A Natural Beauty
The Cotswolds is an ‘AONB’ – one of England and Wales’s designated “Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty”, so that tells you a lot. Cotswolds really is rural England at its finest, well known for its rolling hills, unspoilt scenery and superb examples of medieval towns and quintessential English villages. We discovered that the area flourished in the medieval period, becoming hugely wealthy for trading high quality wool. Affluent traders used the distinct honey coloured Cotswold Stone (which is Jurassic Limestone) to build marvellous homes and ‘wool churches’ which can still be seen and enjoyed today.
We went for a long weekend of peace and tranquility. We’ve been before in winter, but not in the summer. Garth being a keen gardener especially wanted to see what those traditional English country gardens looked in full bloom and just how packed with flowers those hanging baskets really are! Armed with Garth’s self made itinerary and Phil’s Tom Tom we set off to explore!
We based ourself in Stow-on-the-Wold for a couple of nights, handy for the collection of villages and towns nearby. Stow-on-the-Wold is the highest town in the Cotswolds where seven major roads converge on the small town. It used to be the focus of the wool industry where massive annual trading fairs would take place, selling up to 20,000 sheep. Today it’s still a market town, and plays host to two annual Gypsy horse fairs. We were expecting it to be packed with tourists, but pleasantly surprised how quiet it was. We discovered plenty of ancient architecture – town houses containing arts and crafts shops, antique shops and cosy tea rooms.
We had a look at the ancient cross in the market square at one end of the town, which dates back to the Middle Ages. It was there to remind wool traders to trade fairly under the sight of God. At the other end are the town’s penal stocks, again medieval (what isn’t around here?!) this was where villagers would throw eggs, spit and humiliate criminals. It’s a good job we didn’t sit in….we could have been there some time!
This alleyway is called a ‘ture’ – narrow streets between Stow’s buildings that connect to the market square, it’s where sheep were once hearded ready to be sold.
We went to a lovely old pub – The Porch House which dates back to 947AD. They claim to be England’s oldest inn, although so do several others in Britain! Including Ye Olde Fighting Cocks in St. Albans who fight over this title, so who knows?! Either way The Porch house been serving patrons for centuries, so we joined that long list. For Dinner we chose Cotswold Lamb and Dover Plaice followed by sticky toffee pudding! really tasty. We loved The Porch House’s cosy atmosphere, wooden beams and low ceilings and open fires.
We paid for 2 nights at The Stag Lodge. A reasonably priced boutique style hotel, with an extremely tasteful Stag themed decor. We thought it must have been done by an interior designer because of all the lovely details from the wall prints to the typography on the keyring tags, to useful details like USB charging points above the bedside tables, perfect for us techies. Our room had large bed with Jack ‘n’ Jill sinks or should that be Jack ‘n’ Jack sinks! a separate shower and loo. The location was extremely handy for local restaurants we walked to in the evenings. We give it 8 out of 10 P&G points!
Our first sightseeing stop was the honey coloured cottages of Arlington Row in Bibury. Built in 1380 as a wool store and converted into weavers cottages in the 17th century. They looked like little hobbit houses, and were absolutely charming. At the end of the row around the corner was a bright yellow car, which belongs to a resident, it has become famous and even made it to the national papers for being a blot on the landscape!
If you hold a newer UK passport, check out the inside cover which has an illustration of the Arlington Row cottages, albeit in a weird blue colour.
We loved the tranquility of Bibury with just the noise of the ducks and the odd swan passing by on in the shallow River Coln. The rest of the village had chocolate-box houses and was so quintessentially English. Bibury was a real highlight of our weekend.
Bibury must be loved by photographers, as there’s just so many directions to point your camera, like walls clad with ivy or rambling roses. It was described by the 19th century artist William Morris as ‘the most beautiful village in England’, we certainly agreed with that statement.
Cotswold Lavender is a farm near Snowshill it was an incredible sight with wonderful smells! The farm had beautiful fields planted with different types of Lavender, and they made for great photos. They harvest the flowers and make their own products, like tea, soap and even chocolate. We read about how they do it in their distillery or you can see it if you get there during the harvesting season. Now for the important bit if you want a good pic – get there early! We got there just before they opened at 10am because we’d read this place gets really busy. It’s true we had the place virtually to ourselves then by 10:30am the fields were full of coach loads of tourists, so it has obviously become a major tourist attraction in the area in season.
Before leaving we visited the cafe and tried their lavender infused scones. Phil thought they were delicious, Garth was less keen – quelle surprise!
Tucked away in the Cotswold Hills is the charming sleepy village of Snowshill. This was our favourite village for being totally quiet and authentic. The village had a lovely green, pub and a church. What makes this village perfect for visiting is that the roads to it are unsuitable for coaches which means no tourists – Hurrah!
The village was covered in fake snow when filming took place here for the Christmas scenes of Bridget Jones’s Diary. Before we left the village we stopped for lunch at at their traditional English pub – Snowshill Arms. We had classic pub grub of scampi and chips, and ham, egg and chips. It was basic but nice!
Broadway Tower & Nuclear bunker
Back on the narrow country lanes, we got slightly lost but came across place on the landscape called Broadway Tower, so we stopped and took a look. The cashier asked us if we’d like a guided tour the secret nuclear bunker, much to Phil’s delight and with him being an engineer, he said yes! It was £8 each for both of us, but we figured it was worth it.
The bunker was used to measure and report nuclear attacks right up until 1991 with the threat during the ‘Cold War’ three men would have been based down here and reporting on the attacks that were happening above. The nuclear bunker tour is only open on weekends and bank holidays, check with them first if you really want to visit. It was such a learning experience from the knowledgeable guides.
Roll up Roll up!
Following the sat-nav once again, we drove through a lovely little place called Barrington, where there were signs for the circus, so we had to investigate!
Gifford Circus is an old English traditional family circus, that looked just magical, we kept seeing a glimpse of show folk in costume as they moved in and out of caravans, it looked just like a children’s book! Phil checked with their Box Office if we could buy tickets, but sadly sold out for the whole weekend which made us want to see it more. So book early!
Probably the most popular town in the Cotswolds, Bourton-on-the-Water, was full of tourists on day trips from London, and lots of British family holidaymakers when we visited. Despite it not been the sleepy villages we’d been used to, it still had charm. Five ornamental low bridges line the River Windrush and are the town’s landmark. Postcards sold here describe the town as “Venice of The Cotswolds”
We took a nice leisurely walk along the banks watching people feed the ducks and families enjoying the shallow water. It was an incredibly hot day, quite rare for England! and a bit too crowded for us, so we didn’t stay long. But we thought it’s a perfect destination for families as there are lots of other attractions including a maze, motoring museum, exotic birds, a model village and a perfume factory.
Just a few minutes from Bourton-on-the-water were the villages of Upper and Lower Slaughter. They were more up our street, wonderfully pretty and idyllic. The name ‘slaughters’ descends from the Old English, meaning ‘‘muddy place’ i.e. wet land, and are not connected with some non veggie friendly past as their names suggest! We took a gentle stroll following the shallow River Eye along Copse Hill Road in Lower Slaughter, which was voted “Britain’s Most Romantic Street” by Google in 2011. It’s true! the village did have a romantic ambience with the odd couple here and there having a picnic.
We have a cottage style garden at home and Lower Slaughter provided plenty of inspiration for us to take home. Some of the best examples of English country gardens are here. Tall Hollyhock flowers seem to be the over-riding theme in the Cotswolds. Phil had serious hanging basket envy as they were all overflowing with flowers, unlike ours.
Before leaving Lower Slaughter we stopped for ice cream at the The Old Mill, a former corn mill which is now a tea shop. To cool down we ordered two amazing caramel shortbread flavour ice creams. We carried on following the river to Upper Slaughter which links the two villages and discovered Morris dancers – how English (and a bit camp too!) very entertaining, it’s great these old traditions are kept alive by a few locals. We loved that both villages were free from hoards of tourists and shops, instead just really peaceful and authentic.
This was another important market town, where wool traders came from around the world to buy Cotswolds fleeces. “Chipping” in Old English means Market. The town had a really long and wide high street with ancient buildings lining it on each side, we liked it but definitely preferred the smaller villages.
We had a look at the market Hall built in the 17th century, 1627 to be exact, and amazingly still used by traders today. Everything was so intact and we imagined how the town must have been full of horse and carts and sheep back in the day instead of cars. We found lots of bookshops and antique shops, as well as some cute homeware shops.
We also had a nice walk around and found the town’s Almshouses and in the surrounding area, Garth photographed some exquisite thatched cottages.
On our way South from Stow on the A429 to visit Castle Combe we saw what looked like a Boeing 747 on the hill, as we got nearer we realised there was another, and another, and another – it was an airplane graveyard. This place is a private airport, and used to be an RAF base – Kemble. Garth’s favourite plane is the 747 (he won’t admit to being a plane nerd but he is) so we had to stop and have a look through the fence! There were dozens of these majestic looking 747s and other aircraft types, they must have been waiting to be decommissioned. An interesting sight in the middle of the English countryside, so don’t miss out if this floats your boat… or plane!
South of the Cotswolds lies the village of Castle Combe nestled in a small valley. We parked in the car park at the top of the hill, the village is about about 10 minutes walk away. Walking down the hill, (don’t forget you’ve then got to walk up hill on the at back – or one of you could walk up the steep hill to collect the car and pick the other up on the way back! But you wouldn’t do that would you Garth?!) The air was filled with the aroma of wild garlic from the woodland. The village was beautiful, absolutely charming with characterful homes. It appeared stuck in a timewarp as you sensed nothing much had changed since the 1400s, Garth felt it was like stepping back into a history book, while Phil felt like he was in Disneyland’s Ye Oldey Worldly Eng-land!
There were lots more examples of that honey coloured Cotswold stone, we were told the colour of the stone deepens with age. The village was tiny, compared to the others we visited, so it didn’t take long to explore the homes, market square complete with old water pump and the church which is said to have one of the oldest working clocks in England. After a while we realised there were no Sky TV dishes or ariels and also no street lighting which is probably why we felt transported back in time.
If there’s one stereotypical Cotswold scene you’ll have seen on TV and in film then it’s most likely to be Castle Combe. Film director Stephen Spielberg used the village as a location for War Horse, other film and TV credits include Wolfman, Stardust, Dr Dolittle and Poirot. We thought to hire out the village all you have to do is cover up the double yellow lines, and the village is good to go!
Time for our favourite weekend treat – a traditional Sunday roast at The Castle Inn. It was delicious! and even better in the flesh than the images on their website. Alternatively you could have a cream tea at The Old Rectory Tea Room and you can get home made cakes opposite and pay with an honesty box – how quaint!
Our 3 days were up, and it was time to get back on the road and head home. There’s no doubt the Cotswolds offers some of the best rural sightseeing in England. With beautiful unspoilt countryside and enchanting villages hidden away in valleys, what’s not to love?
Phil and Garth’s Top 5 Cotswolds Tips
- Tip #1: Cotswolds is a big area with lots of villages, so make a rough plan on places to visit before you go.
- Tip #2: Small and quieter villages are only a few miles apart. You can leisurely do 4 or 5 places in a day.
- Tip #3: Into hiking? The Cotswolds Way is a 102 mile trail that runs the entire length from North to South.
- Tip #4: Spring and Autumn are the most popular times for visitors, because it’s drier.
- Tip #5: Got more time? Bath, Oxford are really close by and definitely worth seeing.