From Land’s End in the southwest to John o’ Groats in the northeast, there are many great places to visit in Britain, but none more enjoyable than the Cotswolds, an area of rolling hills and river valleys in south central England.
By Paul Hicks
From Land’s End in the southwest to John o’ Groats in the northeast, there are many great places to visit in Britain, but none more enjoyable than the Cotswolds, an area of rolling hills and river valleys in south central England. To roam around its beautiful countryside and vintage villages it is best to rent a car, assuming you are willing to drive on the “wrong side of the road.”
We headed from Heathrow for the hills (a “wold” is a hill in Old English), but if you are planning to start your trip in London, you might want to take a train to Oxford and rent a car there. Before leaving Oxford, which is at the eastern edge of the Cotswolds, be sure to see some of the attractions of the city’s famous university. There are plenty of tours available, but you can guide yourself to some of the highlights, including venerable colleges like Magdalen (pronounced ‘mawd-lin”) and Christ Church, as well as the Ashmolean Museum.
Our first stop in the Cotswolds was the small village of Minster Lovell where we stayed at an inn called the Old Swan and Minster Mill. Surrounded by lovely gardens, it is set on a large property with the River Windrush running through it. A number of the rooms overlook the river, which is such a favorite of anglers that the inn employs a ghillie to maintain its stretch of the river and teach the art of fly fishing to novices.
A high point of our stay there was a long walk on a footpath through fields of poppies and cow pastures to the tiny village of Crawley. After quenching our thirst with ginger beers at a pub called The Lamb Inn, we had such a good lunch that we went back one night for an excellent dinner. This “gastropub,” run by a young chef and staff is part of the British culinary renaissance that is spreading from London into the hinterlands.
There are many places to see and things to do throughout the Cotswolds, but high on our list was a visit to the Hidcote Manor Garden. It is maintained by the National Trust, which promised in its brochure that we would “discover rare shrubs and trees, herbaceous borders, and unusual plants from around the world” and “experience the fulfillment of a quiet American’s English fantasy.”
That American was Lawrence Johnston, who turned fields high on a Cotswold hill into one of Britain’s great gardens in the first half of the twentieth century. Influenced by the Arts and Crafts style, Johnston created a series of outdoor “rooms,” each with its own character and planted them with species that bloom at different times. These plantings are separated by walls and hedges and interspersed with lawns that provide panoramic views of the surrounding countryside. See www.nationaltrust.org.uk/hidcote/ for more information.
Some suggestions about driving are worth noting at this point. Even though we never drove for more than thirty minutes to any of our destinations in the Cotswolds, it was essential to have a GPS in the car, especially in selecting the right exit from the many “round-abouts” (traffic circles). The main roads are very good, but sometimes it is worth taking a short cut down a single track country lane in order to reach a particular village or site.
How can you resist seeing villages with names like Upper Swell and Lower Slaughter or towns named Chipping Camden and Stow-on-Wold. We stayed at the latter in a newly renovated inn called Number Four at Stow, an attractive and comfortable place with excellent food. In addition to the imaginative dinners, their chef prepared an outstanding version of a “full English” breakfast, complete with blood pudding (if you were so inclined).
It was only a short drive from Stow-on-Wold to Stratford-upon-Avon, where we enjoyed the gardens at Anne Hathaway’s cottage before heading to the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, overlooking the River Avon. There we saw a marvelous production on its thrust stage of “Henry IV, Part 1,” which one reviewer called “a sublime blend of fathomless gloom and mad merriment.” It was capped by a memorable performance by Antony Sher as Falstaff and extraordinary sword-fighting scenes for us groundlings.
That evening, after dinner in Stow at the Porch House, which claims to be the oldest inn in England (dating to c.947), we strolled around the center of this old wool market town, admiring the golden-colored stone buildings that house many successful-looking stores. There seemed to be as many tea shops and bakeries as Rye has banks and nail salons.
The official Cotswold website is a good starting point for planning a trip there (http://cotswolds .com/), as is TripAdvisor for places to stay, eat, and visit. If this description of our trip seems overly sunny, it is partly because we had the rare experience in England of never seeing a drop of rain.