Travel The Old Swan and Minster Mill Hotel in Witney offers the ideal base for Cotswolds exploration COTSWOLDS A delightful region just off the A40 Roger St Pierre finds perfect English countryside a short drive from the hustle and bustle of London A loft apartment in Docklands, a weekend country cottage retreat in the Cotswolds – that’s a familiar aspiration for upwardly mobile Wharfers. But, if the bonuses haven’t yet kicked in you can still get a taster of the good life without breaking the bank. The Cotswolds offer an abundance of idyllic and affordable holiday lets plus, if you want to be truly cosseted, some of the country’s best country house hotels and dozens of welcoming inns. Honeyed stone, beamed ceilings, roaring log fires, shady beer gardens for the warmer days of summer – it’s all exquisitely picture postcard. Straddling Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire, this delightful region is quintessential rural England. What’s more, once you’ve cleared London, the M40 motorway brings it within easy reach for a short break. Set off the A40, just west of Oxford, the busy market town of Witney, once world-renowned for its blankets, makes a good kicking-off point. History abounds here. A little further along the peaceful banks of the burbling River Windrush, the ancient honeysuckle-bedecked Old Swan and Minster Mill Hotel (01993 774 441, oldswanandminstermill.com) complex was lovingly restored last year by the De Savary family. It has 16 guest rooms while, just across the street and on the banks of the delightful River Windrush, the more contemporary Minster Mill has 44 comfortable rooms. It would have been all too tempting to relax in the comfy armchairs in the lounge but the open road was calling. Our first stop was Burford, with its broad tree-lined main street – dropping steeply down to the river and lined with proper local businesses. Call at the Tolsey Museum and learn about TIPS ■ Thanks to the M40, it’s an easy hour and a half drive from London. Alternatively, leave the car at home and take the train (there are several services from Paddington running through the area). ■ Working with upland Escapes, the Old Swan and Minster Mill (01992 724 441, oldswanandminstermill.com) has a selection of delightful Windrush Valley self-guided walks on offer. ■ Go mid-week to avoid the summer crowds. Get off the main roads into the maze of byways for delightful little villages like Upper and Lower Slaughter. W Why should I head out to the Cotswolds? “Honeyed stone villages and busy market towns, woodland, meadows, pastures and broad vistas make the Cotswolds an idyllic country retreat.” the town’s once flourishing bell-founding, brewing, rope-making and woollen industries. Two miles away, Cotswold Wildlife Park (01993 823 006, cotswoldwildlifepark.co.uk) is set around a lovely listed Victorian manor house standing in 160 acres of gardens and parkland. Here you’ll find a fascinating collection of mammals, birds, reptiles and invertebrates. Prime places to stay in Burford include The Bay Tree Hotel (01993 822 791, costwold-innshotels.co.uk/baytree) and The Angel (01993 822 714, theangelburford.co.uk). High on a ridge, Stow-on-the-Wold is another interesting old town, set on the old Fosse Way Roman road at its crossing point with six other roads. A local institution worth checking out is The Pudding Club, at the Three Ways House country house hotel in Mickleton (01386 438 429, threewayshotel.com/puddingclub.com) with its utter dedication to delectable desserts. Established in 1985, the club is open to all and meets weekly. Choose your direction and drop down off the ridge to busy Moreton-in-Marsh, tranquil Bourton-on-the-Water with its stream running parallel to the main streets, or, just over the border in Worcestershire, elegant Broadway – famed for its antique outlets and The Lygon Arms (01386 852 255, barcelo-hotels.co.uk). There’s also an old coaching inn called The Lygon Arms (01386 840 318, lygonarms.co.uk) in Chipping Campden – another handsome market town. We ended our own three-day sojourn in Woodstock, with a stroll round this pretty little town and a visit to its prime attraction – the majestically Baroque Blenheim Palace (01993 810 570, blenheimpalace.com), designed by Sir John Vanbrugh. It is a vast edifice that was gifted to the First Duke of Marlborough and was later the birthplace of Sir Winston Churchill. Besides the great house, built between 1705 and 1724 there are 2,100 acres of Capability Brown-designed parkland to explore.
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