In peak season, July to October, the roads in the Cotswold region are crowded. But there's a good alternative to driving. On a leisurely visit to this heart of England, we traveled by train, taxi, foot, and boat - happy to leave the navigating to native talent, grateful for the ubiquitous walking maps and booklets. ``How long are you here for, luv?'' asked the pilot of a little river launch on an afternoon's excursion in Tewkesbury. ``Three days, is it? Now, that's a smart girl. Most Americans come for 10 minutes, y'know. They hop out of their motor cars for a post card or a Coca-Cola, then hurry on to the next Cotswold village. Such a pity!''
A pity indeed. They miss browsing in the neighborhood bookshops, lunching with the locals in cheery pubs, attending evensong in a parish church or an organ concert here in Tewkesbury's great Norman Abbey.
We visited three places, distinctly different, and indelibly Cotswold: Minster Lovell, Stow-on-the-Wold, Tewkesbury.
Trains leave almost hourly from London's Paddington Station for Oxford. This university town, splendid for strolling, can be a nightmare for drivers. For about $20, an Oxford taxi will take you to the Old Swan in Minster Lovell.
Of all the starred inns in these charming villages, the Old Swan at Minster Lovell may be unsurpassed. For 600 years, this small hostelry has catered to wayfarers from King Richard III to jet setters from New York, Bonn, or Paris.
Ivy-covered golden Cotswold stone and half-timbering give no hint of the individually furnished bedrooms inside with private baths, phones, and color TV.
The beamed candlelit restaurant is popular with diners from Oxford and London. But during the day you'll have the inn and its tiny hamlet more or less to yourself.
Public footpaths lead across meadows down to the little Windrush River banked with willow trees. The path along the meandering stream goes past the cricket field to the ruins of St. Kenelm's 15th-century cruciform church, vicarage, and great hall. Then it goes on through the Kissing Gate, past the old Tythe Barn to the round stone dove cote, an important feature of Cotswold villages in early times.
Graham Lafferty taxied us to Stow, about 20 miles for $23. A third-generation Cotswoldian, he urged us not to miss the Falconry Centre at the Royal Forest of Dean where we could watch free-flying demonstrations of trained eagles, buzzards, and falcons.
He pointed out the harvest of willow rods for the Cotswolds' renowned basket-weavers. First planted in King Arthur's marshy West Country, the English willow is intricately fashioned into baskets that hold fish, fruit, vegetables, and water.
At Stow's Unicorn Crest Hotel, Kevin O'Toole served us a pub lunch before a blazing log fire, and told us that Stow is one of England's most important centers for antique furniture, brasses, china, prints, and paintings. Twenty-four shops make it a mecca for collectors.
Besides antiques, Stow-on-the-Wold is a fine walking center. We walked four miles over hills and wooden footbridges to have lunch in the village of Burton-on-the-Water. On another misty day we took hilltop footpaths with panoramic views to Upper Slaughter.
Walking sharpens appetites for the Unicorn's excellent four-course table d'h^ote, more a gourmet treat than other restaurants in town, including the lovely old manor house Stow Lodge Hotel.
Stow-on-the-Wold discourages tour buses but smiles on horseback riders crossing the old cobbled square to get to the public bridlepaths. Mead House, Burton-on-the-Water, charges $9 per hour per hack. Fox hunting on Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, with never less than 100 pink coats, is a sight worth the trip to England. Tewkesbury
Tewkesbury is not a storybook village, but a throbbing market town where buses, trucks, and cars pound down Church Street, shaking the foundations of ancient half-timbered houses. Located at the confluence of the Avon and Severn rivers, Tewkesbury dominates the lush farmlands that roll away to the hills of Wales.
In the Royal Hop Pole Hotel, made famous by Mr. Pickwick, we had requested a historic room. But this was a tad too historic. Though charmed by the waviest floors to be found on dry land, the leaded casement windows and the old fireplace in this 15th-century stage coach section of the hotel, we found the ceilings too low.
Downstairs in one of the new chintzy bedrooms opening onto the garden terrace, we could walk out of our room and follow a gravel path to the river.
If you are traveling with children, spend some time in the Tewkesbury Museum. The room-sized model of the Battle of Tewkesbury in 1471 makes Shakespeare's histories come alive in three dimensions. There is a gallery of model medieval houses and an exhibit of working models of Ferris wheels, merry-go-rounds with organs, and caravans with over 400 hand-carved human figures.
Trains back to London leave every few hours from nearby Cheltenham. If you plan to range around England, Scotland, and Wales, buy a BritRail pass from your travel agent before leaving the United States.
The Old Swan rates are $83 (suite with four-poster), $74 (double or twin), and $48 (single), with full English breakfast and morning newspaper. Call (0993)75614.
At Stow's Unicorn Crest Hotel, older rooms on the street are noisy, but you can ask for a room on the courtyard. Cost is $120 for two with dinner and breakfast. B&B is $74 (double) and $62 (single). Call (0451)30257.
Tewkesbury's Royal Hop Pole Hotel costs $84 (double) for B&B. Call (0684)293236.