Review by Fiona Duncan, published 25th August 2011.
What spoiling hotels would I recommend in the Cotswolds? Calcot Manor and Barnsley House are two that stand out, though many are lacklustre and too happy to trade on their gorgeous, tourist-friendly settings.
But I've just added Bibury Court to my shortlist. I can't, in fact, think of another hotel in the area that offers a more gorgeous setting. It has the singular advantage of being part of what William Morris considered the loveliest village in Europe, but at the same time remaining hidden from view.
Once found, however, the majestic Jacobean house hoves into view, overlooking a lawn shaded by stately trees with a meadow beyond; the translucent River Coln runs placidly through the garden; a gate by the walled herbaceous border leads to the fine church next door. Perfection.
"One feels," says the owner, John Lister, "that this was a happy home, despite turbulent times, when it was built in 1633." John is the man behind Shipton Mill organic flour ("where there is time for everything and everything has its own time") and was inspecting a pair of buhrstones, once used for grinding, close to the hotel when he got chatting to the owner. "He seemed a jolly, prosperous sort of chap, so when he said the hotel was for sale, I thought it might be rather nice to own it myself."
He laughs ruefully, but he's plainly relishing the considerable challenges of running a country-house hotel these days, gathering a sympathetic team around him and making the necessary investment. Slowly, it is blossoming.
Half of the 18 bedrooms have been refurbished in timeless, elegant style with spanking new bathrooms; the rest are old fashioned but spacious and more affordable.
In each room you'll find a framed snippet of information about some aspect of life around the time the house was built – the influence of the East India Company, for example, or the Barebones Parliament of 1653 – instructive touches that fit this thoughtful, gently evolving place. There's room for improvement, of course; a few more personal touches, books, flowers, ornaments, would not go amiss to make the rooms more homely.
As well as the breakfast room, dining room, conservatory and large terrace, there's a huge, traditionally furnished drawing room with a blazing fire in winter, and an amusing Twenties bar, still with its original panelling and chandelier. More to the point, there's just something terribly relaxing about the place, and the setting by the river, where guests can fish for brown trout for free, is very lovely. Antony Ely's food is up to the mark (wonderfully refreshing ceviche of Bibury trout), and the beds are all new, ensuring a good night's sleep.
Now here's an inside tip. After breakfast but before the camera-clicking tourists invade, walk along Rack Isle water meadow past the pretty, much-photographed line of weavers' cottages, Arlington Row. When you get to the Swan Hotel, cross its pretty garden and up some steps. There at the end you will find the hidden, magical source of the Coln, with a trout or two gliding in its eddy. Return to Bibury Court to swing gently in a hammock on the lawn, take a drink on the terrace or loll by the river. As I say, perfection.
- Bibury, near Cirencester, GL7 5NT (01285 740337; www.biburycourt.com). Doubles from £150 per night, including breakfast. Access possible for guests with disabilities
What to do
John Lister is keen to open people's eyes to the varied artistic and cultural things on offer in the area – and some that are just plain quirky. In Malmesbury, for example, there's the beautiful Abbey House gardens of the Naked Gardeners Ian and Barbara Pollard, who dress for visitors except on certain 'clothes optional' days (www.abbeyhousegardens.co.uk). John Lister also recommends Hetty Pegler's Tump at Uley near Stroud "the 4,000- year-old archaeological site beats Pompeii!" A lovely walk is along the Coln Valley to Fairford, with pubs along the way.
It's easy to spot brown trout in the clear waters of the Coln. The hotel allows two rods at a time for a morning or afternoon, and can lend you the rods if you don't have your own at no charge. If you catch something, the chef will cook it for you. Bibury Trout Farm and Fishery lies next to the source, diverted into it, of the Coln (www.biburytroutfarm.co.uk). Good places to eat are the New Inn at Coln St Aldwyn and the Swan at Southrop.
Arts and crafts
There was a big Arts and Craft movement all round Bibury. Grade 11-listed Sapperton Village Hall is the work of Ernest Gimson, furniture designer and architect. Rodmarton Manor (www.rodmarton-manor.co.uk) is an Arts and Crafts house, while Kelmscott Manor (www.kelmscottmanor.org.uk) was the home of William Morris.