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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

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.

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