When summer arrived we always headed for Europe. This time we forsook France and headed for a holiday cottage in the Cotswolds, by way of Dover and Kent
With so many people opting for "staycations" these days, we followed the trend and took our summer holiday in England. The promised barbecue summer may have evaded us, but were we disappointed? Not a bit of it. We enjoyed accommodation, food and hospitality of the highest order.
Rose Cottage. Its very name conjured up a quintessential English country dwelling that we were seeking. We had booked it online through www.cotswoldcottagesonline.com, where it was described as a typical eighteenth century weaver's cottage overlooking one of the five golden valleys of Stroud. It was truly delightful, furnished and equipped to a very high standard, and set in lovely gardens on the edge of the charming village of Bisley. With beautiful walks in all directions, a thriving village store and two excellent pubs, we would have been happy to stay in its environs for the whole week, even if it had poured down. As it was the weather was benign. We relished the cooler air and dramatic clouds that cast their moving shadows over the rolling hills.
Nearby, the quirky town of Stroud offers lots of whole-food cafes and coffee shops to enjoy, buskers in the streets, and a renowned farmers' market on Saturday mornings which is ideal for self caterers.
If you prefer to dine out, then head for The Bear at nearby Rodborough Common, where the Box Tree Restaurant offers food and service of a very high quality, in the quaint setting of an English coaching inn( The Bear at Rodborough, Stroud; 01453 878 522). Do not, however, be afraid of the two bears which occupy the reception area. They are quite friendly, if a little taciturn. This is also a very nice place to stay, if you can manage the equally fine breakfast the next morning, which offers local organic smoked trout from Bibury alongside the traditional English breakfast. Not for this hotel the increasingly common buffet affair, with congealing eggs and cold bacon, but proper waitress service.
You will undoubtedly want to visit the famous village of Bibury itself, Bourton-on-the-Water, Burford maybe, or one of my all time favourite spots, The Slaughters. Unfortunately the most famous Cotswold villages are often thronged with tourists in summer. One way to avoid the crowds is to stay at the top class Lords of the Manor Hotel( Upper Slaughter, Glos; 01451 820 696). which is set in its own beautiful parkland on the edge of Upper Slaughter. Follow the river side path early the next morning to the equally charming village of Lower Slaughter, and the only noise to disturb you will come from the squabbling ducks.
We decided to explore the regency spa town of Cheltenham, with its elegant Promenade and Pitville Pump rooms. A refreshingly different place to eat with flavours from the eastern Mediterranean is Brosh (8 Suffolk Parade, Cheltenham; 01242 227277; www.broshrestaurant.co.uk), a small family-run restaurant in Cheltenham's Montpellier district. Such flavours! This was a modern restaurant with a cosmopolitan feel.
For our last day in the Cotswolds we stepped back in time to the Slad Valley just north of Stroud. Here, The Woolpack Inn (Slad; 01452 813429) was once the watering hole of the writer Laurie Lee, where to this day the barman pulls a pint of the finest local (Uley's) ale against a backdrop of sheep grazing on a steep escarpment . All credit to the publican who has maintained the honest simplicity of this pub. It sells very good grub too.
Our week in the Cotswolds passed all too quickly. The downside of our journey there had been the M25, so we decided to avoid the inevitable traffic jams on the way back by following the smaller roads along the southern coast. Swapping the honey-coloured Cotswold stone for the half-timbered village houses of Kent, we were not disappointed. We had booked an inexpensive last minute room at The Oak in Charing, near Ashford, for a quick overnight stay(High St, Charing; 01233 712612). The pub/restaurant here was excellent, and certainly very popular with the locals.They offered an extensive wine-list,and an interesting well priced menu. Moreover the landlord was so welcoming and helpful, and the accommodation so stylish, that we wished we were staying longer. Charing is a beautiful and thriving village on the Pilgrims' Way. Henry VIII once stayed here in the magnificent Archbishop's Palace. If Charing was good enough for him, it was certainly good enough for us.
We had booked a return crossing on LD Lines' new Superfast catamaran, Norman Arrow, sailing from Dover the next evening. Our last day in England was sunny and mild; perfect for fulfilling my long-term ambition to see the famous gardens at Sissinghurst. Nothing could have prepared me however, for the magnificent colours and abundant flowering that filled every corner and bower of this wonderful estate, where the friendly National Trust volunteer staff, and the team of resident gardeners do stirling work. You can picnic in parts of the grounds, or have a meal in the restaurant, enjoying fresh produce from the newly productive vegetable garden
Later that evening, as our boat veered away from the famous white cliffs, and my thoughts turned to France, I knew that the gardens of Sissinghurst would provoke nostalgia for England for a long time to come. We had had a holiday to remember, and will remain impressed by the quality of the welcome, the accommodation and the food that we enjoyed.
Spring 2010 update: a tale of two bears.
We returned to the Cotswolds this spring to find the quality of food at The Bear of Rodborough Hotel had not diminished. We enjoyed a three course special rate dinner for £20, in the elegant Box Tree Restaurant. I chose a roast pigeon and fig starter that was cooked to perfection, followed by poached chicken. The latter may sound rather bland, but I can assure you the flavours were intense.
We also revisited the historic Bear Inn at Bisley. It offers a wide choice of food , including an excellent vegetarian pasta option at £7 which my son appreciated. I enjoyed a baguette filled withhorseradish and pink beef...exactly as it should have been. It was a beautiful sunny day, but the wind was chilly. Hurrah for the Bear Inn, which boasted the biggest and best pub fire I have seen in years(Bear Inn,George St.,Bisley; 01452 770265).