It has been said that the Cotswolds is where ambition goes to die. After visiting the region two hours west of the nation’s capital, I can’t really blame ambition for choosing such an idyllic setting for its final resting place. To label it ‘slow’ would be a misnomer and a complete disservice to the hamlets and villages that comprise the Cotswolds. The pace is exactly as it should be: dictated by the visitor, who is free to lounge upon a hillside and appreciate the scenery (and a pint of ale) or take to the races and realize the thrill of one of the area’s biggest draws, the Cheltenham horseracing course.
Moved from its original site up high on the hills of the Cotswolds to its current domicile in the 1930s, the racecourse – and indeed, horse racing — has become synonymous with Cheltenham, with 55,000 people (many of whom are Irish, who love horses and gambling in equal amounts) heeding the trumpet blast over the four days of the Gold Cup meetings in March. This is the climax of the racing season, which begins in the winter and takes a breather once summer breaks. Those who think the area to be permanently under the influence of a sedative have never witnessed the chase of the ponies nor the thrill of a winning ticket.
They have also never patronized The Guns & Roses Experience – the product of award-winning young gun Shelley Spencer (aka The Broadway Florist) who combined the leisurely with the exhilarating: claypigeon shooting and flower arranging. Disparate though they may be, the endeavours actually work in tandem to pleasing effect, proving popular with jack ‘n’ jills, birthday parties, and other social gatherings where the interests of many must be considered.
Never having held a gun (or arranged flowers, for that matter), I was apprehensive (though I hesitate to say which element of the experience concerned me more). But the staff is well aware that my inexperience is more the rule than the exception and worked to put myself at ease. There are also settings for a variety of skill levels so that you don’t feel intimidated nor frustrated by your inability to defend Earth from an invasion of cunning claypigeons. Soon I found my groove; taunting the petrified aviaries with the hope I’d show them an ounce of mercy. Indeed if social interaction isn’t your cup of tea, don’t shrug off the experience; I found it afforded me the stress relief usually reserved for the driving range.
For those who believe claypigeons reserve the right to soar freely through the clouds, the Roses segment of the festivities may appeal to your sensitive side. It could also appeal to your creative side, as you and your classmates are taken through the finer points of flower arranging by an instructor who, moments before, was jamming the butt of a rifle into your shoulder (these are Renaissance women, afterall). The luxury here is that classes are never defined by their length, allowing you to take as long as you wish constructing your floral masterpiece. For more information visit the official website.
Then it’s to the road. Yes, the Cotswolds may have guns and horseracing and the sorts of activities that could make your adrenaline sweat, but it is also an amalgam of villages, each a unique shade of the tranquility that characterizes the area. Explore with insouciance their respective high streets for crafts and confectionery. Need more than a day to take it all in? Take advantage of the inns scattered along the towns’ most populated areas — each steeped in history and character.
One such example is the Ellenborough Park
hotel. Yes, let’s change that. This is no mere hotel. Rather it is a castle built upon tenets of indulgence and luxury, with the hedonistic spirit of its founder, the first Earl of Ellenborough, haunting every room.
You’d be advised to live in a similar fashion while you are here — an easily accomplished task given the array of goodies at your disposal. Sixty-two rooms and suites, each with its own design, comprise the grounds. Take to the Beaufort Dining Room for a sumptuous feast (after consulting with the dining room’s sommelier, of course), or relax with a drink in the Tudor Club. Swim in the heated outdoor pool or head indoors and be pampered in the Spa by its qualified therapists. Should you have the energy after the massage, take in the grandness of Ellenborough Park with a leisurely stroll throughout the grounds. It’s not every trip that sees the accommodations serve also as an attraction. For more information about Ellenborough Park/Cheltenham Spa visit here.
Assuming such a barrage of pampering has not left you weak-kneed, a tour of North Cotswolds is in order, seeing you take off for Cleeve Hill, from which you can see the horizon of Wales undulating in the west. These hills were once covered by sheep, who were mined for their wool, providing income for many in the area. With the onset of the industrial revolution, however, many workers were left destitute, with no coal to attract industry. The area fell into disrepute until the early 20th century, when American artist William Morris visited the area, fell in love with the quintessential English village and so, invited his affluent friends from back home to take up residence in this rediscovered hillside gem.
Their investment allowed the area to flourish, a prosperity that is still enjoyed today – nowhere more than The Broadway, where Morris took purchase, along with his subsequent Arts & Crafts movement. The myriad art galleries and the bi-annual Broadway Arts Festival are proof of its legacy. The Broadway also boasts the Lygon Arms, frequented by Oliver Cromwell, King Charles I and you, should your thirst drag you from the views atop nearby Broadway tower.
To the south of Broadway is Stanton & Stanway - villages built around Stanway House, a manor boasting a magnificent Jacobean gateway whose visual splendour has earned it supporting roles in many films and TV productions. Nearby is the cricket grounds and pavilion — the latter a gift from Peter Pan author J.M. Barrie, who was a frequent visitor to the area.
Stow-on-the-Wold stands above the rest, both literally and figuratively. At 800 ft it is the highest village in the Cotswolds. It is also the epicentre of the antiques trade — quite the accomplishment for a village set among a sea of worthy contenders to the title. All sorts of relics and rarities can be found here, especially in the spring when Stow-on-the-Wold plays host to the BADA Antiques and Fine Art Fair.
Then it’s to Upper and Lower Slaughter — twin hamlets whose unfortunate nomenclature belies the beauty upon their riverbanks. The name derives from an Anglo-Saxon word for “marshy place”, though this name is hardly an improvement. More convincing is to say that the area is named after a knight of William the Conqueror, who settled in the area after making the trek from France. That a knight chose this as his slice of England should indicate its tranquillity.
To fully appreciate the Cotswolds one must remember that its charming hills and houses were not a perennial fixture in southwest England. It required an influx of new money and an adherence to the tenets of an AONB (Area of Outstanding Beauty), a designation bestowed upon the Cotswolds in 1949 (the first designation of its kind in England). Consequently, all alterations to housing and landscape must be approved by the government, which seeks to uphold the area’s authentic style. For visitors, it is comforting to know that such beauty is cherished, and immune from the flux of change that ravages too many travel destinations.