The Insider’s Guide to Gloucestershire
Words Mark Hooper
Photographs Emli Bendixen
Famously home to both Laurie Lee and the David Cameron Cotswolds set, you could say that Gloucestershire is a county of contrasts.
As Gordon Russell says in the Foreword to the 1947 edition of The Cotswolds – An Introduction (something we picked up in one of the many antique shops we discovered there), ‘It is not the “beauty-spots” so much as the “one-ness” of the whole area that forms the most enduring impression’.
It’s important of course to distinguish between the Cotswolds – which covers a wider area incorporating Oxfordshire – and the county of Gloucestershire, but the ubiquitous sandy-coloured Cotswold stone and numerous protected villages, lends the impression of the whole county having been colour co-ordinated by a particularly tasteful interiors brand. (In fact, the opposite is more likely true – with local images, palettes and textures making their way to stylish moodboards around the world.)
Here, then, are a few places we recommend you get lost in…
For confused driver-spotting (and a half-decent view)
You know that feeling when you take a detour through the countryside, taking the second or third option on the SatNav because you’re bored of motorways and dual carriageways, and you suddenly hit on the most stunning view and just feel like pulling over, cancelling everything and living there forever? That’s more or less the impression you get when driving towards Stroud from Minchinhampton. At one point, just before you reach The Bear (a brilliant pub/inn with the added attraction of an actual bear in reception), something magical happens. The view drops away in all directions. The sun hits the common. You feel like you’re on top of the world. Stroud looms up at you from one side. Sheep and golfers wander across your path. You hit junctions where bewildered drivers all stare at each other, unsure of who has right of way and why you’d ever want to drive on anyway.
The locals call it The Golden Valley. It’s actually three valleys converging at Minchinhampton Common. If you’ve never been there – why not? It’s one of the best views in England.
No. 131 and The Painswick
A beautifully updated Georgina townhouse in the heart of Cheltenham, the traditional exterior of No. 131 belies the contemporary interior – with original artworks by Sir Peter Blake, David Hockney and Banksy on the walls. But the food is the real star, with seasonal, locally-sourced ingredients a speciality.
The Painswick, meanwhile (in the town of the same name, just north of Stroud) is a picture of relaxed, rustic Cotswolds charm – the restaurant boasting what chef Jamie McCallum describes as a ‘contemporary-contradiction’ menu (don’t be scared, it’s all recognisable and delicious – from ‘slow cooked lamb, anchovy mayonnaise, tomato and gremolata’ to ‘roast sea bass, herb gnocchi, chestnut and Jerusalem artichoke’).
Best street for antiques
Long Street, Tetbury
Gloucestershire is a haven for antique hunters – one of the best centres is Long Street in Tetbury, a high street full of fascinating stores (in between the Prince of Wales’ Highgrove Shop). Try Brownrigg, who specialise in French, Swedish and Italian furniture, Amy Perry, Emma Leschallas, Trilogie and Lorfords, who have a showroom in the town as well as Europe’s largest collection of decorative antiques in two converted aircraft hangars at nearby Babdown.
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Fine wine with an open fire
Raffles Fine Wines, Nailsworth
Wine merchants can often be intimidating places. But even if you don’t know your Alsace from your Albariño, Raffles go out of their way to offer you a warm welcome – quite literally in the winter months, thanks to their roaring open hearth fire. If like us you’re a sucker for classy label-less beer bottles, you might find yourself leaving with an armful of Alhambra Spanish lagers too…
For food with provenance
If you’re in Nailsworth anyway, it would be a wasted trip without booking a table at Wild Garlic in Nailsworth – which restaurant critic Jay Rayner famously praised for ‘making the world a better place’. It’s hard to better that, but they’ve managed to raise the idea of simplicity to an art form – chef Matthew Beardshall managing to get that perfect balance of unpretentious food that still makes you feel a bit special for having found it.
Gareth Fulford has pulled off the same trick at Purslane in Cheltenham, preaching seasonal produce and specialising in local sustainably-caught fish.
Part of the magic of Gloucestershire is the sense that everything is hidden away in nooks and crannies; behind the meandering bends, high hedges and thick stone walls that are characteristic of the region. Take Emma Peascod, recently relocated to Moreton-in-Marsh, who specialises in producing luxurious reflective surfaces, combining traditional Japanese paper-making techniques with verre églomisé – her clients include Harvey Nichols, Smythson and Skye Gyngell’s Spring restaurant at London’s Somerset House.
MacGregor & Michael, meanwhile, have been earned an international reputation for their fine, hand-stitched leather goods for over 40 years, moving from Bristol to Tetbury, and have work exhibited in the Museum of Leathercraft.
The artist Thomas Denny keeps alive the rare craft of stained-glass painting, working out of his home studio near Blandford, just across the border in Dorset – but you can see many fine examples of his art in Gloucestershire – including the magnificent windows dedicated to the war poet Ivor Gurney at Gloucester Cathedral, two windows in Tewkesbury Abbey, St Peter’s in Upper Slaughter, St Osmund’s in Tarlton, St Paul’s in Shurdington and St Michael’s in Abenhall.
A Pleasant walk that sounds like a scene from An American Werewolf in London
Lower Slaughter to Upper Slaughter
As spooky as they sound, the neighbouring villages of Lower and Upper Slaughter are named after the old English for ‘miry place’ (meaning ‘soft and watery’). Which is a nice description for the walk, following the River Eye as you wander over the fields from the Slaughters Country Inn in Lower Slaughter (nice for a quick stiffener) and ending with a meal at the Lords of the Manor in Upper Slaughter.
The house of curiosities
After inheriting a sizeable fortune in 1911 when he was still in his 20s, the eccentric architect, poet and artist Charles Wade devoted the rest of his life to his passion for collecting, travelling the world and eventually amassing a collection of over 22,000 items varying from furniture and art to toys and antiquities. In 1919 he acquired Snowshill Manor, living a hermit-like existence in a cottage on the estate while giving over the house to his interest in design and craftsmanship, effectively turning it into a personal museum of fascinating ephemera – truly a ‘hole-and-corner’ if ever there was one…
Best source of natural pigment
Situated near Coleford in the Forest of Dean (the full address begins simply ‘The Rocks’), Clearwell Caves is a natural cave system that has been mined extensively for its iron ore and ochre for 4,500 years. It now houses a museum dedicated to the history of mining, but still remains a source of ochre for artists.
John Best, manager of the Icelandic band Sigur Rós (and Gloucestershire resident), talks us through his favourite secret places…
Most unusual use of coffee
Gloucestershire’s first urban mushroom farm, Fungus Loci grow oyster mushrooms on spent coffee grounds they source from local cafes in and around Stroud.
Even if you’ve never been there, you might recognise Purton Hulks – a ship’s graveyard of deliberately beached boats beside the River Severn that’s just begging for a nice filter and a bit of tilt shift. Swifts Hill is just as photogenic; not only for the fantastic views and, best of all, it’s within walking distance of the Woolpack Inn, a 300-year-old pub overlooking the Slad valley, best known as Laurie Lee’s favourite drinking spot.
Most English-sounding farm shop
Living up to its name, Jolly Nice in Stroud is my go-to farm shop, with a café and a very Hole & Corner-friendly homeware and accessories store, Harriet’s House, adjoined. For bread, I recommend the Salt Bakehouse, an award-winning family-run artisan bakery in Stonehouse.
Gloucestershire offers a treasure trove of independent makers, all operating out of their own ‘hole-and-corners’. Take the brilliantly named traditional upholsterer Marcus Spencer – not to be confused with the high street retailer. Also not to be confused with Marcus Walters, a graphic and product designer who has done an interiors range for Heals amongst others, and whose wife Hayley is a hand-screenprinter, with a studio based in a photogenic old mill building.
The area seems to over-index on brilliant hand-printed wallpapers – you might recognise James Randolph Rogers’ designs from The Golden Fleece on Nelson Street in Stroud, while Juliette Chadwick (wife of YBA-set sculptor Daniel Chadwick) is another to track down.
Isabel Lyster, meanwhile, is a young, cool puppet maker/artist who lives in a yurt… Hole & Corner enough for you?
Best independent drinks
Beard & Sabre produce small batch ciders (and look exactly the part), while Garden Tiger Gin are amazing (can you get them to send me a bottle for recommending them? Actually make it a lifetime supply!)
For being at one with nature
If you’ve come to experience nature, try this little campsite which also runs a good cafe/restaurant – open fires, plenty of opportunity to be out in the elements but with the bonus of a decent meal onsite.
Woodchester Park near Stonehouse is within walking distance and offers sprawling parkland – originally part of the grounds of an unfinished Gothic Mansion (worth visiting too), now part of the National Trust – as well as lakes for wild swimming.
If you want slightly less of a challenge, Miserden Nursery near Stroud is a plant nursery with beautiful old glasshouses – one of which houses a café. If you want something slightly larger scale,
I can’t end without giving a shout-out to these brilliant art agents/curators, who put on pop-up shows around Stroud – check their site to see what’s on when you’re in the vicinity.
With thanks to Rupert and Julie Howe.
Have an insider recommendation you think we’ve missed? Send us your suggestion to firstname.lastname@example.org