Is an idyllic Cotswolds mini-break just as romantic with children in tow? James Tapsfield and his family find out.
Take a loved-up couple, a quaint cottage and some of the most picturesque, peaceful countryside England has to offer. Great, right? Now spool forward a few years, add two small children and some more stress lines into the mix. Still great?
This was the question we set out to answer, packing four-year-old Evie and her 10-month old sister Alice into the car, along with the usual array of tablet computers, cuddly toys and wet wipes.
Two hours and a fair amount of screaming later, we arrived in the Cotswolds to find the sun shining on a gorgeous barn conversion with views across a lush green valley.
“Wow,” said Evie, momentarily distracted from watching Disney’s Frozen for the umpteenth time. “The Oswalds are really beautiful.”
For the uninitiated, the Cotswolds refers to around 800 square miles west of Oxford, loosely bounded to the north by Evesham and to the south by Bath.
During the industrial revolution, the area was a major centre for the wool trade. But now, it’s the rolling hills, distinctive architecture and relative proximity to London which have made it a favourite haunt for holidaymakers, celebrities and the power elite.
David Cameron is often tagged as a member of the so-called Chipping Norton Set – a circle of friends with homes near the market town. Others include Top Gear host Jeremy Clarkson and former Sun editor Rebekah Brooks.
Our base was Steanbridge Farm Barn in Slad, near the pretty town of Painswick, a cottage that combines all the mod cons you could hope for with the classic frontage of Jurassic limestone quarried locally for centuries.
Big windows accentuate the stunning scenery, and the open-plan living space meant we could prepare meals and still keep an eye on Alice toddling around. A short (but steep) stroll takes you to a mill pond, where the girls delighted in chucking bread at the local ducks.
Stroud, just a 10-minute drive away, hosts an impressive farmers’ market on Saturday mornings, but we made a beeline for Painswick, for an authentic taste of Cotswolds life.
A slap up lunch at the Falcon pub and a coffee stop at Olivas deli (narrowly managing to resist the enormous slabs of chocolate cake) did much to soothe away parental stress. And the Rococo garden attached to the manor house offered more simple pleasures – with frivolous Georgian follies, tasteful modern sculptures and even a hedge maze.
If you are celebrating a special occasion, or just feel like a treat, it’s well worth considering enlisting the services of the Chipping Norton Tea Set. This wittily-named enterprise will deliver afternoon tea to your cottage, and even serve it up – helpfully avoiding all those wasted calories traipsing around hunting for a tea shop.
We invited grandparents to nip over the border from Wales to join us, and enjoyed a sumptuous selection of sandwiches, lemon drizzle cake and scones smothered in clotted cream and jam.
That experience, stuffing our faces on the terrace as we gazed out over the verdant valley, was hard to top for the adult contingent.
But the best part of the visit for Evie and Alice was definitely the day we spent at the Cotswold Wildlife Park, about a 45- minute drive away in Burford.
We invested in a model iguana for Evie early on, and she took great trouble to make sure “Iggy” got a prime view of the giraffes, lions, rhinos and other exotic specimens on show.
The lemur enclosure, where you can get up close to the enchanting Madagascan creatures without any barriers, was amazing. Sadly the baby tapir seemed to be asleep when we came to coo at it. But we did get to see the magnificent bulk of its mother (or perhaps father). Alice also developed an obsession with the impossibly cute meerkats, complaining bitterly when we had to leave them to their own devices.
One good tip is to go for the miniature train early on – it is an excellent way of orientating yourself on what is a pretty huge site.
Just when the grown ups were getting a bit frazzled, we came across the adventure playground. That bought us at least two hours of relative peace as Evie raised merry hell on the fantastic forts, threw herself head first down slides and did monkey impressions on the climbing frames.
With all that on offer, it felt like good value at around £40 for a family of four – and the picnic potential means you don’t even need to shell out for lunch if you don’t want to.
So, the “Oswalds” – still as great with kids? Definitely.
Although I wouldn’t mind trying it again without them, just to be sure.
• James Tapsfield stayed in Steanbridge Farm Barn with www.manorcottages.co.uk. Stays at this cottage start from £537 for a three-night midweek or weekend break in April. For more information, visit www.manorcottages.co.uk or call 01993 824 252.
For afternoon tea delivered to your door, visit www.chippingnortonteaset.co.uk
For more information and tickets to the Cotswold Wildlife Park, see www.cotswoldswildlifepark.co.uk