The Cotswolds has long been the ideal weekend retreat, with its limestone villages and quintessential English charm – and it’s just over 90 minutes from London, to boot. It is also now Prince Harry and Meghan’s preferred country love nest. Fancy bumping into the royal couple during your weekend getaway? Here’s your ultimate Cotswolds’ checklist…
The hotel: Calcot Manor
Located in Tetbury and situated on 220 aces of lush meadowland, Calcot Manor, all Cotswold stone and exposed wooden beams, is an undisputedly dreamy spot to lay your head. A hotel since 1984, it was originally a tithe barn annexe to Kingswood Abbey, dating back to 1300AD and has maintained a presence, as a manor house and farm, ever since. Remnants of its former ecclesiastical heritage can still be seen in The Barn – now an impressive events space and, to the great joy of this London-based freelancer – a sleekly-designed work space with admirable wi-fi.
We stay in a charming room in the main manor house, just one of Calcot’s assorted buildings. Sumptuous but restrained; with delightful extra flourishes, from plush window seats to Bakelite phones. There is the aforementioned barn with its fascinating former life, several outbuildings now serving as accommodation, an outdoor pool and the spa; with its barn-style indoor pool and an outdoor hot tub with an open fire. The property’s meadowlands are ripe for exploration, either with the complementary hotel bikes, or on foot.
Food is courtesy of the Conservatory Restaurant, an airy and spacious affair with a ravioli starter so rich you may never need to eat again, or the Gumstool Inn, a pub attached to the property which has a gorgeous menu (try the burrata) and a lively local scene. The bar which bridges the conservatory and the warm and welcoming reception rooms, is manned by a team so friendly and accommodating, they even seamlessly replace our spilled drinks when we fall prey to a wasp attack on our first afternoon.
The last night we stay, the heavens open, so we are forced to retreat to the manor’s main lounges; an intermingled series of rooms, each more impossibly cosy than the next, intensified by the very welcome open fires the unseasonable chill, and our night caps, necessitate.
The pub: The Bell
The Bell at Stow is a Cotswolds’ institution for those in the know. With its flagstone floors, open fires, exposed beam ceilings, this is the archetypal country pub. It helps that it is located in the heart of one of the region’s most beautiful villages: Stow-on-the-Wold.
It boasts a vast pub garden and a menu serving the very best of local fare; including the famed local steaks from the Lambournes of Stow butchers. It serves tourists and locals alike; always a great validation of a pub’s quality, and even has a selection of gorgeous rooms should you want to make The Bell your base.
The local business: Wood Brothers Distillery
If the pub isn’t quite enough; why not head straight to the source, and visit one of the areas distilleries? The most recent success story of the Cotswolds is Wood Brothers’ Distillery, a family-run business based on a farm. The eponymous Wood Brothers, Ed and Charlie, decided to set up their own distillery in the 200-year old granary barn on their family farm, making them sixth-generation farmers and first-generation distillers.
The aim was farm diversification; and to create a single estate distillery, something rarely found in the UK. For the lay person; this means that everything you find in your bottle of Wood Brother’s vodka or gin is grown right there on the farm. The brothers distil precisely what they grow.
It’s a charming set-up with a family feel that combats the often faceless corporation side of major booze companies. Thankfully, it also produces a rather heavenly output that you can snap up at, among other places, the nearby Upton Smokery in Burford. Tours of the beautiful distillery, minutes from Bampton, are scheduled to start later this year- check out their website for details and you can meet the brothers themselves.
The spa: Thyme
It is tempting to call Thyme a hotel, but it feels very much more than that. Its owner, Caryn Hibbert, would call it an ‘experience’ which sounds like PR guff, until you visit and realise there is something unmistakeably special, and curiously unique, about it all.
The medieval manor house, and still private home to its owners, is set within 150 acres of farmland, sheep pastures, flower gardens and wild meadows- complete with jumping frogs and otters in its streams.
This September, Thyme; which already boasts a famed cooking school (using its homegrown ingredients) hotel bedrooms and cottages, is opening its first ever spa.
Entitled The Meadow Spa, it is the most seamlessly integrated spa I have ever encountered, as true to its Cotswolds location as the local pub, The Swan, also owned by Thyme. Fully incorporated within the rustic authenticity of the hotel, it is situated within a small cottage house and an old greenhouse on the estate. The walls are an apple green, with oversized window seats made from towelling in the relaxation room and consultations and honey-infused teas in the lovingly restored greenhouse space. Attached is a space for yoga, which I tried at 8am looking over their new spring water outdoor pool.
Treatments take place in the eaves of the cottage spa building; each room small and special, a million miles away from the dark marble basement sweatbox spas of some luxury hotels. They have partnered with Aurelia Probiotic Skincare, who slip one of their wonderful sleep sprays into my room the night before my treatment, with the secrecy and generosity of Santa Claus. They are a brand perfectly in line with the natural credentials of Thyme, sending me off to sleep with lavender top notes. Next morning I am treated to a 90-minute massage and facial, so soothing and intense that I still feel impossibly like I am floating, hours later, on the grubby train back to Paddington. That’s quite an achievement.
The restaurant: The Frogmill
This Cotswolds classic is one of the region’s longest-standing inns and was lovingly refurbished and grandly relaunched this summer. It is a pub, country hotel and restaurant rolled into one and it’s a laidback yet stylish affair, just 15 minutes from Cheltenham, in Shipton Oliffe.
The redesign has given it a boutique-hotel sleekness, but it has been careful to maintain that unique Costwolds flavour; still feeling like the traditional inn its always been.
Though it contains 28 lovingly-refurbished bedrooms, it’s the food that is a huge draw here. From executive chef Jonathan Pons, the menu is seasonal, placing a lot of emphasis on quality and provenance. Local fare is prominent, especially native-breed meats from the local farm grilled on a Spanish Josper coal-fired oven alongside delicacies with a twist; salmon and beef tomatoes smoked in the restaurants American Smoker to give the dish a punchy flavour.
Other highlights are the thick-cut pork belly ribs and the fired chicken lollipops. To top it all off, this mouth-watering menu is not eye-wateringly expensive. Which is a treat in itself.
The rental: Cotswolds Luxury Rental
If a home away from home is what you’re after, the Cotswolds is tripping over itself to offer you a plethora of stunning holiday homes. If you’re having trouble picking you way through the list, Luxury Cotswolds Rentals possesses an enviable curation of some of the region’s most charming properties. From large scale grandeur for a big party, or cosy boltholes with open fires, exposed beams and buckets of charm; they’ve pretty much got it all covered.
Behind a sleek exterior, the company is actually a very small operation, priding itself on its very exacting selection of holiday homes; only including the very best properties, and boasting personal relationships with all of the owners to ensure a smooth and happy staycation worthy of Harry and Meghan.