Slow Cotswolds

  • Make time for the Maytime

    I spend alot of time assessing and reviewing accommodation throughout the Cotswolds, both for The Telegraph and also to ensure that only the very best (not necessarily the most expensive), or should I say the most worthy makes it into Slow Travel: The Cotswolds.

    One such is The Maytime Inn at Asthall. Located in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds, Asthall is pleasantly remote and rural. It's not actually all that far from the quintessentially Cotswold town of Burford, or expanding Witney, but, nonetheless, wander the tranquil lanes through the village and you're far removed from the stresses and strains of daily life.

    Asthall is the perfect place for a ramble beside the pretty River Windrush (page 171), a tributary of the River Thames. The Windrush is seen deeper into the Cotswolds at Naunton, Bourton-on-the-Water and, latterly, Burford - and it flows at the end of the garden of The Maytime Inn on its way to the Thames. The views are sublime.

    The Maytime Inn has all the charm of a traditional country pub but there's plenty of modern day, high-class chic. The long frontage of the Cotswold stone building, adorned with tubs of flowers, is soothing on the eye, but then so is the garden, lined with roses and gorgeously scented herbs.

    Indoors there's a relaxed vibe with squidgy leather sofas, a large wood burning stove, candles and low-level lighting that bounces off arched mirrors. Fresh country flowers sit on the tables made from reclaimed timber.

    As for the food, well, attention to detail is evident. All dishes are made on the premises, including the bread, biscuits and ice cream and ingredients are locally sourced.

    If you're looking for a snuggly place to stay, I highly recommend here. There are six bedrooms, each reflecting the surrounding countryside using designer papers as a feature and furnished imaginatively with bespoke reclaimed timber furniture, shutters at the windows and soft leather seating. Beds are lavishly comfortable while guests can feel luxuriously pampered in the en-suite bathrooms with supplies of Cotswold toiletries. A high-quality tea tray includes fresh milk and homemade biscuits.

  • In fine voice - Birdsong Weekend

    A glorious weekend of walks, concerts and the opportunity to sing like a bird (yes, really) in the grounds of the beautiful Asthall Manor (page 176) - you can really get to know your skylarks from your song thrushes, just by the sound of their voice at the Birdsong Weekend, held from 14th to 16th June.

    Birdsong Walks

    Take a tour around the wonderful gardens of Asthall Manor with Peter Cowdray. Peter is a composer who is inspired by birdsong. He will be your guide as you walk around the garden and woodland, differentiating the songs and calls of a few common species.

    Birdsong Concerts

    Held in the garden, there weill be two concerts by The Conference of Birds, with birdsong-inspired music interspersed with wild gypsy fiddling as the real birds of Adthall sing around the natural pool.

    Sing like a bird studio visit

    Throughout the weekend, film-maker Sunny Moodie will turn you into a bird of your choice, by filming you reproducing a slowed-down birdsong, speeding it up to the speed of the original birdsong and playing it back. There are bookable 10-minute slots.

    All events must be pre-booked, with not access to the garden without a booking except on Sunday afternoon 2-6pm, when the garden is open for the National Garden Scheme.

    The Potting Shed Cafe

    A visit to Asthall Manor is not complete without a bite to eat at The Potting Shed Cafe, which will be open for the Birdsong Weekend on 15th and 16th June.

    15th June - 12 noon to 7.30pm open for lunch, tea, cake and early evening pre-concert drinks (including Pimms and our house rosé) and antipasti

    16th June - 12 noon to 6pm open for lunch, tea and cake

    Summer Suppers: Celebrate summer evenings at The Potting Shed. The wood oven will be lit every Wednesday evening during June, July and August for al fresco suppers. These will be casual evenings with canapes on arrival followed by various mezze style sharing dishes highlighting the best seasonal produce and a delicious pudding. Tickets will be £30 person; bring your own drinks.

    Asthall Manor, once owned and lived in by the renowned Mitford family, is a glorious Jacobean manor house in the tiny tucked-away Oxfordshire Cotswolds' village of Asthall, four miles from Burford. To book any of the walks, concerts or studio time, visit

  • Welcome to the psychedlic pleasure dome - the new show from Cotswolds' Giffords Circus

    Circus owner and Producer Nell Gifford and Director Cal McCrystal have reimagined Giffords Circus (page 263) as a psychedelic pleasure dome for their new 250-date UK tour, which opened earlier this month.

    Xanadu takes its name from Samuel Taylor Coleridge's famous romantic poem Kubla Kahn, where Xanadu is a mythical garden of bliss where anything can happen.

    Nell and Cal have set their vision of Xanadu in the psychedelic Seventies, creating a garden full of joy, freedom and flowers, where the flower power movement is at its height. Hippies, hipsters, rock stars, musicians, wild women and global nomads with Shamanic horses gather to play, sing, dance, protest and perform.

    "Xanadu is one big party and we want audiences to engage with their inner hippie and be wowed by the amazing feats of human strength and achievement and be part of something really special," says Cal.

    The pleasure dome has been created by acclaimed production designer takis and draws heavily from both 60's and 70's influences. The music is hypnotic and exciting and acts a s a device to lure the audience into the show, the finale is a psychedelic spectacle, and will have everyone dancing in the ring in true Giffords tradition.

    Xanadu provides an opportunity to forget their everyday troubles; a place for people to escape daily life and be swept up in the colour, drama and death-defying acts of the fantasy world of circus.

    Xanadu runs until 29th September 2019 and tickets start from £10 children and £15 adults. For more information and to book visit Tour dates of the Cotswolds-based circus include:

    Sudeley Castle, Winchcombe - 16th to 28th May

    Daylesford Organic Farm, Stow-on-the-Wold - 30th May to 3rd June

    Blenheim Palace, Woodstock - 6th to 10th June

    Oxford University Parks - 14th to 24th June

    Chiswick House & Gardens (London) - 27th June to 8th July

    Windsor Great Park - 11th to 22nd July

    Stonor Park (Henley-on-Thames) - 25th to 29th July

    Barrington, Burford - 1st to 12th August

    Minchinhampton Common, Stroud - 15th to 27th August

    Marlborough Common, Wiltshire - 30th August to 9th September

    Stratton Meadows, Cirencester - 12th to 16th September

    Fennells Farm, Stroud (the home of Giffords Circus) - 19th to 29th September

    Giffords Circus - a true imaginative and artistic Cotswolds' phenomenon (page 263)

    Nell Gifford is the founder, producer and artisitic director of the much-loved Giffords Circus based in the Cotswolds. Nell performs an equestrian act in the shows and is a painter, as well as a published author.

    Nell lives at Fennells Farm, Stroud, also the Gifffords Circus HQ, with her twin children Red and Cecil. She ran away with the circus when she was eighteen and fell instantly in love with this forgotten art form. She read English at New College Oxford and then joined the first circus that came to town. Since then she worked on several shows in the UK before joining Circus Roncalli in Germany.

    This circus inspired Nell and her fiance, Toti Gifford, a farmer's son from Cheltenham, to start their own circus, which they called Giffords Circus. Their first show appeared in 2000 and has toured the Cotswolds, home counties and London, having entertained more than a million people since and beloved of locals, farmers, rock stars, royalty and runaways everywhere.

  • Textiles in Tetbury (and more besides)

    The Cotswolds has long been associated with a tradition of excellence in the Arts and Crafts. Indeed, the region is synonymous with the Arts and Crafts Movement of the early 20th Century.

    So it is joyous to see those longstanding traditions continuing. The epitomy of excellenve shines through none more so than with The Gloucestershire Guild of Craftsmen. The Guild's latest exhibition will take place in Tetbury (pages 266-8), a town noted for its interior design shops today but also for its long associations, like so many towns in the Cotswolds, with the wool trade. Naturally, the Guild's exhibition will be displayed in the town's Market House, where wool and textiles were sold for centuries.

    Twenty members of The Guild will show their creativity and craftsmanship in this historic hall. The fair is a wonderful opportunity to view, buy and commission unique handcrafted work across all media and to also see how pieces are made. Each day brings a new demonstration by a designer / maker in jewellery, ceramics, weaving, book making, and basketry.

    Guild members will be on hand to discuss their craft and inspiration. Expect exquisite pieces from all disciplines including ceramics by Anne James (pictured), bespoke furniture by Graham Ikin, knitted textiles by Sue Bradley and wonderful willow weaving by basket maker Susan Early. A full list of exhibitors plus demonstrations during the show can be found on The Guild's website.

    Guild Crafts Tetbury takes place at the Market House from 10am to 6pm daily between 1st to 9th June, with free admission.

    Why not make a day or even a weekend of it? Make time to visit St Saviour's Church and also St Mary's Church, whose churchyard always looks extremely colourful at this time of year as it has been planted with hundreds of perennial wildflowers. It provides a peaceful retreat from the bustle of the town's two main streets, the High Street and Long Street, where you can also visit the Highgrove Shop, the flagship store for HRH The Prince of Wales's Highgrove Collection of gifts, inspired by his private estate near Tetbury.

    Another address worth visiting, just to the west of Tetbury, is Chavenage, a magnificent Elizabethan, Cotswold stone house and gardens. It is open from May to September on Thursday and Sunday afteroons.

  • Hook Norton Brewery wins VisitEngland Hidden Gem Award

    Hook Norton Brewery (pages 106-7) has been awarded the Southeast's Hidden Gem Award in VisitEngland Visitor Attraction Accolades that recognises the quality of visitor experiences across England.

    Designed to celebrate excellence within the visitor attraction sector, VisitEngland's Accolades showcase those businesses in their quality scheme that go the extra mile to provide a high quality day out, whether through a warm welcome, an engaging story, a delicious lunch or the overall visitor experience. The award was based on the score obtained following their Visitor Attraction Quality Scheme assessment.

    Hook Norton Brewery, located in the village of the same name on the edge of the Cotswolds, has developed into a popular place to visit offering visitors brewery tours, a free village and brewery museum and the Malthouse Restaurant.

    The brewery, which has won dozens of worldwide awards for its renowned ales over the years, celebrates its 170th anniversary this year. In Slow Travel The Cotswolds, I describe it:

    "As I approach my local brewery along the narrow, twisting lane, it suddenly appears like a giant friend, the sun lightening the dark brown ironstone, the familiar black-and-white timber latticeowrk decorating the skyline.

    "How beautiful this listed industrial construction is at close quarters! I say a 'giant friend' because the building, though tucked away in the west end of this thriving north Oxfordshire village, is a landmark for locals approaching Hook Norton.

    "Inside and out, there is a buzz of activity. As I step inside, the smell of brewing hops pervades the air on the first floor, the sweetness of malted barley on the second, with a maze of staircases, huge timber barrels, giant copper cauldrons and steel tanks, old wooden floors and the sunlight throwing shafts of warmth across the cool brick floor of the racking room. And, at the very top of this traditional six-storey Victorian tower brewery is the architectural gem - some of the most spectacular views across north Oxfordshire, Warwickshire and Northamptonshire.

    "To say that Hook Norton Brewery is old-fashioned would totally misrepresent its 170-year history. Forward thinking, it celebrates and embraces its tradition (it still retains its 100+-year-old steam engine to run parts of the brewery machinery).

    "The brewery's Managing Director, James Clarke, is an old primary school acquaintance of mine. In the playground the 'What do you wnat to be when you grow up?' line was never really discussed but I guess 'brewer' would have been an automatic answer. James followed his father into the family business, one that was set up by his great-great grandfather John Harris in 1849, each generation handing down the secrets to the masterful art of brewing."

    Of the recent VisitEngland award, James says, "We are absolutely delighted to receive this award. We are so lucky to have a wonderful brewery site, in a stunning location, and welcome lots of visitors throughout the year to learn about brewing and sample beers, to see the amazing Victorian engineering and, of course, our working shire horses. This award recognises all the hard work our team put in to make sure a visit here is one to remember."

    The brewery Visitors' Centre and Malthouse Restaurant is open every day of the week, with tours of the brewery by prior booking. A shop on site sells the full range of 'Hooky' ales. And, if you can't make it to the brewery (though you really should try!), you'll certainly find a pint of Hooky served in many of the wonderful Cotswold pubs.

  • Feasting autumn eyes on Fairford

    There are many places in the Cotswolds that warrant a visit in autumn. That's unsurprising when one of the trees most synonymous with the region is the beech, which offers all the shimmering copper one can ask for. Yes, the Cotswold countryside is perfect for crunchy autumn walks. But what of the towns?

    One that particularly lends itself to autumn is Fairford (pages 191-2), an unpretentious out-of-the-limelight town with all the hallmarks of the Cotswolds without actually fitting into the AONB proper. Fairford sits on the River Coln (a tributary of the Thames and the very same river that flows through overly-touristy Bibury) and there are glorious walks to be had in and around the town, with a tremendous display of autumn flair, even in the town centre churchyard.

    Notable medieval stained glass

    For some Fairford means the RAF airbase as the location for one of the world's largest annual air displays, the Royal International Air Tattoo. And yet this quiet town is the antithesis of all this show of strength and force, the only strength shown in the town from the wool-trade wealth invested in the 15th-century church of St Mary the Virgin.

    The church, with its giant walnut tree at the entrance, dominates the very attractive High Street. Its near-complete set of medieval stained-glass windows are world famous, depicting scenes from the life of Christ, culminating in the Last Judgement. I also like the fact that the bell ropes hang right in the centre of the church where the bellringing is clear for all to see. Don't forget to pay your respects at the memorial for Tiddles, the church cat, in the churchyard. For the best view of the church, wander along the footpath to the west of the River Coln.

    Pumpkin soup at The Oxpens

    Northwest of the High Street, close to the river, are the oxpens, ancient stalls where cattle once fed after a hard day's ploughing. They've been fully restored and the sunny courtyard is the perfect place to pull out a flask of pumpkin soup. You can also begin a riverside walk from here - via Back Lane. Following the river until it reaches the Cotswold Water Park (pages 214-16), it returns alongside a lake and back into the East End of town towards the Walnut Tree Field where the annual Fairford Festival takes place every summer. Or being along the High Street, following a browse in the various independent shops, and follow the signs for the River Walk.

    There's also a footpath for a walk to the neighbouring village of Quenington, north by the river and across water meadows for approximately one mile. The river flows through Fairford Park, a 4,200-acre estate and, though private, there's a permissive footpath that joins up with a public footpath to Quenington allowing you to walk along further stretches of the river and the little Pitcham Brook. A route map can be downloaded from the website

    Eat and sleep in Fairford

    If you're looking for a place to eat - or get your head down for a relaxing night or two - I can recommend The Bull Hotel. It's a very attractive Grade II listed coaching inn built of Cotswold stone and situated right in the centre of Fairford, on the Market Place at the southern end of the High Street. Internally, the decor is welcoming with cosy lounges and an informal dining room while the bedrooms are comfortable and spacious.

    The chic copper bar is a focal point, as is the open fireplace (with giant bull's head above) that dominates one of two cosy bar lounges with sofas and armchairs. For eats, you can select between informal dining in the large lounge bar or, for a little refinement, in the separate dining room where the smouldering blue decor and moody, low lighting provides an intimate atmosphere.

    There's an Italian and Mediterranean influence to the menus with a choice of stonebaked pizzas and 'Bull Club Classics' (sirloin of beef focaccia club sandwich with fries) or an imaginative À la Carte selection (lamb tagine with couscous, chickpeas and harissa and warm salad of wood pigeon with dandelion, lardons and croutons as two examples).

    Should you be staying overnight, breakfast is excellent with a multitude of cooked dishes to order plus high quality fruit juices, a choice of soaked dried fruits, compote and yoghurts with granola, bircher muesli, cereals, charcuterie, fresh bread and pastries plus homemade jam.

    Twenty-one double/twin bedrooms are decorated individually with a muted grey theme running throughout the hotel accommodation as a basis upon which splashes of colour are showcased. Attic room 14, for example, is in soothing pale grey with Quake Grey Shaker-style wood panelling while blue velvet and Cinnabar red patterned cushions and attractive swan-neck chrome/glass bedside lamps lift the tone. The good-sized en-suite bathroom has a double-sized shower and roll-top, claw-foot bath.

  • Last few days to view Oxford's Tolkien exhibition

    Visitors have just a fortnight left to view the Bodleian Libraries' once-in-a-generation exhibition, Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth, which closes on Sunday 28th October. So far the exhibition has welcomed more than 100,000 visitors from around the world, making it the Bodleian's most popular exhibition ever.

    The unmissable exhibition presents the most extensive collection of materials related to J.R.R. Tolkien known to have been gathered together for public display, with more than 200 items including never-before-seen illustrations, letters, draft manuscripts, fan mail and personal objects. Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth examines the full breadth of Tolkien's unique literary imagination, from his creation of Middle-earth - the imagined world where his best-known works The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit are set - to his life and work as an artist, poet, medievalist and scholar of languages.

    The free exhibition has received high praise from both members of the public and the press. Visitors have called the exhibition 'a truly remarkable experience', 'an adventure through Middle-earth' and 'a magical experience that really brings the books to life'. Tolkien fans old and new, from the UK and overseas, have visited the exhibition, leaving drawings and messages in Elvish in the visitor book.

    Richard Ovenden, the Bodleian's Librarian, says, "We are delighted at the incredible response to our Tolkien exhibition. We encourage visitors to make the most of the next couple of weeks to come and enjoy the unparalleled selection of Tolkien materials on show and discover more about this creative and literary genius."

    In addition to the exhibition, a range of Tolkien-related talks and lectures continue at the Weston Library throughout the remainder of October. There's also plenty of time to use the Bodleian's online trail to take a self-guided walking tour exploring Tolkien's Oxford. For more information, visit

    J.R.R. Tolkien spent most of his adult life in Oxford. He came to Oxford University in 1911, aged nineteen, to study Greats (Classics) at Exeter College, but switched to English part-way through. After serving in France during World War One, he returned to Oxford to work on the New English Dictionary (later the Oxford English Dictionary) whilst also tutoring in English for various colleges. After five years in Leeds, he returned to Oxford in 1925 and remained there for the rest of his working ife. He is buried with his wife, Edith, in Wolvercote Cemetary in Oxford.

    Entrance to the Tolkien exhibtion is free but ticketed and can be booked via the web address above.

  • 'Come on England!' or Come to the Cotswolds to escape

    Swedish 'Lagom'. It can mean many things but a healthy lifestyle and mindfulness kind of sum it up. And, let's face it, watching any England match, devotee of the beautiful game or otherwise, usually needs to come with a health warning.

    If, this Saturday, football simply isn't coming home for you and you'd rather pull toenails than add to the statistician's joy of counting the multi-millions due to watch 'that' match with our Scandinavian friends, I may just have the answer for you. Or, if you're a devoted fan of the footy (Come on England!) but the agony of sitting (or leaping up and down) through yet another penalty shoot-out simply sends the heart-rate off the scale, here are some Cotswold alternatives to bring mindfulness and draw your thoughts away from the game.

    It's going to be a hot one this Saturday so these substitutes for the match are heading into the shade:

    1. Dover's Hill (page 79-80): the top of Dover's Hill, along which runs the Cotswold Way National Trail, is likely to burn your bonce but head downhill towards Lynches Wood where you'll find plenty of shady patches to sit and keep your cool. You could even have bubbles with strawberries and cream (Wimbledon, anyone?)

    2. A stroll along the Macmillan Way from Shenington to Whichford, in the north of the Cotswolds AONB, will take you along Ditchedge Lane, a long, straight and ancient path with spectacular views towards Brailes Hill (p107) and Ilmington Down. There are no yellow or red cards here - the fields are filled with blue flax at the moment and look very striking. Along the way you'll come to Traitor's Ford (p106), where the River Stour crosses the road and where you can peel off sweaty socks for a cool foot dip. Should you feel the need to check the scores, there are pubs in Shenington, Epwell and Whichford, all en route.

    3. One of the most striking properties in the Cotswolds is Sudeley Castle (pages 152-3) in Winchcombe. It was the home of Catherine Parr (widow of King Henry VIII) after he died and she is buried in the chapel within the castle grounds. And it is the grounds and gardens that look at their most colourful at this time of year. Brimming with roses and pungent borders, you can opt to view the Knot Garden here rather than find your stomach tied up in knots with every tackle and dive.

    4. Prestbury Hill Reserve (p156) is close to the highest point in Cheltenham. It's not exactly shaded but there are plenty of trees to stroll among and, with the weather proving celestial, you should find clouds of butterflies rather than puffy white clouds. This is, after all, a nature reserve belonging to Butterfly Conservation. The perfect summer scene.

    5. Blenheim Palace, a UNESCO World Heritage Site for good reason, receives some of the highest visitor numbers of any UK attraction. But you can escape the crowds (yes, it will still be busy, even on Saturday) with a walk around the Blenheim Great Park (directions on p207). You'll find some wonderfully shady spots on the north side of The Lake, particularly the slivery artery that runs along the Evenlode river valley, from where you'll see pretty views of Woodstock Church in the distance. Fancy a drink and catch the end of the match? There's no shortage of pubs in Woodstock.

    6. Immerse yoursefl beneath a cathedral-like canopy of beech trees with a circular walk from Cranham, through Buckholt, Brockworth and Cooper's Hill woods. They're all part of the internationally recognised Cotswold Commons and Beechwoods National Nature Reserve (page 241). Strolling along the well-worn footpaths (including a small section of the Cotswold Way), you'll forget that television was ever invented or that there's a football match going on. Anyway, here, the game is cheese-rolling - chasing after a ball (wheel, actually) of chesse, not leather.

    7. With the exception of the ever-popular village of Castle Combe, the Wiltshire Cotswolds is one of the quietest locales within the region. The Limpley Stoke Valley (pages 293-5) is also one of the most sublime and you can catch a glimpse of the valley with a wander along the edge of Brown's Folly (p294).

  • Cotswolds-on-Sea

    When the summer sun shines, the temptation is to gravitate towards the coast - but the Cotswolds doesn't have much, indeed any, coastline! For sure, it's one of the most landlocked areas of England with, at best, a one-hour journey to reach sandy beaches and rolling surf and, from further north of the region, at least a couple of hours.

    But the Cotswolds, with its rolling beauty, deserves more than such desertion when the going gets hot. And with a smattering of outdoor lidos and lifeguarded lakes, there's every opportunity to cool off in the water. It's a 'no' to jellyfish and 'yes' to jelly and ice-cream - and no more sand in your sandwiches. Yeah!

    Sandford Lido, Cheltenham

    Open unti Friday 12th October

    If you have aspirations to become an Olympic swimmer - or you are one and need to top-up on some training as well as a tan - Sandford Parks Lido (page 159) is your location. The size of an Olympic swimming pool (seriously, it's a 10-lane, 50-metre outdoor pool), there are plenty of opportunities to perfect your pull and brush up on your breaststroke turns, or simply pound up and down to keep in trim. There are swimming lessons too, SwimFit, Aqua Aerobics and a land and water-based Lido Fitness Camp held every Tuesday morning. Plus, of course, lots of splash time. A smaller, children's pool sits adjacent and both, with an accompanying cafe, are located in a large, leafy park in the centre of Cheltenham.

    Cirencester Open Air Swimming Pool

    Open until Sunday 9th September

    Within a five-minute walk from Cirencester town centre (page 194) and located on the edge of Cirencester Park, this open-air facility is reputedly Britain's oldest public outdoor swimming pool in continuous use. It was originally built in 1869 but it has had a spruce up since then and the 28-metre pool with slide, children's paddling pool and surrounding sunbathing patio looks pretty inviting on a scorching day. Don't expect grass picnic areas (head into Cirencester Park for those) but, then, that won't be necessary if you visit for one of the popular Night Swims (open 10pm until midnight on 4th August and 24 hours from 1st to 2nd September). There are also Quiet Swims, adults only plus Parent and Baby swims in addition to the essential family splash times.

    Chipping Norton Lido

    Open until Sunday 9th September

    Close to my heart - this is where, as a child, I gained my all-important 25-metre swimming badge! - the lido (page 110) at Chipping Norton is within a five-minute walk of the town centre and is one of the safest environments for families as the pool and picnic area is totally enclosed. It's a very popular place on warm days, not least because of the large grass picnic area beside the pool, sheltered beneath three enormous beech trees. This is a 'green' pool: disguised by its ultra-inviting ultramarine appearance, solar electricity off-sets the lido's usage, a ground-source heat pump assists in the heating of the pool and ultra-violet light is used to improve the water quality. A cafe on site puts funds straight back into the running of the charity-run pool.

    Hinksey Outdoor Pool, Oxford

    Open until September

    One to consider as an escape from the bustle of Oxford city centre, Hinksey lido has sparkling, sprinkling showers mid-pool under which to cool off and plenty of space to have fun in the water. It's a very popular place, though, so it's advisable to purchase a ticket in advance. There's lane swimming in addition to splash areas and lots of grass upon which to pull out a picnic rug.

    Cotswold Country Park and Beach

    Open until Sunday 28th October

    Yes, the Cotswolds does have its very own beach. This really is where the Cotswolds meets the sea. Well, almost. The Cotswold Country Park and Beach swallows up two lakes in the vast Cotswold Water Park (pages 214-6), which is created from a series of former gravel pits that now look as natural as nature intended. This beach is, in fact, the UK's largest inland beach. But there's far more than sand here.

    The lagoon and children's swimming and paddling area is supervised by lifeguards in peak season - this is not about dive-bombing into an unsafe, deserted quarry - and there's open-water training for the more serious aquathlete. The surrounding parkland is perfect for picnics and there are BBQ stations for hire too. Plus, there's an extensive choice of fun and games, including an adventure playground, volleyball court, rowing boats and the ubiquitous pedalo. Not to mention the Wibit Aquaventure, a massive, floating inflatable obstacle course. Order a woodfired pizza from the lakeside Pizzeria or an icecream from the Beach Shack Cafe. I recommend booking tickets in advance to enter the park on a sunny day - there's limited entrance and once full, you won't get in.

    Thermae Bath Spa

    Open all year

    OK, so there's no splash time here - this is R&R for grown-ups (aged 16 years and over) as you gather your rays. The open-air rooftop pool, a part of the New Royal Bath area of the Thermae complex, has the most magnificent views overlooking the impressive Bath Abbey and the surrounding Cotswold hills. The water is naturally heated, mineral-rich and, whether by day or night, offers a truly luxurious Cotswold experience. Air seats, bubbling jets and steam rising (yes, the water is that warm) add to the ambience. The spa's indoor facilities are included as a part of your entrance fee.

    Should you be looking for a really special, more intimate spa experience, The Cross Bath is a small, open-air pool shaded by classical Bath stone walls and is totally separate from the New Royal Bath. Indeed, The Cross Bath is so special, it's recognised as an official sacred site - this is where the Celts paid homage to their Goddess, Sul. You can book an exclusive-use Cross Bath Package with Picnic and Prosecco. Divine!

  • Lavender and lunch - celebrating ten years of The Bell at Alderminster

    Plump cushions of lavender sit side-by-side, fat with scent and the probing tongues of nectar-quenching bumblebees. Each bush sends shoots of tiny purple fireworks into the air that, as the sun evades the speedy cumulus clouds, erupt into iridescent sparklers juxtaposed against the deep green of the box-ball bedfellows. A serpent of Salvia winds its way amongst, enriching the purple-hued gardens while a sugar-pink rose, scrambling up the walls of the adjacent Rococo Gothic house to the right, offers drooping bounty, heavy with fragrance and beauty.

    I descend the shallow set of mottled stone steps into The Lavender Garden and brush past one of the plump cushions. Like its shooting fireworks of purple, the lavender bush explodes with a heady scent that sends a Red Admiral into a dizzying flight to find shelter in an undisturbed corner of the garden.

    The sun timidly affirms summer is here and illuminates the sheep-grazed meadow beyond, divided from the garden by a handsome gothic-arched balustrade and the generously-filled River Stour that, for today drifts placidly past the garden, the house and beyond to its meeting point with the River Avon two miles away.

    I'm at Alscot Park (pages 72-3), a traditional rural estate at the seat of which is the elegant Grade-I listed Rococo Gothic house. With crenellated roofline and Ogee-arched windows, the property, built of pale honey-hued Cotswold stone, is graceful in proportion and standing.

    Emma Holman-West runs the house and estate, which consists of farmland, parkland, village properties and commercial lettings - and a country pub with boutique bedrooms. Emma is the ninth generation of the West family to reside at Alscot Park. Her ancestor James West MP (1703-1772), who was Joint Secretary to the Exchequer and President of the Royal Society, purchased Alscot in 1747 to house his considerable collection of art.

    As I wander the gardens and grounds - first a centuries-old sweet chestnut tree whose fibrous strands of bark twist their way around its broad trunk; next a border of foxgloves, astrantia major and electric delphiniums propelled, rocket-like from amongst the undergrowth; then a Highland Cattle living sculpture deliberately claimed by nature - Emma and her assistant Helen Hunt talk of restoration. Not of the garden, which is immaculately cared for by gardeners Kate, Paul and David, but of the park, which looks out across Ilmington Hill and the north Cotswolds.

    Says Emma, "The parkland surrounding the house was once a 'Rococo' pleasure ground and deer park across 120 acres. With the need to grow crops as part of the war effort during the first half of the 20th Century, the parkland was reduced by half. Ever since I took over the running of the estate, I have longed to restore this parkland setting."

    In 2015 Professor Tom Williamson from the University of East Anglia visited Alscot Park to perform a parkland restoration survey. Looking at historical records dating back to 1787, Tom was able to determine where buildings, structures and specific parkland trees once stood. As from November 2018, Emma and her team will begin reinstating some of these historic features, most notably the planting of trees in selected places.

    With excitement in the air at an impending trip to a nursery to select trees for the park, Helen explained, "This restoration is all about today and the future of the estate. It's not about sticking rigidly to the past but interpreting the past in a modern way. The estate today is a community of residents, employees and entrepreneurs running small businesses from the numerous workshops, studios and offices around Alscot Park. This community will be able to get involved in the restoration scheme. Current members of staff that have served the estate for more than ten years will be able to name one of the specially selected trees. David Arnold, the estate's forester (and whose father was forester to Emma's father), will head up the project."

    As we reach the Kitchen Garden, sheltered by mellow pink brick walls but bursting with flamboyant colour from a collection of flowers fit for cutting, thoughts turn to the estate-owned pub and restaurant, The Bell Inn at Alderminster, the recipient of the flowers cut from the garden.

    This June, The Bell chimes 'ten' as it celebrates a decade under the wing of the Alscot brand. Back in 2008, the tenancy returned into the hands of the Alscot Estate and, with the economic downturn of the time, Emma had little choice but to become 'landlady' in addition to her other hands-on roles on the estate.

    The pub and restaurant has gone through more than a makeover in the past decade, with the creation of nine boutique bedrooms. These rooms have been designed and furnished by Emma, who originally trained as a professional interior designer.

    Wander into the bar at The Bell and you'll sense you're in a communal village country pub, filled with locals and visitors alike relaxing in armchairs beside log fires, while the restaurant combines classical French elegance with British quirkiness and a little jazzy bling. The boutique bedrooms offer affordable glamour.

    All the rooms are double/twin with en-suite shower or bath but all are individually unique in design. 'Glanwye' is the most popular, having a roll-top bath in the bedroom, 'Bermondsey' catches the eye with its black and white skyscraper wallpaper while 'All Stars' is perhaps the most outrageous - a striking hot pink, blue and gold boudoir with the air of a glam-rocker's dressing room. There are two suites of which 'Garland' has an apartment feel with its own upstairs balcony overlooking the Cotswold countryside.

    Much of the restaurant menu comes from the Alscot Estate including game and lamb while seafood is frequently delivered fresh from a Scottish island estate owned by the family. Not least, a pre-dinner gin from the Shakespeare Distillery and an after dinner coffee from artisan coffee roaster Monsoon Estates, wash down equally well. Both are respectively distilled and roasted on the Alscot Estate.

    The grounds and gardens of the Alscot Estate are not generally open to the public. However, for one week every June, Alscot's 'Alternative to Chelsea' provides an opportunity to wander round the private gardens followed by lunch at the award-winning Bell Inn. With the gardens as I've witnessed today, I recommend you register your interest now then book a room for an overnight stay at The Bell - if only to take a turn in the cloud-lined, double-sized drench shower of the 'Garland' suite before wallowing in the luxuriously comfortable bed to dream of plump lavender cushions.


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