Group-Friendly Hotspots In The Cotswolds
Friday Evening/Saturday Morning – Nestling on the north-eastern edge of the Cotswolds, a little to the east of Oxford’s dreaming spires, the magnificent Eynsham Hall promises a wonderful start to your group visit. This Jacobean-style country house and gardens, set amid 3,000-acres of idyllic parkland, now operates as a luxury hotel and – having reached the finals of the industry’s Prestigious Star Awards 2015 – has been voted one of the top three most romantic venues in the world. If an overnight stay at Eynsham Hall seems a little over-indulgent, nearby Witney offers a choice of alternative hotels including a Premier Inn and the popular Oxford Witney Four Pillars Hotel. www.eynshamhall.com
Saturday – The Cotswolds is renowned for its charmingly picturesque towns and villages. A 20-minute journey East from Eynsham Hall brings you to historic Burford, regarded as the ‘gateway to the Cotswolds’. The town’s 15th-century Parish Church of St John the Baptist and The Tolsey – a half-timbered Tudor building that now houses a museum – are highlights, whilst Burford’s narrow streets brim with independent shops, cafes and places of interest, and lead to the pretty River Windrush, which is straddled by a medieval stone bridge. On Burford’s southern outskirts, the Cotswold Wildlife Park and Gardens is a must for horticulture and nature enthusiasts. Fully accessible for wheelchairs and scooters, groups can spend time touring the beautiful and diverse gardens, which link enclosures containing animals, from Asiatic lions to zebras, plus primates, reptiles and exotic birds. Groups of 20 or more guests receive discounted entry and must book in advance. www.cotswoldwildlifepark.co.uk
Continue south and you’ll reach Bibury, described by Victorian artist William Morris as “the most beautiful village in England”. Set upon the banks of the River Coln and backed by a water meadow, Bibury’s traditional 17th-century weavers’ cottages, the disused Arlington Mill – now an agricultural and folk museum – and the ancient stone bridge that spans the River, continue to prove irresistible photo opportunities. Bibury’s own trout farm, meanwhile, spawns up to 10-million rainbow trout each year; a local delicacy which can be sampled in the village’s Catherine Wheel Pub. www.bibury.com
One of the Cotswolds’ most famous destinations, Stow-on-the-Wold is just 30-minutes north of Bibury. Standing atop Stow Hill at an elevation of 800-feet, it is the highest of the Cotswolds towns and is steeped in history. A former hub of the prosperous woollen textile industry during the Middle Ages, Stow-on-the-Wold was also the site of the final battle of the English Civil War in 1646. Much of Stow’s history is still evident today, from its huge Market Square – a farmer’s market is still held on the second Thursday of each month – to its narrow alleyways (known as ‘chures’) and buildings made from local honey-coloured stone. Stow-on-the-Wold is renowned for its antique shops, historic inns and tearooms, art galleries, and for its church – St Edward’s – that originated in the 13-century and possesses exquisite stained-glass windows. Continuing northeast from Stow-on-the-Wold, Snowshill Manor and Garden is just 20-minutes away. This remarkable Cotswold manor house was designed by architect and craftsman Charles Paget Wade, who from the age of seven, began collecting objects of interest. Now comprising more than 22,000 separate items, Wade’s entire collection is on display and contains everything from clocks to clothing and from samurai swords to suits of armour. The manor’s delightful garden is both colourful and tranquil and features extensive fruit and vegetable plots and a model village. If your group’s arrival coincides with lunchtime, Snowshill’s Tea Room is an invitingly cosy place to stop for a drink or a leisurely bite to eat and features an outdoor patio from which to admire views over the gardens and woods to the rolling open countryside beyond. Groups visiting Snowshill Manor and Garden enjoy concessionary entrance fees, although parties of 15 or more people are requested to book in advance. www.nationaltrust.org.uk/snowshill-manor
South of Snowshill Manor in the heart of the countryside, Adam Henson’s Cotswold Farm Park offers visiting groups the opportunity to experience rural farm life and get close to some rare animal breeds. Adam is perhaps best known as a TV presenter on BBC’s Countryfile. He’s also a farmer, and at Adam Henson’s Cotswold Farm Park – established by his father in 1971 – groups will have the chance to appreciate his work and lifestyle. Coach groups are welcome and in addition to rare breeds, the park offers a snack bar, bistro, café, gift shop and farm shop. Groups of 20 people or more receive concessionary entrance fees, with all of the park’s events and activities included in the admission price. www.cotswoldfarmpark.co.uk
Returning northwest, the town of Toddington is the northern terminus of the Gloucestershire Warwickshire Steam Railway.
A nostalgic journey along this 12-mile track is unmissable as it passes through some of the Cotswolds’ finest scenery, taking in cuttings, tunnels, aqueducts and open rural landscapes. If time permits, you might like to disembark the train at either or both of its intermediate stops to explore further. The first, Winchcombe, offers a fascinating railway museum and is also the site of Sudeley Castle, home of Henry VIII’s sixth wife, Catherine Parr.
Meanwhile, Gotherington is a tiny and traditional Cotswold village and a pleasant place to break for a spot of afternoon tea. The Gloucestershire Warwickshire Steam Railway terminates at Cheltenham Racecourse Station and from here; a regular bus service makes the 20-minute journey to the city of Cheltenham itself. www.gwsr.com
Saturday Evening/Sunday Morning
The historic city of Cheltenham provides an excellent destination to end the first day of your weekend excursion in the Cotswolds. Although a market town since the 13-century, Cheltenham rose to prominence in the 18-century as a spa resort to rival Bath.
The weekly market is held every Thursday, whilst a farmer’s market takes place on the second and last Friday of each month. Much of the grandeur of Cheltenham’s Regency heyday is still apparent in the city’s well-preserved town houses, public squares and promenade.
Groups stopping overnight can benefit from an abundance of quality accommodation to suit all budgets and tastes. The centrally located yet peaceful Clarence Court Hotel offers a range of rooms and is highly rated by its guests for comfort and hospitality. www.clarencecourthotel.com
Cheltenham’s dining scene is equally diverse, but Lumiere on Clarence Parade is particularly well regarded and offers a contemporary British menu with something to please everyone, serving dinner between 1900hrs and 2100hrs. www.lumiere.cc
Cheltenham offers a wealth of activities and entertainment for group travellers, and is worth taking the time to discover. Amid the splendour of its historic buildings, the city’s gems include the Regency terrace house, which is now a museum in which the composer Gustav Holst grew up, The Wilson – Cheltenham’s foremost art gallery and museum, the truly stunning Town Hall, and Pitville Park; ideal for a Sunday morning stroll and a little wildlife spotting. www.visitcheltenham.com/groups
The legacy of the Roman Empire is still evident in places throughout the Cotswolds, but perhaps nowhere more so than at Chedworth, a 30-minute journey southeast from Cheltenham. Here, you can explore the remains of one of the largest Roman villas in Britain. Dating from the fourth-century, these remains lay hidden beneath a field in the Cotswolds until their rediscovery in 1864.
Today, you can marvel at intricate Roman mosaics, learn about Roman inventions such as bathhouses, under floor heating and sanitation and discover the Roman way of life in Britain, as relayed by a remarkable collection of artefacts in the villas museum. There are also a number of walking paths to follow around the site, and a café to relax in when it’s time for a break. Owned by the National Trust, Chedworth Roman Villa offers a number of options for visiting groups including guided tours, audio tours, special talks, out-of-hours visits and more. Group’s benefit from reduced entrance fees and must book in advance. www.nationaltrust.org.uk/chedworth-roman-villa
The 17th-century market town of Tetbury (market day is Wednesday), is 40-minutes to the southwest of Chedworth Roman Villa and has been described as an ‘architectural gem’. As delightful as the village is, the major draw for many group visitors to the area is the proximity of the Royal Gardens at Highgrove. Between April and October each year, His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales and The Duchess of Cornwall open the gardens to visitors for an exclusive two-hour tour, which takes in The Stumpery, the beautiful Wildflower and Transylvanian Meadows and the impressive Kitchen Garden. In addition to these breathtaking gardens, the Highgrove Estate also offers the Orchard Restaurant and the Highgrove Shop at which specialist provisions and unique gifts and souvenirs may be purchased, with profits going to The Prince of Wales’ Charitable Foundation. The maximum group size per tour at Highgrove Gardens is 26 people. www.highgrovegardens.com
Malmesbury, just 10-minutes from the Highgrove Estate is another unmissable Cotswolds destination. Perched on a flat-topped hill, this is the oldest continually occupied town in Britain and has been around since the fifth-century. Malmesbury’s Old Bell Hotel has been catering for guests since 1220, whilst its landmark abbey is a little older and dates from the 17th-century. History and charm permeate the town, its jumble of 17th and 18th-century buildings providing picture-postcard looks, which have inspired poets and artists, including J.M.W. Turner. Malmesbury Farmers Market is held around the third week of each month. www.cotswolds.info/places/malmesbury Our suggested weekend tour of the Cotswolds concludes on its western edge in the former Roman settlement of Cirencester.
In Roman times, the town was almost as important as London but today, handsome buildings from a later period have replaced its ancient architecture. Nevertheless, this elegant town offers plenty to see and do, including the spectacular and cathedral-like Parish Church of St John the Baptist, which dates from the 12th-century, and the award-winning Corinium Museum, which contains over 60,000 artefacts and objects spanning archaeology, social history, photographs and prints relating to the Cotswold District. Cirencester is well connected for the onward travel home. You’ll find there are plenty of excellent establishments in which to indulge in a snack, afternoon tea or something more substantial. The Coterie on Cricklade Street (www.thecoterie.co.uk) has gained an enviable reputation for providing fine British dining, whilst Cotswold Artisan Coffee in Bishop’s Walk is a popular choice for light refreshments and good coffee.