an eco-sensitive outlook, a garden with a great view and a generous dining room offering classic pub fare and vegan options.
Doubles from £85. 1 Cirencester Rd; 01666 500021
What to bring home . . .
Godsell’s artisan cheese (01453 827802) made by a farming family in the village of Leonard Stanley – the Holy Smoked single Gloucester is especially good.
Soaps by College Green (available at Stroud Farmers' Market; 07787 161911) – aromatic and handmade in the Stroud valley using natural ingredients, from rosemary and mint to lemongrass, ginger and oat.
When to go . . .
Every season has intrinsic appeal. Crowd-free winters are ideal for bracing walks, fire-side pub sessions – and lower hotel prices. Come in spring to see lambs and wild daffodils. Visit in summer (inevitably with many others) for magical light, particularly in the long evenings. Or make an autumn excursion for a quieter atmosphere and wonderful leaf colour, especially at the two great arboreta, Westonbirt and Batsford.
Know before you go . . .
Don’t ask about Jeremy Clarkson, Rebekah Brooks, Kate Moss, Alex James, Jilly Cooper and others from a long list of the great, the good and the notorious who call the Cotswolds home (or second home). Locals are largely uncharmed by celeb culture.
Enjoy the affluence of the Cotswolds – the well-kept towns and villages, the carefully conserved countryside. But be aware that the cost of living is especially high: it is a challenge to find comfortable hotel accommodation at less than £90 a night for a double room.
Traffic at peak times can be a nightmare, particularly the A429 between Stow-on-the Wold and Cirencester during July and August. Avoid the A40 between Burford and Cheltenham on Bank Holidays and (going eastwards) on Sunday nights.
Harriet O’Brien's work has taken her from Amsterdam to Amritsar, Belgium to Burma and of course numerous destinations in Britain. She lives in the Cotswolds – which she says ‘ranks in my top five most beautiful places in the world’.
Experience the Cotswolds with The Telegraph
Telegraph Travel's best hotels, tours and holidays in the Cotswolds, tried, tested and recommended by our Cotswolds experts.