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Food Feature: Hill country

Spoil yourself with a visit to the unspoiled Cotswolds

To the average American city-dweller, one of the most amazing things about England's Cotswold region may be that it exists at all. This country of gently rolling hills, tiny villages and unhurried streams less than two hours northwest of London is the sort of place one might imagine would survive only in vintage postcards and the ale-addled memories of old-timers.

Take Chipping Campden, for example, at the northern end of the district. Limestone townhouses with slate roofs line the main street (or, in British parlance, "high street") of the former wool town, which peaked as a trading capital in the Middle Ages. The sturdy stone columns and well-worn paving stones of the open-air Market Hall date back to a time when the stalls might have offered candied wren's livers as snacks. The town's impressive towered church is flanked by a graveyard of almost supernatural greenness.

Let's face it: Any place this stinkin' quaint and picturesque in the U.S. would have been bought up by Disney or be pockmarked with souvenir shops, condos and discount carpet outlets. The closest American equivalent to the lovely Cotswold Hills is probably the Smokies, but in the U.K. version there are no billboards, no neon and, thankfully, no Dollywood.

Instead, the most commercial intruders here among the tweedy hamlets in the Cotswolds are the plentiful antique shops, which are certainly priced for well-heeled tourists, but help contribute to the region's appeal.

After spending most of a November day in nearby Oxford, we exited the eight-lane M40 and set out along the country roads for Bourton-on-the-Water, a mid-sized town in these parts so-named for sitting astride several streams that meet to form a small river. We stayed at the somewhat pricey Old New Inn, which combines nearly excruciating old-world charm — the lobby boasts an ancient stone fireplace and antique, hand-painted murals — with cozy amenities, such as private baths.

Just behind the inn is one of the town's main attractions, the outdoor Model Village, which is just what the name suggests: a built-to-scale village of thigh-high houses and shops criss-crossed by small canals and miniature bridges landscaped with tiny bushes. A $6 self-guided tour will give you plenty of time to wonder what kind of upper-class eccentric was behind this oddball project.

From there, we took to the back roads, one-lane affairs bounded by hedgerows, wattle fences and fields populated by cows and wild pheasants. It's easy to get a sense of deja vu as you pass through rural settlements numbering only a handful of homes and with just a small distance and slightly different names to separate them: Little and Great Rissington; Upper and Lower Slaughter (collectively known as "the Slaughters").

Bibury is a mini-village on the River Coln, a modest waterway that runs scarcely a foot deep in the winter but which swarms with foot-long trout from a nearby hatchery, which offers a small trout museum. Stone steps reach from the street down to the water's edge, but fishing is restricted to customers of the inn across the street.

Arrayed on a slope a short walk from the stream sits Arlington Row, a collection of ancient stone cottages so unbearably adorable and untouched by time that seeing them could make an instant Anglophile of even the most pampered Yankee mallrat. Which may explain why, when auto magnate Henry Ford visited the town early last century, he unsuccessfully tried to buy the place lock, stock and barrel so he could ship it across the pond and reassemble it in suburban Detroit, thus setting the gold standard for ugly Americanism.

Heading up the road that traces the ancient Roman Foss Way, we stopped for lunch in a town that bears the dual distinction of anchoring the northern Cotswolds and having my very favorite place name: Stow-on-the-Wold (which admittedly sounds as if it was christened by a member of the local gentry with a mild speech impediment).

Out of the popular town's large central square radiate eight main roads leading to all corners of the region; we elected to travel the short distance to Chipping Campden, where we stayed at the venerable Red Lion Inn, which epitomizes the not-yet-bygone crusty charm of English country life.

For a surprisingly fair price (about $60), we booked a small room with a sharply sloping ceiling, tucked into a gable of the old building. In the evening, the inn's bar is filled with broadly accented farmers, still wearing their tweed caps and waxed-cotton jackets, quaffing pints of dark ale and local bitters.

Although the Red Lion offered a decent dinner menu, we drove a half-hour northeast to the much-larger Stratford-upon-Avon, which boasts countless restaurants and pubs and a more lively nightlife.

Affording a breath-taking overview of Chipping Campden, and much of Worchestershire to its north, is the sheep-covered Dover's Hill, which once drew as many as 30,000 country folk to the "Cotswold Olympics." Begun around 1600, the annual games were finally abandoned in 1851 when too many casualties resulted from such rough sports as "shin-kicking."

From that vantage point, it's a brief drive to Broadway, a popular tourist destination that largely consists of one long street lined with houses, inns and shops opening into a triangular parking area. Even so, the commercialism is low-key, with galleries, woolen merchants and an impressive tea shop substituting for chain stores and the normally ubiquitous McDonald's.

A car is necessary to properly experience the Cotswolds, which, with their narrow lanes and tight corners, will test your aptitude for driving a stick shift on the wrong side of the road. Double that stress level if you visit during the spring and summer, when endless lines of touring cars and negligible parking will make you feel as if you're visiting an upscale version of Helen.

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