Green rolling hills, charming villages, gardens in full bloom, old churches, market towns, and medieval houses: this describes some of the best places to visit in the Cotswolds.
The Cotswolds, declared an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, cover an area of almost 800 square miles. It spreads out over five counties: Gloucestershire, Oxfordshire, Warwickshire, Wiltshire, and Worcestershire. But what are the “wolds”? Wold is an Old English word that refers to low, rolling hills and valleys.
Walking in the Cotswolds
Long-distance trails and paths crisscross the Cotswolds, a rambler’s paradise. The Cotswolds Way National Trails is 102 miles long of pure walking beauty. There are, of course, shorter trails. People walk from village to village, like, say, from Bourton-on-the-Water to Lower Slaughter. It’s not a bad idea, since there is very little parking available in the Slaughters!
People have been attracted to the area since time immemorial. There are remains of Neolithic passage graves and Bronze and Iron Age forts. The Romans also settled here. They founded modern-day Cirencester, called Corinium back then. Cirencester was second in importance to London in Roman Britain. The Corinium Museum has one of the largest Roman artefact collections in the nation. Many villages are so old that they are mentioned in the Domesday Book, the survey ordered by King William in 1086.
If you think there are lots of sheep grazing in the fields now, think again. Wool was the main source of income in the Middle Ages, so sheep reigned supreme in the fields. Cotswold merchants did a roaring trade with the Continent. They poured some of their wealth into building what are now known as wool churches. Most towns and villages have one, which are well-worth a visit. They’re like a hands-on local history and architecture lesson.
Nowadays, the Cotswolds attract well-off people who buy weekend cottages to escape from the big cities.
Life in a remote village in the English countryside is vividly described in Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee. The author was born in Slad before the First World War. Interestingly, he learned to speak Spanish with a girl from Buenos Aires and volunteered to fight in the Spanish Civil War with the International Brigades.
J.R.R. Tolkien was a regular visitor to the Cotswolds. It’s said the drew inspiration from the village of Moreton-in-Marsh to create his fantasy worlds.
The illustrations of The Tailor of Gloucester by Beatrix Potter show buildings that are still standing in Gloucester.
Even the beloved Jane Austen found inspiration for her novels. In this case, it was for Mansfield Park. She used to live nearby in Bath.
T.S. Eliot wrote poems inspired by the countryside as well.
Most houses are built with Cotswold stone. The effect is quite stunning: whole streets of pretty honey-coloured buildings. The houses are all from different periods, from Tudor and earlier to Georgian and Victorian. Modern housing can be found in the peripheries. Most are also built with local stone and a traditional design.
I do recommend a visit to the wool churches. The religious aspect aside, they are a treasure trove of historical and artistic objects. Some date from before the Norman Conquest, although precious few artefacts remain. There’s one in almost every village.
What to see in the Cotswolds
Here’s our Cotswold itinerary.
It was love at first sight with Bibury. We arrived in the afternoon and went straight to The Swan Hotel to check in. It’s a beautiful historic building and a handful of centuries old. Our room was big and comfortable, and so was the bathroom. There was a rubber ducky on the side of the bathtub. I wondered why. I later learned that there are rubber duck races every year on Boxing Day in the very shallow river Coln.
Bibury’s main attraction in Arlington Row. This row of stone cottages was originally built in 1380 to store wool. In the 17th century, they were converted into cottages for local weavers and their families. It’s a well-known sight and some of the most photographed houses in the country, so much so that it appears on the pages of the British passport.
St. Mary’s church left me speechless for its historic artefacts. Although it was first built in the 12th century, it has at least one Saxon tombstone. It’s embedded on the side wall next to the Norman entrance.
Bibury is very popular among Japanese tourists because Emperor Hirohito included it in his European tour. Be patient if you want to take photos.
With a population of 1,800, Northleach is the smallest Cotswold village. We didn’t find a whole lot to do except walk around the narrow streets and admire the medieval, Tudor, Victorian, etc, houses. Northleach has a market every Wednesday, and it happened to be Wednesday when we visited. It was a very tiny market!
The Perpendicular Gothic church of St. Peter and St. Paul was mainly built in the 15th century. However, some bits date from the 12th. The bronze gravestones commemorate local wool barons.
Chipping Norton did not make a good impression on me. It’s a relatively big town with loads of traffic and little space. What caught my attention was a row of almshouses built in 1612. Now as it was then, they house six elderly men and six elderly women. The only difference between now and then is that they have a kitchen and an indoor bathroom.
The church of St. Mary the Virgin is beautiful. Unsurprisingly, it’s been added to over the centuries. For example, two arches date from the 13th century and so on. I loved spotting the Green Man in the porch.
We came across Stow-on-the-Wold by chance. It started to rain hard when we were in Chipping Norton and traffic was bad. It was easier to get out of town than to try to find a place to eat and park the car.
Although we didn’t stay very long, I really liked Stow-on-the-Wold. We had a light meal (avocado toast and Welsh rarebit) at Lucy’s Tea house. We then went for a browse at an antique shop that specialises in campaign furniture. Thanks to its location where several roads meet, Stow-on-the-Wold has an important trading history dating back to probably prehistoric times. It was the site of a battle during the English Civil War.
Bourton-on-the-Water is also known as the Venice of the Cotswolds. I think it’s an exaggeration. Five bridges span the Windrush River, which is very shallow. I’ve seen ducks walk along it!
The village is very pretty and gardens everywhere were in full bloom. However, there were way too many people for my taste. It felt very touristy, somewhat Disneyfied, as if it tried to hard to be quintessentially English. It’s on the verge of being a cliche. I was told that it gets downright crazy in the summer months. We didn’t stay very long.
Lower Slaughter is a tiny little village. But what it lacks in size, it compensates in charm. The village of Upper Slaughter is next door, both villages crossed by the River Eye. Upper Slaughter is one of the handful of “thankful” villages, which means that none of the local lads who went to fight in WWI lost their lives.
It takes a few minutes to see Lower Slaughter, but it’s well worth it. We went into the Lower Slaughter Mill & Café, from the 14th century. It started to rain, so we ran inside and then to the car. We could have shopped for leather and wool goods at the mill, but we were anxious to carry on.
Many people walk all the way from Bourton-on-the-Water. You’ll see groups of ramblers out and about. Rambling is such a British sport!
Without the shadow of a doubt. Painswick was one of my favourite places in the Cotswolds. It was beautiful whichever way I looked. The fantastic views down the countryside deserve a special mention.
Painswick isn’t honey-coloured but grey, as a different kind of stone was used here. We stayed at a pretty inn. However, the decor of our room was overwhelming and the carved wood bed was uncomfortable as well as hideous. The whole thing reminded me of that episode of Gilmore Girls in which Lorelai stays at The Cheshire Cat inn. Breakfast was amazing, though.
The oldest bits of St. Mary’s church are from 1377. The tower (1480) still has shell cannonball damage from the Civil War of the 17th century. There are 99 yew trees in the church gardens. Legend has it that the Devil takes the 100th tree. Each yew tree is numbered too. You’ll find the stocks outside the perimeter wall of the church grounds. There is a Grade II listed lychgate from 1902, although it looks older.
Although Gloucester is an important city, I was only interested in the cathedral. I know there are some really nice neighbourhoods, but I have to say that the centre of town has a seedy air about it. I didn’t find it attractive.
The cathedral is a wonderful treasure trove for history buffs. Some of the historic artefacts include King Edward II’s elaborate tomb. You may remember him as the controversial son of Edward Longshanks in the film Braveheart. Another nobleman buried here is Robert of Normandy, the rebellious son of William the Conqueror.
The choir window is wonderful to behold. It was made in 1350 and, believe it or not, three quarters of the glass are original! People went to great lengths to protect the stained glass from potential damage during World War II. The entire window was removed and put in storage in 1939-40 and reassembled in 1945 at the end of the war.
Film buffs will recognise the cloisters from some of the Harry Potter films, Doctor Who and Sherlock episodes, The Hollow Crown and Wolf Hall.
It took us two days and a bit to do all this by car. Trying to do it by public transport can prove to be challenging.