(Above image: Arlington Row, Bibury. Image courtesy of Cotswolds.com)
The Cotswolds conjure chocolate-box images. English villages of honeyed-stone and cottages entwined in roses. Yet in the heart of Cirencester, at the Corinium Museum, I discovered that Roman history is as woven into the Cotswolds story as the wisteria which loops over village garden walls.
Established as a fort, soon after the Roman invasion in 43AD, Cirencester, or Corinium Dobunnorum as it was called then (the Dobunni being the local tribe), grew to become the second most important town in Roman Britain. It was an administrative centre, with typical civic structures such as a basilica and forum. On the edge of town you can still visit the earthworks of an amphitheatre which could hold 8,000 toga-ed spectators.
A mosaic showing hunting dogs at the Corinium Museum (Image: Corinium Museum)
Beautiful mosaics are the centre-piece of the museum, not least the Hare Mosaic, almost complete, with a tessellated hare and green glass for an eye, encircled at the intricate pattern’s centre. He, or she, appears to be nibbling at foliage. This mosaic floor was found in 1971 during excavations in Cirencester at what must once have been a Roman household belonging to someone of considerable importance.
The Cotswolds is the second largest protected landscape in the country, which stretches almost from Stratford-upon-Avon to Bath. Towns such as Burford and Tetbury are crammed with antiques shops, while Chipping Campden and Broadway offer a photo opportunity at every turn. It is easily navigable by road, with the added benefit of (potentially) spotting real hares as you slice between fields or being accompanied, as I was, by red kites, sailing over hedgerows in search of prey.
The Village Pub, Barnsley (Image: The Village Pub)
Even in the car I could rub shoulders with Roman history. The spine of the area is a road they built and called the Fosse Way, linking Exeter with Lincoln. Stretches of it, even today, are as characteristically straight as you might expect, although it’s easier to find on a map if you look for the A429.
Leaving the museum, I set a course for Bibury as a pale, wintry sun was sinking, the lateness a deliberate ploy to miss the coach parties wielding selfie sticks in this quintessential Cotswold village.
Lower Slaughter (Image: Cotswolds.com)
I was rewarded with the classic scene of Arlington Row’s 17th-century weavers’ cottages totally bereft of tourists. By the time the light had gone, and the air distinctly more chilly, I was only too glad to continue a few more miles to The Village Pub in Barnsley.
In a moodily dark bar, a jovial crowd snacked on spicy onion bhajis, sizzling hot from the kitchen. Later, ensconced by a massive fireplace in the dining room, I made short work of venison shoulder so tender it fell apart, with tiny roasted Jerusalem artichokes, cavolo nero and a rich, sticky red wine gravy.
Cirencester (Image: Cotswolds.com)
Unafraid of reworking classic country style, the owning hotel group, Calcot, have given the half-dozen upstairs bedrooms a makeover of understated prettiness.
Across the road, a grander sister hotel, Barnsley House, comes complete with a spa and restaurant, overlooking historic gardens. Perhaps rooms on a budget with a splurging option nearby is a Cotswolds thing. The following night I slept at The Slaughters Inn in the charm-like village of Lower Slaughter where, similarly, guests can amble alongside the River Eye or stroll past the church to the gin bar and the restaurant at The Slaughters Manor House.
There was no compromise on indulgence at the inn, though, neither at dinner (poached baby pear, winter radish, Colston Bassett stilton, caramelised hazelnut, and cajun charred chicken with corn, aioli and chips) nor breakfast where smoothies and tiny pots of blitzed fruit and grains vied for attention among cheeses, honey on the comb and the lightest, fluffiest omelette Arnold Bennett.
The Potager Restaurant, Barnsley House (Image: Barnsley House)
I left Lower Slaughter in thick morning mist, the trees dripping and beech the only brightness in a landscape drained of colour. At Birdlip I picked up the B4070, and it delivered me at the little hillside churchyard in Slad, where author Laurie Lee is buried. Opposite, the Woolpack Inn clung to the hill, looking out across Lee’s beloved Slad Valley, just a mile or two from Stroud.
The Slaughters Country Inn (Image: Andrew Brownsword Hotels)
Here, on a wooden settle, beside an ancient window, I decided I’d found the perfect postscript — a pub untainted by fad or fashion and an uninterrupted view.
For more short breaks by car in the UK, see hertz.co.uk/inspiredbritishbreaks
Getting there: Pick up your car from Hertz Birmingham Airport, Airport Way, B26 3QZ. Tel: 0843 309 3005. Or pick up your car from your local Hertz location. See hertz.co.uk for more details.
A Volvo XC90 from the Hertz Prestige Collection would add comfort and class to this short break.