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TAKE ME TO THE COTSWOLDS – THE HEART OF ENGLAND
On the face of it driving from one end of England to the next might seem a bit of a drudge even in a nice car like a Range Rover. After all who looks forward to getting snarled up in traffic and spending hour after hour on motorways watching stupid people drive far too close to each other at high speed while talking on their mobile phones? Certainly not us!
However there is another way and it brings back memories of how motoring used to be conducted half a century ago and in Britain during the fifties we even had Bing Crosby singing about it in a television advert as he apparently toured around the country in an open topped car smoking his pipe and singing his heart out for Shell petrol.
From our home in Northumberland we were making for the Cotswolds, the heart of England. But rather than do it all in one dash we decided to make a proper journey of it, stopping off here and there to break up the trip, enjoying the countryside and one or two choice attractions as we travelled south and treating ourselves to a nice hotel along the way. Of course, there are many budget flights to the UK, if you choose to travel that way.
Our first port of call was Leeds in Yorkshire, a city you wouldn’t put particularly high on your list of must sees but Leeds is a bit of a dark horse. Apparently it has been voted one of England’s favourite and sexiest cities! It is certainly a fabulous place to shop especially in the likes of the Victoria Quarter and the designer stores of The Light. There are also smaller arcades packed with boutiques and coffee shops.
By the way Leeds is where the British giant Marks & Spencer began life more than a hundred years ago; Michael Marks, a Russian-born refugee and market stall holder, met Tom Spencer, a wholesale cashier, and together they opened a shop in the prestigious Cross Arcade. Little did they know such a meeting would create the largest clothing retailer in the UK with more than 500 stores as well as shops in over thirty countries throughout the world!
We wanted to visit the Royal Armouries which was opened in 1995 as an offshoot from the Tower of London where arms and armour have been displayed for centuries. The Tower was founded by William the Conqueror soon after he invaded from Normandy in 1066 and as the years passed and Kings and Queens came and went the Tower became the main armoury of the realm.
When Henry V111 came to the throne in 1509 he decided to have something of a clear out to make way for the very best of modern weapons and armour which he insisted his army and navy should have at their disposal. He founded the Royal Armour Workshop in the Palace of Greenwich and it was here that he commissioned fine armour for himself and his noble friends and it is this armour along with that from Charles 1, Charles 11 and James 11 which now forms the heart of the Royal Armouries collection.
As we drove into the confines of the Royal Armouries a full blown jousting competition was under way. It was difficult to believe that these medieval goings on were taking place so realistically in the centre of twenty first century Leeds. We took our seats fascinated by the prospect of two knights in full armour mounted on horseback galloping towards each other, their long lances under their arms, trying to knock each other to the ground. It all looked very dangerous although we later discovered that the tips of the lances are designed to break under pressure.
It is easy to spend a whole day here captivated by the various war galleries which begin with the ancient world of the Greeks and Romans then move on through the centuries. The story of Genghis Khan and the Mongols is told along with the Chinese and their invention of the crossbow and gunpowder; on another floor you learn all about the history of hunting and the weapons developed for tiger and big game safaris, as well as hog hunting and small bird shooting.
Before we knew it the day was almost over so we headed for our hotel for the night, the Radisson, where we were warmly greeted and escorted to our room. A nice touch was an espresso coffee maker with some chocolates which we tucked into before going down to dinner.
The next morning we met up with the manager who was keen to tell us about the vibrant city of Leeds around him and some new plans for the hotel. So we agree to return to check it all out.
From Leeds to our destination in the Cotswolds was about 150 miles. We had heard about a particularly lovely village called Lower Slaughter which just happens to have a Relais & Chateaux hotel called Lower Slaughter Manor.
It was also back to those knights again, for the name Lower Slaughter originates from a Norman knight called Philip de Sloitre who was granted land in the area by yes, you’ve guessed it, William the Conqueror. But the history of the manor goes back even further, for there was a manor here before the Norman Conquest nearly 1000 years ago.
By 1443 the manor became a convent for nuns and they left behind a remarkable stone dovecote which supplied them with large quantities of pigeons to eat, the theory being that if you looked after the pigeons they would take care of you. We poked our heads inside and the walls were covered in neat square holes where the birds nested in their dozens providing the nuns with an ample supply of meat.
By 1611 the manor was granted to Sir George Whitmore, the High Sheriff of Gloucestershire, and it was his son who contracted Valentine Strong, the renowned stonemason to build the house for the grand sum of £200.
As we slipped into the driveway entrance, the gravel crunching satisfyingly under the wheels of the Range Rover, we felt immediately welcome. The General Manager Andrew Thomason was there to greet us and informed us that we would be sleeping in the stables. Annexes can be extremely disappointing but not this one! In fact we wouldn’t have chosen anything else than this superb suite in the old stable block with a Henry V111 size bed. The room was huge with a gorgeous bathroom sporting twin baths and our own hot tub which we reached by going through a pair of French windows and out on to the terrace.
Fresh fruit and chocolates lay waiting for us, along with a bottle of champagne. They know how to get you in the mood at this hotel which is owned by the Von Essen group. Their CEO and founder Andrew Davis has moved quickly over the last decade or so collecting fine hotels as though he was playing Monopoly. He went for iconic properties in the UK such as Cliveden, Amberley Castle, Sharrow Bay and the Royal Crescent in Bath building them up until they now number twenty four hotels at the last count.
Before dinner that night we had a chance to explore the tiny village with its little river running through it and a water mill that seems to hide around a corner. The cottages built of honey coloured stone in their picture perfect setting were almost unreal. Ducks dabbled in the crystal clear water and now and again a fat brown trout dimpled the surface as it rose to a fly.
After a relaxing dip in our hot tub we were ready for dinner. The dining room is worth talking about in itself. It has chocolate brown silk walls that are lit with sparkling Murano glass chandeliers. We sat at a corner table which gave us a full view of the room in all its glory. But what really mattered was the food. The Head Chef is David Kelman and he has a reputation for providing the freshest and choicest of ingredients so we couldn’t resist the locally supplied beef. The large fillet for two was deftly carved at the table. With a lovely deep red Merlot to go with it we were more than happy!
The next morning after a relaxed and delicious breakfast of fresh fruit and yogurt and a plate of tender bacon and bright yellow fried eggs we set off with an equally acceptable packed lunch straight out of Lower Slaughter’s kitchens. We loved travelling through this intoxicating countryside. Narrow country lanes take you from village to village and then town to town each one trying to outdo each other as the most picturesque. Dramatic wisteria plants cling to the houses and cottages, their huge purple and white flower chains dangling like oversize earrings. Little antique shops draw you in to explore and make you wonder whether you can stuff one of their curios or a piece of furniture into the car. I am afraid we did!
In beautiful, beautiful Chipping Campden we drove in to what has to be the perfect English town. Thanks to the Campden Trust, which was set up in 1929, nothing has besmirched the look of this place; the golden stonework is everywhere. We stop on the high street and stare at the oldest house in the village. Grevel House was built in 1380. It has a remarkable double-storey, mullioned bay window. Leaded glass lies in all the windows and the roof is a riot of little stone tiles around tall chimneys. If only we could go inside and get a feeling of what it must be like to live in this ancient building but alas we can’t because it is a private house.
We pull up outside Cotswold House Hotel nicely positioned on the high street and close to the seventeenth century Market Hall. This hotel is full of surprises and it began for us with the bedrooms. Expecting the traditional antique look it turns out to be quite the opposite. Our bathroom contained a stone bath the size and shape of a rowing boat! French windows took us out into a gorgeous garden where we could lie in the sun on reclining chairs.
Another welcome surprise is our dinner. We could have eaten in Hicks, the very pleasant all day brasserie but at the behest of Duncan the energetic and very go ahead young manager we opted instead for Juliana’s the posh restaurant. And what a find! The chef, once a pupil of Michel Roux, left us raising our eyebrows and licking our lips as each course was brought to the table.
The ingredients come straight from the Vale of Evesham where a variety of dedicated Cotswold producers are supplying crusty breads, locally made cheeses, home reared meats and vegetables. But that’s only half the story of course. It takes skill and flare to turn it all into first class dishes that we will certainly be hurrying back for.
Before leaving Chipping Campden we visited Hidcote Manor Gardens. Now owned by the English National Trust it is the superb creation of a shy American called Major Lawrence Johnston who came to live at Hidcote in 1907 with his widowed mother Gertrude Winthrop. It is famous for its gardens that form a series of outdoor rooms with a magnificent cedar of Lebanon at the hub of it all. This garden, and a similar one which he created in the south of France near Menton, must have taken all his devotion and energy, for it left him no time to marry. By 1948 and in his late seventies his mind had almost gone. It was at this point that he made over Hidcote to the National Trust.
We met up with the head gardener Glyn Jones and he took us on a quick tour. Keen to preserve as much as possible of the original garden we were bowled over by the hidden and sheltered “rooms” that are gardens within a garden. And then we finish with a glorious walk towards a distant pair of iron gates that stand half open. Climbing a flight of broad stone steps we pass two brick gazebos with pointed slate roofs and stone finials and then along an avenue of tightly clipped hornbeams which edge the upper terrace. At last we reach the gates and a view of the heart of England that takes our breath away.
Capture the spirit of the season with Festive Leeds
Enjoy an exciting calendar of festive events for all the family, kicking off with the switch on of Leeds Lights, the UK’s largest winter illuminations festival, on 12th November. Then pick up some delightful Christmas gifts when a little piece of Germany returns to Millennium Square on 13th November with the Christkindelmarkt German Christmas market.
See in the New Year with an array of afternoon entertainment along Briggate and the Headrow, culminating with an impressive city centre firework display in the evening. And it doesn’t end there – make that winter holiday feeling last even longer with a visit to The Ice Cube, the UK’s largest temporary outdoor ice rink, opening 16th January until March. What’s more, retailers, restaurants and attractions in the city will be running special offers and promotions to ensure everyone has a memorable holiday season in Leeds.
For more information visit www.festiveleeds.com.
Lower Slaughter Manor
For more details of the Range Rover please contact Land Rover
Husband and wife, Keith Allan and Lynne Gray are travel writers and photographers based in Berwick upon Tweed on the English/Scottish border. They have worked for The Times, Daily Telegraph, Financial Times, House and Garden, Scotland on Sunday and The Hrald. For more than twenty years they have worked as freelance producers and reporters for BBC Radio, working from their own independent studio for BBC Radio 4, Radio 5 and Radio Scotland as well as the BBC’s World Service.