There’s nowhere quite like home and for me that means the Cotswolds. This beautiful, unique region of England, which straddles the southern Midlands and the top end of the West Country, is my birthplace, my workplace and my playground, where I can relax and unwind. I live on the farm my mum and dad moved to in the 1960s and where the British rare breeds on our tourist attraction, the Cotswold Farm Park, have been entertaining visitors for almost 50 years. It’s an utterly charming part of the world, but the truth is that the Cotswolds means different things to different people.
For many, the very word conjures up images of attractive, unspoilt villages that look as if they’ve come straight from the pages of a fairy story. Some think of the soft, undulating hills that rise gently from the river meadows and little tributaries of the Thames up to the broad, open grassland escarpment, while for others it’s all about the almost magical qualities of Cotswold stone. It’s everywhere! Elegant church towers, magnificent manor houses, humble cottages and hundreds of miles of drystone walls have been built from the honey-coloured coolitic limestone that is the very bedrock of the hills around here. It’s all made the Cotswolds a world-famous tourist destination, and probably more recognisable than some of the country’s long-established National Parks. But for me there’s nothing that can beat a refreshing pint in a characterful Cotswold pub at the end of a hard day’s work. And there are plenty to choose from.
The Eight Bells in Chipping Campden, Gloucestershire has a special place in the hearts of country lovers. It’s situated at the traditional starting point of the Cotswold Way, the 102-mile National Trail that snakes through lovely scenery and skirts around old market towns all the way down to the Roman city of Bath. Over the years, casual walkers, weekend ramblers and serious hikers have all enjoyed the hospitality of the Eight Bells as they steadied themselves and fuelled up before embarking on a day’s (or longer) trekking. Horses are big business around here too, with Cheltenham Racecourse, the home of National Hunt racing, right on our doorstep and the whole area dotted with numerous stable yards and gallops. Several pubs cater really well for horse lovers and race-goers and among the best is my local, the Hollow Bottom in the village of Guiting Power.
It’s very special to me — and not just because the serve Adam Henson’s Rare Breed, the Butcombe pale ale that’s made from the malting barley we grow on our farm. Originally called Ye Olde Inn, the pub was renamed because so many people referred to it as the tavern in the hollow at the bottom of the veillage. The views of the valley from the windows in the bar must be the envy of landlords in less picturesque locations, and even the interior décor is something to write home about. The walls are adorned with beautiful prints and photographs of famous steeplechasers, alongside notable old newspaper cuttings and the occasional lucky horseshoe. So it will come as no surprise to discover that smong the pub’s former owners are leading trainers Nigel Twiston-Davies and Peter Scudamore. But don’t think for a moment that the Hollow Bottom is a pub for racing fans only; it’s a friendly and unpretentious place with a menu that includes pub classics as well as plenty of more adventurous and innovative dishes — like pan-seared water buffalo steak!
Now far away, in the nearby hamlet of Ford, is another pub with strong links to the ‘sport of kings’. The 16th-centure Plough sits in a pretty spot opposite the evocatively named Jackdaws Castle, Jonjo O’Neill’s impressive racehorse training centre. Drop in to the Plough and your fellow drinkers are likely to include trainers, jockets and staff from the neighbouring stable yard. It’s not just about the range of fine, traditional beers and real ales available at the bar, though, because the B&B accommodation here has a four-diamond rating from both the Heart of England Tourist Board and the AA. The rooms have wooden beams and are situation in a lovely cobblestoned building that’s been converted from a hayloft. Meanwhile, over in the restaurant the food is definitely something to shout about and if you come at the right time of year the menu includes several ‘must-haves’ when asparagus and game are in season.
Food is also front-and-centre at another inn with a long history in the south Cotswolds. The Weighbridge on the outskirts of Nailsworth was built beside the old packhorse trail to Bristol, and 200 years ago the innkeeper was not only in charge of the pub but also responsible for collecting the tolls on the turnpike outside (a penny for a horse, thruppence for a score of pigs and tenpence for a herd of cattle)! Today, the Weighbridge is a delightful retreat for drinkers and diners, as well as their dogs, with a big open log fire to keep everyone cosy when the great British weather throws its worst at us. It’s the perfect setting if you like good substantial pub grub too, because it’s the home of the much loved two-in-one pie: a complete meal with two different fillings under a crumbly shortcrust pastry lid. The recipe is a closely guarded secret and whenever the pub changes hands, it’s passed on from one owner to the next with the deeds to the property.
Of course, the Cotswolds region has inspired countless poets, composers and authors, with the most famous writer of them all being Laurie Lee. His best-known book, Cider with Rosie, gives a vivid picture of rural life in the Slad valley near Stroud in the early years of the 20th century. At the heart of Slad village is the Woolpack, a cosy, rustic pub that’s been serving beer for more than 300 years and where Laurie loved to drink and hold court. There’s a lovely timeless atmosphere to the bars, which gives the impression that all the long-ago characters in his renowned book would still recognise the place if they turned up today. To get the very best from your trip to the Woolpack, I’d recommend taking a copy of Cider of Rosie with you. If you want to pay your respects to the great man, you won’t need to go far — you’ll find Laurie’s final resting place in the little churchyard opposite the pub. The inscription on the headstone says it all: ‘He lies in the valley he loved’. It’s easy to see why the Cotswolds evokes such affection — people really do love these hills and valleys that I’ve known since I was a boy. So whether you’re a regular visitor or planning your first excursion, I can guarantee a warm welcome in the Cotswolds and an unforgettable experience.
Adam Henson presents the BBC television series Countryfile, often from his 650-hectare farm in the Cotswolds. Adam also presented the BBC’s Lambing Live with Kate Humble, and has appeared on Radio 4’s On Your Farm and Farming Today. He is the author of three books: Adam’s Farm: My Life on the Land; the Sunday Times bestseller Like Farmer, Like Son; and A Farmer and his Dog. His new book, A Breed Apart, is out now in paperback.