Travel Feature: The Cotswolds

Jon Dean finds a luxury bolt hole in the countryside

January can be a tough time of year. The festive season has gone, leaving nothing but excess flab and credit card bills in its wake.

Everyone seems to be on a diet or giving up drinking for the month. Let’s be honest, it’s no fun. So what better way to lift your spirits than a delightful weekend in the country? And the Cotswolds, a mere, hop skip and a jump from London, provides the perfect antidote to those post-Christmas blues.

So, with our walking boots on and a couple of good books, we ventured forth to the tiny village of Minster Lovell, a charming hamlet as far from the hustle and bustle of London as you can imagine.

The trip from the capital was a piece of cake – First Great Western run around 20 trains a day from Paddington to Charlbury, the nearest station.

From there we were at the mercy of the local taxi company, but were in Minster Lovell shortly after 7pm – not bad after finishing work at 5pm.

Our lodgings were the Old Swan and Minster Mill, a gorgeous de Savary hotel set in 65 acres of Cotswolds beauty.

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We stayed in the Old Swan building, which is over 600 years old and full of fabulous eccentricities, like grand old beams and sloping floors.

We negotiated a twisting spiral staircase and narrow corridors before we arrived at our cosy little room – complete with a romantic four poster bed and a complementary bottle of sloe gin.

There was just time to get changed before we headed down for dinner, warming our cockles by the roaring log fire as we waited for the table.

The food at Old Swan and Minster Mill gets an honourable mention in the Michelin Pub guide, so it was no surprise to find the menu seasonal and thoughtful, with plenty of daily specials.

The eggs and many of the vegetables come from the garden, and the dishes were generally hearty, but interesting.

We had seafood starters (smoked salmon and crayfish salad respectively) followed by steak and lamb, served with chips, mashed potatoes and various greens.

Suffice to say we were very satisfied and ready to sleep the sleep of the righteous.

Waking early the next morning to the smell of wood smoke and the sounds of chickens clucking was a liberating experience.

It was a beautifully bright and crisp winter’s day, and we set about exploring the area before breakfast.

Minster Lovell is made up of a cluster of idyllic looking thatched cottages set next to the river Windrush.

The grounds of the hotel, which occupy a big chunk of the village, are littered with outdoor seating areas, giant chess sets and water features.

For the more active, the gardens host tennis and badminton courts and boule, for the more relaxed there are board games, snooker and DVDs on demand.

The interior is quite stunning, filled with suits of armour and coats of arms, and wandering in and out of the nooks and crannies was a joy in itself.

We had worked up an appetite by this time, so headed for a hearty breakfast and a cup of coffee, after which we made use of the opulent on site spa facilities to enjoy an excellent back massage.

Once we had loosened up a bit, we took advantage of the free bike hire to head further afield.

We cycled up the hill to the magnificent ruins of the Old Minster Lovell Hall, which date back to the 1400s. These atmospheric remains hide their own spooky secret; rumour has it the supernatural cries from Francis Lovell and William Lovell, two of the homes former residents, ring out as their spirits roam the site from behind the grave.

With our spines suitably chilled, we rode back into through the gathering dusk to spend a deliciously cosy evening snuggled by the wood fire with a bottle of red wine.

The next morning brought another brisk, clear sky and we spent a happy half an hour feeding Betty and Eddie, the resident ducks.

The hotel provides a handy guide to different walks in the area, ranging in length and difficulty, so after breakfast we took advantage of this and strolled to the nearby village of Crawley.

On the way there I felt every bit the country gent as startled grouse fluttered out of our path through the bare trees.

Crawley itself is a lovely little place – not as aesthetically pleasing as Minster Lovell, but the proud home of the Lamb, a proudly Welsh owned tavern with a tasty looking lunch menu. It’s advisable to book for a meal here, though, as it was completely full during our visit.

After a brief libation we set off home and the return trek was even more attractive than the way out.

We criss-crossed the river and strode down woodland paths past donkeys, sheep and cows, before arriving back at the hotel, just in time to get our train back to London.

Although we were said to leave our country retreat, we headed back to the capital feeling refreshed and full of zest.

It is easy to forget when trudging the grey streets of the city that some of the UKs most beautiful countryside is merely an hour away.

But, after our experience in the Cotswolds, it’s not something that will slip my mind again.

- A Valentine’s Hideaway special is available from Feb 14 to 15 and costs �325 per couple (Old Swan) or �275 per couple (Minster Mill). It features one night’s luxury accommodation, flowers and chocolates, glass of Champagne or Vin Chaud on arrival, Yon-Ka Bath & Body goody bag, three-course dinner and a full English breakfast.