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The Cotswolds in winter show a different face of England, with fresh air and countryside walks, gardens that are full of spring promise and cosy places to stay, from luxury country house hotels, to boutique bed and breakfasts. For those seeking a taste of the English countryside, there are endless things to do in the Cotswolds, a region in the west of England with rolling hills and honey stone villages, spread over 800 square miles and five counties.
We took a romantic short break to explore the southern part of the Cotswolds around Tetbury, Malmsbury and Nailsworth, that is perhaps less well known and not so touristy as the northern Cotswolds where the pretty towns can be packed with coach parties in summer. This is an area that’s perfect for short breaks in the Cotswolds, so read on to discover what we enjoyed and plan your own mini-tour of the Cotswolds.
Whatley Manor Hotel – a 5 star luxury Cotswold Hotel
Our Cotswold break started at the fabulous Whatley Manor Hotel near Malmesbury, a luxurious country house hotel surrounded by green countryside. The manor house took its current form in the 1930s when an 18th century farmhouse was extended and the ornamental gardens laid out around the house.
Whatley Manor is now owned by a Swiss family and the decor manages to combine the warmth and luxury of an English country manor (rich velvets and open fires) with a pared back elegance that felt quite Alpine (leather and mellow wood) and a hint of the Oriental in the rugs and Chinese vases.
This 5 star luxury hotel is the kind of place that you could check in on a Friday night and be tempted to stay and relax for your entire weekend in the Cotswolds, with the Aquarius spa, Sunday cinema evenings, 12 acres of garden and three restaurants headed up by executive chef Niall Keating, who has gained two Michelin stars for The Dining Room restaurant.
On our arrival in the afternoon, we were shown to our huge suite with views over the gardens, one of the 23 rooms that are furnished with a refined elegance of pared back luxury, beds like a cloud, embroidered silk curtains and soft velvet furnishings.
The hotel’s commitment to sustainability was evident in the wood and marble bathroom, where Molton Brown toiletries are supplied in ceramic pots to avoid single use plastics and the tea, coffee, fresh milk and biscuits are presented in glass kilner jars or bottles.
We headed down for drinks and dinner in the drawing room, with wood panelling, open fires and oriental rugs giving a cosy feel to the groups of chairs and sofas arranged for guests to gather and enjoy a drink and a chat. There’s a smaller bar adjoining the drawing room, where you can also sit with a cocktail or drink before going into dinner.
We were dining in Grey’s Brasserie, but took the opportunity to peek into The Green Room, which is a more intimate restaurant, serving small plates that are created by the chef in the open kitchen. There’s a touch of theatre as you sit watching the culinary action at the horseshoe bar.
Grey’s Brasserie where we dined, has a relaxed yet sophisticated feel, with a menu of updated classics, using mainly English flavours based on local and seasonal produce. We shared a starter of smoked salmon on rye bread with dill mayonnaise and pickled cucumber, which I followed with a perfectly cooked pan fried cod, with leeks in a white wine cream sauce. My desert was a frangipane tart with strawberry sorbet while Guy, who has a more of a savoury than sweet tooth, enjoyed the selection of British cheeses with crackers, grapes and pickled walnuts.
For those looking for a truly gourmet experience, there is of course The Dining Room, where executive chef Niall Keating achieved his second Michelin star in October 2019 and still in his 20s is considered a rising star of the culinary scene.
For breakfast we returned to Grey’s Brasserie where there was an varied selection of fruit, pastries, cereals and juices available, with hot breakfast dishes to order, such as my favourite eggs royale with soft poached eggs and smoked salmon – yummy and all so elegant with lovely glassware and elegant china!
The gardens at Whatley Manor
If you get the chance, do spend some time in the gorgeous gardens at Whatley Manor, which are worth a visit in themselves, with 12 acres of garden, box hedges, herbaceous borders and tranquil water features. It’s also worth checking out the events calendar for tours with head gardener Andy Spreadbury, some of which include cookery demonstrations with Michelin star chef, Niall Keating, or herb planting with house florist Emily Hepsworth.
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The Aquarius spa at Whatley Manor
Whatley Manor also has one of the best spas in the Cotswolds, so before breakfast we wafted around the Aquarius Spa, which is a great place to book for a luxurious spa day experience. As hotel guests we padded down from our bedroom in robes and slippers and were able to make use of the indoor hydrotherapy pool with bubbles and water jets. A relaxing spa break must be one of the most romantic things to do in the Cotswolds and as we swam into the outside pool, the sky was still early morning pink and the air fresh on our faces as we enjoyed the warm water.
At the spa entrance there’s a display of the products for purchase, from Natura Bissé and Gaia who use plant extracts and aromatic oils in their products – the waft of fragrance coming from the sample of their oil under a glass dome was divine! If you want to combine your spa visit with a fresh juice or a light lunch, you can adjourn in your robe to the spa lounge overlooking the hydrotherapy pool. It would have been sublimely relaxing to unwind on those heated stone recliners or get steamy in the sauna, but we were keen to get out and explore all that the Cotswolds has to offer.
Painswick Rococo Garden in The Cotswolds
After our all too short stay at Whatley Manor, we drove to Painswick Rococo Garden on the western edge of the Cotswolds, near Stroud. I’d heard a lot about this garden which is something different to the typical English garden of blowsy blooms and overflowing borders. Instead, this is a reconstruction of a romantic 18th century Baroque garden, that was intended as an outdoor pleasure ground, for the entertainment of guests at Painswick House. It’s definitely one of the places to visit in the Cotswolds that’s a little unusual and unique.
Within the hidden valley, surrounded by woodland there’s an air of formality, with lawns, box hedges and parterres, punctuated by follies and pavilions where you might arrange a secret tryst with a lover or survey the gardens from an elevated viewpoint. Painswick Rococo Gardens were restored in the 1980s, based on an 18th century painting of the original gardens and are worth a visit at any time of year.
In January when we were there, we were treated to the famous snowdrops that clothe the garden slopes and woodland floor. Scattered throughout the garden are romantic pavilions, seats modelled on Greek temples and at the top of the garden, the gothic Exedra which is a crown like structure providing a decorative focus for the garden.
Snowdrops in the Cotswolds at Painswick Rococo garden
Wandering past the fish pond at the bottom of the garden we entered the woodland area that’s covered in January with swathes of snowdrops, their delicate white bells gently shuddering in any hint of breeze. The clumps of snowdrops pushing their fine green leaves through the carpet of leaves seem to herald the hope of coming spring, and sit beautifully among the slender trunks of trees that rise up above them.
It’s such a romantic place to walk among the snowdrops on a bright winter day, although make sure you are suitably booted with wellies or hiking boots, as the paths through the woodland can be muddy. It this time of year, with the snowdrops in full bloom, this must be one of the best places to visit in the Cotswolds that offers wonderful winter displays.
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After visiting the garden, we warmed up in the cheerful garden cafe, where I enjoyed a tasty bowl of red pepper and tomato soup of the day, with a crusty wholemeal roll.
Website: Painswick Rococo Garden | Open daily mid Jan- end November from 10.30am | Adult tickets £9 | Address Painswick, Gloucestershire, GL6 6TH
Woodchester Valley Vineyard – wine tasting in the Cotswolds
After lunch, we continued to nearby Woodchester Valley Vineyard just south of Stroud, a relatively new vineyard and winery that has been winning awards for its white and sparkling wine. Established in 2016, the winery is proof that you don’t need to be established for centuries to make excellent English wines. We gathered in the winery’s traditionally built tasting barn, where they hold regular wine tasting tours throughout the year for an extremely reasonable £15 a head, which enables you to taste five wines including a sparkling wine.
Once settled with a wine glass in hand, our guide Ben ran us through an introduction to the vineyard and winery, which is well suited to producing cold climate wines especially white, rosé and sparkling wines, as well as a few red wines which are produced in warmer years. We walked through the vineyard slopes (quite briskly since it was starting to rain) and saw how the grapes are trained to wires and hand picked at harvest time due to the slope of the three different sites where the grapes are grown.
As we passed through the winery, Ben explained the wine making process and pointed out the huge stainless steel vats and the French oak barrels, used to add a more complex flavour to some of the wines. The white wines such as Bacchus, Culver Hill and Pinot Rose that we tasted were fresh and aromatic, with flavours of apple, gooseberry and elderflower, that work well with seafood, vegetarian or lighter meat dishes.
If you want to enjoy all those lovely wines without concerns about driving, you’ll be pleased to know that Woodchester Valley winery also offers a range of accommodation among the vineyards from en suite guest rooms that are ideal for couples, to holiday houses sleeping from 4-12 people. You could even combine wine tasting and an overnight stay here with walking on the Cotswold Way that runs close to the Vineyard.
Website: Woodchester Valley Vineyard | Tours run throughout the year 4-5 times per week, reserve in advance for the Classic tour £15 per person, Sparkling wine tour £20 |Address: Convent Lane, Woodchester, Stroud, GL5 5HR | More places to stay in the Cotswolds
Forthay Bed and Breakfast – a luxurious Cotswolds Bed and breakfast
After winding our way through narrow Cotswolds lanes (beware the sat nav which may take you on the most direct but not the easiest route) we arrived at Forthay Bed and Breakfast, a lovely Cotswold farmhouse that started as a B&B around a year ago, offering three luxurious and comfortable bedrooms.
Parts of this honey stone farmhouse date back to the 17th century and you can still see the bread oven that was used to bake bread for the whole village. The owners Charles and Debs are extremely welcoming and have gone to great trouble to furnish their boutique Cotswolds bed and breakfast with family heirlooms and antique furniture, with everything such as mattresses, bedlinen and toiletries of the highest quality.
One of the best things about staying in a top quality Cotswold Bed and Breakfast such as this, is a homely feeling of staying with friends, with the quirky charm of old beams, winding staircases and individual artworks that reflect the owner’s tastes.
Each of the three guest bedrooms has its own adjoining high quality bathroom, decorated in the English style, full of marble and nice toiletries. Downstairs, the snug lived up to its name, a drawing room for the use of guests with comfy sofas, fresh flowers, books to browse and a cosy wood burning stove in the inglenook fireplace.
In the morning we took breakfast in the dining room sitting at the polished wood table, surrounded by antiques and old family portraits with another wood burning stove in the fireplace. This is your chance to try the famous cooked English breakfast of bacon, eggs and all the trimmings which will be cooked to your request. I enjoyed my veggie version with eggs from the Forthay chickens, along with hot toast with marmalade and some muesli, yoghurt and coffee.
Although we had arrived in darkness, in the morning we could see the beautiful countryside setting in the midst of fields, with the working farm behind, and views of the Tyndale monument on the hill. This would be a romantic place to base yourself for a day or two, to play a game of croquet on the lawn in summer, perhaps walk up to the monument and follow the Cotswold Way along the edge of the escarpment with views across the Severn Vale to Wales.
Forthay Bed and Breakfast is becoming a popular place to stay for wedding guests and bridal parties who are getting married at some of the nearby wedding venues. Dog owners will also be welcome as Charles and Debs have three dogs of their own, and they’ve even installed a heated dog shower and will dog-sit by pre-arrangement, to allow you to go out in the evening. Although evening meals are not available here, there are two pubs that serve food within walking distance of Forthay Bed and Breakfast; The Black Horse and The New Inn.
Thornbury Castle for dinner in a Tudor Castle
While staying at Forthay Bed and Breakfast, we drove for dinner that evening at the lovely Thornbury Castle, a luxury hotel with excellent restaurant. Here you could dream of being a Tudor lord or lady, as the fortified 16th century manor house really does have the look of a castle, with towers and turrets, surrounded by landscaped gardens and a croquet lawn. King Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn stayed here for ten days on their honeymoon tour in 1535 and the castle remained Royal property under the ownership of Queen Mary I.
After dark the hotel courtyards are lit up by coloured lights and we were greeted on arrival by a suit of armour in the doorway, before being shown into the wood panelled Tudor hall, where we ordered pre-dinner drinks. The hall, where no doubt the lord and his household would have eaten, is now filled with comfortable velvet sofas arranged around the stone fireplace decorated with heraldic emblems.
The restaurant is arranged in two smaller rooms and we were seated by the fire, to order from the menu that seems to draw inspiration from both French and English cuisine. The use of excellent local produce is in evidence, with Gloucestershire Pork and Beef, trout from the chalk streams of the South West and Halibut from the coastal waters of Devon and Cornwall.
We shared a starter of Gloucestershire beef served pink and meltingly tender with a delicate garnish of watercress and salsify. For my main course I ordered a delicious fillet of John Dory with artichoke, leek and sorrel garnished with clams and mussels followed by a caramel parfait with poached rhubarb, a fruit (or is it vegetable?) which I love to try as soon as I see it on spring menus as it’s such an English flavour.
We could see why Thornbury Castle is such a popular wedding venue and it’s the perfect place for a special occasion lunch, dinner or afternoon tea, perhaps combined with a walk around the gardens. Dining here really was a memorable experience, with the Tudor heritage, royal connections and fine dining using the best of English produce.
Website: Thornbury Castle Hotel and Restaurant | Dinner menu: 2 courses £42, 3 courses £50 plus drinks | Address: Castle Street, Thornbury, Gloucestershire, BS35 1HH | More places to stay in The Cotswolds
On our second day exploring the southern Cotswolds, we spent the morning exploring Westonbirt Arboretum which I’d visited not so long ago for the Enchanted Christmas trail through the woodland. On a bright, crisp day it was (literally) a breath of fresh air and I decided to explore the Silkwood Trail, heading left from the visitor centre across the STIHL Treetop walkway.
This 300 metre wooden walkway winds through the tree canopy, with views through the treetops and the woodland paths below. We could also look down on the Westonbirt Woodworks, a yard with several timber framed barns, where visitors can watch craftsmen at work on traditional wood crafts, using woods that have fallen or been felled at Westonbirt.
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Along the way, I stopped to read a few of the interpretive panels which brought to life the richness of life in the trees. Did you know that every year trees produce many more buds than they need that may lie dormant as an insurance policy against bad weather, or that tree roots are relatively shallow but may extend outward twice the height of the tree?
At the end of the walkway I followed the seasonal winter trail through Silkwood, past wooden sculptures made from fallen trees and children’s play areas of tree trunks resting on a soft bed of leaves, just waiting to be climbed and walked along. We passed the Silk Wood Barn, an open timber shelter for outdoor picnics, with each pillar carved with words describing wood: adaptable, tolerant, sensuous, forgiving, graceful, dependable, eternal. In the clearing was another wooden sculpture of a wolf, a playful interpretation of the children’s game “What’s the time Mr Wolf?” and beside the path, the gruffalo sculpture that is part of a family trail through the wood.
Following the winter trail map I’d been given at the entrance, I circled back to the Cafe and learning centre, passing the cute cottage beside the tree nursery. You can walk into the nursery where the trees of the future are being grown and learn about all the exotic trees that were brought to England by plant collectors over the centuries.
I also recommend that on arrival you ask at the visitor centre for one of their WOW maps – the Window on Westonbirt guides that are produced each week and help you find any trees and shrubs of seasonal interest. It was with the help of the WOW map that I found the beautiful pink Rhododendron “Christmas Cheer”, an early flowering variety that was in full bloom behind the Westonbirt café.
Visit the Market town of “Royal” Tetbury
Our final stop of the day before heading home to Bristol was in “Royal” Tetbury, a pretty market town that’s given its title because it’s so close to Highgrove, the home of HRH Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall. There are only a couple of main streets, lined with honey stone merchant’s houses that are now filled with antique shops. If you are furnishing a home or just love looking at beautiful old things, Tetbury will be heaven as you browse the antique shops that each specialise in a different style or period.
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Look out for the fine 17th century Market House in the centre of town with a store room upstairs and space for market stalls under the covered area below. You might also like to walk past the pretty weaver’s cottages on the cobbled lane of Chipping Steps, and pop into the Highgrove shop that sells Royal themed gifts inspired by the Highgrove gardens and estate owned by the Prince of Wales.
Need somewhere to stay? Check out these hotels in Tetbury
Although our tour of the Southern Cotswolds was just a couple of days, there’s so much more to see, with rolling hills and walking routes, historic country houses and gardens and cosy pubs to sit with a drink by the roaring fire. It’s a great time to visit in winter and spring, to enjoy this most picturesque of English regions, without the crowds that seem to descend in summer and get a more authentic feel for the charming Cotswolds.
Plan your trip to The Cotswolds
If you are looking for a guidebook to plan your visit to The Cotswolds, we recommend; The Rough Guide to The Cotswolds
Tours of The Cotswolds
If you don’t want to travel by car or only have a short time available, check out these day tours that will enable you to get a taste of The Cotswolds;
How to get to the Cotswolds
As much of the Cotswolds is quite rural, we recommend that you use a car to get around and make the most of your short break.
Train: If visiting from other parts of the UK, you can also easily reach the Cotswolds by train from London, Bristol, Wales and the Midlands, with the largest Cotswold towns being Cheltenham and Cirencester, although trains stop at many smaller stations.
Walking: There are some excellent walking routes in the Cotswolds including the long distance Cotswolds Way, which can be walked in sections. If you enjoy walking and hiking, why not travel by train and then walk between some of the places we visited on the Cotswold Way or other walking routes.
Airports: If flying in from abroad, you could arrive via London Heathrow or Bristol airport and then travel by train, coach or hire car – we recommend Skyscanner to plan flight routes and find the best prices.
Where to stay in the Cotswolds
We can recommend the following where we stayed or passed by on this trip, or look at all the hotels in the Cotswolds
Whatley Manor – a 5 star luxury country house hotel with spa and Michelin star restaurant
Forthay Bed and Breakfast – a boutique bed and breakfast in a charming 17th century farmhouse
Thornbury Castle – a Tudor Castle turned luxury hotel where you can stay in the same bedroom used by King Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn on their honeymoon
Woodchester Valley Winery – stay in en suite guest bedrooms or their holiday homes sleeping 4 and 12 people
The Painswick – a luxury boutique hotel in the village of Painswick, close to Painswick Rococo Gardens
This article was sponsored* by Cotswolds Tourism who arranged the hotel stays and experiences mentioned.
* More info on my policies page