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The Cotswolds According to Me - An Introduction

Pauline Kenny

The Cotswolds are named for the limestone hills that run northeast from Bath almost to Stratford-Upon-Avon. Historically this area was used for raising sheep and was made wealthy by the wool trade (late 14th to early 16th centuries). The rich wool merchants built the villages and "wool churches" using the local, golden Cotswold stone, which gives the villages a distinctive look. The Cotswolds are a popular holiday destination for international travelers and for people in Britain.

When you go through the Cotswolds today, you see countryside, manor houses and villages as they were hundreds of years ago. Most villages have a central area built in the late 14th to early 16th centuries. Other parts will be from later periods (these buildings are usually larger with bigger windows). And then there is a more modern outskirts, with houses built in the last 100 years. The old buildings have been lovingly preserved and restored, the area has been saved from over-development and farming continues to be the main occupation. There are still lots of sheep, but the cloth mills are gone.

The countryside is rolling hills, river valleys and wooded areas. The area in the western Cotswolds is more hilly, more wooded, while the eastern Cotswolds are more "wide open" feeling in parts.

England, Chipping Campden. 05/00

Chipping Campden, market town on the northern edge of the Cotswolds

All of the Cotswolds towns are worth visiting and it is a delight to travel through the countryside by car, by bike or on foot. The roadways range from the fast A40 that cuts across the middle (from Oxford to Cheltenham), to good highways connecting the main towns, to small lanes that accommodate one car only and have pullouts if cars have to pass. You can move around quickly or take scenic, winding back roads. The area is full of well maintained trails and footpaths and is one of the best areas in England for easy walking/hiking.

In these pages I describe the Cotswolds from my viewpoint with with my opinions on specific towns - the Cotswolds According to Me. In the last seven years Steve and I have spent almost three months trying to see every part of the Cotswolds: one month in Painswick, one month in Winchcombe, one week in Minchinhampton, and two and a half weeks in Windrush. Still, we have not seen every corner of the Cotswolds and want to go back and explore more.

A Short History

"Wold" is old English for "an upland common" but I am not sure what "Cot" means or why this name was given to this area.

The first people came to the Cotswolds in 2500 BC. You can see their remains in the prehistoric sites like Belas Knapp and the Rollright Stones. Iron Age people (550 BC to 50 AD) left earthworks, like the Bulwarks on Minchinhampton Commons and remains of the hill forts in the western Cotswolds.

The Romans came to this area in 43 AD. Several of their roads remain (Fosse Way, Akeman Street) and you can see the remains of a house near Chedworth. Cirencester was their capital. Then came the dark ages.

The Normans came after 1066 and built churches. Some of these remain, some were rebuilt later but kept some of the original Norman features (Windrush - Norman Doorway, Southrop - carved font). The late 14th to early 16th centuries were good times in the Cotswolds, when these towns became rich from the wool trade. This was the English Gothic age, also called "Perpendicular" and most of the churches and many of the houses were built at this time.

"Chipping" is an old English word meaning market (Chipping Campden, Chipping Norton). Many of these towns have Almshouses and Weavers Cottages from the 16th and 17th centuries. Almshouses were charitable houses, usually for the elderly, provided by the community. Weavers Cottages were built when the wool trade was at its peak. The workers lived and worked in these cottages.

In the 16th and 17th centuries, many of the fine houses were built (Snowshill, Chastleton House, Stanway House). During the 18th and 19th centuries, the Industrial Revolution reached this area with the cloth industry in Stroud and the southern Cotswolds. Canals were built but were replaced by the railways in the mid 19th century.

William Morris, the found of the Arts and Crafts movement, and his friends arrived in the Cotswolds in the early 20th century and helped to restore many of the churches. You can visit his house outside of Lechlade, on the River Thames, and he lived for a time in the Broadway Tower.

Now in the late 20th century and early 21st century, the railways are mostly gone from the area, the churches and villages have been restored, and no weaving goes on in the weaver's cottages. Many people live and work in the Cotswolds. It is now a center for agriculture and tourism.

The Cotswolds were mentioned by Shakespeare in his play "Richard II". The passage below is translated, but in the original "Cotswold" is "Cottshold". Read the original on Gutenberg.org.

Believe me, noble lord,
I am a stranger here in Gloucestershire:
These high wild hills and rough uneven ways
Draws out our miles, and makes them wearisome,
And yet your fair discourse hath been as sugar,
Making the hard way sweet and delectable.
But I bethink me what a weary way
From Ravenspurgh to Cotswold will be found
In Ross and Willoughby, wanting your company,
Which, I protest, hath very much beguiled
The tediousness and process of my travel
- Shakespeare (1564 - 1616), Richard II, Act II, Scene III -

Cotswolds Pros and Cons

Why I Love the Cotswolds

I love the Cotswolds. For me this area is similar to Tuscany in Italy and Provence in France. It is a beautiful countryside area, popular with tourists and is a delight to visit - Cotswoldshire!!* I love the abundance of public walking trails, the beautiful villages and countryside, the charming tea rooms and pubs. I love many other regions of England as well, but I keep going back to the Cotswolds.

Lovely Cottages!! There are historic cottages to rent at reasonable prices throughout the Cotswolds, some in the towns and villages, some on farms or estates in the countryside. Most rent Saturday to Saturday or Friday to Friday, but many offer short breaks (less than a week). I love staying in cottages that are hundreds of years old, with stone floors, low beamed ceilings, stone walls, doorways that I have to stoop to get through. I feel like I have gone back in time (and when my cell phone gets no reception, I feel like I am back in the 1970s). Pick a cottage and use it as your base to explore this area.

Great Food!! Everyone says England has bad food. This is folklore from 20 years ago. Things have changed; England has great food! Many places try to use locally grown and organic vegetables, dairy products and meats. Tea rooms make their own scones and cakes. The pubs have good chefs who care about the food. Even the coffee is good, but the tea is the best you will find in the world (IMO). I love going out for lunch at a pub (expensive) or a tea room (less expensive). Another plus for me, they are vegetarian-friendly! You will always find at least one vegetarian dish on menus.

Lovely Towns!! The main market towns have everything you need: bookshops, newsagents with a huge magazine selection, good delis, food shops, bakeries, clothes shops. It is easy to find everything you need to cook meals in your cottage and it is a pleasure to shop for food. It is a delight to spend a few hours walking around a town, visiting the church, doing some shopping, having lunch or tea.

Walking/Hiking!! If you want an outdoors vacation, this is a perfect place. The Cotswolds are covered with walking trails and there are many good books with suggested walks. Several long distance walking trails go through the Cotswolds. If you are out walking, you can plan a midday stop for lunch at a countryside pub or tea room. Very civilized, but you are still spending most of the days outdoors and walking.

Why Some People Hate the Cotswolds

Just as some people dislike the Chianti region of Tuscany or the Luberon in Provence, many dislike the Cotswolds. I understand the reasons, but I don't think they are enough to keep you away from this area.

The Wealth!! This is the weekend and summer playground for the very wealthy from London. Many of the perfect village houses are second (or third) homes. When we spent two and a half weeks in Windrush, a picturesque village near Burford, many of our neighbors were only there on the weekend. Real estate prices are high. Forget about finding some old cottage for next to nothing. It is not as expensive as London, but that small stone 2bed/1bath row house is probably worth about $500,000. This all makes for an upscale area.

The upside: great delis, good restaurants, nice shops. The downside: on weekends the towns are packed with expensive cars and expensive people. But, most of them go back to the city on Monday!

The Villages!! The towns are perfect, sometimes a little too perfect. "Twee". Many of the towns serve tourists and weekend visitors, not residents. In Broadway, for example, you won't find a hardware store or a place to get a key cut. Many people distinguish between "real towns" and the rest. In the last 10 years, many of the towns have changed from real towns to tourist towns. Winchcombe remains a real town, but nearby Broadway only has businesses for travelers.

The Crowds!! On a rainy May Bank Holiday weekend, an upscale paradise like the Daylesford Organic Farm Shops near Stow-on-the-Wold, has a one hour wait for the cafe and a long line for the registers. On a sunny May weekend the tea rooms in Stow are full to overflowing. The parking lot for the hiking trail is full.

It is probably like this for all July and August, but for the rest of the year, it is only the weekends (and especially the three day weekends).

The Non-Wilderness of It All!! The Cotswolds are not wild, they are tame. Gentle rolling hills, easy walking trails.

If you want wilderness, head for the Lakes District in the north, or go to Wales or Scotland. If you want a gentle area, head for the Cotswolds.

Lack of Communication!! No matter where I stay, no matter which cell provider I use (I have tried FOUR of them), I never get cell phone reception. Sometimes driving on a highway along a hilltop, I see those five bars, but who wants to do all your phone calls from the car, especially when you are concentrating on "drive on the left" and looking for town signs. Why is this? I was told that residents here do not let many cell towers (masts) be put up because it changes the landscape.

The Cotswolds is a good place to get away from it all - but if, like me, you don't want to get away from it all, you are going to be frustrated frequently. Most cottages don't even have land lines, let alone broadband (you can go to the libraries to use the Internet, but I always end up sitting beside a heavily perfumed teenager).

"I always feel depressed at the sight of tourist coach after coach after coach making the well-trodden round of the well-known sights, and at the glazed, and often quite uninterested eyes in the faces that peer from the tinted windows; no excitement, no voyage of discovery there, nor any chance of getting lost, or of having even the smallest adventure, only the satisfaction of ticking off names on a printed list.

If that sounds like a superior sneer, it is not meant to: I am only sorry that the visitors have missed so much in trying to accomplish too much in a couple of days."
- - The Spirit of the Cotswolds, Susan Hill, Mermaid, 1988 - -

Where Are the Cotswolds?

In 1966 the Cotswolds was designated by the British government as an "Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty" (AONB), giving it extra protection with building and farming restrictions. Most of the Cotswolds is privately owned, not government owned. The Cotswolds is the second largest AONB; the Lake District is the largest. The Cotswolds are located mostly in the county of Gloucestershire, but with parts in neighboring counties (Oxfordshire, Worcestershire, Warwickshire, South Gloucestershire, Wiltshire). The area covers 790 square miles; over 80% is farmland with 4,000 miles of Cotswold stone walls.

It is hard to pin down the exact boundaries of the Cotswolds. The Cotswolds AONB is clearly defined (see their map), but since the Cotswolds are not an official county, but is area within several counties, and this area has been referred to by this name for hundreds of years, the borders get a bit muddled. The Cotwolds AONB includes the city of Bath and some of the surrounding countryside but some maps of the Cotswolds do not include much south from Tetbury. The area south-east of Cirencester is not included in the AONB but is considered by many to be part of the Cotswolds (this is where the Cotswolds Water Park is located).

Google Map of the Cotswolds

I have used the boundaries from the Jarrold guide "The Complete Cotswolds" because their boundaries agree with what I think of as the Cotswolds. I created an annotated Google Map of the Cotswolds with markers showing the large towns, the market towns and the villages. I noted the boundaries of the Cotswolds (in yellow) on this map. Use this map to get a feel for the layout of the Cotswolds. Click on the markers to read brief descriptions of the towns (more detailed information is on this page).

There is no real center of the Cotswolds, but the market town of Stow-on-the-Wold in the northern Cotswolds feels like a center. It is one of the most popular towns and you can get to most of the Cotswolds going 30 minutes drive in each direction (except for the area south of Stroud which is further away).

Main Roads Through the Cotswolds

The Cotswolds are longer they are wide and start at Tetbury in the south to just past Chipping Campden in the north. They go from Burford in the east (east of Oxford) to Cheltenham in the west. The large town of Cheltenham is not part of the Cotswolds. Several main roads cut through the Cotswolds.

  • The A40 goes from Oxford to Cheltenham and divides the Cotswolds into north and south.
  • The A429 goes from Moreton-in-Marsh in the north to Cirencester, through the center of the Cotswolds. This road is also called the Fosse Way as it follows the route of an ancient Roman road.
  • The A44 goes from Chipping Norton to Evesham along the northern edge of the Cotswolds.
  • The A419 goes from Cirencester to Stroud in the southern Cotswolds.
  • The A417, the biggest highway in the area (dual carriage way - two lanes in each direction), goes from Cirencester, north-west to Cheltenham. I am always shocked when we end up on this road because it seems like such a large, busy highway compared to the other easy-going Cotswolds roads. It only runs for 13 miles and ends at a roundabout south of Cheltenham (which is frequently backed up). Then you have to make your way on other roads into Cheltenham (it is well signed).

The Cotswold Way

The Cotswold Way, a well known long distance hiking trail, goes from Bath to Chipping Campden along the western edge of the Cotswolds in the Cotswolds Hills. You will see this trail marked on many maps of the Cotswolds.

Distances

The Cotswolds is not a large area. You can drive from Tetbury in the south to Chipping Campden in the north in 1 hour (41 miles) and from Burford in the east to Cheltenham in the west in 32 minutes (22 miles).

  • Bath to Stratford-upon-Avon: 89 miles (1hr 47min)
  • Tetbury (south) to Chipping Campden (north): 41 miles (1hr)
  • Oxford (east) to Cheltenham (west): 44 miles (1hr)
  • Burford (east) to Cheltenham (west): 22 miles (32min)
  • Moreton-in-Marsh (north) to Cirencester (south): 23 miles (32 min)
  • Center of London to Burford: 77 miles (1hr 39min)
  • Heathrow Airport to Burford: 63 miles (1hr 16min)

Exploring the Cotswolds

To really see the Cotswolds, you need to base yourself in a town or village for a week and have a car. The area is full of lovely vacation rental cottages, hotels and B&Bs. Don't try to see everything in a week. Even though the area is not large, you don't want to spend your days driving back and forth. Instead, use the Slow Travel Concentric Circle approach and thoroughly explore your town and the surrounding towns and villages. A day trip into the larger towns of Cirencester or Cheltenham is fun. Explore the villages, have lunch in a tea room, go for an easy countryside walk, visit one of the National Trust houses or gardens - you won't run out of fun things to do in this area.

If you don't have a week to spend, or don't want to rent a car, still go to the Cotswolds. You could stay in one of the medium sized market towns for two or three nights. If you have a car, explore some of the things near you. If you don't have a car, you can explore the town and walk out into the countryside.

Trains go from London to Oxford and through the eastern edge of the Cotswolds (to Moreton-in-Marsh). They also go to Stroud and then along the western edge to Cheltenham. Train is not the best way to get around this area; look into the bus system instead.

Memories from an Earlier Trip

In 1988 we spent six months in England (during a one year trip in Europe). For two months we explored different areas by staying in vacation rentals, one week at a time. This was our first trip to the English countryside. I still remember the few places we visited in the Cotswolds on that trip.

  • Buckland, where we stayed at the expensive and beautiful Buckland Manor. On that year long trip to Europe, we splurged twice on nice hotels and this was one of them. An historic manor house in a perfect Cotswolds village. They had Jacob sheep on the grounds and we were fascinated by sheep back then and want to see this breed (they were beautiful with their two sets of horns).
  • Minchinhampton, where we stopped the car at an intersection on the commons and a horse put his head in our car window to see if we had anything to eat. The Minchinhampton Commons are like a mini-Moor; a wild open space covered in wild grasses with no trees.
  • The Cotswolds Woolen Mill where I bought a scarf. I had that scarf for years and it always reminded me of the trip.
  • Blockley, where I saw my first English snow. We rented a dreary cottage in a dreary location for the winter, so we treated ourselves to our first Rural Retreats cottage and spend three nights in Blockley. One night we were in our cottage and heard the bells of the weekly Fish & Chips van, so we ran out into the street to get dinner. Another night we saw our first English snowfall. Then we went back to our dreary cottage in Essex and I resolved to learn more about travel and how to find a good vacation rental.
  • On one of our Cotswolds visits, probably when we went to the Cotswolds Woolen Mill, we stopped in Burford. This town remained imprinted in my mind as the perfect Cotswolds town. We visited the Cotswolds many times since then, but I could never find Burford (all these years later, I did not remember the name of the town). In May 2006 we were in a cottage about ten minutes from Burford and when we drove into the town for the first time on the trip, I had that wonderful deja-vu experience and I realized that we had been there before and that this was the town I had been searching for.

I love some of the travel memories that you get from Slow Travel. Recalling some perfect day in some perfect place, trying to remember where it was, which trip it was. England for me has that dream-like quality. I think it is because my mother is English and I was born right after my parents emigrated to Canada. When I saw the Lakes District in 1988 for the first time, the scenery reminded me of dreams I had as a teenager. Memories from my family talking about England? Probably not, I don't think my mother ever ventured from London. Probably memories from reading books about England and novels set in England as a child.


* Cotswoldshire. Chianti, a popular part of Tuscany in Italy, is called Chiantishire because of the number of Brits with second home there or who moved there. The Cotswolds is also an area where Brits have second homes or move to when escaping the "rat race".

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