For a very long time, the Cotswolds seemed too much a tourist destination to be interesting at all.
Then the Kates rediscovered them, and more recently the Beckhams, so I had to find out for myself about the places we mortals can stay in – we who have not got £27m to spend on a mansion like Victoria and David.
Avoiding the famous and beautiful spots, we took the road less travelled – to Malmesbury, where we had delicious surprises.
Ninety minutes from London, this is a picturesque, perfect Cotswold town without any touristy bits and plenty of interest. The BBC knew that already; their weekend of History workshop was in full swing. The late autumn sunshine attracted us first to the Abbey Gardens, a marvellous Tudor affair.
And in its very middle, on the way to the Abbot’s House we nearly fainted: beautiful male, nude torso displayed on the Abbey’s wall.
The cathedral itself was ‘busy’ with local schoolchildren (hence, closed) – a good reason to return soon. It is renowned for the wonderful windows we could not see. But most famous for the first flying man in the world – Eilmer of Malmesbury, a monk who in 1010 took off from the cathedral spire with home-made wings attached, and flew for 200 metres before the inevitable happened and he came down with a bang and broke both ankles.
Eat your heart out Leonardo! William of Malmesbury records this tale in his Gesta Regum Anglorum.
The local hotel, The Old Bell, first looked inviting, but upon closer inspection, the rooms seem a bit pricy for what they are. So no change there in the Cotswolds. Cute but costly.
But a huge surprise awaited us only a further 40 minutes into the country. At Thyme, a courageous lady has started to transform her huge property into a hotel for the 21st century. Expecting cute rooms and a dainty restaurant, we were thrilled to find bright, light, airy spaces full of humour and style. Thyme is the Babington Hotel for grown-ups, fabulous, funny and comfortable. (The bar called ‘BAAA’ and life-size sheep watch you drink!)
They run amazing cookery courses in huge, light kitchens (so here is your Christmas present sorted). The rooms in the old manor house are stylish and trendy, but in a style unique to Thyme – they employed a stage designer and it shows.
Service is by friendly young people in pretty designer gear who genuinely subscribe to the green ethos demanded by the charming owner. Caryn Hibbert, a former surgeon, has both the energy and the determination needed, and usefully, the resources to make this a premier place for people who want to live healthily in agreeable surroundings. People who are used to eating well, know their food, and care about sustainability. Most food products are from the ‘land of Thyme’ – a magnificent 150 acre estate, with two acres of kitchen gardens, where clients can wander, admiring chickens racing round past sheep and pigs. This is a foodie destination that also appreciates peace and quiet. And if you want to chat, BAAA bar is a super place to meet for a drink and relax. We enjoyed conversation with Caryn, and found it so encouraging to find a passionate woman able to realize her vision.
If you need a change of scenery, you can pop out to the restaurant in the Swan, also owned by Hibbert, which is an award winning, cosy-but-chic place full of nooks and crannies and a huge fireplace. The halibut was divine and so was the steak, creatively prepared and presented – so tasty it showed the provenance very clearly.
Should you decide you can handle some tourists after all, Waddesdon Manor, the huge Rothschild property now run very efficiently by the National Trust, is only 50 minutes away. I have never seen such a beautiful chateau outside of France; you almost feel you can see the Loire.
The parks surrounding it make for gorgeous walks, and the art inside is fun for viewing. The opulent but stylish place itself, with its many treasures and fabulous furniture, will take your breath away.
It turns out the Cotswolds is very interesting indeed, whichever path you take.