Queen of the Cotswolds

As I hopped into the Austin Healy 3000, to drive to the Cotswolds on a sunny Friday afternoon, I didn’t really know what to expect – except for the faint waft of Farrow & Ball paint and more limestone than you can shake a stick at.
I followed Smith, our motoring editor, up in his XK140, weaving our way through the rush hour traffic, as if we were holding a special classic car pass. Either that or the five o’clock commuters were too fearful of the insurance bill to fix the classics we were driving that day.
As we headed up the M5, on our way to Painswick Court (known as the Court House Manor), I wondered if we would make it before nightfall, as I can’t say I relished the idea of driving the Healy around the small winding roads of Painswick.
I knew little of the Cotswolds, other than it was famed for its wool in the middle ages, which led to many wealthy merchants investing in sizeable piles and hoarding much of the local limestone.
There are indeed some impressive properties in the region and some big name converts. Kate Moss, J K Rowling and Hugh Grant are but a handful of the British names in the area. The Cotswolds is what I imagine most Americans consider to be traditional England. Golden limestone meets sash windows in a chocolate box melting pot.
We were en route to a property described by Abercrombie & Kent as “the Queen of the Cotswolds”. The Court House is a Grade 1 building, re-built into its current guise in 1604 for Thomas Gardener.
During the Civil War, King Charles I and his army passed through the parish of Painswick on 9-10 August 1643 before laying siege to Gloucester, and on 5-6 September on their return. On 10 August, he issued a proclamation from his Court at Payneswicke ordering his soldiers not to molest, rob or spoil any people bringing victuals of any kind to his camp before Gloucester on pain of death. It is said that the ghost of King Charles and his men can be seen walking the grounds. Even this possible encounter with an apparition from beyond the grave didn’t stop The Court House Manor being one of the warmest and most welcoming places I have ever been. The property is steeped in history, from the hidden staircase to the 16th century fireplace and the bullet marks on the front door. We presume musket fire and not hand gun. The property sleeps up to 14 and is part of Abercrombie & Kent’s Cotswold Collection. Such is the demand for the quaint areas rural retreats that it seemed appropriate for A&K to start supplying the best in show.
Our hosts for the weekend were the resplendent owner and her son who, being around our age, became one of the rat pack with little effort. Returning the property to its former glory whilst maintaining its sense of character and period features has clearly taken a lot of time and patience. The main rooms in the house, like the drawing room, dining koom and King Charles suite, clearly show attention to detail.
The manor is set in four acres of landscaped gardens and boasts sun terraces, a pool house, fire pit, BBQ and outdoor jacuzzi. This property was built for entertaining. I could see myself spending a family gathering or Christmas break here in fine comfort.
The property is sprawling. Fear losing your keys or phone – you may never find them. As we strolled through the gardens with the sun beating down, G&T in hand and the Healy and the Jag in the drive, it seemed a million miles away from daily life. It usually takes me a few days to settle into any form of holiday, so weekend breaks for me tend to be activity-based, otherwise I walk around like a cellular drone sending e-mails. The manor put me into a strangely relaxed mood, though. Maybe it was the furnishings and decor, maybe it was the company and the stiff drink, or maybe a heady mix of all three. By 7:30pm we had toured the property, changed for dinner and found ourselves having a quick glass of Laphroaig before wandering over to the Falcon Inn for a spot of dinner.
If you hadn’t remembered to bring your Belstaff or Barbour, the manor kindly has quilted jackets for guests – very thoughtful.
Over a dinner of fantastic wine and country fare, we discussed the local area and found out what each guest was doing that weekend. Cookery schools, walks, talks, polo, it all sounded very quaint.
“And what do you have planned for tomorrow, may I ask?” enquired one of the guests. “Oh, a spot of fly fishing and then shooting at the Ian Coley shooting school,” I replied. Silence. Envy is a bitter soup.
Several glasses of wine later and the discussion turned to whether or not anyone had the ‘minerals’ to hop in the hot-tub that night. Well, we were certainly stocious enough. So, without much encouragement, if any, we were in. To be exact, the gentlemen of the group were in, the ladies were, well, ladies, and certainly didn’t envisage an evening ending in the drink. Take either meaning as you wish.
Having laid back and relaxed for half an hour in a quiet, gentlemanly fashion, I decided it was time at the bar, before the crème de menthe, the last remaining vessel, came into play.
The following morning, feeling a little jaded, we were met by fresh coffee and pastries. It is at times like these that a large black coffee and dark sunglasses are perfectly acceptable. As an early riser, I parked the Healy at the back of the property for some photos. That engine could wake the dead, so god knows how everyone managed to retain their slumber.
Having collected our wicker picnic baskets and loaded up the Healy, we headed off into the beautiful Cotswold morning. With the roof down and the wind in my face, the little Healy was a joy to drive, especially as Smith had decided to hop in with me (his constitution couldn’t take driving just yet) and school me on the correct procedures for driving a classic car.
We arrived in the village an hour later and strolled over to the fish farm. It was less skilled than I had imagined. My early memories of fishing are poaching at a salmon farm with a family friend and at a stag do a long, long time ago. The stag do was actually rather good. This was more shooting fish in a barrel. Having spent all of ten minutes trying to catch something in the standard river with our fixed rods, we agreed to try the well-stocked ponds. This involved dangling the bait and waiting all of five seconds. The hard part was actually working out which fish we had hooked and catching it in the net. Despite my support for countryside pursuits, I couldn’t help but feel a little proud of each fish that wriggled off the line and got away. With six easily-caught fish in twenty minutes, they were gutted, ice packed and we were on our way.
Having spent the morning beating fish to death on camera, we decided it was time for hair of the dog. The choice was either to arrive at the shoot smelling like Dean Martin, or arrive and be unable to hold the gun on account of the slight hangover. Bloody Marys all round and we were back on top.
Ian Coley is a British gold medal winner and trained the current Olympic team. We were in good hands. Our instructor, Gary Wood, was a king among men. The comparisons he used to describe how to safely hold a shot gun were inspired (but for an audience of gentlemen only). I didn’t realise there were so many options when it came to clays. Arguably it wants a terrorist training camp. Things were kept safe at all times, but my god, what a hell of a lot of fun it was.
Immediately afterwards, we went ram raiding at the local Boots. I jest. The instructors were great and really had our form down in a matter of hours. An adult course of six lessons costs £325 with an introductory hour course at £65. We also got to be children and keep the official shooting school caps we were issued. I think it will serve me well next time I stray from Clifton into St Pauls.
Dinner that night was prepared by the owner of Made by Bob and head chef, Bob Parkinson. My kind of guy: down to earth and a good vein of eccentricity. You have to be slightly offbeat and masochistic to open a restaurant of any kind, but Made By Bob at the Corn Hall in Cirencester has a reputation as being pretty bloody great. It’s obviously successful.
The food that night was rich and heart-warming, and whilst I would love to pontificate on the virtues of the beef and the cheeseboard, I think you should go to the manor and have Bob and his team cook for you every night. Or of course, head to his place in Cirencester. We will, fingers crossed, have a proper conversation with Bob in our Christmas issue.
If the canapés were anything to go by, this was going to be a pretty exceptional meal. The formal dining table was laid, suits were pressed and dresses steamed. We were approaching murder mystery territory. What a setting.
Conversation flowed, the fire roared and friendships were strengthened, as we whiled away the evening. Something firmly missing in British society today is the use of the humble dining table as evening routine – an occasion where conversation is given a chance to form, debates are made and laughter is heard.
Court House Manor was quite spectacular, not only for the sublime surroundings, but for the people. Taking time away from the daily grind to reconnect with family and friends is a must in life. You don’t need to take a flight when you have areas of outstanding natural beauty in your back garden. The property and its cavernous listed rooms were exquisitely appointed, truly welcoming and effortlessly regal, easily earning the title of ‘Queen of the Cotswolds’.

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