By Jim Ferri
The Cotswolds region is picture-perfect England.
North of Bath and west of Oxford in southwest England, it’s one of Britain’s prettiest areas, a place where fluffy sheep speckle hillsides crisscrossed with old dry-stone walls, and large leafy trees provide a canopy for winding roads that often give the word “serpentine” new meaning.
It’s a bucolic region, roughly 800-square-miles in size, spread across the counties of Gloucestershire and Worcestershire. Renowned for its honey-colored limestone market towns, which still look much as they did when built in the Middle Ages, it’s designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty by the British government.
Old English Towns, Old English Names
To non-British travelers, many towns in the Cotswolds have odd-sounding names – Stow-on-the-Wold, Chipping Campden, Upper Slaughter and Bourton-on-the-Water, for example – because they are derived from Old English. “Cotswold,” for example, is a combination of the word “cots,” indicating sheep enclosures, and “wolds,” meaning gentle hills. “Chipping,” is an Old English word for market.
The area is a favorite for busloads of tourists who continually roll through the area, although it is a perfectly delightful place to visit by car. It’s easy to navigate since many of the most popular villages that provide a good cross-section of the region are quite near one another.
Starting a Cotswold Tour
I started my Cotswolds tour from Bath and drove up to Northleach, an unassuming little Cotswold village. The town center is clustered about a semicircle of limestone buildings housing cafés, shops, and the village post office.
After looking into the little post office, I took the path next to it up to the church of St. Peter and St. Paul. The path cut across a graveyard where centuries-old tombstones jutted up from the neatly clipped bright green grass. The church itself is one of the historic “wool churches,” so-called since it was financed by the wealthy wool merchants who built these Cotswold towns in medieval times.
When I returned to the village center, I walked about 50 yards up the street to the Mechanical Music Museum. It’s a tiny museum (with a hefty £8 admittance fee) that’s a wonderful place to listen to an old player piano and other musical instruments.
Another interesting place near Northleach is the Chedworth Roman Villa. About a 20-minute drive outside of town it’s a site that contains the remains of a substantial Roman villa (circa 2nd-4th century A.D.) discovered in 1864. Archeologists are still working on the site.
Bourton-on-the-Water, the Quintessential Costwold Village
If you head northward on Route A429, you’ll come to Bourton-on-the-Water, one of the most popular tourist stops, and a beautiful village in the English countryside. Although the Cotswolds can get crowded during the height of the summer season, Bourton-on-the-Water is spread out enough that it doesn’t feel overcrowded at all.
It’s the quintessential Cotswold village, a beautiful little town of limestone block buildings with moss-covered slate roofs and flowers in bloom everywhere. The village green, sometimes dappled with people picnicking on the grass, sits along the shallow River Windrush that is lined with little stores and cottages, restaurants and cafés.
One evening I had dinner at the Rose Tree, a little restaurant along the river. The dinner was delicious, and the staff was accommodating, even finding me an inside table on a cool July evening when they were fully booked.
I stayed at the Mousetrap Inn, an 18th-century family run inn that was comfortable, although in need of an update. Its restaurant/pub, however, receives high ratings for its upscale menu.
Stow-on-the-Wold is just a ten-minute drive further up A429. Situated on a hilltop, it sits at the junction of seven old roads, including the ancient Fosse Way, a major Roman road that traversed Britain. That’s likely the reason centuries ago it was one of the region’s preeminent market towns.
Stow doesn’t hug a village green as does Bourton-on-the-Water but rather is centered about a large parking area, probably a vestige from its market-town days. But it does have a small village green tucked away in the corner of the parking area that contains the village’s old stocks, which even though fairly worn away with age still offer plenty of fodder for tourist cameras.
In Stow, there are plenty shops (the town is renowned for its antique shops) that add to its charm especially when you wander away from the center.
Moreton-in-Marsh, a town best known for its Tuesday market, was also founded on the old Roman road. As such, it’s been a traveler’s town for more than 1700 years.
When I arrived, I thought it looked rather uninviting at first, but after I had started wandering around I found it quite interesting and enjoyed many of the shops throughout the village.
One was the Cotswold Cheese Company, a small upscale cheese shop on High Street, the main thoroughfare. The two women inside offered not only a good selection of local cheeses, but also a large variety of olives, pasta, bread, and other comestibles. Had my timing been better, it would have been a good place to put together a picnic snack.
Outside of town, there’s the Batsford Arboretum, a collection of exotic trees and shrubs, and the highly rated Cotswold Falconry Centre.
The drive through the countryside across the hills and valleys outside of Moreton was quite nice thanks to the lack of oncoming traffic on the one-lane road. The only traffic I did encounter was a young woman riding a beautiful gray mare, the two of them fitting so well into the pastoral tableaux around me.
Chipping Camden and the Cotswold Way
Chipping Campden is at the northern end of the Cotswold Way, a 100-mile walking trail that winds its way down through the Cotswolds all the way to Bath in the south. It’s a beautiful village, known as an arts and crafts center ever since the movement took root there at the beginning of the 20th century. It continues today with the Court Barn Museum, which highlights crafts and design in the north Cotswolds.
You’ll find a lot of history in Chipping Campden, ranging from the old Market Hall built in 1627, to the 16th-century St. James’s Church, considered another of the Cotswolds finest “wool churches.” I was amazed at how old many of the town’s buildings seemed to be, with their roofs sagging under the weight of the old, heavy slate.
It’s a picture-perfect little British town, where everything is prim and proper with flowers cascading just perfectly off the limestone buildings and houses, and every bush and lawn impeccably manicured.
Broadway in the Northern Cotswolds
At the northern end of the Cotswolds in Worcestershire, Broadway is another well-preserved and beautiful Cotswold town. Notables who have stayed in the town and are said to have drawn inspiration from it include Oscar Wilde, Henry James, John Singer-Sargent, Claude Monet, and Edwin Abbey.
It has a wonderful “broad way” (aka High Street, one of the longest in England) that’s lined with chestnut trees and honey-colored limestone houses, shops, tearooms, and restaurants. The architecture is a mix of Georgian, Tudor, and Stuart buildings.
Broadway is a pleasing place to wander about for a few hours, if not much longer. On a hill overlooking the village is the 65-foot Broadway Tower, you can visit a castle-like folly built at the end of the 18th century that stands in a large country estate that is also home to an animal park.
It’s also wonderful, as it is in all of these Cotswold towns, to go further field and discover other little, lesser-know town and villages all over the region.
If you go:
The Cotswolds are only about a two-hour drive from London, half that from Oxford. Although you can take a bus tour of the Cotswolds, it’s best seen by car since a car gives you the ability to poke into the region’s many nooks and crannies.
You’ll find plenty of rentals at London’s Heathrow as well as in Oxford, Bath, and other nearby cities. Just be sure the car has GPS, or bring your own, since the area’s roads and little lanes are not always well sign-posted.