PAINSWICK, England — Looking for someone with just the right prescription for a relaxing and instructive holiday?
Barbara Blatchley is such a person. She's a gently vigorous 60-ish, a country doctor's wife who takes about 20 couples a year into her centuries-old home in Painswick, in the heart of the Cotswold Hills. She treats them like friends and family.
If you're healthy and energetic, Barbara will see to it that there's never a dull moment. On the other hand, if you're tired or frail or just not up to a frenetic pace, she will tailor the activities to suit you. She'll provide special diets upon request.
There's even a doctor in the house--Barbara's husband, Roy, a Santa Claus look-alike who dispenses fine wine, great brandy and good conversation with finesse.
Roy quit practicing medicine a year or two ago after a couple of small strokes. His fireside manner is simply engaging.
The Blatchleys now live in the heart of Painswick, having moved a couple of miles from their country house, Edge Farm Cottage, where I visited them last winter. Their new home, Thorne, was built as the town's Market Hall in 1400.
A century and a half later, stonemasons turned the Market Hall into one of the most beautiful houses in the picturesque, hilly little town. Two of the Market Hall pillars dating from 1400 are part of the dining room wall. The building has two twin guest rooms, guest bathrooms and central heating.
Thorne is just a short stroll from Roy's favorite pub, the Royal Oak. He took me there while Barbara, a Blue Badge Guide, was at home working on a slide program with some medieval musicians.
"I don't take just anyone to my pub," he said. We had a splendid evening of warmth and conviviality while the weather outside was frightful.
Roy was in his element, exchanging greetings with practically everybody in the place. Every chair was occupied by diners and imbibers, so we stood at the little bar.
Somebody offered me his stool, and perhaps it was just in time, because we were drinking Roy's favorite potent brandy. "This," he told me, "is a special occasion."
The Royal Oak is an old-style pub, Roy said. It still has its separate bar for the men--technically open now to women, but by custom not really--and its second bar, a series of warm, low-ceilinged nooks and crannies where women have long been welcome and were much in evidence.
That evening, with the pub trip capping off a memorable dinner--watercress soup, tender grilled steaks, rice with mushrooms and a piquantly seasoned salad of tomatoes, onions and artichokes, followed by a light lemon dessert--was the start of a winter weekend that will long be among my warmest memories.
One of the nicest touches occurred when Roy and I returned from the pub. Barbara had already turned on the electric fire in my bedroom. Then she carried in a hot-water bottle wrapped in a towel to warm my toes. Lovely!
A full breakfast is included in the price. Barbara will serve breakfast in the linen-shrouded, crystal-laden, beamed-ceiling elegance of her dining room.
Those with more casual tastes and modest desires will be invited into her cluttered kitchen for tea or coffee and toast, perhaps an egg or two. She provides tea- and coffee-making items, including delicate china cups, in the bedrooms.
She also makes the guests feel at home by leaving a variety of spirits and mixers on the sideboard so they can help themselves to pre-dinner cocktails at no extra cost.
Another example of her sensitivity is that she never mixes strangers. If two couples are traveling together, that's fine, but if there's just one couple or a single person, that's it: the house and hostess are theirs alone for the duration of the stay.
My own weekend with the Blatchleys was a combination of strenuous walking, moderately paced sightseeing and periods of welcome leisure.
Saturday morning, at my request, Barbara dropped me off to visit the venerable church and its cemetery. We trudged back along the streets before heading into the hedgerow-bordered, single-track lane that leads to the Blatchley house.
That afternoon Barbara put on her figurative guide's cap and, along with Roy, took me out for an intensive course in Cotswold sights and history. We stopped in Tetbury, an old milling town, for lunch at The Crown, one of those old pubs that have knocked down interior walls to create one big room that looks plenty atmospheric to an American tourist but leaves Roy muttering.
We climbed the Cotswold scarp to view a 4,000-year-old tumulus in perfect condition, the kind of thing a tourist without a guide would be unlikely ever to see. Wardens were teaching youngsters how to lay a hedgerow, a complicated business.
We visited an Augustinian priory built between 1121 and 1129, with a huge Norman tower and the original mill pond, which still provides carp for the monks.