The Wonderful Cotswolds
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There are an infinite number beautiful places around the
world but few countries can claim more beauty per square acre than Great Britain. The Cotswolds is hard to
beat for its pristine, bucolic landscape and is home to some of the most unspoilt,
historic towns and villages in England. The ubiquitous honey-coloured Cotswold
stone buildings provide a quintessential English charm found no-where else in
the world. Unspoiled villages, market
towns and grand manor houses are sprinkled sparsely across this rural landscape
of rolling hills (wolds) and small river valleys.
Britain's largest Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty but is a rather vaguely
defined landscape covering nearly 800 square miles, spilling across five
counties (Wiltshire, Gloucestershire, Oxfordshire, Warwickshire and
Worcestershire) in western England. Travelling south-west from Shakespeare's
Stratford-upon-Avon in the north to Roman Bath in the south travellers pass
through the heart of the Cotswolds.
In the Middle Ages the
wool trade made many land owners very rich and this was the source of the
wealth that built market towns and innumerable grand manor houses. 'Cots' means
a stone enclosure for keeping sheep. The majority of working people, of course,
were very poor in this rural backwater, which is evocatively described in
Laurie Lee's 'Cider with Rosy'. This lyrical portrait of his Cotswold boyhood,
captures the essence life in a traditional rural village just after the First
World War, a time that rapidly disappeared with the coming of roads and cars.
celebrities from Prince Charles (Highgrove Estate) and Princess Ann (Gatcombe
Park) to Jilly Cooper and Jeremy Clarkson have second homes in the Cotswolds
and it has become the most expensive rural landscape in the country. Part of
the 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 and Autumn or one of our increasingly mild winter periods.
There are plenty of
B&Bs and pubs with rooms to stay in but to 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 upmarket 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 Bridget Jones's Diary.
A short walk from our
village is the Cotswold Lavender farm, 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 we visited.
If your wallet runs to
it, Buckland Manor hotel,
also near Broadway is a treat worth paying for. One night costs almost the same
as a week in my cottage in October, but with only 15 rooms staying here is like
visiting with some seriously rich friends. Non-residents are welcome for
morning coffee, lunch or dinner, a great way to feel a bit of an celebrity on a
This is glorious
hiking country or a place for short strolls. The Cotswold Way is arguably
England's most picturesque national walking trail, meandering 103 miles from
Bath to Chipping Campden. Hardcore hikers might walk it in a week but it's a
hilly landscape so most people would take two weeks to leisurely enjoy the
experience. But fortunately for the less hardy or those of a certain age there
are plenty of shorter circular walks that take in part of the trail. A brisk four
mile round trip walk is from Broadway to Broadway Tower, one of England’s
The Tower was
conceived by Capability Brown as a Saxon folly but grew in significance after
various Pre-Raphaelite painters and Arts & Crafts designer William Morris
began using it as an inspirational country retreat. From the top of the tower
(1,024 above sea level) its possible to see across to Wales and much of the
Cotswold Hills. Just beyond the deer park is a cafe, a good place for
refreshment, before continuing along the Cotswold Way back into 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 987AD.
The Cotswolds is also home to a number of local Breweries, the most famous
being the Donnington Brewery and Hook Norton who still make weekly deliveries
of ale by horse and dray.
There are few pubs
that 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, Cotswold lamb, double Gloucester cheese and
fabulous steak and kidney pies. For seekers of a classic English tea room it's
hard to beat Tisanes Tea Room in Broadway. Home made cakes and snacks in a
beautiful 17th century shop or their attractive garden.
There's plenty of
ancient history around. Sudley castle has a 1,000 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 also became a Royalist refuge during the English Civil
War and a rarity for a medieval castle is that the current owners are still in
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. Estimated to
have had a capacity of about 8,000 people, it was built early in the 2nd Century
AD although today the huge turf mounds covering the site require some
imagination on the part of visitors.
Older still is the
Rollright Stone circle, near the village of Long Compton with a 5,000 years old
history. Although nowhere near as impressive as Stonehenge or those on the
Scottish islands its greatest charm is the lack of commercialism, no tickets,
shop or cafe, and I was the only visitor.
Pretty villages abound
in the Cotswolds, and while each has its own flavour, most of them share a
similar aesthetic of the gorgeous Cotswold stone they are shaped from. Lower
Slaughter is said to have England's prettiest street. Bourton-on-the-Water is
charming but more commercialised, during the August Bank Holiday, the river
Windrush that flows through its heart is lined with shops, pubs and cafes. It
is also the venue of a unique river football match between local teams that has
been a regular fixture since the 1920s.
Chipping Campden has to be the most attractive market town in England. The buildings along the High street have spurned all modern developments and, cars aside, it is little changed in 300 years.
To avoid the tourist
crowds, who rarely leave the High street, check out the Eight Bells pub in
Church Street, a seventeenth century inn with terraced garden along with a
gastro menu and local ale.
Some people might find
the Cotswolds a bit kitsch, a bit too clean and pretty. It's certainly not wild
or rugged but getting off the main tourist trail, staying in a cottage, walking
in the hills, finding an isolated country pub, still makes for a truly special
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