Discovering England’s Cotswolds
Published: April 2009
By Alexandra Marshall
With its bucolic setting, stylish manor houses, and the influx of a new generation of Londoners (rocker turned cheesemaker?), the Cotswolds, one of England’s loveliest areas, is now also one of its most glamorous.
On the March afternoon that I checked into Barnsley House, a boutique hotel in the Cotswolds region of southwestern England, it was still light enough for a walk through its famous gardens. Following the design of the late Rosemary Verey, the landscaper who owned the house until 2001, the three-acre plot is divided into numerous, unbelievably picturesque tableaux—colonnades of weeping cherry trees, a Celtic-knot topiary, and scores of mixed pots. The plantings change frequently, but when I visited it was the height of daffodil season, and cheerful yellow blossoms were everywhere, interspersed with fragrant hyacinth and fritillaria, a flower that resembles a droopy tulip fashioned from lavender snakeskin. They’d make a great pair of shoes, I thought, and began to wonder, as I headed toward an open pasture, Can nature be chic? Interrupting this profound rumination was the sight of six striking-looking cows. They were vivid russet, with long, shaggy coats and exaggerated horns that extended far past the width of their bodies. (Livestock aficionados would recognize them as the Highland breed, from northern Scotland.) I became rooted to the spot in a staring match with an enormous bull until the sun set and my feet began to freeze in my wellies. I squished back into my suite, which was designed to resemble a stable yard, if stable yards had integrated audiovisual systems, Bose speakers, skylights, and 300-thread-count sheets. The following day, I’d hear more about this bull, whose name happens to be Tom. The next farm over from Barnsley House belongs to Elizabeth Hurley (which might explain why so many of her wedding guests sought treatments at the hotel’s B&B-Italia–furnished spa when it opened in spring 2007). And while Hurley was away on her honeymoon, one of her rare-breed Gloucestershire cows escaped. For two weeks she and Tom enjoyed what adolescent humans would call an extended hookup, until Hurley’s brother and Rupert Pendered, Barnsley House’s co-owner, were able to pry the two apart. Illicit love affairs among the glamorously pedigreed?It looked like I had answered my own question. Yes, nature can be chic. And it would be hard to find a place on earth that’s chicer than here.
My introduction to the Cotswolds came from a Laura Ashley decorating book that floated around our Los Angeles house when I was a little girl, and the area is still a mother lode of English countryside charm. Spanning Gloucestershire County and slivers of Warwickshire and Oxfordshire, the Cotswolds is a 790-square-mile green zone, about three-quarters of which is covered by lush farmland. Rightly designated by the British government as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty in the late 60’s, its rolling hills are patchworked by age-old drystone walls; leafy trees grow over the winding roads; and around many a bend will suddenly appear the quaintest possible villages, dating from the Middle Ages to the turn of the century, almost entirely built out of native honey-colored limestone. It’s due to these villages that the area has become a favorite for busfuls of tourists, who visit every summer.
Monied since the 1400’s, when the wool trade established sweet-looking towns with not-so-sweet names like Chipping Sodbury, Lower Slaughter, and Slad, the Cotswolds is still among the wealthiest areas in Britain. (A brief detour into Old English: chipping means market, and cotswolds means sheep folds in the hills.) One might think the presence of Blenheim Palace, near Woodstock, on the eastern border—and Prince Charles’s Duchy Home Farm, near the southern Cotswolds town of Tetbury—would be enough to skew the wealth averages by themselves, but the area has, in the last decade and a half, seen a steady influx of wealthy Londoners and celebrities including Kate Moss, Elizabeth Hurley, Damien Hirst, and Kate Winslet. Though many are weekenders taking advantage of the mere 1 1/2-hour drive from London, there is a growing number of full-time transplants, mostly former city-dwellers chasing an upscale Green Acres dream. Take Alex James, the bassist for the band Blur; he is now an organic farmer and cheesemaker, pens several newspaper columns, serves as a sometime pitchman for pricey Aga stoves, and shares reporter duties for the On Your Farm broadcast on BBC Radio Four. James and his wife, Claire, bought their 200-acre plot near Stow-on-the-Wold as newlyweds a few years ago, and it began a new phase of their lives. “I guess it’s what aging rock gentlemen are supposed to do, but I’ve had to work harder here than I ever did before, and it’s taken away all the existential angst that a life of citified celebrity churns up,” James told me as we wound along yet another gorgeous road near the town of Stroud in his muddy mid-90’s Mercedes.
I first visited the area to check out James’s cheese-making operation, and a curiosity about the Cotswolds’ growing culinary identity drew me back. One of the biggest players in the region’s food game is Daylesford Organic Farmshop (and garden store and yoga studio and spa and designer-clothing boutique), on the outskirts of Kingham. For more than 20 years, the owners have sold free-range meat and organic vegetables and cheeses, introducing London’s “green chic” sensibility to early adopters in the country. Daylesford has been an at-times-controversial presence here. Controversial, because local residents who aren’t members of the Range Rover brigade puzzle over why they should spend $30 for a fillet of beef—even if it does come stylishly, ethically packaged—from stress-free Aberdeen Angus. So effective has Daylesford been in turning agnostics on to the cause that it’s come full circle and recently set up shop in London on stylish Pimlico Road. Daylesford’s influence can be seen in just about every Cotswolds village worth its fleur de sel. Slow Food menus abound at ancient pubs, and contemporary bistros flourish among the twee antiques shops and candy stores. Chefs from London’s dynamic restaurant scene continue to appear, such as Mark Hix, formerly of London’s Ivy and J. Sheekey, who has designed the new menu at the Westcote Inn, in Nether Westcote. (The inn itself is now in the able hands of Julia Reed, a former Hollywood producer returned home to Blighty for a life of horses and afternoon pig roasts.) The Swan at Southrop, another new-guard gastropub, where Kate Moss is a regular, used to be run by Bibendum’s James Parkinson; at the time of my visit, it was overseen by Locanda Locatelli’s Federico Turri, whose pork belly, made from the rare Middle White pig, was one of the most delicate and succulent I’ve ever eaten.
Another of the city folk, 34-year-old Martin Caws, ran Marco Pierre White’s Mirabelle, on London’s Curzon Street, before bundling off his wife and young son to the pastures in 2007; he now owns and operates the airy Trouble House, near Tetbury. The restaurant’s makeover took place in 2000 under the guidance of Michael Bedford, who then left to create the Chef’s Table, a fine grocery store, restaurant, and cooking school in Tetbury. For Caws, the decision to move to the countryside full-time was surprisingly easy. His apartment above the restaurant is five times the size of his old place in London, and he doesn’t have the hassle of managing 30 chefs anymore. Plus, “the quality of the food here is extraordinary,” he told me, just after finishing service for Easter Sunday. “I get my fish a day earlier than they do in London, the organic flour comes from nearby Shipton Mill, the microgreens from just over in Worcestershire.…” Those greens added a piquant bite to Caws’s tart of goat cheese and beets, one of the simple, perfectly prepared dishes I sampled that day. His ballottine of pigeon and foie gras with orange-and-lemon chutney was another winner. One can only hope it reappears on the menu, which changes daily.
This obsession with food sourcing might not be as surprising to see in Great Britain, which leads the Western world in environmental awareness and food traceability, though its mainstream farming industry is as bad as any. Prince Charles can be given a great deal of credit for spreading the green word, though it meant an elbow-to-elbow crowd when I visited his just-opened Highgrove Shop in Tetbury, which features his Duchy Originals organic goods. There’s an almost missionary zeal here to grow your own or support someone who does, which can sometimes translate to unexpected alliances. Over the absurdly well-priced “£10 Lunch” at Allium, a white-tablecloth restaurant in the southeastern village of Fairford, I overheard one of the owners, Erica Graham, thanking a diner in expensive cashmere and designer jeans for a promise to supply sorrel and lovage from her own garden. Rhubarb for jam would soon arrive from the same source as well. “I’ve just got so much in my garden right now, I’d love to get rid of it,” the generous neighbor said.
Emily Watkins, the young chef-owner of the just-refurbished Kingham Plough, a laid-back B&B near Chipping Norton, gets her quail eggs from a 12-year-old boy down the road. (“I asked him if he’d also sell me some of his quail, and you should have seen his little face drop,” she told me.) Watkins spent just under two years at the Fat Duck, in Bray, under the tutelage of renowned British chef Heston Blumenthal, a leader in molecular gastronomy, and she was a private chef in London before transforming the Plough from a quaint dump into a comfortable hangout with pale walls, sisal carpets, artfully mismatched farmhouse tables, and a roaring fire. In a few short months, Watkins has been reviewed by the Telegraph, the Independent, and the Evening Standard, but in the five days that I stayed there, in a spotlessly simple room with a gloriously comfortable bed, I noticed many a repeat customer among those “just passing through.” I chose the Plough for its plugged-in hangout status among area gastropubs, in addition to its budget-friendly rates. I found it the ideal place to observe the locals in their natural habitat.
Like her peers, watkins cleaves religiously to her neighboring suppliers, many of whom eat at her table. She’s also committed to reviving old recipes from the area, regularly mining vintage cookbooks for dishes like Hodge Podge Pudding (blood sausage) and Cotswold Rarebit (cheese-and-beer sauce with toast). Travelers who come to the Cotswolds looking for authentic English flavor in architecture will be as pleased with Watkins’s renditions of those classics as with the signature Blumenthal dishes (fillet of beef cooked sous-vide, at a low temprature) that pepper her menu. She follows tradition in her frequent use of wild game, too. “Squirrel would sell like mad here,” she said when I asked her about her restaurant. “The weirder the meat, the more people love it.” For those from the area, it’s a way of life. Watkins would be delighted to feature the wood pigeons that pester nearby Merriscourt Arts Centre, if only its owner, Tom Astor, another Plough regular, were able to pluck and gut them for her.
Astor, who is, yes, from the English branch of those Astors, has a little too much going on already at Merriscourt to become a sideline poultry supplier. His family goes back generations in the Cotswolds, but he’s using his land in a decidedly 21st-century manner. Sure, he has the requisite money-losing rare sheep (black Hebridean) and grows corn and oilseed rape. But with his agricultural endeavors already running smoothly, Astor has turned his attention to developing Merriscourt for more-cultural pursuits. When he started a family a few years ago, and his days of dealing classic cars and dabbling in the London art market came to an end, he started to bring a roster of small businesses to the several stone houses on his enormous plot of farmland. They include the shop of the young London tailors Joshua Byrne and Emmeline Burge, formerly of Anderson & Sheppard; the part-time studio of Jade Jagger’s design partner Tom Bartlett; an art gallery managed by Flora Fairbairn, a thirtysomething independent curator and a founder of London’s Madder 139 gallery; a recording studio for the classical guitarist and composer William Lovelady; and a classic-car restoration outfit. “I’m secretly trying to make it so I won’t have to go anywhere else at all,” the jocular redhead told me over a pint of Cotswold Premium lager at—where else?—the Plough. “I’m trying to start a fully functioning working village, but I’m not looking for IT businesses—more creative types.” Burge, who hasn’t looked back since relocating to Merriscourt earlier in the year, adds: “The atmosphere here plays a big part in what we do. It’s just a nicer place to work.” And since so many of their clients have weekend houses nearby, the numerous fittings that a truly bespoke suit demands are a bit less daunting now that they don’t require a skip down to Savile Row at lunch hour. In a nod to its younger customer base, Byrne & Burge, which previously focused entirely on bespoke, is planning to offer made-to-measure suits requiring only one fitting. Thus, American visitors will be able to shop happily, and receive the finished product in the mail.
“It’s like Notting Hill around here now, but nicer,” William Lovelady told me over a hamburger at the Kings Head in nearby Bledington, a favorite among Prince William’s crowd. By that he means that there’s urbane and progressive entertainment to be had, but in a much prettier setting. The theater at Chipping Norton has hosted performers like Tibetan throat singers, and about 30 minutes away is the headquarters of Giffords Circus, an independent traveling act that has been featured in the pages of the local circular and British Vogue alike. The creation of Nell Gifford, 34, who ran away to the big top on her gap year from Oxford, and her husband, Toti, the circus tours the Cotswolds every summer, featuring handpicked acts from Romania, Zimbabwe, or wherever people are doing weird and wonderful tricks that fit in with the reigning burlesque aesthetic. Nell performs in equestrian numbers, shares ringmaster duties with Toti, and designs the elaborate costumes herself, while Toti builds the old-fashioned wooden caravans that house the acts. Giffords may sound like an oddity, but in just four years, it’s become a must-do for local kids and grown-ups alike. An A-list actor once told the Giffords he wanted to run away with them, and the thank-you note penned by Adam Ant that’s posted in the office runs two pages long. In the off-season, they farm Tamworth pigs and run a landscaping business, but a three-ring atmosphere still pervades their compound. Maybe it’s the caravans parked in the field; maybe it’s the watch-goose, Brian, who eats kibble from a dog bowl near the front door; or perhaps it’s the miniature speckled hen that runs around their DIY house’s common areas. This isn’t the kind of scene you’d find just off the air-conditioned coach in nearby Bourton-on-the-Water or Burford, two of the Cotswolds’ most tourist-trafficked towns, and the ones that most people consider to offer the defining character of the region. But alternative and mainstream coexist fairly peacefully all over. Just across the Severn Valley, in Slad, right outside the town of Stroud, is the Woolpack Inn, a favorite watering hole of the late Cotswolds bard Laurie Lee. The Woolpack is the Platonic ideal of a cute roadside dive, and it hasn’t been changed much by its most recent owner, the contemporary sculptor Dan Chadwick—except for the addition of a Ferguson Henderson alumnus in the kitchen, and visits from the fashion writer and socialite Plum Sykes. At Wednesday’s jam nights, youngsters with fetching shag haircuts, nose piercings, and collectible sneakers sing along happily with the older generation in Barbour jackets, everyone banging away on cheese graters and tambourines into the wee hours.
Sure, people can eat well and entertain themselves with effete pleasures in an abundance of global locations. But in the Cotswolds, they can also take country walks, which is what most weekenders come here to do; it’s also the best way to grasp the beauty of the region. All across the area, you’ll see just about every kind of person going about his constitutional. The National Trust has gone so far as to reserve a public footpath, called the Cotswold Way, that bisects the whole of Gloucestershire. I gave it a whirl just outside the magnificent Saxon village of Winchcombe, on the northern end of the Cotswolds, strolling out to the Tudor-era Sudeley Castle, home of Katherine Parr after the death of Henry VIII. Brightly colored pheasant ambled across rocky paths, rooks cawed in the distance, rabbits scampered across the fields, and the air was just chilly enough for a mist to rise from the pasture where a flock of sheep roamed free, the poor dumb dears. It’s hard to imagine even the possibility of being anything but content in an environment so gently alive all around you.
Amid all this tranquillity, the modern and minimally cool hotel style of the Cotswolds generally fits in pretty well. When the boutique places that have sprung up to serve growing numbers of visiting media types and bankers get it right, they are spot on. For all its markedly chic interiors, Barnsley House is laid-back and personal, with a friendly and competent staff. Tea comes with chewy house-made cookies, and the young concierges were happy to talk movies when I pulled a few titles out of the complimentary DVD library. Cowley Manor, housed on a dramatic 55 acres, may be straight out of a Knoll showroom, and the spa may be frequented by boldface names, but there are rows of wellies for visitors who have chosen not to haul their own. Without them, guests couldn’t tramp beside the small river that cuts through the property, and that would be a crime against nature. Not to mention nature-lovers.
But some of these contemporary places forget that nature is still the main event, borrowing too liberally from the London taste that inspired them. In the center of the postcard-ready medieval town of Painswick, right next to the spooky cluster of oddly shaped yew trees at the Norman St. Mary’s Church, is Cotswolds88 Hotel, a swinging new boutique hotel on aesthetic overdrive. The owner’s previous experience is with city nightclubs and it shows: loungy electronic music is piped into the common areas, which are a riot of clashing, on-trend upholsteries and eclectic antiques. The afternoon tea service and dining-room menu are predominantly organic and quite nicely done, but testy signs forbidding wellies and windbreakers are deeply in conflict with the reasons one would come to the region in the first place. Up in Chipping Campden, another of the smarter old Cotswolds villages, is Cotswold House, whose rooms are thick with over-the-top modern furniture and whose main restaurant, Juliana’s, is so formal you need to bring dress-up clothes. (To be fair, its food is inventive, refined, and pristinely executed, and the pricey wine list is extensive and global.)
Whether the Cotswolds’ new taste is gentle or hyperbolic, there’s no arguing that it’s taken hold. A few days into my trip, I took a spin through one of the newest outposts of the progressive Yoo residential development, which is starting to sell large-lot properties near Fairford. For those who aren’t keen to install their Jean-Michel Frank chairs into a maintenance-heavy listed historical landmark, this 35-property complex keeps a premium on seclusion and intimate contact with nature. Several of Yoo’s environmentally sustainable, modular homes are designed by Jade Jagger, whose hybrid of progressive design and boho quaint gets the aesthetic just right. Perhaps most telling, beyond the contemporary furnishings, is the turquoise Aga stove in the middle of each open-plan kitchen. It occurs to me that an Aga is to cooking what a Bugaboo stroller is to child-toting—and it’s so thoroughly Cotswolds: expensive, available in fashion colors, and peacefully and perpetually warm.
Where To Go
In autumn, the colors in the Cotswolds are explosive, and summer in the region is also sublime. Springtime will most likely be rainy and perhaps a bit too cold for comfort.
To see the best of the region, a car is essential. The most convenient rentals are in London, but Oxford, an hour’s drive east from the Cotswolds, also has several rental offices; try 1Car1 (1car1.us; weeklong rentals from $199). Make sure to opt for a GPS, as the area’s country roads are not always well-marked.
Where to Stay
Hwy. B4425, near Bibury, Gloucestershire; 44-1285/740-000; barnsleyhouse.com; doubles from $584.
Great Value Twelve stunning houses, furnished with quality antiques, one sleeping up to 10, are set on proper gardens, with a swimming pool and play areas. Off Hwy. A424, Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire; 44-1993/830-415; bruern-holiday-cottages.co.uk; cottages from $2,000 per week.
The Square, Chipping Campden, Gloucestershire; 44-1386/840-330, cotswoldhouse.com; doubles from $300, including breakfast.
Kemps Lane, Painswick, Gloucestershire; 44-1452/813-688; cotswolds88hotel.com; doubles from $350.
Great Value Kingham, Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire; 44-1608/658-327; thekinghamplough.co.uk; doubles from $170; lunch for two $88.
Where to Eat
The prix fixe lunch is wonderful. 1 London St., Market Place, Fairford, Gloucestershire; 44-1285/712-200; dinner for two $180.
49 Long St., Tetbury, Gloucestershire; 44-1666/504-466; dinner for two $180.
Casual (order from the bar) but with a sophisticated menu, this gastropub serves both posh and humble locals alike. Paxford, Chipping Campden, Gloucestershire; 44-1386/594-000; dinner for two $120.
Cotswold House, The Square, Chipping Campden, Gloucestershire; 44-1386/840-330; dinner for two $100.
Prince William’s local serves a mean burger. The Green, Bledington, Oxfordshire; 44-1608/658-365; lunch for two $70.
Gloucestershire; 44-1367/850-205; dinner for two $140.
Cirencester Rd., near Tetbury, Gloucestershire; 44-1666/502-206; lunch for two $90.
Nether Westcote, Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire; 44-1993/830-888; lunch for two $90.
Hwy. B4070, Slad, Stroud, Gloucestershire; 44-1452/813-429; dinner for two $80.
What to See
The Duke of Marlborough lives here, Winston Churchill was born here, and Capability Brown did the gardens. Need we say more?Woodstock, Oxfordshire; 44-1993/811-091; blenheimpalace.com.
Merriscourt, Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire; 44-7970/547-765; merriscourt.com.
Gloucestershire; 44-1242/602-308; sudeleycastle.co.uk.
Where to Shop
Bespoke suits, shirts, and cashmere. Merriscourt, Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire; byrnesofmayfair.com.
Daylesford, near Kingham, Gloucestershire; 44-1608/731-700.
10 Long St., Tetbury, Gloucestershire; 44-1666/505-666.
Gourmet chutneys, flowers, cheeses, meat, fish, and game. Saturdays at Cornhill Market Place, Stroud, Gloucestershire.
Where to Relax
Hypermodern spa in a tranquil natural setting. Cowley, near Cheltenham, Gloucestershire; 44-1242/870-900; cowleymanor.com; treatments from $120.
What to Read
Cider with Rosie
By Laurie Lee. This autobiographical novel by the Cotswolds bard, about Gloucestershire life in the 1920’s, is required reading for anyone who wants to know about the area before the celebrities descended.