When the opportunity presents itself for an escape to the country, you can’t go far wrong with the Cotswolds…
This destination is right on our doorstop – living in Oxfordshire, it’s an hour’s drive and you’re there. At times you could quite easily be en Provence in rustic France or Italy – an effect accomplished by hazy sunshine, Cotswold stone, and rolling fields. Taking time to meander and slow down on location is such a pleasure and we made a date to do in July, booking a shepherd’s hut at The T Barn in Barnsley, Cirencester.
The T Barn is founded on the principle of taking it slow and reconnecting with nature – something achieved through a handful of shepherd’s huts, wood-fired Scandinavian hot tubs, outdoor cooking, and no wifi whatsoever. As soon as you enter the tiny village of Barnsley, you’re truly off-grid. We lost signal on our phones, couldn’t catch a trace of 3G and the huts aren’t kitted out for digital living – save for the digital radio, which offered lazy afternoon listening while we soaked in the outdoor tub. For a couple of days seeking to switch-off, this is the place to be. The only time we’d use our phones was to get directions at the local services just outside of Barnsley by car, to check-in with family and to share a photo or two of our Robinson Crusoe experience.
For indoor/outdoor living, a shepherd’s hut gives you the best of both worlds. Inside, we experienced down to earth luxury and country comforts – with The T Barn providing eco-friendly cleaning supplies, deliciously scented local toiletries, fine linens, and a care package on-arrival of freshly baked oat cookies. I had arranged for a waiting breakfast hamper which yielded eggs laid by the hens at the nearby farm, fresh milk, butter and eggs, home-cured bacon, tomatoes on the vine, special recipe baked beans, crumpets and a crusty loaf of airy ciabatta. Keeping the windows and doors of the hut flung open for the duration of the stay, our outlook was the field and its patch of wildflowers, the kitchen garden of herbs, and our al-fresco style seating area.
Our hut, named Marjorie, was largely solar-powered, by way of two panels operating at the rear. There was hot and cold water on-tap, a powerful shower, and gas for the range, but cooking outdoors over the fire was encouraged. For this, we were given a cache of logs and firelighters, with the option to add to this by the wheelbarrow for an additional fee. Our store sufficed for two long rounds in the wood-fired hot tub, which was our priority for the stay! We mostly cooked small meals in the hut and found that we weren’t especially hungry anyway after the quantity of food consumed at breakfast. The toilet was composting and there is definitely a knack to this – you’re given sawdust so I was quite pleased to have had some knowledge saved from watching many, many tiny house videos and van renovations on YouTube! It all comes part and parcel with minimising your footprint and respecting the natural beauty of the location.
We visited the neighbouring town of Cirencester in the afternoon for a pleasant wander, stopping in a few shops on our way to the main event: lunch at Piazza Fontana. I pride myself on going off-the-beaten-track for a good plate of food and this lunchtime occasion was no exception. Having done my research, Piazza Fontana had all the ingredients for a buon tempo: family-run, intimate, unpretentious, hidden down an alley. When I spied the ‘free drink with lunch’ (à la beachfront holidays abroad) plaque on the table, I knew immediately that we were onto a winner.
This spot was very quiet, with the kitchen closing at 2:30pm for a lunch date. According to my source, the place truly comes alive at night! For lunch though, it was sheer perfection. A combination of friendly staff from Italy who weren’t afraid to pile your plate high with rich, authentic pasta and parmesan, a laid-back ambience and broad Italian menu set the tone for a lunch that was enjoyed by all involved. Eyeing up the dessert menu, Darren opted for a trio of delicious gelato, while I chose the homemade crème brûlée (adding to my list of places that offer a pitch-perfect version of the aforementioned dessert).
Lunch was made even better by the addition of my wonderful mum, who drove to meet us during our sojourn. This is just another one of the many joys of a local staycation – family can be a part of it, without the need for extensive bed and board. The much-needed catch-up over pasta with a change of scenery was a gratifying way to spend some time.
If you’re in Cirencester, you’re definitely going to want to slip down some of the passages to discover pretty boutique shopping spots. Even if you don’t plan on spending any money (like us for the duration of our stay, other than on food), you can enjoy what’s on offer visually. Points go to the creativity of the independent shop owners and teams who put on quite a show with eclectic, carefully chosen wares. There’s nothing quite like handpicked appeal to create inspiring offerings.
Throughout our stay, we were truly blessed with generous doses of sunshine. Driving along with the windows down really gave the feel of a road trip, even though we weren’t in any way far from home. En-route to Bourton-on-the-Water, we pulled into The Old Prison to pit two smoothies against each other: berry versus tropical in the battle royale of refreshment. For me, tropical wins every time.
Now let’s talk about the hot tub – the raison d’être for our staycation. There’s definitely a knack to firing up a wood-fired hot tub and fortunately for us, Darren had that knack. Amply supplied with ready-cut logs, firelighters and plenty of determination, Darren diligently got the fire going and proceeded to keep watch with the poker lest it die out. By day two, he had it down to a fine art and managed to stack a few logs in such a way as to keep the water nice and toasty for a good few hours. It took around two hours for the water to reach bath temperature, then, it would just keep on getting hotter up to the point that we exited to avoid any cartoon-chickens-in-a-stew-pot situations (when you know, you know).
Once situated in the tub, we admired our view of the field – listening to the quiet buzz of crickets and watching the clouds pass over. Some bubbly went down a treat! This was truly the restorative portion of our stay in the Cotswolds: it’s amazing what a long soak can do. Wonders worked, we were able to let our swimwear dry in the sun while we sat cosily wearing large fluffy white towels, enjoying a bread basket’s worth of ciabatta with butter from the farm.
While initially quite sceptical about being parted from all his at-home tech, it was such a joy to see Darren settle down into one of the loungers. With his shorts and t-shirt donned and a couple of beers on-ice, I could see him unwind and this was a real treat. Often, my other half is on-the-go or engaged in a project whereas when I’m switched off, I’m switched off and with my head in a book or just straight-up dozing. Taking three days out of our usual schedule to disconnect from our space and routines was the perfect way to reset. There’s no better time for living mindfully and I feel that steps towards this, no matter where you are in your journey, will always prove to be worthwhile and fulfilling.
I work a busy 9-5 (sometimes beyond the 5) in copywriting and social media sorcery and Darren gets up even earlier to teach primary school kids, coming home to do more work for the next day and so on. We’re often running to keep our hamster wheels going, which is why the summer holidays are so special to both of us. I usually take a week or so off to be a part of it and to reconnect with myself. Originally, we’d planned to be on our honeymoon, however, our plans needed to change with a new date for the wedding set later on in the year. I didn’t feel remorseful in the slightest. Charging our batteries in the Cotswolds was a real pleasure, as was coming home to be together while I work from home for a spell. From my previous post, I’m happy to say that my love for the shepherd’s hut endures.