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A Trip to the Cotswolds in England!

A Trip to the Cotswolds in England!

Jason Oliver Nixon |

Friends:

Not long ago, John and I paid a visit to one of our most favorite regions in England, the bucolic, postcard-perfect Cotswolds region. Our destination was the incredible, centuries-old Old Bell Hotel in the equally charming town of Malmesbury in Wiltshire. The hotel had recently been purchased by a wonderful couple from Texas, Kim and Whit Hanks, who are as engaging and fun as their stunningly overhauled hostelry.

John and I were visiting The Old Bell Hotel on assignment for a magazine but, curiously, the shall-not-be-named publication never ran the story.

So here you go, I thought it would be fun to post the story...

I hope you enjoy!

P.S. John and I are back to England next week and Cornwall, the extreme southwest region of Britain. Stay tuned for "The Cornwall Diaries."

Ring My Bell

A high-flying Texas couple shakes up a Cotswolds, England market town with the top-to-bottom overhaul of the ancient Old Bell Hotel.

Driving west from London, the hustle and bustle of the M4 superhighway fades as you zip through atmospheric, hedge-lined byways. Soon, you enter the postcard-perfect Cotswolds region with its signature limestone cladding that wraps every picture-perfect cottage and bunting-festooned high street shop. The district’s stunning landscapes—paired with central casting-worthy villages—have attracted generations of artists, nobility, gardeners, and well-heeled Londoners.

A few bolt-hole towns lead to the larger, market village of Malmesbury, believed to be the oldest borough in England. Think narrow streets (drivers beware, Google Camilla and traffic accident) lined with a handful of bakeries and charity shops, a Turkish barber, a converted silk mill, a small museum (don’t miss the Turner painting), and a stunning, sky-high ruin of an abbey that dates to the 12th century. Walls lean, roofs undulate, and puffy, Technicolor-hued roses climb hither and yon. Villagers amble down the narrow lanes with pups in tow, and cozy cafes spill onto the central square. A sudden turn and a dramatic tightening of the road, and you arrive at the Old Bell, rumored to be the oldest hotel in all of England (the hostelry has been welcoming guests since 1220. Yes, 1220!). On the exterior, moss and lichen add luxuriant patina to stone embellishments, ancient, gorgeously fragrant wisteria scampers across the facade, and a ramshackle tile roof proves that straight lines are vastly overrated.

Step inside the hostelry and fall under the spell of a stunning historic-meets-contemporary décor that perfectly marries the past and present. Boldly printed wallpapers take center stage upon walls and ceilings, and dramatic antiques marry beautifully with quirky mid-century finds. Nina Simone and Bryan Ferry croon on the sound system, and dogs mill about in the public spaces, including the deliciously conjured Saints & Sinners dining room. Rustic beams and beautifully worn stone make star turns indoors and, al fresco, massive boxwoods guide guests down to a perfectly manicured back lawn. There are fireplaces in every public room and creaky wide-planked floors are ubiquitous. Service is crisp, intuitive, thoughtful, and—remarkably in this tech-driven, anonymous age—anticipatory. Rooms seamlessly mix mod cons with tradition: Spa showers, USB ports, geranium-scented toiletries, and juiced-up WiFi pairs beautifully with leaded windows that open onto glorious landscape vistas.

Speaking of countryside views, the antiques capital of the Cotswolds, Tetbury, sits just up the road from the Old Bell—as does Prince Charles’ country escape, Highgrove House and Gardens (which can be visited in the summer). Explore nearby villages such as Shipton Moyne (try the Cat and Custard Pot Pub!)  and Castle Combe. A slew of grand, must-visit country estates holds court behind imposing gates, and hiking and walking options abound amongst the surrounding, postcard-plucked hill and dales.

Thank Whit and Kim Hanks, a visionary, hospitality-minded couple from Austin, Texas, for the unexpected, wonderful overhaul of the 34-room Old Bell.

“It’s been a lot of work but, wow, what an adventure,” says a Gucci-clad Kim over knockout cocktails in the Old Bell’s Lewis & Wood wallpaper-clad sitting room. Whimsical Mario Buatta fabrics pair swimmingly with antique French chairs and centuries-old ancestral portraits. A throwback painting of a Texas rodeo dominates a back stairway and Nancy Mitford novels spill from a shelf.

Adds Whit, a former real estate developer and antiques dealer, “My family comes from Malmesbury and a Henry Hanks once owned the lease on Castle House which became part of the Old Bell Hotel in the 1800s. It’s really full circle for a Hanks to run the hotel again. Kim and I are so excited to take this property into another chapter and infuse it with new life.”

And it’s not that the Hanks family isn’t already well versed in the business of hospitality. Through their Whim Hospitality, the couple also runs Camp Lucy, a well-regarded hotel meets wedding venue just outside Austin, Texas, and they guide one of the Lone Star State’s largest events-planning firms that juggles everything from the iconic South by Southwest music festival to myriad corporate get-togethers.

The Hanks continue to tweak the Old Bell’s experiential deliverables (a new, monkey-themed outdoor bar, streaming TVs, and a tweaked reception area), but the dynamic duo has their eyes firmly set on their next project, the next-door, just-purchased, and sprawling Grade I-listed Abbey House & Gardens. The pair plans to transform the tucked-away, five-acre, Tudor-era estate into an intimate, luxe hotel that looks onto the slow-moving River Avon and the property’s renowned, eye-popping gardens. It’s a money-pit renovation, for sure, but the Hanks have the vision—and the financing—to bring this hospitality-minded dream to life. To further round out their Malmesbury portfolio, the Hanks are also renovating various, smaller period homes around town to open them as high-end short-term vacation rentals.

“We want to help shine light on Malmesbury and make it a top-flight travel destination,” says Whit. “Kim and I feel so fortunate to be able to play a role in the town’s hospitality evolution. Best of all, we have really been welcomed and embraced here. We really feel like we have come home.”

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