A Winter Getaway to the Cotswolds
I grew up on the south coast of England between Hampshire and West Sussex. My memories of winter weekends with my father as a teenager all involve long walks. Summer was taken up with tennis or sailing, and in winter when the tennis court was too wet and the wind in Chichester Harbour too strong, we’d head to the South Downs instead. The South Downs is the UK’s newest national park, declared such in 2011, but we’ve been walking there for years, compass and ordnance survey map in hand. When I say “long” walks, I mean a minimum of three hours, usually longer! It’s from my father that I inherited my habit of walking fast, to keep up with his long legs, and several people since have commented that I race around speed-walking everywhere! To cut a long story short, countryside walks have always been a prominent feature in my family. My father and I went walking in the Peak District in May and so when I received an invitation to visit the Cotswolds, I immediately knew who to invite.
The Cotswolds had long been on my wishlist of places to visit, as it’s always spoken of as a beautiful, scenic part of the English countryside to which Londoners continuously seem to be “retreating”. There’s so much hype about the Cotswolds, and I’ve never before had an excuse to properly discover why, so I was delighted to be be invited to stay at the Old Stocks Inn, a luxury boutique hotel in the postcard-worthy market town of Stow-on-the-Wold.
We arrived by car (and I really recommend you go by car, as there wasn’t much obvious public transport) and were shown to our suite in the converted attic. The whole hotel underwent a huge renovation this year and has only recently reopened, and the interior design does look straight out of a glossy magazine or episode of Grand Designs. It looks beautifully Scandinavian – a white canvas on which turquoise and certain other key colours are highlighted. The original wooden beams, low ceilings and other features of the 17th-century inn have been maintained, giving the all-important Cotswolds touch, referencing its countryside context and the building’s heritage as a four-century-old coach inn. As you’d expect in a grade II listed building, each of the 16 rooms is unique and we were treated to room 21, one of the Old Stocks Inn’s “Great Rooms“, which includes not only a bed and the standard features you’d expect, but also big cast iron bath tub, 40-inch wide smart TV, fluffy dressing gowns and slippers, a luxurious velvet sofa, a free (!) minibar with local drinks and produce and luxury Aromatherapy Associates toiletries.
I adored staying in our suite, with its gorgeous bathroom, its windows overlooking the Market Square, its unbeatable pillows and extra touches such as the tones of Classic FM playing in the background as we checked in. It’s a hotel that I imagine would be great for a romantic retreat. As I was travelling with my father, they made up two twin beds, and the turquoise sofa in the living area of the suite provided a great backdrop for a father-daughter catch-up after the whirlwind of my recent trips, since beginning my career break in mid-November. The hotel also has a bar, library and even a café downstairs to relax in, with a beautiful garden featuring an enormous wood-fired pizza oven, that I’m told comes into action in the summer.
After a gin and tonic from our room’s minibar, we headed downstairs to the Old Stocks Inn restaurant for a feast of local food from the Cotswolds. The main course menu is predominantly meat-based with chicken, lamb and pork options as well as steaks and burgers on offer, which was perfect for us (but vegetarians shouldn’t expect too much of a choice – cod and risotto are your options). I opted for an artistic tomato and mozzarella salad for starter and a mouth-watering chorizo and blue cheese burger served with harissa mayo for main course, before a masterpiece of a poached pear for pudding. My father’s starter of prawn salad was a similarly impressive work of art and he opted for the locally-sourced sirloin steak with blue cheese sauce. Breaking with protocol, instead of washing down my meal with wine I actually decided to sample the cocktail menu, with the edible flower & gin cocktail below being a particular highlight.
As you can see above, we were incredibly well-fed at dinner in Old Stocks Inn, even over-fed perhaps! Breakfast next morning was served as a continental buffet, with an à la carte menu to order a number of cooked breakfasts, which I really liked, as you know it’s been freshly made for you, rather than sitting in a buffet for several hours before finding its way onto your plate. I sampled the Full English on day and the Poached Eggs with Ham Hock the next, and both mornings I failed to finish my plate due to delicious but overly-generous portions. You certainly won’t be going hungry!
Under the weight of such indulgent meals we felt it essential to get some exercise, so I donned my walking boots, scarf, hat and my new waterproof parka from Sprayway and we set off outside. Stow-on-the-Wold is an adorable little town full of pubs with blazing fires, tea rooms and cute gift shops which would be a great distraction on a rainy day, however we had set our sights on the Cotswolds hills. So after breakfast we drove to a village called Overbury and set off following a 7-mile route my father had found in his encyclopaedic book ‘The Most Amazing Places to Walk in Britain’.
Being winter and a weekday, we had the rolling hills and footpaths all to ourselves! We trekked up to the top of Bredon Hill, from the 293m-high summit of which, you can apparently see the Welsh mountains on a clear day in the distance. We instead bumped into a flock of sheep and climbed over various attractive drystone walls, which we realised are the difference between the Cotswolds and the South Downs. In the south we make do with hedgerows, while further north the landscape is divided up by lovely, higgledy-piggledy stone walls.
Now that winter is well and truly in its stride, on my recent travels around the English countryside in Hampshire, Cornwall and Gloucestershire, I’ve been wrapping myself up in a new waterproof parka to keep out the classic British wind and rain. You might have spotted it in my Instagram photos as it was also a vital addition to my packing list for Iceland a few weeks ago, where I would have literally become an ice sculpture were it not for the fur-lined hood and fleece-lined inner! The Willow Parker is made by a British company called Sprayway and is available exclusively here in Blacks for £130 (in their Winter Sale it’s currently just £80). It has hand-warmer pockets as well as two good sized pockets, and I’m marvelling at the wonderful luxury of having a hood on a coat for once!
Except for when I’m skiing, it’s been years since I wore a hooded coat and I now realise how much I have been missing out. And not just useful while out and about, I’ve discovered that the fleecy hood is an excellent way to shut out the rest of the world while trying to catch a power nap on a plane, train or long car journey. A pillow in a coat! In short, it’s been perfect for my various escapades inside and outside London and I’m a convert to parkas. It’s also great to support a true British brand, as Sprayway was founded in 1974 in Manchester by two enthusiasts of the great outdoors, people who really know their conditions! (For those of you that aren’t from Britain and don’t understand that reference – all you need to know is that it rains a hell of a lot up north!).
That evening after our walk we headed to The Porch House, apparently England’s oldest inn dating back to 947 AD, for a well-earned and hearty English meal alongside a roaring fireplace. I must be getting older, because I’m really starting to relish eating out and travelling mid-week when everything is quieter and moving at a more relaxed pace. All of which was helped by the Stow-on-the-Wold being a heavenly chilled little town in general! And what do I love most about tiny little towns and villages? When you’re full to burst and ready to roll home into bed, there’s no stressful London Underground to endure, instead in Stow-on-the Wold it’s simply a 2-minute stroll back to your bed! We only had the opportunity to try out two restaurants in the town, but we wandered past several other nice ones that would keep you entertained and well-fed if you were to stay in the area for longer.
On our last day in the Cotswolds we headed to Winchcombe for a 6-mile walk starting at Sudeley Castle and following the Cotswolds Way to Belas Knap, an eery prehistoric burial mound dating back to 2000 BC and containing 38 skeletons. En route we climbed yet another hill to be rewarded with some beautiful views across the valley, before heading back to Winchcombe via a couple of incredibly muddy fields, which made for a hilarious scene as we stomped along with several inches of mud clumped underneath and around our walking boots! Had it been summer, when Sudeley Castle is open to visitors, we’d have taken a look around, but as it was closed we contented ourselves with saying hello to the alpacas in the castle’s grounds.
Our trip to the Cotswolds showed me why the region is quite so popular with Londoners and others. The landscapes are indeed beautiful, although in my opinion are on a par with the South Downs. Where the Cotswolds wins over the South Downs however, is in its infrastructure for visitors, with a really impressive array of small, adorable market towns equipped with romantic listed buildings housing impeccably designed hotels, restaurants and pubs such as the Old Stocks Inn in Stow-on-the-Wold. I’d also venture to say that the Cotswolds is home to more stately homes and castles to provide entertainment for non-walkers or on rainy days. Impressed by what I saw on my recent trip to Gloucestersire, I’ll be interested to see over the next few decades if Britain’s newest national park, the South Downs, also develops those elements needed to attract the “country bumpkin wannabes” like myself down from London… In the meantime though, if you’re looking for a weekend retreat to escape the chaotic metropolis, then I can wholeheartedly say that Stow-on-the-Wold is the place to head.