A rural paradise not far from Birmingham: Ruth Picardie took a weekend break in a super little village called Ambridge

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The Independent Travel
AMBRIDGE, which nestles in a gentle loop of the river Am, is one of England's loveliest villages. At its heart is a pond and a green, surrounded by Tudor cottages, mellow brick houses and pretty country gardens. There is a church, St Stephen's, a harmonious blend of Late Norman, Early English and Perpendicular styles, with a modern stained-glass window. And there is a 17th-century pub, The Bull, a traditional Borsetshire inn where visitors can enjoy a game of dominoes and a pint of the local ale, Shires.

The atmosphere - sleepy but not slumbering, picturesque but not twee - appears not to have changed for decades. The air hums with distant tractors; an apple-cheeked boy invites the visitor to see his pet badger; his father, Eddie, the village mechanic, offers to repair our misbehaving car.

Truly a little paradise - and so near Birmingham.

We began our weekend at Grey Gables, a Victorian Gothic mansion set in 15 acres of lawns and gardens with its own golf course, swimming pool and health club, a few minutes from the centre of the village. Its nouveau riche style is hardly in keeping with the rustic charm of Ambridge but, sadly, The Bull does not offer accommodation.

Arriving on Friday afternoon, we had tea with a fascinating local historian, Lynn Snull, whose family has evidently lived in the area for generations.

How sad that the village school closed down in 1973, followed by the garage, in 1985. But what good news that Ambridge came second in the Best Kept Village awards of 1975 and was recently twinned with Meyruelle in France.

As dusk fell, we watched a fine herd of cows wander back to nearby Brookfield farm: none of those nasty bovine diseases to worry about here] That night, we tucked confidently into boeuf a la mode. Delicious - when it finally arrived. The manageress, a delightful woman called Caroline, valiantly kept the bread rolls coming and turned the music up to mask the smashing of crockery in the kitchen. That's fashionable French chefs for you. The pudding ('Clarrie's') was delicious. Good food and fresh air meant an early night, unfortunately disturbed at 3am by rowdy males singing 'Death to the Cat and Fiddle' - an out-of-town stag party, no doubt.

On Saturday morning, we walked along the road (no dangerous speeding cars here]) into the village. Ducks scooted on the pond; the church bells pealed; a young couple (well, he was young) kissed on the green while their daughter Kylie could roam unchecked. All was calm, apart from a half-naked man chained to a phone booth - the Brummie stag party, again.

We walked south, crossed the river and left the village behind. Soon we came to Bridge Farm, and bought wonderful, home-made organic ice-cream. We then began the long loop back to Ambridge, via the Home Farm riding stables.

Super horses; sadly grumpy proprietor.

Still, how lovely it was to see a New Age traveller living undisturbed in a field. Who said country people were intolerant? In the afternoon, we drove to Borchester, a market town six miles north of Ambridge. In the Old Market Square is a wonderful antique shop where we bought a marvellous Victorian jug for only pounds 150. Very rare, we were assured by the owner, a charming ex-sea captain. Afterwards we shared a bottle of champagne in his nearby wine bar.

On Sunday, we slept late and had lunch at The Bull, the heart of the community. The vicar, tending to his flock, appeared to be gently offering advice to the Grey Gables manageress. Who needs high-falutin therapy where care is in the community? We drove home via the cathedral city of Felpersham where, sadly, the car broke down: Eddie the mechanic had done his best, he said. Next time we'll come by tractor]

Further information on Ambridge can be found in 'The Book of the Archers' (Michael Joseph, pounds 15.99) on sale from 27 October.