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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”).
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:
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.