To travel the “heart” of England — its geographical and spiritual core — I opt to visit three cities and their environs.

First Oxford, fabled center of learning in the Thames River Valley, with its hinterland of Cotswold Hills.  Next Stratford — Shakespeare country with a famous river of its own, the Avon.  Finally Salisbury, one of the grand cathedral towns of England, set upon the Wiltshire plain of medieval villages and timeless ruins.




Punting in Oxford.

Although a trip between these three cities covers less than two hundred miles, the visitor may come away with considerable insight into English history and culture.

If you have only a couple of weeks, be sure to assign at least two days for the architectural treasures of Oxford.  Amid the “dreaming spires” of the University, you’ll want to spend hours wandering the quads of the Colleges.  Within are elegant dining halls, chapels, and manicured grounds that invite lingering.  Traditional student pursuits — punting on the river, tramps through the nearby meadows, crawls among the musty old pubs — hardly lend themselves to a hurried pace.




Bridge of Sighs, Oxford.

The Malmaison is an historically interesting and convenient hotel located next to Oxford Castle.   A former prison, the hotel has converted the cells into 93 chic rooms and suites.  The dungeon-like atmosphere has been retained (with up-dated lighting, snazzy lounges, and perfumed soaps a welcome addition).

As hotels go, Malmaison is unique, to say the least, and somehow appropriate to the image of Oxford (fostered by the Inspector Morse TV series) as a labyrinth of secrets and sophisticated mayhem.  Malmaison also offers ample parking, no minor amenity amid the busy streets of Oxford.

The charms of Oxford are matched in the surrounding villages and Thames Valley countryside.  Just up valley to the west is Blenheim Palace, birthplace of Winston Churchill and a World Heritage Site.   This magnificent country estate requires a good half day to explore its parklands and formal gardens.  A few miles down valley the town of Abingdon is a convenient launch point for jolly boat rides or endless walks along the Thames.




Boats on the Thames at Abingdon.

A half hour’s drive northwest of Oxford puts us among the Cotswold Hills, arguably the most beautiful pastoral landscape in all of Britain.  Tucked away here are a score of lovely villages, their buttery sandstone cottages and public buildings courtesy of the lucrative wool trade of past centuries.

Plan to spend at least two or three days exploring the Cotswolds.  This can be accomplished on day trips from Oxford, but a better idea is finding a cozy rural inn convenient to country roadways, walking and bike trails.  I can enthusiastically recommend three such inns that I found on my recent summer trip.

Closest to Oxford, in the idyllic village of Minster Lovell, sits The Old Swan and Minster Mill.   Rustic charm is the hallmark of this boutique luxury inn and gastro-pub which includes plenty of modern amenities like Wi-Fi service and flat-screen TV.  Great walks just outside the front door, a tennis complex, and trout fishing in the Windrush River are among the offerings at hand.  This is rural England to a fare-thee-well!




Old Swan & Minster Mill near Oxford.


On one of your outings you might even run into the Honourable David  Cameron.   The Prime Minister not only represents this district in Parliament, his home is just down the lane from The Old Swan and Minster Mill.




Wyck Hill House Hotel in the Cotswolds.


Deeper into the Cotswolds, just outside the market town of Stow-on-the-Wold, you’ll discover a four-star pastoral gem — Wyck Hill House Hotel.  The recently refurbished manor house sits atop a hill overlooking 100 acres of delightful woodland and hay fields.  From here you can walk through the woods into Bourton-on-the-Water, a classic Cotswold town.  Haute cuisine dining is superb at the glassed-in patio restaurant overlooking the gardens.  Wyck Hill House Hotel is a great base for exploring all of the Cotswolds.

Wyck Hill’s sister property, The Frogmill Hotel, sits just outside the spa town of Cheltenham along the Cotswold’s western edge. Here is yet another inn offering the sort of traditional rural experience many seek when visiting England:  hearty meals in the restaurant and pub; log-fires in the lounge areas; walking trails in abundance with maps to guide the way.  Compared with The Old Swan or Wyck Hill House Hotel, accommodations here are a bit less sumptuous but entirely comfortable.  If you enjoy horse racing, note that Cheltenham’s course is one of England’s most popular.




Bourton-on-the-Water, Cotswolds.


Having traversed the Cotswolds it behooves one to venture a few miles farther north to Stratford-upon-Avon.  Shakespeare’s birthplace has long given itself over to the Bard.  His family homes, gardens, and farms all have been preserved for the thousands of tourists who visit each year.  And of course the Royal Shakespeare Company theatres offer first rate productions of both classic and modern plays all year round.

Nearby countryside adds a delightful bonus to a stay at Stratford.   On previous visits I’ve preferred to lodge just outside of town, beyond the crowded streets of Stratford.   There are numerous B&Bs within a short drive — or even walking distance — of Stratford’s theatres, restaurants and historic sites. 




Menzies Welcombe Hotel near Stratford.


This time I’ve chosen a luxury resort situated on a broad estate at the periphery of Stratford.  The central manor of the Menzies Welcombe Hotel Spa & Golf Club was built in Victorian times.  Italian gardens and water features dazzle the eye while the oak paneled bar and dining room reflects the atmosphere of an earlier day.

Menzies Welcombe is a resort on the grand scale — full service spa with conservatory pool, tennis courts and, of course, the rolling 18 hole golf course which attracts players from all over Britain.

All this just 20 minutes’ walk across green fields to the Royal Shakespeare Company theatres along the Avon in Stratford!

After the rich cultural — and heavily touristed — atmosphere of Oxford and Stratford we head south into Wiltshire and the Salisbury Plain.

Salisbury today is a provincial town of 50,000, but there is evidence that this area at the confluence of five rivers was once — even in the pre-Christian era — an important population center of Great Britain.

On a mound rising from the Plain just north of Salisbury is Old Sarum, an Iron Age fort in ruins even during the Roman occupation of Britain.   It was re-used by the Romans, Saxons, and Normans before developing into a walled city in medieval times.  Still to be seen are the vestiges of a castle, cathedral, and palace.

A bit further north are two magnificent World Heritage Sites — the prehistoric remains of Avebury and Stonehenge, great stone circles whose religious significance remains a mystery. 

Salisbury itself has been called New Sarum, to distinguish it from the original town settlement.  The early Gothic cathedral — tallest in Great Britain — was erected here in the thirteenth century.

Remarkable vistas of the cathedral are obtained from pathways along the five rivers, which have been redirected across low-lying areas to create public gardens and water-meadows.




Salisbury Cathedral from the meadows,


In works like “Salisbury Cathedral from the Bishop’s Grounds” John Constable produced memorable paintings of the cathedral and meadows.  A number of these landscapes have been on display at the Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum, which also houses a fine collection of materials on Stonehenge and local archaeology.




The Grasmere House Hotel in Salisbury.


A recommended lodging in Salisbury, one affording delightful vistas of the cathedral and water-meadows, is Grasmere House Hotel.  The Victorian manor house offers a broad garden expanse down to the River Avon.* Several of the rooms have four-poster beds.  The Conservatory Restaurant serves up traditional English fare and the bar works up a nice Afternoon Tea.  From the Grasmere one may walk 15 minutes across meadows that Constable walked, always in view of the great cathedral he painted again and again. 

*(Let us not confuse our Avons!    The name “Avon” comes from a Welsh word, “afon”, which simply means “river”.  There are several rivers called “Avon” in Britain.  The Avon which flows through Stratford is the Bristol Avon, which empties into the Severn Estuary near Bristol.  The Avon which flows through Salisbury is the Salisbury Avon.  It continues southward through Hampshire and Kent to the English Channel.)

The county of Wiltshire, basically rural in character, includes many other sites of interest.  There are wonderful hiking and cycling opportunities along venues like the Kennet and Avon Canal, whose towpath cuts through the heart of Wiltshire.  Stately homes and manor houses — Tudor, Elizabethan, Palladian, Queen Anne — and their gardens are open to the public.

Among the carefully preserved villages of special note is Lacock, partly under ownership of the National Trust.  Lacock Abbey was founded in the thirteenth century.  Although most of the homes are eighteenth century, a number of buildings date from earlier times.  The pristine village is often used as a film set (e.g. the BBC productions of “Pride and Prejudice” and “Cranford”). 




The Old Rectory in Lacock.


You may wish to linger overnight in Lacock.  An excellent lodging choice is The Old Rectory, a fine Victorian Gothic B&B on pastoral grounds at the edge of town.  Among original features are mullioned windows and an ecclesiastical bell.   The Old Rectory is a five minute stroll from the center of Lacock.  It’s also a convenient jumping off place for visits throughout Wiltshire, to the spa town of Bath and to Wells, with its splendid cathedral.

Very useful for travel in the United Kingdom are a pair of money-saving passes: the Great British Heritage Pass and the London Pass.  GBPH, available only to overseas visitors, gives entry to nearly 500 of Britain’s finest heritage sites, including famous castles, palaces, gardens, churches, and monuments.  Most of these are outside London.  For London attractions the best bet is the London Pass, which provides entry into more than 55 major London venues and tours. 

For more information on obtaining these passes go to www.britishheritagepass.com and www.londonpass.com  respectively.

For travel to the “heart of England” and its recommended lodgings consult the following websites:

www.visitoxfordandoxfordshire.com
www.malmaisonoxford.com
www.oldswanandminstermill.com
Cotswolds Tourism:  www.cotswolds.com
Wyck Hill House Hotel:  www.wyckhillhousehotel.co.uk
FrogMill Hotel:   www.bespokehotels.com/thefrogmillhotel
Stratford Tourism:  www.Stratford.gov.uk/leisure/tourism.cfm
Menzies Welcombe Hotel:  www.welcombehotelstratford.co.uk
www.rsc.org.uk  (for Royal Shakespeare Company Theatres)
Wiltshire Tourism (includes Salisbury and Lacock Tourism):  www.visitwiltshire.co.uk
Grasmere Hotel:   www.grasmerehotel.com
Old Rectory B&B:
www.oldrectorylacock.co.uk

— Feature by Jerry Nemanic, Jetsetters Magazine European Editor; photos by Todd Nemanic.