Slow Cotswolds

  • A Cotswold Valentine

    Valentine's Day can be one of the most disappointing occasions to go out for a meal, even as a couple. It's not up there with the best of life's experiences to have the feeling that you're sat at a table in a cattle market, the restauranteurs processing couples through a chain feeder in multiple sittings - in, out, in, out, if you'll pardon the expression. There's always a 'special' Valentine's Day menu that somehow appears rather manufactured and, because it was necessary for you to book a table decades before you actually met that special someone simply to guarantee a place, oddly the spark has gone out of the evening before you've even arrived.

    The Cotswolds are known to be dreamily romantic but there are still plenty of pubs and restaurants out there feeding the Valentine's Day frenzy. Just because the area is known to be a perfect place to pop any question, that doesn't mean to say you want to spend a special day with your loved one alongside everyone else's loved ones.

    So here's my personal list of places to go within the Cotswolds to have some 'us' moments, not 'us and them' time. There's one recommendation per locale based upon the book Slow Cotswolds, and I've included the page reference should you be reading up about the area with your early morning cup of tea in bed this Valentine's Day. But of course you will be!

    1. Anne Hathaway's Cottage

    Visit Anne Hathaway's Cottage and Garden (page 9), or the garden specifically. The half-timbered house is enough to capture the imagination of quiet night's in cuddling up beside the fire but it's here that William Shakespeare, arguably the world's greatest writer of love poetry, whispered sweet nothings into the ear of his bride to be. If the very thought of penning a line or two and doing the same turns you scarlet with embarrasment, cosy up instead beneath the Willow Arbour in the ancient orchard and listen to famous actors reciting the sonnets for you. The garden is big enough to lose yourself for a while whether among the woodland or strolling around the orchard. And with no specific Valentine's Day events, you won't be one among many.

    2. Meg Rivers Cafe & Lapstones

    Set in a converted barn on top of Westington Hill, on the outskirts of Chipping Campden, you'll find the contemporary looking Meg Rivers Cafe (page 35). Meg Rivers Cakes is renowned, particularly within the Cotswolds (though there's a mail order service too) for creating the most marvellous of cakes and tasty morsels but it's not just sweet treats that are served at the cafe. Sure, you could sit by the wood-burning stove for morning coffee and cake but expect to find attractive, locally-sourced lunches too. Naturally, the moreishly chocolate Valentine Brownie will be on the menu, but that's about as sweet as Valentine's Day gets at the cafe. While you're there, you'll be able to browse in the up-market Lapstone complex for must-have gifts, or you could book the double room at the intimate Lapstone Spa to share a spa experience.

    3. Honington

    One village where you'll be sure to miss the crowds of canoodling couples is Honington (page 64). A couple of miles from Shipston-on-Stour, the village is particularly attractive - a blend of Cotswold stone, ironstone, brick and rendered houses, where the obligatory climbing rose and cottage garden sit alongside village greens and open spaces. There's also (though not open to the public) the symmetrically precise Honington Hall, a mellow brick manor house that's just as you'd have drawn a dolls house as a child. There are plenty of quiet lanes around to enjoy an arm-in-arm wander and one of the loveliest is to Honington Bridge, at the west entrance to the village. The Grade II listed bridge is a pretty little thing, crossing the River Stour, which is at its most idyllic as it runs from here towards neighbouring Tredington.

    4. Leckhampton Hill

    If you're after more of a windswept walk rather than a gentle stroll, Leckhampton Hill (page 100) offers wonderful views and somewhere to enjoy one another's company without an entourage. It's on the southern side of Cheltenham, with great views of the town, and the 102-mile Cotswold Way passes along the ridge, through a strangely shattered landscape of long-disused Cotswold stone quarries and natural folds in the land - look out for the Devil's Chimney, a limestone pinnacle that legend says is the chimney to the devil's underground home. It's a rich grassland area that is designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest for its diverse flora and fauna. There's a small car park at the southern tip of the nature reserve.

    5. Bruern Holiday Cottages

    No need to feel a part of the romance clan filling up the bedrooms of the Valentine's Day Hotel. The Bruern Holiday Cottages (page 110) are very definitely retreat-like and will make anyone feel extra special. Located in the tiniest of hamlets, the twelve luxury, five-star cottages are hidden on the estate of Bruern Abbey. They offer a mix of home comfort with sumptuous attention to detail and are beautifully decorated. Cope Cottage and Saratoga Cottage both sleep two people so you really will feel as if you've got the village to yourself. No mass tourism here.

    6. Pierre Victoire Restaurant

    The only restaurant is these recommendations, Oxford's Pierre Victoire (page 147) is tucked down the diminutive Little Clarendon Street, off St Giles and away from the city centre. A genuinely French restaurant, you'll have all the romance of sitting in a cosy little bistro but without the Valentine hype. Both lunchtime and evening menus are Prix Fixe, with a small selection of starters, main courses and desserts from which to choose either a two- or three-course meal. Nothing fancy; just simple, honest coooking that tastes really good.

    7. Kelmscott

    Described by one-time resident and designer William Morris as 'heaven on earth', Kelmscott (page 177) is one of the most beautiful of all Cotswold villages. Tucked up against the River Thames, and well away from major road networks, there's no passing-through traffic. While Morris's former home, Kelmscott Manor, is closed, it's also one of the quietest places to while away a weekend (though you really should make a return visit to see the Manor). There are magnificent walks along the Thames Path and tasty food to be had at The Plough, where you can also stay in one of the seven attractively styled bedrooms. If seven is still too many, try Manor Farm (page 163), where there are just three bedrooms open to guests. The breakfasts are legendary, using produce from the farm and that of their neighbours. Alternatively, for utter seclusion, snuggle up in the cosy Shepherd's Hut, sited a short stroll from the farmhouse in a pretty meadow. Luxury glamping, the hut features a full ensuite bathroom.

    8. Woodchester Park

    Even in the height of summer, you can still lose yourself in Woodchester Park (page 202); in winter it's almost deserted. Located northwest of Nailsworth, this is a lost 18th- and 19th- century landscape park that takes up most of a steeply sided valley. Owned by the National Trust, visitors can wander through the 400-acre estate free of charge and it really is a picturesque retreat. There are four waymarked circular trails varying in length according to how much of the estate you wish to enjoy but I really recommend the Boathouse Walk that makes the most of the vistas from both the string of lakes and woods. And, if you're wanting to pop a particular question, the beautifully restored private Boathouse with its pretty lawn provides a very picturesque setting.

    9. Dyrham Park

    Likely to be the busiest of all the places recommended here, Dyrham Park (page 220) does, nonetheless, provide the most amount of space to get away from other visitors. The vast estate is perfect for a winter walk with lovely views across to Wales and the Black Mountains. The tea rooms are open but it's well worth wrapping up warm and taking a winter picnic to enjoy in a sheltered spot. If you're looking to do something a little bit special, book up to feed the Dyrham deer with a Ranger before the park opens for the day. It's a unique opportunity to see these gorgeous creatures up close in their winter coats.

    10. Riverside Cafe

    There's no getting away from the fact that Bath will be busy over the Valentine's weekend. Hotels and restaurants, cafes and bars will be pushing the romantic boat out. So I've plumped for a lovely little cafe that's tucked away beneath the arches of Pulteney Bridge. The Riverside Cafe (page 238) is small and therefore intimate, the food's good and it has one of the nicest locations, with views over Pulteney Weir, the River Avon and the Parade Gardens. What's more, the cafe is open for breakfast as well as lunch and afternoon tea so you could opt for American pancakes and maple syrup, smoked salmon benedict or bubble and squeak with a top-notch coffee before the rest of the world has surfaced.

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