The ten best pubs in the Cotswolds

With its honey-stone villages and swathes of pristine countryside, the Cotswolds offers an idyllic weekend escape less than two hours away from London. It’s not all quiet walks and early nights though – pitch up at one of these local pubs and you’re sure to find hearty food, strong ales and a colourful array of locals…(including me!)

The Wild Rabbit, Kingham
Best for: Posh nosh
This chi-chi gastro-pub is brainchild of Lady Bamford, the wife of JCB magnate and owner of nearby Daylesford Organic farm shop. With her former private chef Adam Caisley manning the kitchen, the menu offers spruced-up traditional fodder that is served to well-to-do diners in a rustic-chic restaurant – think exposed bricks and flagstone floors.  The four guestrooms are surprisingly affordable after one Bellini too many.
thewildrabbit.co.uk

The Chequers, Churchill
Best for: Saturday night scandal
With its killer cocktails, cheeky bar staff, and guest list of celebrity drinkers (Rebekah Brookes, Alex James and Amanda Holden just some of the regulars), the Chequers is the go-to for weekend wickedness that reveals the spicier side of the sleepy Cotswolds. People watch from leather-bound chairs in the open-plan restaurant or, for a more discreet dinner, ask for the tucked-away table upstairs.
thechequerschurchill.com

The Kings’ Head, Bledington
Best for:  Hobnobbing with the locals
Nestled behind a pristine village green, this quintessentially English pub is quaint, cosy and full of character with its low-beamed ceiling, strong ales and trusty band of merry local drinkers propping up the bar. For a proper knees-up, time your visit for one of the pub’s famous quiz nights or join in with when the Irish fiddlers come and whip up a jig and a sing-along.
thekingsheadinn.net

The Kingham Plough
Best for: Gourmet grub
Cooking up a storm in this gastro pub is head honcho Emily Watkins, former sous-chef to Heston Blumenthal. She provides classic pub food with a good dollop of sophistication – perfect for foodies wanting to please the palate in a casual pub setting. Those on a small budget can settle for the dangerously moreish bar snacks – duck fat-doused chips, tubby pork pies and scotched quail eggs.
thekinghamplough.co.uk

The Bell Inn, Sapperton

Best for: Walkers’ paradise
Those hankering for a wholesome escapade will find The Bell a popular hangout for wellie-wearing ramblers. Stock up on country air by following the well-trodden circular walking route through thick woodland and down leafy lanes that ends back at the pub for a hearty lunch and well-earned pint.
bellsapperton.co.uk

The Hollow Bottom, Kineton
Best for:  Horsing around
Racing aficionados hedging bets on the Cheltenham Festival can score a tip or two at the Hollow Bottom where racing memorabilia plasters the walls and jockeys meet to celebrate their win. Just a few miles from the race course, the pub offers special packages during race week and even a free mini bus service to cart betters back and forth.
hollowbottom.com

The Wild Duck, Ewen
Best for: Lazy Sundays
Low-hanging beams and surly portrait hangings give bags of character to this unfussy pub that gets it right with its huge Sunday-lunch portions and faultless Bloody Marys. Roaring log fires and a sunny outside terrace makes it a good all-rounder come rain or shine. The proximity to Prince Charles’s country pad, Highgrove House, means you can go for a post-roast snoop around the Royal gardens should it take your fancy.
thewildduckinn.co.uk

The Fox Inn, Great Barrington
Best for: Alfresco drinking
While the bar may be small and a little dingy, the Fox’s overriding draw is its vast beer garden flanked by a gurgling river and overlook bucolic Cotswold hills – picturesque to the extreme. Come summertime, the lively atmosphere steps up a notch with weekend barbeques, its own music festival (the aptly-named Foxstock) and the arrival of popular local circus, Giffords, which pitches its big top next door.
foxinnbarrington.com

Lords of the Manor, Upper Slaughter
Best for:  Weekend with wow factor
This 17th-centry stately manor house won’t fail to impress with its antique furnishings, manicured lawns and lavish Michelin-star dining. Those planning an overnight stay should be prepared to splurge on rooms that, with four-poster beds and freestanding baths, resemble a scene from Downtown Abbey. Otherwise, an afternoon cream tea and stroll around the surrounding woodland still offers a spark of magic.
lordsofthemanor.com

The Swan, Swinbrook
Best for:  Diplomatic dining
This sweet cottage pub rose to fame earlier this year when David Cameron strolled in with his new pal, French President François Hollande. Make like the leaders and find a discreet corner to pull up a pew and put the world to rights over potted shrimp, rainbow trout and apple crumble. If you’re less inclined for business talk, the gourmet burger night on a Thursday is a good way to chew the fat with the locals.
theswanswinbrook.co.uk

Giffords circus: A class act

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One of my favourite family traditions is our annual outing to Giffords Circus during its summer tour of various village greens and levelled fields of the Cotswolds. Under my mother’s summoning, squabbling sisters, outspoken aunts and taciturn uncles all meet in the village of Little Barrington to share an evening of rowdy and raucous tent entertainment.

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Forget all your circus phobias; there are no smeary faced clowns or emancipated animal acts in this show. With its old-fashioned circus wagons and outlandish burlesque costumes –  all frills and petticoats – Giffords is an inimitable feast of sumptuous theatrics that embodies English eccentricity at its most audacious. Among its motley cast members – a quavering soprano, a toffee-nosed grand piano player, a clumsy gypsy magician and a giant dancing bear –  the real show stealer is the mischievous Tweedy the Clown.  Appearing at curtain-up in a skimpy leopard-print tunic trailing a kettle on a string, Tweedy keeps the audience amused with his slapstick turns, bawdy slurs and pantomime echoes that weave in and out of each act until the end of the show. It’s not all music and drama; highly polished circus acts include fire throwing jugglers, swinging acrobats, a hand-walking gymnast and a set of acrobatic strongmen.

Giffords’ ringmistress is the formidable Nell Gifford – a Cotswold-raised, Oxford graduate who went further than following her childhood dream of joining the circus by actually creating her very own to star in. Bounding into the ring on an elegant white horse, she adds the chic to the boho spirit of the show.

Each year, the show revolves around a particular theme or story – this year’s Lucky ’13 tells the tale of a Serbian gypsy family who cause a stir among the snooty circus folk when they park their caravan under the big top and render chaos with their whimsical charms and frenetic accordion squeezing . It’s a storyline that will certainly resonate with a Cotwoldian audience, aware of the yearly frays between locals and gypsies who come and park their trailers on well-trimmed Cotswold verges for Stow Fair – one of Britain’s oldest gypsy fairs held twice yearly in Stow-on-the-Wold. By the finale, the gypsies and erudite circus performers have become the best of friends – not quite the happy ending found off stage.

For anyone a little bit enamoured with the cast, Circus Sauce is the after-show restaurant housed in its own bunting-strewn marquee where spectators can schmooze performers over a three-course feast rustled up using locally-sourced, organic ingredients – a prerequisite for impressing the chichi Daylesford-frequenting dinner guests. For us commoners, Barrington’s riverside pub, the Fox, can also provides an opportunity to share a pint with one of the twinkle-eyed jugglers or exotic showgirls who often celebrate there after the show.

www.giffordscircus.com

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Surf and Share: Surf Cooperative

In the secluded crevice of an undulating sand dune, I’d found my perfect groove. As sunrays tickle my skin, my eyelids droop to the rhythmic crashing of waves coming from the other side of the sandbank.

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It all sounds very idyllic, I know. Truth be told, my afternoon snooze isn’t quite as exotic as I’d have believe. No coconut shells or beach bar, and the only foreign tongue around has a distinctly Celtic intonation.

I’m lazing on Llangennith beach on the north end of Rhosilli Bay in the Welsh Gower.  A three-mile stretch of unblemished coastline, I’ve struck gold with this little-known Welsh surfing mecca during one of the first spells of British sunshine this year.

Admittedly, my morning pursuits weren’t quite as soothing – two hours being bashed and battered by punishingly cold Welsh breakers (7 degrees to be exact) while wrestling a small but disobedient foam surf board. Recurrent attempts to even kneel on top of it ended in failure and another humiliating nose-dive that left my instructor shaking his tousled beach hair in despair.

Many defeats and a few mouthfuls of salt water later, my first surf lesson was over. The only challenge left was to peel off my soggy wetsuit, clasped to my skin like a barnacle, and regain enough feeling in my hand to high five my new-found surf posse. Despite my hopeless balancing act out at sea, on dry land I felt victorious.

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I owe my first surfing experience to the Surf Cooperative; a non-profit London-based surf club that organises monthly surf trips to the UK coast and sometimes beyond. It’s the brainchild of Becky Bradley– a laid-back Londoner who caught the surfing bug on a trip in Costa Rica. On her return to the UK, she set up the Coop as a way of keeping her surf spirit alive and finding fellow wave riders in her locale.  Five years down the line, Becky’s surf scheme has gained momentum through social media and word-of-mouth to become a fully fledged monthly fixture.

For our weekend trip, Becky and her wingwoman Ruth have rented a sweet little white-washed stone cottage, the Farmers Arms, in a sleepy Welsh village called Llanmadoc, a 15-minute drive from Llangennith beach. Our motley crew ranges from a strident City banker to a fresh-faced uni grad and many other colourful characters in between. There are both veteran surfers and relative newbies among us – it’s only a high level of enthusiasm that’s required. I’m seemingly the only imposter – tagging along with a vague curiosity in the concept of the Surf Coop but rather reluctant to get my toes wet.  It’s only down to the group’s implacable gusto that I finally conceded to save face and sign up to the surf lesson.

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After the long days spent at the beach, our evening consists of tucking into a hearty home-cooked lasagne and knocking back copious bottles of wine over a wood fire and a fair amount of surf-related chatter.

It’s not all surf – the next morning we explore the walkways around Llanmadoc, through salt marshes, pine forests and along remote shoreline.  A good lunch of traditional British fodder was on offer at The King’s Head, a real local’s pub with a rowdy beer garden full of good-humoured locals.

The weekend bore little resemblance to any kind of conventional guided tour. The cottage was cosy and low-key and lent itself to a convivial atmosphere. The laissez-faire organisation appealed to self-sufficient spirits rather than needy hand-holders. We took care of our own transport (although the Coop can organise car sharing) and booked our own surf lessons. Equipment hire was sorted at PJ’s surf shop on the way to the beach. At the cottage, everyone was expected to muck in with clearing up, cooking and decisions on the weekend surf schedule.

Did it feel like going on holiday with a bunch of strangers? A little bit. But strangers meeting on common ground can quickly become good pals.  In these modern times of internet dating and social networking, it seems the Surf Coop appeals to a growing desire to reach beyond our immediate social remits and make connections with the bigger picture. And have a wave-smashing good time along the way.

MORE INFORMATION

The Surf Cooperative
The weekend cost £200 each for two nights’ accommodation, three meals and free-flowing booze. Surf hire and lessons are added extra. The Coop also organises meet-ups in London to practice technique and improve fitness. Check the website and facebook page for more details.
www.surfcooperative.com

Cottage stay
The farmers Arms, Llanmadoc
Tel: 01792 390997
www.thefarmersarms.co.uk

Drinking holes
The Britannia Inn, Llanmadoc
Tel: 01792 386624
www.britanniainngower.co.uk

The King’s Head, Llangennith
Tel: 01792 386212
www.kingsheadgower.co.uk

Equipment hire
PJs Surf shop, Llangennith
Tel: 01792 386669
www.pjsurfshop.co.uk

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