31 January 2019

A Weekend in the North Cotswolds

"How can I visit the Cotswolds by public transport?" I spent several summers working in the Oxford tourist information centre and this — along with questions about Harry Potter filming locations — was one of visitors' most common questions. However, the Cotswolds Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty located between Oxford and Gloucester wasn't especially accessible. You could take a train to Moreton-in-Marsh, or a bus to Chipping Norton or Burford, and then, if you timed it well, travel by local bus to one or perhaps two more villages in a day trip.

More than a decade later and it's still quite tricky to see much of the Cotswolds if you're short on time and don't have a car, although at least the bus timetables are online now. Luckily, when we head west for a family weekend in the countryside, my parents pick us up at Moreton-in-Marsh station. The train takes about 1h40 from Paddington, passing Reading and Oxford before trundling through Charlbury and Kingham, and then speeding past the now-defunct Adlestrop station made famous by Edward Thomas's poem of the same name.

If you imagine the Cotswold region as a tiny upended United Kingdom, Moreton-in-Marsh would be Southampton, located in the north, although not quite as far as Evesham. We are staying in Broadway, ten miles north-west, but stop for a short walk and lunch in Snowshill, just to the south. The National Trust property Snowshill Manor is closed between November and March, but we wander through the village looking out for snowdrops and peeking inside St Barnabas Church, whose honeyed limestone building matches the rest of the village (and the region) even though this incarnation only dates to the 19th century. The drizzle persists and we seek shelter and sustenance inside the Snowshill Arms, a cosy 15th century pub with a roaring fire, local ales, good pub food and plenty of muddy walking boots outside. We soon warm up over steak and ale pie and toad in the hole.

It's only a short drive to Broadway and we soon reach the Lygon Arms, our lodging for the night. This coaching inn turned luxury hotel has more than 600 years of history ingrained inside its thick, labyrinthine walls. My deluxe room, in the connecting annexe, is very cosy and of a decent size; the décor is Cotswold chic. The bed is extremely comfortable, and I'm pleased to find a kettle in addition to the Nespresso machine, which means I can brew my own coffee in the morning.

The spa treatments are all booked up, so I venture out into Broadway, whose picturesque high street boasts a combination of pubs, lifestyle boutiques, and clothing and outdoor stores. I buy a cashmere jumper at one and some locally produced lavender oil at another. I stroll up the gently sloping road, hoping to capture the perfect shot of the village with the moody hills in the background, but the weather and the bends in the road put pay to this.

Instead, I return to the hotel, for some pre-dinner R&R in the spa. I use the small gym and make use of the small pool, spa bath, steam room and sauna. Feeling very relaxed, I return to my room to change for dinner and join my family for a snifter at the hotel's cocktail bar. I start with a Cotswold's Fashioned, which puts a local spin on a classic drink, and then try the walnut and pistachio caipirinha, both of which are potent and very well mixed.

Dinner is two minutes down the road at Russell's. The à la carte menu puts a creative spin on modern British classics. I start with the lobster ravioli (actually, one giant raviolo), followed by lemon sole with parsley mash and turnips. My dessert is quirkier and vibrantly coloured: butter milk panna cotta with apple and celery gel, olive granola, walnuts and beetroot sorbet; the flavours and textures contrast nicely. The restaurant was completely full and there was a lively, welcoming ambiance.

After a good night's sleep, I drag myself out of bed and over to the gym. Breakfast at the hotel isn't included, and at £10 for continental or £20 for a hot breakfast dish, I pop over the road to the Broadway Deli. My doorstop of a bacon sandwich (£4) invokes feelings of envy when I bring it back to the hotel lobby. It's a good thing I have pounded the treadmill already.

After checking out, we drive to Broadway Tower, a late 18th century folly, which, over the years, has served as a retreat for artists like William Morris, and as a nuclear-fallout monitoring site, among other things. It costs £5 to ascend, and there's some historical information on the way up and a good view at the top. On clear days, you can apparently see 16 counties, but a smaller range is on offer for us. There are lots of walking routes if you have more time and better footwear.

Next on our itinerary is another classic Cotswold villages, Chipping Camden. Its high street is not dissimilar to that of Broadway, with its yellow limestone buildings and antiques shops competing for footfall with homewares stores and purveyors of avocado toast. We eye up some vintage cocktail glasses, but at £75 a pop, I decide to stick to a marbled candle instead.

We then drive back to Moreton-in-Marsh, via the pretty village of Bourton-on-the-Hill. Sadly, we don't have time this trip to see some of the other iconic Cotswolds destinations like the Slaughters, Bourton-on-the-Water and Stow-on-the-Wold. (Yes, they like their compound place names around here.) We are booked in for lunch at the Mulberry restaurant at the Manor House Hotel on Moreton's high street. You don't have to have a roast lunch but we all do, and my roast beef is just the ticket.

Trains back to London are every hour on Sundays. If possible, try to reserve your seats like we did. Although it isn't too busy when we get on, many of the seats are reserved from Oxford and most passengers have a fair bit of luggage. By the time we return to Paddington, we've been away from the city for less than 36 hours, but I feel refreshed and revitalised by my low-key weekend in the Cotswolds. January isn't necessarily the best time to visit — the weather isn't usually great and some attractions are closed — but it was still quite busy, although nothing like as crowded as it can get in the summertime. If you're there in summer, it's worth reserving accommodation and restaurants well in advance.

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