Stroud is a wonderful mix of mustard coloured cords, dungarees, and jeans. Part Cotswolds, part alternative lifestyle, and part honest working market town, it’s a fabulous place to spend a few hours - mooching around the delicatessens and bookshops, exploring the colourful side-streets, and deciding which class you might be tempted to join if you were a local.
Knitting for men, intuitive herbalism, tai chi, circle dancing and male redemption are all on offer. As is the chance to pop into the Fortune Faeries Shop - “dedicated to the preservation and protection of all elemental beings”.
But away from the alternative, Stroud has also established a terrific reputation in recent years for its Farmers Markets and food shops. And it doesn’t disappoint. The choice is as wide and as varied as the classes, courses and workshops being advertised around the town. And the twice-baked smoked haddock soufflé with salad (at just £6.95) in The Food Emporium by JRooL is always going to be worth the trip.
Outside the open doors, the market stalls groan under the weight of locally produced fruit and vegetables, meats, sausages, wines, beers, and cheeses. And honey, of course (especially important - given Stroud’s proud boast to be the “World's First Bee Guardian Town”, dedicated to helping all bee species and other pollinators, and empowering people, institutions companies, towns and cities to become "Bee Guardians").
The town itself can be reached by road along any one of five golden valleys - so named because the wealth created in its heyday from the 150-plus mills which used to process wool from the famous Cotswold sheep. While most have disappeared, and others have been converted into flats, a couple still survive and, most notably, make the felt for tennis balls and snooker tables.
Visitors from London, meanwhile, can make very good use of the Stroud Special off-peak trains which run between Stroud and Paddington, with tickets available from as little as £8 each way.
On this particular tour, however, there were two golden valleys to explore. The first led to Slad - forever immortalised by the author Laurie Lee in a book which has sold over six million copies worldwide. The Woolpack, which Lee himself used to frequent regularly, is the place for a drop of cider and - on a warm September afternoon - the place to sit outside and watch the farmers harvesting the fields on the opposite side of the Slad Valley.
And then, the A46 out of Stroud takes you along another valley into Painswick - another Cotswolds wool town filled with honey-coloured stone buildings, where some of the highlights for visitors include the ancient St Mary’s Church with its 99 yew trees, Olivas Delicatessen & Café, and the bustling and busy Falcon Inn.
It’s also “home” to the one-off Rococo Gardens, where - thankfully - you don’t need to be a horticultural expert to enjoy the gardens, follies, nature walks, and art installations. I’m also reliably informed that this is also the place in the UK to go and see Snowdrops in early Spring. “I’ll be back”!
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