Growing Sweet Peas – the lazy person’s guide

Imagine it is mid-summer, the morning sun is warming the day and you are gathering handfuls of pretty, multi-coloured and fragrant flowers to bring back into the house.  If this sounds like a heavenly dream then read on.  The dedicated gardener will need no further encouragement to grow sweet peas but for those less keen on gardening or with little time, they are still the perfect choice.

So, even if your idea of gardening is to sit in it with a glass of chilled, white wine, there is a quick and easy way to grow sweet peas for, at this time of year, pots of young seedlings are available from garden centres.  They are usually grown in a single pot with a dozen or more plantlets crowded together.  They nearly always come as a mix of colours but it is necessary to check that they are a tall-growing and scented variety.  Avoid buying the scentless and/or dwarf types, both of which I dislike intensely – why grow these when they should be fragrant and elegant?

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Sweet peas grown informally on a ‘wigwam’ in the garden border

If the weather is reasonable and the soil not frozen, the seedlings can be tipped out of their pot, teased gently apart and popped in the ground about six inches (15cms) apart.  It is beneficial to make sure that the soil in the pot is moist so give them a good drink an hour or so before planting.  Sweet peas, being climbers, need something to clamber up: the traditional way are hazel sticks. These are ideal for the sweet peas attach themselves readily to the rough and twiggy stems.  If hazel cannot be found, bamboo canes also work well although the young plants may need a little helping hand at first to attach themselves – use any short twigs for this just to prop them up.  The canes, which are traditionally placed into a circular ‘wigwam’, need to be about 7-8ft long so that once in the ground they are about 6ft tall.  Apart from keeping them watered in dry spells and free from slugs and snails that’s it.  They will begin to flower in June and continue (providing you pick them regularly and never allow them to set seed) until the autumn frosts.  Incidentally, they grow well up fences too providing they get adequate sunshine.

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For more experienced gardeners and those that want to enter the local flower show try growing them as ‘cordons’.  With this method they are grown in straight rows on bamboo canes or strings to a height of 5ft.  A place in the vegetable garden is ideal as they can be readily accessed from all angles without treading on other plants.  The spacing is again six inches apart.  For the best blooms, remove the tendrils and any side shoots as they appear, also any flower stems with less than four flower buds. With no tendrils for self-clinging it will be necessary to tie the plants to the stakes with string or by using metal rings sold especially for the purpose.  When the plants reach the top of the canes and/or the flower quality diminishes, cut the plants free of their stakes and lay them carefully along the ground. Tie in the growing tips to their nearest stake and train as before.  The plants will flourish having been given a new lease of life.

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These sweet peas, grown as cordons, are now ready for layering

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The layering process

Sweet peas are readily grown from seed, either sown in pots or the ground in March/April or in pots in October.  I prefer to start them in individual pots regardless of the time of year and to protect them from the worst of any cold weather.  The seed does have a hard coating and many gardening books advise chipping the individual seeds with a knife.  Not only is this hard work and time consuming, I have never found it to be necessary.  The seed is both plentiful and inexpensive and if a few don’t germinate does it really matter that much?

The growing and exhibiting of sweet peas reached a peak in late Victorian and Edwardian times with many specialist clubs holding shows.  With patience and luck, who knows you may become a medal winner at your local flower show?  Even if you don’t, you’ll be rewarded by a garden full of colour and a house full of scent.

Book Cover

There is lots more no-nonsense advice for gardeners in my book “Why Can’t My Garden Look Like That?”  To take a peek inside the covers, click here.

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Far from the Madd(en)ing Crowd

The title of this blog is actually rather a misnomer for the picturesque village of East Hendred is, in reality, quite close to both London and Oxford.  Nestling at the foot of the Berkshire Downs, its charm and ancient houses give it the appearance of a place far from civilisation and today’s frenetic pace of life.

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A traditional English village centres around the ‘big house,’ the pub and the church and East Hendred can boast that its manor has been owned by the same family, the Eystons, for over six hundred years.  It has three pubs thereby bucking the trend in recent years of the many pub closures elsewhere that often sees the social heart of a community destroyed.East Hendred (18) copyright

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There has been a village shop for very many years for a book published in 1922 (English Country Life & Work by  Ernest C. Pulbrook) shows it in a photograph.  Today, the shop is still “thriving and well-accustomed” although it is doubtful if it now sells the wooden hay rakes that are lined up outside on the early photo!  The building has remained unchanged over the years although the village changed allegiance in 1974 and is now in the county of Oxfordshire.  The shop is easily recognisable in my photograph as being at the far end of the row.East Hendred (1) copyright

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The church, dedicated to St Augustine of Canterbury, dates from the late twelfth century although its tower is later, built around 1450.  East Hendred (17) copyright

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At the other end of the village is the former Chapel of Jesus of Bethlehem also built around 1450 by Carthusian monks.  Now known as Champs Chapel, it houses a small museum dedicated to the history of the village.  It is opened and maintained by volunteers.

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Despite its historic past, the parish of East Hendred which is crossed by the ancient Ridgeway path (now a National Trail) is also firmly fixed in the modern day for it also houses the Harwell Science and Innovation Centre where the Diamond Syncrotron Facility is located.

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A Funny Old Year!

Regular readers of this blog may have noticed that the posts have been somewhat erratic in their regularity during 2017. It has been an funny old year, to say the least, for I have learnt the hard way that my health – which I have somewhat taken for granted – is not infallible. An unexpected heart attack in January came as a complete surprise for I have always rather prided myself on my active, healthy outdoor lifestyle. The body’s fitness level from all the exercise that I take through my daily work turned out to also be its saving grace.  After surgery (which was carried out under local anaesthetic so that I could watch progress on a computer screen) and three months recuperation, I was back at work gardening and well on the way back to resuming the same degree of activity as before. Or so I thought.

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Enforced taking it easy with friends during fine weather in late spring. Every minus has a plus to balance it!

A silly accident in August saw me return to hospital.  A blow to the leg that seemed innocuous enough to begin with resulted in the threat of amputation. Never one to miss a marketing opportunity, by the end of the five days of waiting for a decision to be made, I had designed (in my head, at least) a rugged ‘blade’ for hill walking as well as ski, fork and spade attachments so that I could holiday as well as continue to work. Despite the potential to make my fortune from this, I’m mightily relieved to report that the operation did not happen. After two months of enforced immobility and a further two months of gentle walking my legs are now as strong as ever – well almost.

Suddenly back in hospital where my leg changed from just being swollen to black in thirty minutes. I admit I was scared!

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The staircase in our old cottage is difficult to negotiate safely with two working legs and near impossible with just one!

Strangely, the leg accident affected me far more than having the heart attack but what both have taught me is that I’m not yet ready to slow down and take the easier option. I even managed short walks on crutches in the Lake District for being housebound was by far the most difficult aspect of the recovery. I have always spent as much time as possible in the great outdoors and long may that continue. A recent trip to Exmoor also helped to boost confidence in my ability to ‘get on with it.’  Now I’m up to regular five hour walks over rough country I feel life is returning to normal. Life in 2018, however, won’t be taken for granted!

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Exploring Watendlath in the Lake District National Park on crutches.

Back on two legs exploring my beloved Exmoor National Park recently.

Enough writing of ill health! Despite seven of the twelve months of this year being restricted if not written off completely, life remains pretty good. I’m not quite sure why, but despite the occasional traumas that everyone has over the course of time, I have always sailed pretty well through life for which I’m exceedingly grateful. Not everyone is so fortunate.

Life is good! [photo credit: Jane Stillwell]


So why, if life has been so kind to me this year, has there been such a blip with writing? I can only assume it is because I have had so much other ‘stuff’ to think about and sort out. Immediately before the heart attack I began to write the opening chapter to a second novel and it is time to move that forward. Immobilisation did give me the opportunity to carry out research for it so time has not been altogether wasted. And of course, it is also time to work hard at getting novel number one published. That is never going to be easy but I never anticipated my first book being published or getting such great reviews. I’ve also made two excellent recoveries this year which haven’t been a doddle either. I’m looking forward to the challenges 2018 will bring!Christmas 2016 copyright
With every good wish for the New Year and may 2018 be a great year for you too.

Going Round in Circles

Designing your own garden is, I think, far trickier than designing someone else’s. One of the problems is that emotion gets in the way. I’m not suggesting that there shouldn’t be passion in design but far too often one is tempted to hang onto things that have no place in the new design, whether it is a plant or a pot – or in this example, far too many pots!Garden Makeover 3a copyright

The garden shown here was quite a good size but difficult for it was on a gentle slope and there was need for a central path to lead to sheds at the far, and lower, end. To avoid splitting the garden in half, large circular stepping stones had been randomly placed but the result was a confusing mish-mash of shapes and plants. The only place the eye focused on was the rotary washing line!Garden Makeover 1c copyright

You don’t need to be a great artist to design a garden. A simple method is to take photographs, turn them into black and white (for colour confuses the eye) and pencil sketch over them. Here, we were quite keen to improve on the circular theme.
The final result was a series of circles, each with a low retaining wall and a step down to allow for the change in level. Trellis was used to screen the sheds. Although the hard landscaping took up more of the garden than before, the remaining planting area was far more useful and could be crammed with plants. The little walls made perfect low seats.Garden Makeover 2c copyrightGarden Makeover 1b copyright

And what happened to all the pots? Most of these were discarded in favour of a large, custom-made, L-shaped timber box. This gave a better space for planting as well as making a feature in its own right. Water-retaining gel crystals were added to the planting soil reducing the need for regular watering.Garden Makeover 3d copyright

You can find more ideas on all aspects of easy, trouble-free design, plants and gardening techniques in my book, Why Can’t My Garden Look Like That?  To take a peek inside the covers click on the link here.

BOOK COVER

Behind The Covers: a book’s hidden story

Like many of us, I can’t resist searching through a pile of second-hand books whether they’re in a shop, car boot sale or just an old cardboard box in a street market. If I want a modern paperback I will go to our local bookseller and buy new but when it comes to second-hand, it is non-fiction I’m after – and the older the better.
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There is something rather special to holding a book that has been previously owned, and hopefully loved, by someone else. It is even better when you find that they have written inside the cover. Sometimes it is the signature of the author with a personal note added or a birthday greeting from an aunt but it is the name of the unknown owner that really excites me. In those two or three words an imagined picture emerges of the man, woman, girl or boy that was also opening the covers with the same sense of eager anticipation.IMG_0741A copyright
Over the years I have picked up a number of these books, usually for no more than a couple of pounds and more often just for pence for they are of little real monetary value. Occasionally I have struck lucky: a book on cricket turned out to have been signed by Donald Bradman, the legendary Australian captain, and turned my seventy-five pence purchase into a profit of over ninety pounds within days. More often the book remains on my shelves forever.

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My interest in social and family history means that I can never resist carrying out a little research into my purchases. A book on Victorian garden design published in 1861 and presented in 1879 to Duncan Buchanan by the Paisley Florist Society slowly revealed its story. The Paisley Florist Society, the second oldest in the country and founded in 1782 , is still going strong. The fate of Duncan Buchanan’s Barshaw Gardens changed over the years: in 1912 the house and gardens were sold and turned into a public park which is still open to the public. After he won his prize he pencil sketched a delightful view on the back page which, for me, makes the book priceless.garden book agarden book 2
Not all books have such a happy story. A G Street wrote Round The Year On The Farm in 1941 and is a calendar of farming life and tasks supplemented with photographs. The signature Edgar Liversedge of Rawmarsh didn’t take a lot of research for in 1914 his mother Emily, in a fit of madness, cut his four younger siblings throats before cutting her own. Before she did so, she sent young Edgar, aged 12, downstairs to wait for his father to return home so that he could tell him what she had done. As it happened she and ten year old Doris survived and Emily found guilty of murder was sent to a mental home for life. How did Doris and Edgar fare after such a terrible ordeal? One can only hope that Edgar, who had perhaps turned to farming, found solace in nature and the great outdoors.

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Now, when I open my A G Street I find I am not only reading a charming record of the time of farming with horses but also a record of the sadness of the book’s owner. This is, I’m glad to say, an exception for most second-hand books have a happy hidden story just waiting to be uncovered.

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Glorious Vandalism?

Croome Court, ancestral home of the Earls of Coventry, has seen many changes in its more recent history. Perhaps none were quite so colourful as the five years that it was the UK headquarters for the Hare Krishna movement.

The earliest parts of the building date back to 1640 but in 1741 the sixth Earl commissioned Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown to transform the house and grounds. Better remembered for his lakes and parkland landscaping, the house, rotunda and church are important, early examples of Brown’s architectural work.

The Rotunda designed by Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown

Inside, there is decorative plasterwork by Vassalli, designed by Adams, and by Joseph Rose Jr, designed by Brown, all self-coloured white. However, in the latter’s dining room the Hare Krishna have left their vibrant mark.

Lord’s Dressing Room

Dining Room

It is, I believe, National Trust policy to leave Croome to reveal all its various uses and ownership changes by leaving much as they found it in 2007. This is almost a necessity for most of the house’s contents were sold over the course of the last century. The most well-known example of this was the sale of the entire contents of the Tapestry room where fine, French wall hangings were sold in 1902. These were later donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York where they are now on display leaving the original room bare and forlorn.

Lady Coventry’s Boudoir

The naked walls of the Tapestry Room

Painting of the Tapestry Room c.1900

Croome is a fascinating place to visit. It’s rooms devoid of furnishings allows the mind, unfettered by their distraction, to concentrate instead on their size, scale and the glories of their plasterwork and outlook. In places, the fabric of the building is stripped bare to reveal tantalising glimpses of voids, old beams and unsafe rooms. These, in themselves, are a reminder of the shocking loss to the nation’s history when any historic building falls into disrepair or is demolished.

It will be interesting to see if the Krishna coloured plasterwork remains for posterity. Should it be preserved as it is now? Is this a refreshing interpretation of traditional, high quality plasterwork or sheer vandalism, an abhorrence that ought to be erased? Whatever your opinion, nothing quite prepares you for the visual ‘shock’ you experience when you first enter the room.

Dining Room plasterwork detail

Dining Room plasterwork detail

To visit Croome Court or to find out more click here

A Thunderbolt and a Broken Cross

For so tiny a place, the Cotswold village of Taston, or more accurately ‘hamlet’, has more than it’s fair share of interesting features.  None can be so dramatic – in the most understated of ways – than the lump of rock hurled in rage by the Norse God, Thor and now wedged between the roadside and a wall.Taston (1) copyright

The Thorstone (from which the village’s name is derived) is one of a number of standing stones that litter this part of the Cotswolds.  They range in size from the extensive Rollright Stone Circle to the single unnamed stone that can be found in the town centre of Chipping Norton.Rollright Stones (5) copyrightChipping Norton Stone copyright

Close to the Thorstone are the remains of a medieval preaching cross.  Many were destroyed during the Puritans time of Cromwell (mid 1600s) but their base, as here, still remain.Taston - Broken Cross copyright

Ancient stone houses, many of them listed by English Heritage, line the three narrow streets of Taston.  Exploring on foot is the best way to see them and to absorb the villages tranquil atmosphere.  It is highly unlikely that you will meet others doing the same! Taston (2) copyrightTaston (4) copyright

It is on foot, that you will find, tucked away beneath the trees, the memorial fountain to Henrietta, Viscountess Dillon.  Built in 1862 of limestone, granite and pink sandstone, it has the words In Memorium in a decorative arched band beneath its spire.Taston (5) copyright

Taston lies 4 miles southeast of Chipping Norton and 1.5 miles north of Charlbury.

On Tulips

The story of the craze for tulips in the 17th century, Tulipomania, is well documented and oft repeated.  Suffice to say, that favoured, single tulip bulbs were selling for thousands of pounds/dollars before the tulip ‘bubble’ crashed.  Today, we are fortunate in having many hundreds of varieties in an unimaginable range of colours and forms to choose from and at remarkably low prices.Hidcote - tulips in the Old Garden copyright

Over the years, my work has taken me to gardens of all sizes and styles, from formal parterres attached to country estate houses to ‘pocket handkerchiefs’, to planting thousands in grassland to planting a score or less in pots.  It has given me the opportunity to experiment with colour as well as variety.  Below are some of my favourites.

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The formal parterres of this Victorian Italianate garden (by Charles Barry, designer of the Houses of Parliament) required very restrained planting both in colour and quantity.  Here, I used the variety ‘Spring Green’, which stands well even in harsh weather conditions. After flowering, the bulbs were lifted and dried off to be replanted again later in the year.  It is always desirable to do this as it helps to prevent disease and deterioration of the bulbs.  In practice, it is often easier just to leave them and add a few additional bulbs each autumn to bulk up the numbers, especially when time is short.Kiddington Hall 2001 copyright

Also in a large estate garden but at the opposite end of the style and colour spectrum, three thousand red (‘Bing Crosby’) and white (‘Diana’) tulips were planted on a meadow bank.  Tulips when planted in grassland deteriorate very rapidly – to maintain this display new bulbs were added each year.  However, they do look very beautiful when grown this way – try the almost black tulip ‘Queen of Night’ with blue Camassia bulbs for a magical combination.Tulips bing crosby & diana in grass copyright

Even when planting smaller beds, cramming in as many bulbs as is possible between other plants makes for a beautiful display.  This stunning border was only one metre wide and four in length but there was still room to have plenty of early colour from ‘Purple Prince’ and the lighter ‘Candy Prince’.Tulips Purple Prince & Candy Prince copyright

For formal displays a bed of tulips takes a lot of beating.  They can be single coloured as in this image of pink tulips under-planted with yellow wallflowers (seen at Glasnevin Botanic Gardens in Dublin, Ireland) or mixed colours and planted so densely that no other plants were necessary or desirable (seen at Lismore Castle, Ireland).Tulips - pink copyrightTulips Lismore Castle copyright

For those of us with limited space and budgets, tulips grown in pots are ideal for we can still cram the bulbs in to give a magnificent display.  The images below show how the first layer of bulbs are placed before a second layer is planted above them.  Avoid planting directly over the first bulbs by leaving their tips showing – this will give the bulbs space to develop with much better results.  Top up the plants with potting compost and nature will do the rest; it couldn’t be simpler!  I like to use the more ‘exotic’ looking varieties in pots as the blooms, by being lifted closer to the eye, give more opportunity to admire their spectacular detail.Planting tulips copyrightPlanting tulips in pots copyright

Perhaps the easiest of all tulips to grow are the wild species* and their varieties.  Their delicacy of size belies their toughness.  If they like you, they will increase in number year after year.

 

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Tulipa ‘Peppermint Stick’

 

 

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Tulipa acuminata

All tulips benefit from being planted as late in the year as possible, November is ideal but even if later they will still flower.  The pot grown ‘Green Eyes’ were planted mid-January this year and have just finished flowering.  They will be planted in the garden in due course to flower again next spring.

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Tulip ‘Green Eyes’

 

In England, tulips are flowering at their best right now: take the opportunity to visit open gardens to see which ones you like best.  Make notes of their names so that you can order the bulbs when the catalogues drop through the letter box mid-July.

*always ensure that any bulb is purchased from a reputable source and have not been gathered from the wild.

Having a Blackthorn Winter?

 

The first trees are beginning to bloom in the Cotswolds; in a few days’ they will be billowing clouds of white blossom.  My father, a countryman through and through, would always mark the occasion by repeating the old English warning of a coming “blackthorn winter” and “the cold blow” ahead.  But was he correct?

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The blackthorn (Prunus spinosa), also commonly known as sloe, is frequently used as a hedging plant where its tangled and viciously thorny branches make an impenetrable, stock-proof barrier.  When left untrimmed it grows into a small tree.blackthorn-blossoms-crowd-an-old-cotswold-green-lane-copyright

I haven’t found a referral to the earliest date for a blackthorn winter but it almost certainly goes back centuries for the blackthorn is a ‘magick’ tree and often used in witchcraft.  But can it really dictate the weather?  Common sense says ‘no’ unless, of course you believe in magick.

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Pretty flowers hide vicious thorns

There appears to be a problem with my father’s and others belief in the blackthorn winter.  The tree that blooms first and so often referred to is not blackthorn but the cherry plum, another Prunus – Prunus cerasifera.  Sometimes known as the Myrobalan Plum, it is also found in hedgerows and when allowed to grow to full height is often covered in red or golden cherry-sized, edible fruits.  It was introduced from southern Europe about three hundred years ago.

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Prunus cerasifera, the Cherry or Myrobalan Plum

So, blackthorn or cherry plum?  For the time being we will be having a “cherry plum winter”.  The sloe will blossom in about three weeks’ time when we will probably have the blackthorn winter too for one thing is proven: in England, we are far more likely to have a spell of wintry weather now than we ever are in December.  Either way, let us hope that it is a good year for both trees for then we can look forward to cherry plum pies washed down with a nice glass of sloe gin.

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Cherry Plums

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Sloe Berries

Footnote:  according to the British Meteorological Office, the term “blackthorn winter” originated in the Thames Valley, the birthplace of my father and where I was brought up.  It will be interesting to know many of you use the term and where in the world you are located.

Guiting Power, a Cotswold village

The Cotswolds (Cotswold Hills) are fortunate in having very many attractive stone built villages, protected by its AONB (Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty) designation.  One such place, and a little off the beaten track so not as well visited as some of its more famous neighbours, is Guiting Power.

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A visit during the week, when most others are working, is like stepping back to a time when life was much slower and with fewer cars and people.  The village has a population of 300 and also lies on the Wardens’ Way, a fourteen mile footpath, but even during the busiest of times it is hardly bustling.  Linking with other public paths it is possible to make a circular walk centred on the village.

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As well as for the building of modest cottages, the soft Cotswold stone is used everywhere – to enclose fields, to create stiles, churches, barns, pubs and the grand houses of the wealthy.

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If long country walks aren’t your thing, there’s still plenty of things to do and see.  The church dates from the twelfth century and has the foundations of an earlier one nearby.  Sudeley Castle, near Winchcombe is just a few miles away.  Within the village, The Farmer’s Arms pub offers traditional beers and skittles; just outside the village The Hollow Bottom is a pub popular with the horse racing fraternity.   The Old Post Office, as well as continuing in its traditional role is also now a thriving coffee shop  For almost fifty years the village has hosted an annual music festival.  Adam Henson’s Cotswold Farm Park is also close by.
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Useful links:
How to get there

The Wardens’ Way Footpath

The Hollow Bottom Pub with rooms

The Old Post Office

Guiting Music Festival

Sudeley Castle

Adam Henson’s Cotswold Farm Park