When I visited, the Noel Arms in Chipping Camden had been open just ten days after the 4th July starting gun had been fired but there were plenty of guests at the honey-coloured hotel in the heart of the Cotswolds. And even if everything wasn’t quite back to normal, it was good news that the UK tourism industry was getting back on its feet.
You certainly notice the safety measures (hand sanitisers, one-way systems, glass screens on reception, widely spaced tables) but this is merely reassuring. And, of course, the Cotswolds themselves are as lovely as ever. Sitting in the horseshoe-shaped courtyard of the Noel Arms, you could almost imagine Covid-19 had never happened.
But, of course, it has and that’s one of the reasons so many more of us are looking at staycationing this year. And if we’re staying at home, there are few places to visit in this country that are so quintessentially English as the Cotswolds. Chipping Camden is the perfect centre for the north Cotswold villages, all of which seem to belong on chocolate boxes: Bourton-on-the-water, Stow-on-the-wold, Shipton-under-Wychwood. The names themselves are enough to summon up visions of golden stone, thatched roofs and perfect cottage gardens.
Chipping Camden itself is picture perfect and, as there so are few overseas visitors, it’s the right time to have it (almost) to yourself. The historian GM Trevelyan wrote that it possessed “the most beautiful village street now left on the island” and it’s hard to argue with that. Certainly, it has some beautiful and even grand buildings alongside those picture-book cottages and that may seem strange for a comparatively small village in the country. But this was a rich place in its day and its wealth came early – from the 13th century wool trade. And at the time that represented 50% of the country’s entire economy.
Many of the Cotswolds grand houses and museums are, of course, still closed due to Coronavirus. However, the gardens are open and just a few miles from Chipping Camden you’ll find Hidcote, one of the loveliest in the area. Created from scratch by Lawrence Johnston in the early years of the 20th century, it is a garden composed of intimate rooms – the Fuchsia garden, the Bathing Pool garden, the Red Borders, planting which is entirely white in one room, entirely blue in another. The hamlet comprising Johnston’s workers’ cottages (now holiday lets for the National Trust) is impossibly picturesque!
The next day we were off to the lovely market town of Cirencester that was buzzing after those sleepy Cotswold villages. It was market day (Thursday) or, in fact, double market day with the main market in the square in front of the beautiful parish church (built on the scale of a small cathedral) and the arts and craft market that twisted around the lanes and arcades next to the King’s Head Hotel where we were staying. Now, this is a hotel with plenty of contemporary style but if you were in any doubt about its real age, in reception you’ll find a glass panel in the floor that looks down on to a Roman mosaic floor.
If you like quirky shops and street cafes, Cirencester is the place to stay. The hotel’s brasserie (its main restaurant is not yet re-opened) looks out across an arcade that once housed the stables for the Corn Market (now boutiques and bakeries) and has an open central kitchen serving delicious contemporary cuisine.
Another day and another garden. Smaller than Hidcote but wonderfully idiosyncratic, Painswick’s Rococo Garden is a gem. It’s certainly one of a kind, with pavilions and ponds, wild woods and a willow hermitage, as well as a marvellous kitchen garden growing plants that would have been native to the UK in the 18th century. You can buy the produce in the shop, too.
My last stop was Stonehouse Court, a country house hotel just outside Stroud and a room that came not just with a view and a massive four-poster bed, but a claw-foot bath in the bedroom itself. It’s in a pretty spot with a huge lawn that reaches down to the canal, the Cotswold Hills beyond and dozens of house martins darting to their nests in the hotel’s stone-tiled eaves.
It’s no surprise that this is a favourite venue for weddings but, as so few of those are happening these days, the hotel has taken advantage of its garden marquee and moved its restaurant out of doors. It’s a delightful spot for dinner and the hotel prides itself on its organic garden – so, great veg to go with a perfect steak.
No planes? No problem. It’s time to rediscover the Cotswolds.
Noel Arms Hotel, Chipping Camden
www.bespokehotels.com/noelarmshotelB&B from £99
Kings Head Hotel, Cirencester
www.bespokehotels.com/kingsheadhotelB&B from £129
Stonehouse Court Hotel, Stroud
www.bespokehotels.com/stonehousecourtB&B from £90