Slow Cotswolds

  • 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 https://tolkien.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/

    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.

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  • '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).

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  • 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!

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  • 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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  • In search of somewhere

    Twelve months or so ago I received an email from a reader of Slow Travel:The Cotswolds. They had purchased a copy of the book in anticipation of a visit to the Cotswolds later in 2017 and, as a photographer creating a new gallery, was looking for particularly photogenic locations. That reader, Andrew Bergh, happened to be living on the west coast of the United States of America. Andrew had visited the Cotswolds eight years previously and was now plotting out his latest Cotswold holiday one sunrise and sunset at a time.

    I obliged with a few choice locations that I deemed would be suitable and then I received this:

    "Caroline, this may be a long shot - but nothing ventured, nothing gained.

    When I took the attached photo, all I had was a little point-and-shoot camera. I would love to revisit this place [with my professional camera], the conditions at the time were magical. As I recall, I was in my rental car and I was somewhere between the Slaughters and Stow-on-the-Wold. While I appreciate how you don't have the entire Cotswolds memorised, I am wondering if there are enough landmarks in this image for you to recognise it. The road was slightly off the beaten path and I want to say it was long and straight as opposed to curvy or windy.."

    Now, I like a challenge and, wild geese or otherwise, I was determined to find the view provided by the image. I had initial inklings as to the location although nothing specific but I set about my detective work. Sure, there are well-known views of the Cotswolds but, at 787 square miles, it's a big area to cover when looking for one so specific! And this was June, with high hedges, trees full of leaf when Andrew's image offered skeletal branches. Plus, trees grow, hedges are grubbed out and there was the possibility of additional landmarks like new dwellings, barns or masts that may have sprung up in the eight year interval that could prove unhelpful.

    Andrew was able to provide a few further clues - time taken between images before and after narrowed the possibilities down significantly and the vague recollection of a major road nearby. Then he provided a second image taken minutes later. Though wide-angled, if I zoomed in I could spot landmarks I was expecting to see based upon my initial inklings - the mast on the top of Wyck Beacon. A hidden signpost for a public footpath also offered up bountiful treasure.

    With the aid of an Ordnance Survey map and a gorgeous late spring walk along a quiet country lane close to the Slaughters (pages 140-1), I found my somewhere! And, in a slightly surreal moment, but for the Cow Parsley that wavered beside the Cotswold stone wall, I could stand in the very same spot that Andrew had taken his photograph eight years earlier. Some views, thankfully, don't change.

    Andrew was delighted by the to-the-yard result and responded, "If you could only arrange for similar clouds during my stay, that would be wonderful." As it turned out, despite the cloudless-skied image I sent to prove my prowess as a viewfinder, I believe clouds were ever-present on Andrew's Cotswold holiday latterly. Such is the talk of weather. But he sent me a couple of his images following his visit - and I recommend a peek at his new website and gallery, launched earlier this year.

    Andrew's photographs are something special. He describes himself as a fine art digital photographer and there's no doubt that many of his images look like paintings. One of his favourite techniques is High Dynamic Range imaging (HDR) whereby merging multiple images of the same subject matter, taken at different exposures, creates exceptional detail. Should you be passing by - several thousand miles from the Cotswolds - Andrew's new gallery is on Bainbridge Island near Seattle, on the west coast of America. His new website - https://berghimages.com/ - is 'work in progress' with images of the Cotswolds being added regularly.

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  • Celebrate American Independence Day in Bath

    The Cotswolds, Bath and American Independence - an unusual combination perhaps but it's perfectly possible to make the match. And for US residents in Britain and visiting the Cotswolds on July 4th who may be feeling a little homesick, the UNESCO World Heritage city of Bath, or Claverton Down to be exact, is the place to be.

    There, on Claverton Down sits Claverton Manor, a magnificent imposing stone house set in acres of equally magnificent and immaculately cared for gardens with the grounds overlooking the picturesque Limpley Stoke Valley. The house and grounds belong to the American Museum in Britain (pages 63-4). The museum, the only one of its kind outside the United States, is dedicated to exhibiting and educating about colonial America. And they know how to put on a summer party.

    Not able to fit all the partying into one day, this year the American Museum's Independence Day celebrations will span over two weekends. The first weekend of celebrations (June 30th and July 1st) will transport visitors back to 1776 in the guise of a living history weekend and the spectacle of the Crown Forces Association and the Society of King George the Third. You'll be able to marvel at the redcoats and revolutionaries as they display military might (plug your ears - expect loud bangs) and civilian comforts of the late 18th century America.

    Then it's on to the big day. Visit the museum on Wednesday 4th July between 10am and 5pm and you'll get free entry. In the evening there will be music from two folk performers: The Danberry's and Sarah McQuaid.

    To round off the celebrations on 7th and 8th July, the American Museum will have a weekend of razzamataz including music, a barbecue, fun and American games. Don't forget to wear stars and stripes!

    While you're there, immerse yourself in the museum's American culture with the fantastic folk art collection, amazing quilts and textiles. On display until 29th July is the oldest known patchwork coverlet in Britain. This year marks the 300th anniversary since the Coverlet was made, in 1718. It will join the Museum's own world-renowned textile collection that showcases more than 250 antique quilts, regarded as the finest collection of its type in Europe and equalling many premier collections in the United States. The Textile Room, which houses the collection, is indeed my favourite room in the Museum.

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  • It's International Museum Day - and here's the Cotswolds' finest

    In honour of International Museum Day, celebrating the importance of museums that enrich our lives, I thought I'd share some of my favourite museums in the Cotswolds. For the area is rich in museums, many of them small and run by a dedicated band of volunteers but all providing valuable insight into the area.

    Several of the museums are free to visit, or simply request a small donation in appreciation. I think you'll appreciate those I've included below. And the selection here, doesn't even begin to cover the many historic houses and properties in the Cotswolds that also have fine collections to view, or indeed the notable museums of gateway towns, Stratford-upon-Avon, Oxford and Bath.

    So, here's my pick of magnificent Cotswold museums (listed, roughly, from north to south in location):

    Court Barn Museum, Chipping Campden: celebrating a hundred years of the Arts and Crafts Movement in and around the town, which became (it still is) an important part of modern day creativity. The craftsman C.R. Ashbee is well represented.

    Gordon Russell Design Museum, Broadway: offering a glimpse into the world of Arts and Crafts furniture designer Sir Gordon Russell, one time head of the Design Council.

    Broadway Museum & Art Gallery, Broadway: if you're in Broadway to visit the museum above, you might as well visit two. With links to the formidable Ashmolean Museum, the Broadway Museum & Art Gallery offers displays of period furniture, ceramics and paintings, including works by Gainsborough and Reynolds.

    Chipping Norton Museum, Chipping Norton: come here to discover the roots of baseball and a history of this charming Cotswold town, including its connections to the Bay City Rollers, Status Quo and Duran Duran.

    The Wilson: Cheltenham Museum & Art Gallery, Cheltenham: I mentioned this fabulous museum in my last blog post. For that, I spoke of the permanent exhibition about polar explorer Edward Wilson. But the museum also holds an internationally recognised collection of furniture and artwork relating to the Arts and Crafts Movement. It's a vast collection and the information provided helps visitors to the Cotswolds understand the various connections between the area and the Movement.

    Cotswold Motor Museum, Bourton-on-the-Water: visit here for an interesting collection of historic cars (more than 40 on display), motorcycles and motoring memorabilia together with a historic collection of toys. This is a great place for lovers of nostalgia.

    Cogges Manor Farm Museum, Witney: there's plenty to do outdoors as well as indoors at this historical farm, with many daily activities in the beautiful gardens and grounds. A perfect museum for summer and a popular one with children.

    Corinium Museum, Cirencester: one of the larger museums in the Cotswolds and noted for its fabulous collection of Roman artifacts, including some spectacular Romano-British mosaics - some of the finest you'll see in the world.

    Churchill & Sarsden Heritage Centre, Churchill: this tiny museum has one of the most scenic settings of any museum in the Cotswolds, situated in the Evenlode Valley overlooking the 'lost' village of Churchill. The exhibits focus around the villages' famous sons including William Smith, the Father of English Geology and creator of the first geological map of England, Scotland and Wales.

    Oxfordshire Museum, Woodstock: a small museum with a gargantuan part to play in the history of the county. There's masses of fascinating social history here. Did you know that Woodstock was the place to purchase a pair of leather gloves in the 18th and 19th centuries? All thanks to neighbouring Blenheim Palace.

    Museum in the Park, Stroud: one of my 'favourite favourites'! Free to enter, you'll discover the history of textiles and its importance to the Cotswolds and particularly the Stroud Valleys. There's also a corner on Cotswold writer Laurie Lee, plus a magnificent, recently restored, flower garden (see my earlier blog post on the opening of this garden). The museum itself is set in a picturesque parkland setting.

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  • A day - and a night - in Cheltenham

    The sky was summer blue as I arrived in Cheltenham. No cloud dared to show its face and the 50-metre outdoor pool at Sandford Parks Lido was a tempting proposition as I wandered through the sprawling 'countryside-meets-town' park.

    Crossing Montpellier Gardens, another of Cheltenham's notable green spaces, the celestial greatness inadvertently forced my gaze to look up more than usual and I made a wrong turn - thank goodness. For I discovered a street I've not walked along before but realise, owing to its splendour, that I really should have done. Cheltenham is laced with lacy balconies adorning the facades of its grand Regency terraces. But there would appear to be no terrace grander than Lansdown Terrace, which occupies the Malvern Road. Here, in place of lace, columns to rival the finest of Greek temples ascend to the Gods, holding up pediments to frame the grandest of Georgian windows. The sheer scale, the height, the length of the Grade II listed terrace is quite remarkable.

    But it was to the very heart of Cheltenham that I was destined to wander, passing an anthology of ever more opulent-sized properties along The Promenade, tempted but never swayed by the parade of boutiques that line the pedestrianised boulevard (well, ok, maybe I did nip into an exalted chocolate shop, just for a look) only to be drawn towards and stand in front of Cheltenham's most famous son, Edward Wilson. His statue, in thermals, fur-lined wellies and galoshes are more coastal than Cotswold and, therein lies the clue to his departure from his native town.

    Edward Wilson, born only a couple of hundred metres away, in Montpellier Terrace, from his bronze lookalike, was a physician, natural historian, painter and polar explorer. He accompanied Captain Scott on two British expeditions to Antarctica, the Discovery Expedition and the Terra Nova Expedition which, in 1912, claimed the lives of Wilson and his fellow explorers.

    A detailed exhibition of his life and work, including artefacts recovered from the Antarctic, is displayed in The Wilson, Cheltenham's Museum and Art Gallery. It is an exhibition that is both informative and moving, and I never tire of visiting. The Paper Store, which is a part of The Wilson, incorporates the Wilson family archives and there are countless sketches and watercolour paintings that Wilson prepared as part of his scientific and natural history observations on the two British expeditions. I thoroughly recommend a visit and, on Thursday 14th June 2018, there's a talk at the museum on 'Wilson's Wonderful Watercolours', given by Dr David Wilson, the great newphew of the explorer.

    From the museum, I took the easy-to-miss footpath that runs along the side of the museum and leads into the usually peaceful haven of St Mary's Minster churchyard. The diminutive-sized parish church is Cheltenham's oldest, dating back to the 11th century and is not grand in stature like the surrounding Georgian terraces but beautifully modest and unimposing. It's a sweet little thing.

    The exit from the churchyard brought me onto the not so remarkable High Street but within a few yards I was back to The Promenade with a chance to enjoy the Imperial Gardens, where sun seekers sat around the statue of composer Gustav Holst (Cheltenham's other famous son) waving his conducting baton. The floral displays for which the Imperial Gardens are renowned throughout the summer are not yet in place, though the beds are ready and waiting for the sumptuous festival of colour.

    With a stroll up Montpellier Street, brimming with artisanal boutiques, bars and restaurants (including The Ivy, newly introduced this year), I looked back to spy, in the distance, Cleeve Hill Common, which boasts the highest point in the Cotswolds. If the Cotswold skies remained as happy as the present day, I knew where I would be going the following morning, walking boots laced on.

    My residence for the night was The Bradley Hotel, a ten-bedroomed, five-star bed and breakfast that exudes all the airs and graces of a comfortable Regency family home. Located on the attractive Bayshill Road (parallel with the fashionable Montpellier Street), and within the elegant Royal Parade terrace, the hotel's prospect is just right for enjoying the tranquility of a residential street but within a five-minute walk of the town centre.

    The bed and breakfast is owned, and was refurbished earlier this year, by the De Savary family, renowned for their collection of independent up-market hotels and leisure facilities throughout the UK, the USA and the Caribbean. The Bradley is one of the family's latest hotel refurbishment projects and, having redecorated all the rooms with respectful heritage colours and rich ornamentation, they have filled it with period furniture and antiques from their private collection.

    Eight of the rooms are within the terraced property but two contemporary 'Garden Rooms' are located in a separate annexe to the rear, with doors that open direct onto a paved courtyard, a sunny space in which to enjoy a delicious summer breakfast.

    Climbing the stone steps at the front entrance, I was greeted by Bea Seidler, the General Manager who oversees all aspects of your stay at The Bradley. Bea welcomed me into the sumptuously comfortable guest lounge, a large, high-ceiling room where fresh flowers bloomed and 'Eat Me' slabs of homemade coffee cake sat beguilingly on a glass-domed cake-stand. Among the antiques lurked bowls of sweets, fresh fruit and a table full of reading matter that would prevent the keenest of bibliophiles from ever setting foot out to explore Cheltenham. Settle down here on a winter's evening with a good pageturner and a glass of something pretty from the adjacent Honesty Bar and you'd mull over the need to go anywhere else. In place, I settled down in a comfy chair in the privacy of Room Four with an ice-and-a-slice G&T prepared for me by Bea.

    The high-ceilinged Bedroom Four faces west, overlooking the front of the property. Its walls are richly decorated with a bold print and the dominating antique four-poster bed is trimmed with cream and woodland green taffeta silk. A bespoke mattress the depth of an ocean and layered with superior cotton bedlinen cradles the heartiest of insomniacs. On the walls hang gilt-framed mirrors and, on the mahogany writing desk, sits a bowl of fruit and a complimentary snacks basket. In the en-suite black-and-white bathroom, fluffy bathrobes hang on the back of the door waiting for your soak in the contemporary, freestanding bath or a drenching beneath the large rain shower.

    I lifted the sashes from the floor to ceiling windows to welcome some tranquil birdsong. It came from a giant plane tree that dappled the light flooding into my room and sheltered me from the sun's illuminating heat. Later in the evening, after an exemplary 'Early Ticket' meal at The Daffodil (£15.95 for three courses including a drink, though visit simply to peek at the former Art Deco cinema in which the restaurant occupies), the sun dipped and the sky glowed. Room Four is made for watching sunsets.

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  • Witch craft - a new tapestry exhibition in Stroud

    A new collection of tapestries by contemporary maker Anne Jackson is currently on show at The Museum in the Park, Stroud (pages 247-9) this autumn.

    In her current project, The Witchcraft Series, Anne Jackson presents a seroes of works exploring the history of witch persecution in Europe, and the metaphors which the idea of 'witchcraft' evoke in modern culture, through the medium of knotted tapestry.

    Referencing sources from the earliest printed books warning against the evils of witches to the repeal of the final Witchcraft Act in English law in 1957, the works explore the imagery and social attitudes that led to the trial and execution of thousands of people, mostly women, across Europe. Jackson's large and small-scale tapestries often depict evidence given in individual witch trials.

    Anne Jackson has exhibited widely across Europe, the USA and in Australia. Her work is held in public collections across Europe. Certaine Wytches: Fear, Myth & Magic runs until 5th November and is Anne's first major solo exhibition in the UK.

    To coincide with the exhibition, the Museum has a number of themed and autumnal events:

    Meet the Maker Afternoons: Anne Jackson will be at the Museum Gallery on Wednesday 18th and 25th October, Saturday 28th October and 4th November between 2pm and 4pm. Call in to meet her and find out more about her work.

    "Witchfynder": Gloucestershire witch trials, a talk with John Putney

    Thursday 19th October, 2pm £5

    "Wise Women and Witches" Haunting, Healing Tales with Fiona Eadle

    Sundays 22nd, 29th October & 5th November, 3pm £5

    "Magic Hats, Good Luck Charms and Secret Spells: Half term family drop-in workshops

    Tuesday 24th to Friday 27th October, 11am-3.30pm, £2

    Meet the Curator: Discover some strange and spooky objects found in the Museum stores

    Wednesday 25th October, 2pm-4pm, free

    "Dark Tales of Gloucestershire" by Spaniel in the Works Theatre Company

    Friday 27th October, 7pm £7 (family ticket £20)

    Apple Day & Evening Pumpkin Lantern Walk

    A community harvest celebration event in collaboration with Stroud Valleys Project

    Sunday 29th October, 11am-8pm

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  • A stay at The Lion Inn, Winchcombe

    If your thoughts are already turning to longer nights, I'd recommed settling into an armchair beside an open fire in The Lion Inn's Snug when the weather turns auburn. But meanwhile, enjoy summer with a refreshing thirst-quencher in the enclosed, sunny courtyard garden scented with lavender before retiring to your boutique bedroom at this recently refurbished north Cotswold country pub. There's no television in any of the rooms so a digital detox is considered the norm here. Besides, with a day's walking in the surrounding countryside, you won't need a telly to drift off to sleep by.

    The Lion Inn is situated in the centre of Winchcombe (pages 151-3), an unpretentious Cotswold town that dates back to the Saxons. Cafes, tearooms and foodie outlets abound and the romantic must-see Sudeley Castle, once home to Catherine Parr (widow of King Henry VIII), is a ten-minute walk from the cosy pub.

    Winchcombe also has Walkers are Welcome status (www.winchcombewelcomeswalkers.com), with six long-distance footpaths converging on the town, including the Cotswold Way and Gloucestershire Way. There's an annual walking festival held every May that offers an enticing selection of walks too.

    But after a day exploring on foor or in the sadlle, it's always good to come back to somewhere you can call 'home', however briefly, and The Lion Inn has a very relaxed, homely feel. Board games are piled high in the Snug, guests mingle with local residents in the bar while the restaurant occupies an old, converted barn painted in soft powder grey and lit with candles and wall lamps. Though on a day sprinkled with sunshine, step outside into the enclosed courtyard garden where shrubs climb the mellow Cotswold stone walls of the inn and giant bushes of lavender erupt with scent as you brush past.

    I wasn't so fortunate with the weather during my stay. Cats and dogs spring to mind, but still the lavender bushes perfumed every raindrop as I climbed the short flight of steps from the garden to my overnight room in a converted hayloft.

    Room 7 (my hayloft) is like a personal apartment with a trio of rooms. Overlooking the courtyard garden (with a private balcony from which to enjoy a drink) is, first, a living area with sofa (bed), chaise longue and an area for making tea (Clipper) and fresh coffee (Grumpy Mule). It's a space where you can truly wind down. While screen-free relaxation is encouraged, free WiFi is available.

    Through the open, stone doorway, I step up into a boudoir bedroom where the cosiest room with a soft, plump feather duvet awaits my slumbers. The room is dressed in a soft purple and tender grey, softened further by the quiet light from a pair of bedside laps. A French-style armoire and a window-side plush armchair complete the interior design.

    Beyond is my boutique bathroom, with a roll-top, enamel bath/shower, and presented with organic lotions and potions. Three individual spaces in which to drift away!

    There are eight bedrooms in total at The Lion Inn, each individually designed; no two are the same shape or size. But every room is soothing and a little Cotswold haven. You'll also receive fresh milk to go with your tea and coffee and, for those that struggle with a feather duvet, hypoallergenic bedding is available. Other than my hayloft boudoir, all rooms have an ensuite shower.

    Downstairs - beneath the hayloft in fact - the restaurant occupies a long, timber-beamed room overlooking North Street with flag floors, rugs, mirrors and rustic wooden tables. Stoneware crockery (though, unfortunately, not the town's own Winchcombe Pottery) adds to the rural ambience. But you will be dining with locally produced Robert Welch cutlery (page 85) from nearby Chipping Campden.

    The restaurant has been awarded an AA Rosette and food is of an excellent quality. The menu changes frequently to benefit from seasonal produce and, frankly, I could have munched all evening on the introductory herb-infused rye bread. Best ever tasted? Probably.

    With the cool summer rain thumping the North Street pavement outside, I opted for roasted red pepper and tomato soup; slow roast pork belly, creamed potatoes, pancetta, apple sauce and Agen prunes followed by a divine honey and almon panacotta with homemade cinder honeycomb and candied almonds.

    I could have had a pear, walnut and chorizo salad with honey and lemon dressing, or confit duck leg, chorizo and borlotti bean cassoulet. I was tempted, too, by the wild mushroom tagliatelle with basil pesto and parmesan. And, after my dessert, had I not opted to sink on to that chaise longue in my own living room with a good book, I could have rounded off the meal with a selection of eight coffees, five liquor coffees and ten types of tea.

    By morning, I was back in the restaurant for breakfast and, oh my goodness, what a choice. A cold buffet is beautifully presented to include cereals and homemade granola, fresh fruit salad, natural yoghurt, dried fruit and nuts, juices and miniature pastries. Hot food is cooked to order to include six dishes from a full English (though including, somewhat bizarrely for breakfast, garlic-infused grilled tomatoes); Eggs Benedict with roast ham and poached eggs; scrambled eggs with locally produced Coln Valley smoked salmon; or crushed avocado on toast.

    Had I been staying with friends and family, we could have booked The Club Room. Seating up to 20 guests at one long pine table for business meetings, dinner parties and weddings, the room is designed with a luxuriously informal country style to complement the rest of the pub.

    As it was, I could have easily stayed longer and become a part of the furniture, waiting until the fire required lighting in the Snug and settling down to a long winter in a leather armchair.

    The pub is family-friendly (Room 7 is particularly suited to families, though take care on the stairs with young children) with extra beds and cots beds available in all rooms. It's also dog-friendly, with dog beds available too.

    Room rates vary on a daily basis according to demand, with direct booking prices from £99 to £165 for a double/twin room including breakfast. Non-residents may also drop by for breakfast (priced £14.50). What a treat before setting out on one of Winchcombe's six major walking routes!

    The Lion Inn is part of The Epicurean Collection, with other Cotswolds pubs in the same select group including the Seagrave Arms (page 80) at Weston-sub-Edge, The Horse and Groom (page 135) at Bourton-on-the-Hill and the Trout at Tadpole Bridge on the banks of the River Thames near Faringdon, in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds. All are thoroughly recommended for food, drink and accommodation.

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