Cotswolds' appeal: quaintness and cottages

BOURTON-ON-THE-WATER, England — On an early spring afternoon, with the temperature in the 70s and the sun shining, I wander along the footpath next to the Windrush River, which flows through the heart of this village in England's Cotswolds region.

The Windrush is not really a river but a bubbling brook that one could easily wade across. Nevertheless, no fewer than five stone footbridges span it.

The village also has an assortment of antique shops, tea rooms, small inns, private cottages hidden behind a profusion of colorful blooms, and a rather large population of golden retrievers. When I ask a gentlemen walking the fifth golden I've seen in an hour about their numbers, he smiles and answers, "Yes, quite. Around here, they're called Cotswold dogs."

I would call them lucky dogs to have such a glorious region as their home.

About two hours west of London, the Cotswolds, a hilly area of outstanding natural beauty, is famous for "chocolate box" villages with fairy-tale names — in addition to Bourton-on-the-Water, there's Chipping Campden, Stow on the Wold, Moreton in Marsh, Upper and Lower Slaughter, Shipston-on-Stour and Wotton-Under-Edge.

So perfect are the villages that one wonders whether they aren't backdrops for Thomas Kinkade paintings, rather than the dwelling places of real people. People do live here. That includes many wealthy Londoners in search of a second home and a slew of celebrities — including Kate Moss; Kate Winslet; Stella McCartney; Hugh Grant; and royals Zara Phillips and Prince Charles, whose High Grove estate is the most famous of the Cotswold residences. There also are regular folks who were lucky enough to have bought their cottages before area real estate prices went through the thatched roof.

Frozen in time

A good base for touring the Cotswolds is the spa town of Cheltenham, often called the best-preserved Regency town in England. Stroll the tree-lined Promenade, as visitors have done for nearly 300 years, taking in Neptune's Fountain (modeled after Rome's Trevi Fountain), the Imperial Gardens and the Montpelier area, where a row of caryatids — sculpted female figures — provides architectural support for the buildings, most of them now housing boutiques, tea rooms and cafés, which spill out onto flower-bedecked terraces.

If you do stay in Cheltenham Spa, try the Ellenborough Park Hotel, next to the town's race course, famed for its steeplechase races (newlywed royals William and Katherine are said to be particular fans of the track). Once the country estate of Lord Ellenborough, governor-general of India during Queen Victoria's reign, it is everything that besotted Americans look for in a grand English manor.

I had my morning coffee in the Great Hall and my evening cocktail in the Minstrels' Gallery overlooking the Great Hall, and I retired each evening to a four-poster bed in a room with a view of the expansive gardens. I didn't, however, have the room where, with binoculars, you can see the race course's finish line while sitting in the bathtub, or the room with a secret staircase that lets guests have nocturnal visitors without fear of embarrassment.

Must see: Sudeley Castle

From Cheltenham, it's an easy drive to the quintessential Cotswold villages of Chipping Campden and Broadway, but on the way, make time for a stop at Sudeley Castle, which dates back 1,000 years, when King Ethelred the Unready gave the property to his daughter Goda as a wedding gift.

The current castle, whose owner, Lady Ashcombe, is an American with Kentucky ties, is most famous as the home of Henry VIII's final wife, Katharine Parr. In 2012, it will celebrate the 500th anniversary of Katharine's birth with a yearlong schedule of events.

The castle gardens are spectacular, particularly the secluded knot garden, which incorporates a design from a dress pattern worn by Elizabeth I in a portrait that hangs in the castle.

Another garden you won't want to miss is the Painswick Rococo Garden, a restoration of an 18th- century pleasure garden. Flamboyant and flashy, as the trend of the times warranted, the garden features a miniature Doric temple, a Gothic alcove, water features and a maze. Most people think the best time to visit an English garden is in spring or summer, but a good time to visit the Painswick garden is late February and early March, when a carpet of snowdrops spreads across the woodland floor.

Chipping Campden, a settlement since the 7th century, has a High Street that has been described by historian G.M. Trevelyan as "the most beautiful village street now left on the island." You might be tempted to stick to High Street, with its impressive medieval Market Hall and array of one-of-a-kind shops, but do detour to the lovely St. James Parish Church to wander through the graveyard, with its moss-covered headstones.

Walk down Broadway

Broadway is often referred to as the showplace of the Cotswolds, and in this region of picturesque villages, that is quite a tribute. It consists of one main street (formerly a coach road between London and Worcester) skirting a village green with rows of honey-colored limestone buildings on either side. One of these buildings, the Lygon Arms Hotel, has welcomed guests for centuries, including the two rivals in the English Civil War, King Charles I and Oliver Cromwell, although presumably not at the same time.

During the 19th century, the village became a gathering place for writers (J. M. Barrie and Henry James), musicians (Edward Elgar) and artists (John Singer Sargent and Frank Millet), and in the early 20th century it was a center for the Arts and Crafts movement, with William Morris a frequent visitor and furniture maker Gordon Russell opening a shop, which is now a museum.

A great way to see Broadway is to take a walking tour with local artist Jeremy Houghton, one of the official artists for the 2012 London Olympics. In his tweed jacket and Wellies, Houghton proved the perfect guide to all the spots frequented by the "Broadway Colony."

Tasty pudding

"Now, everyone remember to bang your spoons as each pudding is introduced because as you know, puddings have feelings, too."

So spoke the "pudding master" as he prepared to announce the Parade of Puddings at the weekly Friday night meeting of the Pudding Club in the village of Mickleton. As each pudding was paraded into the room with great ceremony — beginning with the treacle sponge, followed by the jam roly poly, spotted dick, Lord Randall's pudding, apple crumble and summer pudding, and concluding with the squidgy chocolate-and-nut pudding — a thunderous cacophony of spoon-banging ensued.

Founded here at Three Ways House Hotel in 1985 to prevent the demise of the great British pudding, the club has no dues, no members (everyone's welcome), and no hard and fast rules other than that you must finish one pudding before starting another. During its 26 years, the club has served 100,000 pudding lovers — not just in Mickleton, but at special events in London, Dublin, New York and Tokyo. The evening offers pomp and circumstance mixed with frivolity and comfort in the knowledge that the British pudding appears safe from the challenge of frozen cheesecake and tasteless gateaux.

If you do want to attend, book ahead, because the weekly meetings are wildly popular. If you do get in, you'll probably decide that this is the best club you've never been a member of.