England's ravishing beauty

It is a stunning spring morning in Chastleton, a village in The Cotswolds.

I am savouring the fresh and crisp air out in the verdant garden of a picturesque 14th-century cottage where snowdrops and daffodils dance among blades of grass. I can almost picture pixies and elves hiding in the little nooks and corners of the garden, riding on snails and hang-gliding on butterflies.

Entering the cottage reinforces the feeling that I have leapt into the pages of those Enid Blyton storybooks I so loved as a child. Built in 1458, the disarmingly quaint cottage has three inglenook fireplaces, floors made from elm planks, a winding staircase and beamed ceilings.

In fact, The Cotswolds - spanning nearly 2,070 sq km and cutting across six counties in South Central England - is one big fairy land, with its honey-coloured manors and cottages, rippling brooks, winding streams, rolling hills and expansive meadows.

Even the names of the towns and scores of little villages in England's largest Area of Outstanding Beauty (AONB) are evocative: Moreton- in-Marsh, Stow-On-The-Wold, Chipping Campden, Oddington and Upper and Lower Slaughter. AONBs are protected areas recognised and classified by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature throughout the world.

The Cotswolds apparently derive the name from two old English words: cots, referring to sheep enclosures, and wold, meaning gentle hills. From the 13th to 15th centuries, the area was well known for producing some of the finest wool in the world.

The wool trade brought a lot of wealth to the area. It explains the many almshouses and impressive places of worship we see as we spend two days travelling from one captivating town or village to another. Some of the finest examples of these "wool churches" are found in towns such as Chipping Campden and Cirencester.

Now, when you are rich enough to bankroll churches, you definitely would not stint on your own abodes. Many prosperous wool merchants in The Cotswolds built imposing manors, which today are the country homes of wealthy Brits and celebrities such as actor Hugh Grant, model Kate Moss, singer Lily Allen and artist Damien Hirst.

Even Prince Charles has his family home here; he bought Highgrove House, which is near Tetbury in the Southern Cotswolds, in 1980, and lives here with his wife Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall.

One of the most stately Jacobean country houses is Chastleton House (www.nationaltrust.org.uk) in Chastleton, just a stroll from my Enid Blyton cottage. Built between 1607 and 1612, it was owned for 400 years by one family, which unfortunately grew poorer as the centuries passed.

The mansion's last denizen before it was acquired by the National Trust - a conservation charity protecting historic places and green spaces - in 1991 was reportedly a woman and her 20 cats.

Now open to the public, the mansion - which is surrounded by acres of beautiful meadows on which sheep and horses graze - is largely in the same condition as when it was acquired. One of its most famous features is its long gallery - measuring about 22m - with its barrel-vaulted ceiling.

Next to this Downton Abbey- esque manor is the 915-year-old St Mary's Church. Its attractions include 17th- and 18th-century wall paintings and a tower with a ring of six bells.

A short drive finds me next in Moreton-in-Marsh, one of the principal towns in The Cotswolds. As luck would have it, we visit on a Tuesday, the day when nearly 200 stalls ply their wares - from antiques to paintings to homemade pickles - in the town centre.

No less picturesque and inviting is Stow-On-The-Wold, the other famous market town in The Cotswolds. Set on a rounded hill which is 244m above sea level, this is the highest of all the Cotswold towns.

When the wool industry was at its peak in the Middle Ages, this town was famous for its annual fairs, where as many as 20,000 sheep would change hands.

These days, the town square with its plethora of boutiques, antique shops, cafes and restaurants is the big draw for locals and out-of-towners. Both Moreton-in-Marsh and Stow-on-the-Wold are just a two-hour train journey from Paddington station.

Postcard-pretty towns are nice, but for me, the real charmers of the The Cotswolds are the scores of rustic villages and hamlets.

The easiest way to explore them would be to book a tour, many of which are conducted by enthusiastic and well-informed denizens of the area. I find the one organised by Secret Cottage (www.cotswoldtourismtours.co.uk), run by former businessman Robin Simpson and his wife Becky, extremely enjoyable and well-organised.

Over six hours, we traipse through villages including Oddington, Upper and Lower Slaughter and Chipping Norton.

The piece de resistance of the tour is a visit to the Simpsons' gloriously restored Jacobean cottage where they host lunch and tea. There is no experience more English than parking onself next to one of three inglenook fireplaces, getting one's fill of sandwiches, scones, pastries and coffee or cream tea served in fine Spode bone china.

After lunch, we set off for Lower Slaughter, where the magnet is a restored 19th-century flour mill, which boasts a tall chimney made of red brick, a distinctive departure from the traditional honey-hued Cotswold stone used for most buildings in the area.

Next to the mill - part of which has been turned into a curio shop and an ice-cream parlour - is a humongous water wheel. At the back of the mill, overlooking the scenic River Eye, is a tea room where one can sit back and enjoy a scone or two, as well as cream tea.

Out front, we bump into a dozen sweaty but chatty equestrians - mostly middle-aged women - giving their horses a break.

Both animals and riders seem more than happy to ham it up for our cameras, making a big splash as they cut through a short section of Slaughter Brook, the other name for the River Eye.

In the sleepy little hamlet of Great Tew, Becky suggests a brief but very welcome ale stop at the Falkland Arms (falklandarms.co. uk). Vines of ivy drape the facade of this gorgeous 16th-century building. The heavy door opens to reveal an inviting pub with flagstone floors, oak beams and a ceiling from which hundreds of mugs hang. The bar serves an astounding array of ales and beer, including Tiger from Singapore.

We are too full to eat, but according to TripAdvisor, the food here rocks too. That is not surprising because The Cotswolds have acquired a reputation for being quite a jiving gastro hot spot.

I personally would recommend The Village Pub (www.thevillagepub. co.uk) in Barnsley, which serves traditional English grub with a classy modern twist.

Apparently, this unassuming pub is the favourite of actress and model Elizabeth Hurley when she is in The Cotswolds. The Butts Farm beef in ale pie is quite a hearty treat.

The same folks who run the pub also run Barnsley House And Spa (www.barnsleyhouse.com), just across the road, which also boasts a fabulous restaurant called The Potager.

Set out over 4.45ha of grounds, this beautifully restored 17th-century manor is now an 18-room boutique hotel offering a range of accommodation from superior rooms to garden suites with private decked gardens or courtyards. Room rates start from £200 (S$440) a night, including VAT.

The Rosemary Verey suite - my digs for two nights - is a luxurious cottage with a courtyard, a sitting room, a huge bathroom and a bedroom the size of a three-room Housing Board flat.

The cottage leads out to the manor's most prized asset: its stunning gardens.

Barnsley House, you see, was once the family home of famous garden designer Rosemary Verey and her architect husband David. Verey - who died in 2001 - designed gardens for clients including the Prince of Wales, pop star Elton John and the New York Botanical Garden, but her most famous garden design is the one at Barnsley House.

Spanning 1.6ha, the gardens feature lawns, terraces and secluded paths and, depending on the season, is a riot of colours.

It also boasts its own potager - or kitchen garden - which supplies rhubarb, broad beans, kale, goblet apples and an assortment of other fresh produce used by The Potager and The Village Pub.

A night stroll in the gardens - its beauty enhanced with masterful mood lighting - is an inebriating treat for the senses.

The elves and the pixies in The Cotswolds will probably agree.

Stroll in this majestic masterpiece

If historical houses are your cup of tea, there is no home more majestic in The Cotswolds than Bleinheim Palace in Oxfordshire.

Designated as a World Heritage Site, this is the birthplace of Sir Winston Churchill, and Queen Anne's gift to his ancestor, the first Duke of Marlborough, after his great victory at the Battle of Bleinheim in 1704.

A masterpiece of 18th-century Baroque architecture, the building sits on a site of more than 810ha of Capability Brown Parkland and gardens. Brown, whose real name was Lancelot, died in 1783. Hailed as England's greatest gardener, he was responsible for designing more than 170 gardens for many of the most magnificent buildings and estates in Britain.

Many events from fashion shows to art exhibitions have been held at Bleinheim (www.blenheimpalace.com) since it opened to the public in 1950.

When I visited, the palace was hosting the United Kingdom's biggest exhibition of works by Chinese artist and dissident Ai Weiwei.

Also used as a set for many movies such as Kenneth Branagh's 1996 adaptation of Shakespeare's Hamlet, and Gulliver's Travels, Bleinheim Palace is grand in every sense of the word, from the various drawing rooms to its Long Library - measuring 56m long and 10m high - to the beautiful chapel, which boasts a moving monument to John Churchill, the first duke. (The 11th duke, John Spencer-Churchill, died last October.)

The most wondrous for visitors, however, would probably be the undulating parks and gardens of the estate. From the majestic Water Terraces with their fountains and sphinxes to The Aboretum, The Rose Garden and The Secret Garden, where lichen-covered boulders form a protective ring over a mossy pond, the grounds are a soothing sight.

The Temple of Diana - where Churchill proposed to his wife Clementine - looks out to a breathtaking landscape of trees and water. In fact, the sheer beauty of this property and its surroundings is overwhelming and lends credence to the claim that Bleinheim Palace offers the "finest view in England".

Getting there

To get to The Cotswolds, you can:

Take a train from London. There are regular rail services from Paddington Station every hour, seven days a week. The journey takes about 1.5 hours.

The services do not cover the whole of The Cotswolds, but include Bath, Cheltenham, Stratford, Chippenham, Gloucester, Kemble, Moreton-in-Marsh, Kingham and Oxford. For more information, go to www.nationalrail.co.uk and www.thetrainline.com.

Take a coach from Victoria Coach Station in London. Coaches run regularly, although there are no services on Sunday. The journey takes about four hours and main coach stops in The Cotswolds include Bath, Bourton-on-the-Water, Cheltenham, Chippenham, Gloucester, Moreton-in-Marsh, Stow-on-the-Wold and Stroud. For more information, go to www.gobycoach.com.

To get to Bleinheim Castle from London, you can:

Take a train from Paddington to Hanborough. The journey takes about 75 minutes.

Alternatively, you can take a bus from Marble Arch or Marylebone to Oxford, then take a bus from Oxford City Centre to Woodstock.

Go to gouk.about.com for more information.


The writer's trip was sponsored by VisitBritain.

This story first appeared in the June issue of The Life digital magazine.

This article was first published on August 23, 2015.
Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.