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Discovering England’s Cotswolds

Paul Bellaart Taking in the 99 clipped yew trees in the gardens at St. Mary's Church. Jacket and skirt by Ralph Lauren Collection; shoes, Stuart Weitzman; bag, Anya Hindmarch; hat, Vince; gloves, Lacoste.

Photo: Paul Bellaart

“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.

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