1 Dec

England’s glory

It’s 50 years since the Cotswolds was designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Claire Mahoney heads away from the tourist hot spots to discover the area’s lesser known hidden gems

The Cotswolds is very pretty, there is no doubt about that. Brimming with honey-coloured houses and rolling hills. But it is also much bigger than you think. In fact, it is the largest Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty in England, covering some seven counties and an area of 790sq miles. It is easy to see why many visitors who automatically make a pilgrimage to its picture-perfect tourist towns such as Bourton-on-the-Water and Upper and Lower Slaughter, may be missing out, as on the outer reaches of the Wolds, lie traditional Cotswold villages and towns that are as abundant in beauty and heritage and are perfect for a winter escape.

Great Tew and Duns Tew. Oxfordshire

white-horseIn the Cotswold’s eastern county of Oxfordshire are a fine crop of picture-postcard villages, grand estates and lovely pubs. For quintessential English countryside head to Great Tew which edges the Cornbury Estate with it’s postcard-perfect rows of ironstone and honey-coloured thatch cottages. Oxford’s dreaming spires are a short drive away as is the shopper’s paradise that is Bicester  – perfect for the January sales. For bed, breakfast and dinner, visit Duns Tew, home to the White Horse – a charming pub with hearty and quality food and eleven comfortable rooms. After a hard days exploring, this is just the type of place you want to grab a pew and enjoy a fine selection of local ales or tuck into some hearty traditional, seasonal food. Expect warming winter fayre such as braised lamb shoulder, olive oil poached cod, and generous cuts of rib-eye and flat-iron steak cooked to perfection.

Bed & breakfast at the White Horse starts from £75. Visit: dunstewwhitehorse.co.uk

Cirencester and the south Cotswolds 

ragged-cot2Further south into Gloucestershire the countryside changes and becomes more undulating. The villages are less about thatch and leaded windows and more about rough-hewn stone and character. No more is this more evident than in the Cotswold capitol – Cirencester. Amble through the lanes and alley ways of its narrow streets or take in the wide vistas and views of the city in the magnificent Cirencester Park. If you fancy a stop over, a short drive away near Michinhampton, is The Ragged Cot, a quirky pub with stylish rooms and top notch dining. Given the name of this 17th century inn, it’s no surprise to discover that it has a spooky past. The place is thought to be haunted by the wife of former landlord, Bill Clavers, who in the 1760s caused the death of both her and their child by pushing them down the stairs in a fit of pique. Don’t let that put you off though, there were no such visitations when we stayed and any ideas of ghostly apparitions are soon banished while tucking into their flavoursome menu which contains a mix of modern British and modern European favourites.

Bed and breakfast at the Ragged Cot starts from £80. Visit: theraggedcot.co.uk

Stratford-upon-Avon 

nash_house_stratford2016 marked the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, so no visit to the Cotswolds would be complete without a visit to Shakespeare’s home town. New Place, which opened this year, is the aptly-named site of what was Shakespeare’s family home for the last 19 years of his life. Here you can trace the footprint of his family home in a contemporary landscape setting. The Royal Shakespeare Company has also commissioned a new self-guided tour that involves eight locations alongside Stratford’s historic spine. Shakespeare’s Steps starts at Shakespeare’s Birthplace and includes locations such as New Place, Guildhall, and Holy Trinity Church before finishing at the RST. If you are staying over in Stratford, Q Hotels has two properties here – one in the town (The Stratford) and recently re-furbished Straford Manor, a 10 minute drive away with parking onsite and a bus service into the town if you want to leave the car behind. After all that walking Stratford Manor also has a large pool and recently refurbished spa facilities to help you unwind before a nightcap.

Spa breaks from: £109 per night. Visit: Qhotels.co.uk 

Tewkesbury and Gloucestershire 

tewkesbury-park-cocktail-lounge-viewIn the Cotswolds’ western edges where the River’s Severn and Avon meet is the charming, historic town of Tewkesbury with its imposing Abbey, once the site of a monastery. There are lovely walks along the edge of both rivers and the town has
a great selection of pubs, cafes and vintage shops to while away an afternoon in. On the hill overlooking the village is the newly renovated Tewkesbury Park Hotel. This grand manor house hotel and golf club commands some of the best views in the area and on a clear day you can see right over to the Malvern Hills. The hotel’s recent £4million renovation has turned it’s classic building into a contemporary and stylish boutique retreat. As part of the revamp, which includes the addition of two new spa rooms, the hotel has made the most of this historic connections with all of its nine, new lavish suites named after key players in the 1471 Battle of Tewkesbury which took place in the ‘Bloody Meadow’ at the bottom of the hill. As you walk through the meadow, the peace and quiet is an eerie reminder that thousands fought and were killed on this very spot.

Rooms at Tewkesbury Park start at £122 for a Just Right Room. Suites start from £230 for an Indulgent Suite, up to £350 for an Opulence suite, including breakfast. Visit: tewkesburypark.co.uk