TRAVEL: Cheltenham and The Cotswolds

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As one of Britain’s most attractive counties, Alan Wooding enjoyed a short stay in Gloucestershire.

“You might find difficulty in finding somewhere to park in Cheltenham at this time of day,” suggested hotelier Wayne Fenton shortly after we arrived at Hilden Lodge on the outskirts of the attractive Gloucestershire spa town.

Thankfully we did managed to find a spot close to the pedestrianised main shopping street although we were assured that a brisk 25 minute walk along the London Road might have saved us the trouble of twice circumnavigating the inner ring road before finding a free space.

Hilden Lodge is best described as an upmarket 4-star boutique bed and breakfast although since Wayne and his partner Melissa Robinson took over earlier this year, the hotel now offers a superb selection of evening meals.

We checked into the spacious Prince Regent room and it soon became clear that the ‘Prince’ referred to had four legs and not two.

With Cheltenham famous for horse racing, all 13 rooms are named after Gold Cup winners with Prince Regent winning it back in 1946 after having triumphed in the Irish Grand National some four years previous.

Attractively furnished with a large en-suite bathroom, all rooms have a state-of-the-art flat screen television, complimentary toiletries, hair dryer, radio alarm clock plus tea and coffee making facilities. There’s also free Wi-Fi and off street parking. In fact there is everything you would expect from a boutique hotel – but it’s the meals that are the real winner!

Melissa had trained as a chef and opened her own restaurant in her native Philippines before moving on to Hong Kong. She eventually arrived in England some 12 years ago and, having met and teamed up with Manchester-born Wayne six years later to run a series of hotels, restaurants and pubs, the couple eventually arrived at Hilden Lodge back in February.

The choice of meals is a credit to Melissa’s skill and ingenuity, her award-winning breakfasts vary from the full English (naturally with a vegetarian option) while there’s muffins with smoked salmon, toast or coissants, a full range of cereals and juices plus plenty of Fairtrade tea and coffee.

The evening dinner menu is particularly impressive and varied from the Chef’s Homemade Soup of the Day (delicious Pumkin on this occasions) to other starters of garlic mushrooms, prawn & scallops or a steak salad.

Prices varied from £4.95 to £7.95 while the main courses ranged from Sirloin Steak at £17.95 to Gloucester Sausage and Mash at £9.95. My wife loved Melissa’s Pan Fried Chicken & White Wine Sauce while I tucked into a fabulous oriental chicken curry with all the usual accompaniments, both priced at £12.95.

However as a food lover I was sad to miss out on two version of stroganoff, the tagliatelle or sea bass in vierne sauce but that was soon forgotten as I tucked into homemade Tipsy Pudding which was another real winner. Even so there was a lovely cheesecake, fruit crepes, fruit salad and ice cream also available while there is also a lighter menu and children’s options.

“We really pride ourselves in our menus and can cater for various diets including vegetarian, gluten-free, dairy-free and low fat,” said Wayne.

Hilden Lodge also has a well-stocked bar while a range of wines has also been introduced. “When we first came to Hilden Lodge we just served house red or white but as people kept asking for certain wines, it was obvious that I needed to take the plunge and it seems to have worked.”

In the town is the listed Grade 1 Pittville Pump Room, its landscaped gardens and attractive lake, all created by architect John Forbes in the early 1800s. The building itself contains the original pump made of marble although today the water – which is something of an acquired taste! – is fed by an electric pump.

The nearby Cheltenham Museum and Art Gallery has a collection of paintings spanning four centuries but one of the town’s biggest attractions is of course its racecourse with the Gold Cup weekend always a sell out.

Cheltenham Town Hall is also worth a visit as it’s the venue for a host of different shows. Comedians Alan Davies, Jimmy Car and Jason Byrne are next top acts while for music nights, Jools Holland and Joan Armatrading will also be playing in the next few weeks.

Wayne and Melissa often put on special two-day walking weekend breaks while they have a series of offers throughout the year. It means you need to contact them for room rates which generally start at £80 per couple for bed and breakfast. “We pride ourselves in our flexibility,” added Wayne.

Hilden Lodge certainly makes a great base for walking breaks and a short drive puts you in touch with the ‘Leckhampton Loop’, reckoned to be one of the most eye-catching stretches of the whole area. It’s just a stone’s throw from the hotel and is a picturesque part of the Cotswold Way.

The ‘loop’ route gives walkers chance to enjoy the entire Cotswold landscape in around four-and-a-half miles as they pass by Iron Age workings, a Victorian quarry and peaceful woodland.

The walk is just part of an historic 50-plus mile path which runs all the way from the pretty market town of Chipping Camden to the mellow stone-built houses of Painswick, often referred to as the ‘Queen of the Cotswolds’.

The walks themselves can take in Chipping Camden, Broadway, Wood Stanway, Winchcombe, Cleeve Hill, Dowdeswell Reservoir and Leckhampton. Hilden Lodge will happily supply packed lunches for those wishing to picnic but with so many pubs and restaurants around the area, you can easily be spoilt for choice.

For exact details of the Leckhamton route, use either the Harvey’s Cotswold Way Map at 1:40,000 scale, covering the whole route, or OS Explorer Sheets and 179 and OL45 at 1:25,000 scale for this section.

And for more information about the Cotswold Way, slog onto www.nationaltrail.co.uk which includes the Leckhampton Loop plus days out from Cheltenham.

A three-mile drive takes you to Sudeley Castle, home of Queen Elizabeth Parr – Henry IIIV’s surviving wife – with private tours by the present owners the Dent-Brocklehurst family on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Within a 30 minute drive of Hilden Lodge are some of the Cotswold’s prettiest town and villages and with so much olde worlde charm on view, the likes of Barrington, The Slaughters and Stow-on-the-Wold can’t help but please. However the best known destination in the Cotswold area is undoubtedly Bourton-on-the-Water although its hoards of day trippers can make it a little tiresome.

Fortunately it’s easy to get away from the hustle and bustle of Bourton and take in the rural atmosphere of the beauty of the honey-coloured stone buildings and the rolling countryside of its many quieter neighbours and our particular favourite was Burford with its long sloping high street and the wonderful clotted cream teas at the famous Huffkins cake shop.

We also ventured slightly further north to Tewksbury in Gloucestershire with its wonderful old buildings scattered among the more modern ones in the historic town’s high street.

Tewksbury is just a 20 minutes drive from Hilden Lodge while for those interested in visiting the world’s oldest family-owned car manufacturer, then it’s worth going the extra 15 minutes up to Great Malvern and pay a visit to the Morgan Motor Company which celebrated its centenary in 2009.

For just £10 you can enjoy a two-hour guided tour to see the company’s 180 highly-skilled workforce hand-building the famous bespoke wooden-framed three and four-wheel sportscars from the first nut and bolt through to the gleaming finished article.

If you fancy one, they range from £30,000 for the three-wheeler to around £140,000 for the BMW-powered Aero SuperSports. Morgan tours need to be booked in advance by calling 01684 573104.

Malvern also has so many wonderful hill walks and it’s certainly worth climbing the steep sloping path away from the main road to the natural St Anne’s Spring with its coffee shop and stunning views back to the Cotswolds some 20 or so miles in the distance.

The town also houses Britain’s smallest theatre. ‘The Theatre of Convenience’ seats just 12 people and is predominantly designed as a puppet venue although various musicals and Shakespearian shows have all been staged there.

For enquires and all bookings, contact Hilden Lodge at www.hildenlodge.co.uk or call 01242 583242.