Spring Days Out in the Cotswolds

img_7549Five fabulous Cotswold gardens to visit this spring

The first sunshine of the year warming your skin, birdsong in the morning and at dusk, the smell of cut grass filling the air (if you could smell the colour green, that’s how it would smell) and colour lighting up the landscape. That is spring, a season you can enjoy in all its glory in the Cotswolds, where the landscape seems tailor-made to take the pastoral symphony to a virtuoso performance.

With the weather improving and the May bank holidays looming closer, the excitement is building; ahead of us are sunny days out in the countryside, to enjoy with our nearest and dearest. There are plenty of options, but if you are into nature and truly idyllic locations, the following destinations are not to be missed.

  1. Highgrove Gardens.  The Garden tours at Highgrove, the official residence of HRH the Prince of Wales, just outside Tetbury, are a truly delightful way to spend a morning or an afternoon. They are informative and entertaining and they give you a real glimpse of the man and inspiration behind the gardens. The gardens are varied and full of surprising and charming elements and reflect a personal touch and love of nature. You need to book in advance and you can finish your visit with a lovely afternoon tea in the garden restaurant.
  2. North Cerney House Gardens. A little hidden gem in North Cerney, between Cirencester and Cheltenham, North Cerney House Gardens are an enchanting example of a walled garden. Set on the hillside, the garden is eclectic in style, and reminiscent of a cottage garden. Ornamental plants and fruit trees, woodland and vegetable garden make for an eclectic and varied landscape and an interesting walk through the meandering paths. You can make a cup of tea and help yourself to biscuits for a small donation. It feels like visiting the home of a long-lost relative, it is homely and picturesque and entirely unique!
  3. Sudely Castle Gardens. Sudeley castle is a major attraction in its own right, having played host to kings and queens, from Henry VIII to Elizabeth I, and most notably, having been the residence of Katherine Parr, the last of Henry VIII’s wives. A tip for those of you who want to capture the true spirit of this historic jewel: come on a weekday, outside of the school holidays. I did, and had the exclusive pleasure of wandering alone along the atmospheric corridors of the castle, hearing only the creaking of the floorboards under my footsteps. The gardens though, merit a special mention in their own right, delivering on a grand scale in spring when tulips and roses bring a vibrant burst of colour to the hedged lawns. The garden is as intriguing as the castle and steeped in its rich history. Queen Katherine used to cross it daily to the church, where she is now buried, accompanied by the ill-fated Lady Grey. Two topiary silhouettes have been erected in the garden to commemorate this. Take time to learn about the White Garden, the Secret Garden, the Queen’s Garden, the Tudor Physic Garden and many more.
  4. Westonbirt Arboretum. Always a great destination to feast in the glory of nature, no matter what the season. We have written before about how amazing this venue is. I have been a member for almost 20 years and can’t imagine life without it. It is a proper haven for the soul. In spring, it is a feast of azaleas, magnolias, rhododendrons and tender green buds signalling the awakening of the great woodland collection. There is a bird observatory too for your little ones to enjoy watching some nest building in progress. Take a picnic or feast on the lovely food at the Restaurant if you build up an appetite!
  5.  Painswick Rococo Gardens. Between Stroud and Cheltenham, Painswick is a small, sleepy village on the hillside, playing host to some rather spectacular gardens. The Rococo gardens, from the mid 1700s, are not about neat geometric patterns but about bucolic splendour, fairy-tale woodland with unexpected follies, chattering brooks amid valleys of wild garlic and meandering paths in dappled shade. At every turn, you are treated to another breath-taking, picturesque vista, punctuated by an Indian pavilion here, a Moorish temple there, a Bavarian castle over yonder. Quite extraordinary. . The valley must be echoing with oohs and aahs of past visitors. Imagine the fun this venue must have provided the illustrious guests of the lavish parties back in the 1700s. Apparently, they selected special plants with foliage that would help reflect the moonlight! Picture the ladies wearing flowing crinoline dresses, gently brushing against the ground, the sweet smelling evening breeze playing with their elegantly gathered locks.  It is a fantastic spot for a woodland walk and a period drama. And it has a maze where you can loose…I mean, keep your kids entertained for a while!

The Sign of the Angel, Lacock

The eagle-eyed among you, may instantly be wondering why a blog that concerns itself with Cirencester and the Cotswolds, is writing about a pub in Lacock. It is a fair question. Lacock itself is located in the heart of the Wiltshire countryside and while it is not far from Cirencester, it is still a stretch to think of it as near the Cotswolds, even if everything is relative.

The answer is twofold, really: firstly it is such a nice place that we can’t help but feel compelled to tell you about it; and second, believe it or not, The Sign of the Angel in Lacock, markets itself as “located in the National Trust village of Lacock, on the edge of the Cotswolds and only a short distance from Bath.” For those two reasons, I ask you to go with me on this.

Sign Angel

This Easter weekend was not the friendliest, weatherwise, but there is something about the Brits that compels us to do something, come a bank holiday weekend. One of those days must be spent doing DIY/the garden/spring cleaning (delete as appropriate); there must be a big family meal; and there has to be an outing of some sort. This was our outing, and we could not have picked a worse day, but we were rewarded by our lunch destination.

To say we were all ready for food is a blithe understatement. I have no idea what it is about just sitting in a car that makes you ravenous but I can attest to the truth of this phenomenon. So it was, first with great interest, and then with great pleasure, that we read the menu. There are some menus, that when you read them, you just know (barring a major upset) are a sign of good things to come. I could have happily eaten everything on there. There is a set lunch menu from which you can choose your combination of courses, or there are some lighter lunch options.Between us we ordered a decent cross-section.

 

It was only once we’d ordered that we took stock of our 14th century surroundings. They were quite something, and it is easy to see why Lacock is a perennial film or TV location both inside and out. There were nooks, there were crannies, beams that bowed so low they were a hazard to anyone over 4 feet 6. The garden looked a picture, even in the rain, and must surely be quite something when the weather lets it. There are fireplaces  – thankfully complete with fires when we were there, doors that looked older than the last two centuries combined and a maze of different spaces, all with tables full of expectant or satisfied-looking diners.

Which brings us back to the food which, when it all came, had the air of a banquet and was entirely in keeping with the renaissance-era surroundings. The prawn cocktail salad (a main course portion) was served on a long, rectangular slate set into a wooden base that looked for all the world like a sled. In terms of visual impact, it could not be faulted, and tasted every bit as good. The prawns, grilled and juicy, were lavishly dressed in a mildly spicy cocktail sauce with sun blush tomatoes, olives, a griddled baby gem lettuce and some melba toast. My blade of beef was meltingly tender and surrendered to the merest hint of pressure from my fork. Coupled with a pea risotto some steamed celeriac  – refreshingly not mashed, for once – and a smoked garlic jus that might possibly be the most intensely savoury flavour I taste all year. I am quite easily given to food hyperbole, but even allowing for that these two dishes were sensational.

And it did not end there.  To continue on the sublime meat theme, one of our junior number had a minute steak with chips – a pub classic, but in this instance taken to the next level. The thin slices of steak were beautifully presented with some mushrooms and some chips. While the steak was proclaimed delicious, it was the chips that drew what can only be described as rave reviews. They were a similar success when accompanying the pork chop with black pudding, Chantenay carrots and a port wine sauce. I think we all cleared our plates quite quickly, but that one was hoovered up with relish. Thankfully, it being Good Friday, one of us had the grace to have fish – a beautiful filet of salmon, served on some pearl couscous flavoured with lemon, samphire, and a yoghurt dressing.

The portions were not small by any means, but they did leave room for dessert, for those of us still needing a little finishing off. From first seeing eyes on the menu – I did this before even entering, getting soaked all the while but not minding in the slightest – I had had my eye on the apricot cheesecake. However, the blood orange steamed pudding with a citrus caramel, rhubarb sorbet, and vanilla custard was also too good to resist. We decided to share. The apricot cheesecake was a deconstructed affair that looked stunning, with both the creamy, almost-salty mascarpone and the sweetly tangy apricot sorbet providing a vivid contrast against the matt black glaze of the serving plate. The scattered oat crumb brought the ensemble together, providing texture and substance. The pudding, altogether more subtle in appearance on its pristine white oblong plate, was no less of a picture. The pudding was soft and light, a perfect foil for the blood orange on top and the zing of the rhubarb sorbet and the velvety smooth custard. And then that citrus caramel – such a beautiful way to complete the palette of flavours.

Being with children, we worried slightly that the food might be too sophisticated for the younger ones but we needn’t have. All plates were emptied, and the faces of both young and older at the table told a story of happy, sated appetites. After such a feast a walk around the village would have been ideal, but the Good Friday weather had other ideas. As it was, what we did see of Lacock – which was not a lot – was done mainly through the rain-splattered car windows. This is a shame, but really we had no alternative – the weather and an injury to one of our party put paid to any sightseeing “on the edge of the Cotswolds”. We will go back though.

Relax and recharge: spa days in the Cotswolds

Winter is made for resting. We may think it coincidental that the hours of darkness exceed daylight time in winter, that the temperature drops and that nature, plants and animals alike, go dormant for a few months, but could it be a gentle nudge to us humans too, to batten down the hatches, take cover and rest? It is so tempting to get over-excited about the Christmas festivities and get carried away in revelries, late nights and consumption of food and drink, but then just as easily feel exhausted rather than rested when the time comes for returning to work. We may have ticked all the boxes in terms of the social calendar, the parties and the exchanges of gifts but what about the box marked “make time for me”. Hands up if you feel you’ve started the new year with your energy stores depleted rather than replenished.

When it comes to new year resolutions, giving your body and mind some respect – in the shape of regular recuperation time, might not be such a bad idea. A weekly yoga session, 10 minutes of meditation each day or simply some alone time for a gentle stroll – away from your daily tick list – might be beneficial. Indeed, whatever helps recharge your batteries will improve your mood and ultimately your quality of life. I like writing, taking and editing photographs, baking, or losing myself in a good book. You may like running, knitting, woodwork or baking – it really is very subjective.

Because we are so used to operating at lightening-fast speed though, we need some help in slowing down, to properly engage in creative activities and enjoy the moment, rather than perennially racing to the finish line. What better way to draw a line below the routine than a Spa day? Or maybe just a half-day:enough time to stop and contemplate life, to just be, to consciously relax and offer your body the care and attention it deserves. A spot of reflexology, an Indian head massage or an aromatherapy oil massage can enhance your sense of well-being and help kick-start a healthier lifestyle.

In the Cotswolds we have a few gems, when it comes to spa venues, nestled in the dreamy rural landscape of Gloucestershire and all tantalizingly close to home if you’re based in the Cirencester area. Without wanting to draw an exhaustive list – we’re talking relaxing after all – here are some of our favourite temples of zen. They have in common a gorgeous setting, amenable interiors and of course delicious food treats.

CalcotManor

I received a couple Spa day vouchers as a Christmas present one year for this lovely establishment, which I shared with a friend. We started our visit with a very enjoyable and almost healthy fruit smoothie, (aside from the addition of some celebratory champagne), in the outdoor hot whirlpool (heated by a real wood fire that emanates a fantastic fragrant aroma). There followed an aromatherapy massage and a facial, a swift swim in the pool, rewarded by a spot of lunch in the bright and comfy bar area. In the afternoon, we moved to the relaxation zone where we read our books to the soothing sound of gently cascading water, stopping for a restorative cup of hot tea before selecting a couple of delicious items from the Aromatherapy Associates oils range and reluctantly changing from our fluffy dressing gowns back into our battle-gear

Whatley Manor

Ok, so this one is really in nearby Wiltshire but just a stone’s throw from Tetbury – and less than half an hour’s drive away (again, we’re talking from Ciren here). It has very high standards and impeccable ethos and I have it from reputable sources that it delivers a first class experience. The spa uses ethically sourced, organic, artisan ingredients, such as Moroccan Argan oil, Hymalaian salt crystals and Damascena rose oil. Get an oxygen boost with the Natura Bissé Bubble treatment, a kind of oxygen therapy cabin where you can breathe 99.995% pure air in isolated atmosphere; the latest detoxifying beauty trend, as read in the February 2018 issue of Vogue.

Cowley Manor

I love the interiors of Cowley Manor, with its warm parquet floors and its gracious undulating, landscaped gardens. It speaks of a bygone era of crinoline dresses, banquets and gentrified country folk. A beautiful Victorian manor house set in dreamy Cotswold countryside, Cowley Manor plays host to a very serene spa in a unique setting. Set apart from the manor house itself, featuring Cotswold stone and floor to ceiling glass walls that enable you to enjoy the natural beauty of the surrounding landscape, it doesn’t take long to feel a sense of tranquility. You can relax in the sauna and steam room after your holistic, nature-inspired treatments, including the latest advances in skincare with peptides and stem cells treatments. There are rooms, too, in case you want to stay the whole weekend and really pamper yourself.

Barnsley House

In the genteel eponymous village, Barnsley House is your quintessential country house. On a smaller scale than the other establishments featured here, it possesses considerable charm and it is located just three miles from Cirencester, a very pleasant – if short – ride away. Set in lovely gardens, the spa is a secluded and peaceful hideaway, featuring a sauna, steam room and outdoor heated hydrotherapy pool. The aromatherapy treatments use essential oils and the excellent Elemis skincare range.

Bamford Haybarn Spa at Daylesford

The ultimate in refined rustic, the spa at Daylesford organic farm combines luxury and relaxation seamlessly and elegantly. The small spa is part of the larger complex at Daylesford, one that incorporates the excellent restaurant, the deli, kitchen, clothes shop and the florist’s. The common thread for all the components of the Daylesford complex is superlative quality, at a price. The spa is serene and tranquil, set aside from the rest of the buildings and looking out onto the surrounding fields. The relaxation area makes you want you curl up with a book and your favourite classical music compilation, looking up occasionally to enjoy the uninterrupted views from the glass frontage, the water fountain trickling gently in the background. That is restorative in itself, and there are the treatments still to enjoy; bliss, and then some.

The winter months, when the world is grey and cold, are made for a retreat or a spa break – after all, half of nature is doing it as we speak. So let this be a form of hibernation, putting the ‘treat’ in retreat and giving some time to restoring yourself a little, and then you can come back with a smile, refreshed, with a positive outlook, and with that season not so far away now, a spring in your step.

Westonbirt Arboretum: New Year cleansing for body and soul

Whenever the mind feels fuzzy with too much screen exposure, late nights or just the hectic pace of life and the body heavier with too much indulgence and inactivity I find the perfect cure lies in a walk in the woods. It literally brings you back to earth and makes you appreciate the beauty of our natural world. The clear oxygenated air, the fragrance of the trees, the silence and the beauty of a forest is one of the great collective wonders of life – if only we stopped often enough to appreciate it. A walk in the one of the great cathedrals of nature always regales you with a sense of perspective and an appreciation for the bigger picture as well as gratitude for our wonderful environment.

We are particularly blessed in the Cotswolds for the sheer variety and beauty of our woodland: two of the Forestry Commission’s arboreta – Westonbirt and Batsford – and the wondrous Savernake forest are all on our doorstep. There are few worthier destinations for the woodland walker than Westonbirt Arboretum, just outside Tetbury. It is divided into two parts: the old arboretum, an amazing collection of international renown of trees and shrubs from all over the globe, and Silkwood, a lovely hillside covered by indigenous woodland.

The old arboretum is for those who appreciate the beauty and variety of the plant world  – who take pleasure in recognizing a sweet chestnut from a horse chestnut, an oak from an acer, a yew from a pine. You can walk along the seasonal paths of the arboretum, dazzled by the fiery reds, yellows and oranges of the acers in the autumn, by the floral explosion of the azaleas in the spring, enjoying the cool shade of the leafy London planes in the summer, but if you catch the arboretum in the winter snow you are in for a true fairytale experience. If you are a dog walker, Silkwood is the part of the arboretum where you can enjoy a great scenic walk while your canine companion can feel like he is really stretching his legs.

Whatever the season, I always feel like a kid discovering a magical place in the arboretum, a kind of Alice in wonderland. There is a special suspended atmosphere that puts us humans back where we truly belong, as part of nature’s rich tapestry. I have been a member of the arboretum for almost two decades, my kids have been going for walks there since they were babes in arms; it has helped them appreciate the value of nature and its soothing, uplifting effect.

Once you have paid your dues and reacquainted yourself with nature and topped yourself up on the ozone-enriched air, what a great treat to have that warming hot chocolate, coffee or tea in the lovely wooden cafe. In the summer you can sit out on the wooden deck and enjoy the warming sunshine too. And no visit is complete without a visit to the delightful gift shop, with a great selection of quality wooden ornaments, kids toys, stationery, sweets and biscuits, gifts and outdoor clothing.

If you find yourself thinking that the same collection of trees might get a bit samey after a few visits, the arboretum plays host to a variety of events that always have something to offer, from large-scale events like Enchanted Forest in winter, when the arboretum is lit up into a Christmas fairyland, to smaller activities such as workshops and guided walks.

If you can start a new healthy habit for the new year, there’s nothing I’d recommend more than becoming a member of this wonderful establishment. It is a modest investment (£38), for a year’s worth of blissful walks  – good for both the mind and the body. What’s more, this membership doesn’t only get you into Westonbirt, it gets you in to the smaller but no less enchanting Batsford Arboretum and many others besides. For more information, visit https://www.forestry.gov.uk/westonbirt