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Land of the Golden Wonder Walls

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The Cotswolds, day-trip distance from half of England and Wales, boasts some of the most gorgeous landscape in Britain. And in March 2011 the government named the area in Southern England in its tourism strategy as one of its proposed ''super-destinations'' planned to rival the capital, with Cornwall and the Peak District. The writer toured this pluperfect hunk of countryside, threaded by pretty rivers and studded with gold-clad villages nestling in cosy valleys under dreamy hills, and draws up his shortlist of things to do there. Photo - (c)www.cotswolds.info

Golden Wonder Walls

Who needs GPS? You recognize the Cotswolds instantly, by its nothing-like-it-in-the-world map reference. The dry stone wall. The walls are throughout this area of outstanding natural beauty, 40 miles by 20, most of it in Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire. Farmers preferred to enclose local fields with these golden wonder walls of skillfully layered limestone (no cement) than plant hedges, like emperors paving palaces in gold because they had so much of it. The Cotswold Way (from Chipping Campden to Bath) links the star features, divided into convenient day-sized bites. It’s a thrilling rollercoaster of a walk, up and over umpteen stone walls aslant steep slopes. Plenty of drop-dead gorgeous views over rolling hills and valleys.

Star stay

One special Cotswolds attraction is the graceful old house converted into a smart hotel. The golden stone Cotswold House Hotel in sumptuous Chipping Campden, once home to the richest man in town, is one of the best. They recently gave it a chic Italian-themed makeover. We loved the graceful curving staircase, the TV above our bath, the classy 200 yard long landscaped garden and the excellent Juliana’s restaurant. Head chef Steve Love is making his mark with some slick cooking, based around local, seasonal produce. My main course was Cornish brill braised with sea lettuce and chestnuts, followed by caramelised apple crumble and homemade rosemary ice cream. Our keen sommelier (cum waiter and barman), talked us into a memorable Chateau Musar 1999 (Bekaa Valley, Lebanon).

Wool wealth

There’s a rare architectural gem in the heart of many Cotswolds villages and towns, the ‘wool church’. The Cotswold Rich List of the day rolled up their profits from the backs of the local sheep, and bankrolled these churches, bold and glorious. St James in Chipping Campden is one of the best. An even grander monument of Cotswold devotion is Hailes Abbey, the 1246 Cistercian monastery ruined by Henry VIII (now in the care of the National Trust). It’s a serene and peaceful place, on the Cotswold Way. Close by is Toddington railway station, with its film set platform, under signs advertising Fry’s Cocoa and the
Unapproachable Norton. You can take a steam train on the preserved Gloucestershire and Warwickshire Railway from here to Cheltenham Race Course.

Fine finds

The exquisite old market town Moreton-in-Marsh is one of my favourite Cotswold places.You don’t even need a car – direct trains run from London and Oxford. We strolled up the Fosse Way, the wide Roman road that javelins through its heart, ticking off the standard Cotswolds town features - pubs of distinction, smart restaurants, a clutch of antiques shops, tea rooms, several good bakers and butchers. Then an unexpected marvel. Cox’s Yard is a treasure chest of reclaimed building material and architectural antiques. We browsed among ancient churches pews and altar fronts, cast iron pub tables, and an elm chopping block on three legs. Finally, beyond the wall plaques of King Edward I and Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine, and original enamelled Woodbine cigarettes signs, we found the gift for the
gardener who has everything, a 200 ft carved limestone aqueduct from France.

Villa de Luxe

Well off the main tourist track, down quiet lanes in a beautiful wooded combe, are the 1,700-year-old remains of one Britain’s largest Roman villas. Arriving at Chedworth (near Yanworth) just before it closed, we had the place almost to ourselves. So easy to imagine the utter luxury of life in what passed for a palace in those days. After 1300 years of peaceful slumber in the undergrowth it was re-discovered in 1864 by a gamekeeper. The National Trust cares for the fine surviving features in this tranquil place among the trees. Some outstanding mosaics rival those in Pompeii itself. Water tinkles from a natural spring that feeds a shrine, and still runs in a 4th-century stone channel. Look for the very large snails, descendants of a species the Romans imported as a delicacy.

The Place to Stop

Three star locations sit just east of pleasant market town Stow-on-the-Wold. First stop is Adlestrop, the village where Edward Thomas’s train made an unscheduled stop ‘one afternoon of heat’ in 1914, and inspired his eternal poem of rural peace, Adlestrop (the old station sign is in the bus shelter). The second is Daylesford Farm Shop, an outstanding organic outlet (with a café). Expensive, but they keep high standards. A few miles on, down a rambling Cotswold lane, is the splendid Chastleton House. Much as it was when built in 1612 for a wool merchant, Chastleton is one of our most
complete Jacobean houses. On a summer afternoon aflood with sunshine, it epitomised the rural calm Thomas found so long ago.

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