Slow Cotswolds

  • 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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