There's nothing jollier than the old tune, "In an English Country Garden," at least for flower fanciers and tree huggers. They know, of course, that the best time to visit England is in spring, summer, or early fall. Dedicated nature-lovers will, of course, welcome any season, but I don't like winter anywhere, in the city, in a forest or in a garden, for that matter.
You'll find a lot to admire in the Cotswolds and other parts of the nation that some call the heart of England, and which local public relations people try to pass off as "England's England." In fact, both of those terms are right, as far as I'm concerned. With that in mind, consider visits to an (almost) thousand-year-old castle and its gardens, an (almost) hundred-year-old garden created by an American immigrant to England and a hotel famous for its puddings.
Back in the tenth century, Ethelred The Unready gave his daughter, Goda, the Saxon manor house and its Sudeleagh estate on the occasion of her marriage (Winchcombe nr. Cheltenham, Gloucestershire; tel. 011 44 1242 609481; www.sudeleycastle.co.uk; admission £7.20; open from April through October). Sheep were the source of wealth hereabouts, and by 1066, the owners were recorded in the Doomsday Book. The Saxon owner, part Norman to begin with, kept his property because he married a great niece of William the Conqueror. Nearly a thousand years later, the original manor is gone, but a couple of oak trees remain.
Henry VII came here with Anne Boleyn in 1535, both of them stirring things up a bit. He conferred here on his plans to dissolve the monasteries while she investigated and exposed a fake holy relic at a nearby abbey. You can see the (new) robes of Henry and his six wives here, created by the designer of a recent TV series about the ladies. Of more interest, perhaps, is the Emma Dent Collection, memorabilia of the Victorian chatelaine of the castle, with bits from her diaries and correspondence with Florence Nightingale.
During World War II, some of the treasures of London's Tate Gallery were sequestered here for safety, and there was a POW camp in what's now the car park. The current owners, Lady Elizabeth Ashcombe, an American originally, and her husband, have encouraged their artist daughter, Mollie, to scatter her sculptures around, including a kind of pulpit wrapped around a tree that I liked very much. You could preach to nature and to God from up there, I thought. The castle was opened to the public in 1971, but since the owners and their daughter and her family still live here, you will not get to see their living quarters.
Check in at the Visitor Centre, then guide yourself to the highlights of the castle, which I consider to be the gardens, St. Mary's Church (where Katherine Parr is entombed) and the exhibitions. There's a coffee shop in the medieval Banqueting Hall. If you see a pheasant, don't be surprised, as Sudeley is working with the World Pheasant Association to rear and breed these birds. You can rent a cottage from the castle owners. Several cottages are located on the edge of the estate, midway between the castle and the town of Winchcombe. Built of stone, they are set around a central courtyard with landscaped gardens. Some are old, some new, all charming and cleverly restored.
Near Sudeley Castle is the village of Winchcombe, which is sited at the intersection of five well-known walking trails, including the famous Cotswold Way (www.nationaltrail.col.uk). The most famous building here, right at the junction of the road leading up to Sudeley Castle, is St. Peter's Church. Unprepossessing inside, it is known for its collection of gargoyles, one of which is said to have been the model for the Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland. Look for it. Standing outside, it's the third gargoyle on the right from the entrance.
Also in Winchcombe is a small Folk & Police Museum (tel. 011 44 1242 609151; www.winchcombemuseum.org.uk; open April-October) in the Town Hall, with a good display of truncheons, handcuffs, whistles and the like. You can go upstairs to a courtroom and hear a case from the late 1940s on tape. There is a "small admission charge," but nobody there to collect it when I visited. Open from Good Friday to late September only is the Winchcombe Railway Museum & Gardens (23 Gloucester Street, Winchcombe; tel. 011 44 1242 609305; www.winchcombe.co.uk/sites/trains.htm), with everything from an Ambulance Carriage to a van holding firefighting equipment. "Small admission charge.".
Hidcote Manor Garden
Hidcote Manor Garden (Chipping Campden; tel. 011 44 1386 438 333; www.nationaltrust.org.uk/hidcote; admission £9; open late February through mid December), although created in the 20th century, is said to be one of England's greatest gardens, featuring a series of outdoor rooms, each with its own ambience. It's called an Arts & Crafts garden, for the art and craft design movement of that name at its peak in the early 20th century. The movement's gardeners liked old-fashioned flowers and topiary, and there was no uniform style, just a "homey" feeling. The oldest tree here, a giant Cedar of Lebanon, can't help but impress, especially if you stand between the gazebos and look back toward the house. I also liked the dove-shaped topiary here.
An American, Major Lawrence Johnstone, created this delight in 1907 when he bought the estate and its village of ten houses. That's after he fought in the Boer War, on the English side, of course. You may be lucky to spot, as I did, a small red-throated robin in full song, differing from our red-breasted robin in the U.S.
Chipping Campden village, nearby, is one of the Cotswold's best-preserved towns, with a fine High Street and an impressive Market Hall (1627) in the town center.
You should try dinner at the Pudding Club in the Three Ways House Hotel in Chipping Campden (see below). I can recommend the local sausage with chive mashed potatoes and onion gravy, and the very rich number of puddings they will put before you.
The Three Ways House (Chipping Campden; tel. 011 44 1386 438429; www.puddingclub.com) is famous for its Pudding Club, started in 1985, in what was originally a private house dating from 1871. A hotel since the early 1900s, it boasts 48 very comfortable rooms, many with a theme that most guests love to write about in the Guest Book in each room. I found the book hidden away in my desk, with entries started in September of 1940. In August of 1944, two doctors from North Carolina and Ohio stayed here, no doubt during their military service. No names at all from 1955 to 1998, only a few from the USA, mostly compliments but one complaint about the "rough" toilet tissue (rectified by now). I stayed in Lord Randalls' Chamber, decorated with cartoons of His Lordship and gentlemen's accoutrements, including an old steamer trunk and fading books. Rooms from £139 for a double, including breakfast and VAT; themed rooms start at £175.
For information on the Cotswolds and the Forest of Dean, contact their tourism office at tel. 011 44 1242 864171 or at www.cotswolds.com.
All things British can be found at the Visit Britain website. For free maps, brochures, vacation-planning advice and a wide selection of passes and transport tickets, go to www.visitbritain.us.