The Cotswolds is one of the most unspoilt, quintessentially English of landscapes.
Its honey-coloured stone villages, market towns and grand manor houses are sprinkled sparsely across a rural landscape of rolling hills (wolds) and small river valleys.
Officially, it’s an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty but is a vaguely defined landscape covering about 2040sqkm, spilling across five counties (Wiltshire, Gloucestershire, Oxfordshire, Warwickshire and Worcestershire) in western England.
Travelling south from Shakespeare’s Stratford-upon-Avon in the north to Roman Bath in the south travellers pass through the heart of the Cotswolds.
During the Middle Ages the wool trade made many landowners rich and this is the source of the wealth that built market towns and innumerable grand manor houses. Most people, of course, were very poor in this rural backwater, which is evocatively described in Laurie Lee’s Cider With Rosie. His lyrical portrait of a Cotswold boyhood, captures the essence of life in a traditional rural village just after World War I, and before cars made travel easy.
Nowadays, innumerable celebrities including Prince Charles (Highgrove Estate) and Princess Ann (Gatcombe Park) have second homes in the Cotswolds and it has become the most expensive rural landscape in the country. Part of this attraction is that it is just a 90-minute drive from London.
Its historic market towns, sleepy limestone villages, beautiful river valleys, water meadows and beech woodlands draw vast crowds in the summer and popular places can become choked with tour buses. Chipping Campden, Broadway, Lower Slaughter and Bourton- on-the-Water probably draw the biggest crowds — because they are so stunning — but to really enjoy their ambience, the best time to visit is off-season in spring or autumn.
There are plenty of B&Bs and pubs with rooms but to really taste the essence and feel the history of the Cotswolds book a cottage or stay in one of the dozens of grand country houses that have morphed into up-market hotels. I booked a cottage for a week in the picture perfect village of Snowshill, near Broadway, off the tourist trail and with a fabulous village pub, the Snowshill Arms. You might not have heard of Snowshill but you’ve probably seen it as the snowy opening scene in the film, Bridget Jones’s Diary.
A short walk from the village is Cotswold Lavender farm, with its fields of fragrant lavender, but it’s necessary to visit in June/July to see it in all its glory. Harvesting and distilling the 250,000 plants had sadly finished when I visited.
If your wallet runs to it, Buckland Manor hotel, also near Broadway, would be a treat worth paying for. One night might cost the same as a week in my cottage in October but, with only 15 rooms, staying here is like visiting with some very rich friends. Non-residents are welcome for morning coffee, lunch or dinner, a great way to feel aristocratic on a budget.
This is glorious hiking country or a place for a short stroll. The Cotswold Way is arguably England’s most picturesque national walking trail, meandering 103 miles (166km) from Bath to Chipping Campden. Hardcore hikers might do this in a week but it’s a hilly landscape so most people would take two weeks to leisurely enjoy the experience.
There are plenty of shorter circular walks that take in part of the trail. A brisk four-mile walk is from Broadway to Broadway Tower, one of England’s outstanding viewpoints.
The tower was conceived by Capability Brown as a Saxon folly but grew in significance after Pre-Raphaelite painters and arts and crafts designer William Morris began using it as an inspirational country retreat. From the top of the tower it’s possible to see Wales and much of the Cotswold Hills. Just beyond the deer park is a cafe, a good place for refreshment, before continuing back along the Cotswold Way to Broadway.
There are so many wonderful pubs throughout the area, including the Porch House in Stow-on-the-Wold, which claims to be England's oldest inn founded in AD987. The Cotswolds is also home to a number of local breweries, the most famous being the Donnington Brewery and Hook Norton, which still make weekly deliveries of ale by horse and dray.
Not many pubs have remained simple boozers, most have become gastropubs serving restaurant-style meals. Local produce is in the forefront including Gloucester Old Spot pork and sausages, lamb, double Gloucester cheese and fabulous steak and kidney pies. For seekers of a classic English tearoom it’s hard to beat Tisanes Tea Room in Broadway.
History goes back a long way in the Cotswolds. Sudley Castle has a 1000-year history and was home to Katherine Parr the last and surviving wife of King Henry VIII. She is buried in the castle grounds. It was a royalist refuge in the English Civil War and a rarity for a medieval castle is that the current owners are still in residence.
Bath obviously has the best Roman remains but the little known amphitheatre at Cirencester is one of the largest known examples surviving from the Roman occupation, built early in the 2nd century AD.
Older still is the Rollright Stone circle, near the village of Long Compton with a 5000- year-old history. Its greatest charm is the absence of commercialism and I was the only visitor.
Pretty villages abound in the Cotswolds, and while each has its own flavour, most share a similar aesthetic of the gorgeous Cotswold stone they are shaped from. Lower Slaughter is said to have England's prettiest street.
Chipping Campden has to be the most attractive market town in England. The buildings along the High Street have spurned all modern developments and it is little changed in 300 years.
Check out the Eight Bells pub in Church Street, a 17th century inn with terraced garden, a gastro menu and local ale.
Some people might find the Cotswolds a bit kitsch, a bit too clean and pretty but getting off the tourist trail, staying in a cottage, walking in the hills, finding an isolated country pub, makes for a special experience.
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