The Cotswolds are a range of rolling hills spread over parts of south-west and south central England. Designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty in 1966, it has unique features derived from the local golden-coloured limestone known as Cotswold stone. The predominantly rural landscape containing stone-built villages, historical towns, and stately homes and gardens, is known worldwide. Many consider the Cotswolds as representative of the archetypal English landscape.
The area is roughly 25 mi (40 km) across and 90 mi (140 km) long, stretching south-west from just below Stratford-upon-Avon to just beyond Bath. It is within easy reach of London and several other English urban centres. The Cotswolds lie across the boundaries of several English counties; mainly Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire, but also parts of Wiltshire, Somerset, Worcestershire and Warwickshire. The highest point of the region is Cleeve Hill at 1,083 ft (330 m), just to the north of Cheltenham.
Cities, towns and villages
- 1 Bath – world-famous Roman and Baroque spa town constructed out of Cotswold stone
- 2 Gloucester – known for its Gothic cathedral where the boy king Henry III was crowned
- 3 Oxford – the vibrant and ancient City of Dreaming Spires
- 4 Burford – a gateway to the Cotswolds from the east, best known for its wildlife park
- 5 Cheltenham – elegant spa town with many events throughout the year including literature and jazz festivals, and the equestrian Gold Cup.
- 6 Chippenham – market town from where several south Cotswold villages can be accessed
- 7 Chipping Campden – a town with several interesting large houses and gardens
- 8 Chipping Norton – a friendly Oxfordshire market town with access to Blenheim Palace and the Rollright Stones.
- 9 Cirencester – Roman heritage and a bustling Saturday market
- 10 Cricklade – 9th-century Saxon town close to the source of the River Thames
- 11 Fairford – known for its wool and nearby RAF airfield and airshow
- 12 Malmesbury – town known for its historic abbey, one of the few English houses with a continual history from the 7th century through to the Dissolution of the Monasteries
- 13 Moreton-in-Marsh – yet another pretty town with access to gardens such as Batsford Arboretum
- 14 Stow-on-the-Wold – cute cottages, a quaint market square and a "magical door": Stow is selfie central for Instagrammers and Weiboers alike.
- 15 Stroud – a smaller town with a rich industrial heritage based around textile mills which were placed to take advantage of both the local Cotswold sheep and the rivers which run through the five valleys and converge in Stroud. Sometimes considered alternative and nicknamed 'Notting Hill in wellies'.
- 16 Tetbury – Charles III's Highgrove House and the fabulous Westonbirt Arboretum
- 17 Winchcombe – home to Sudeley Castle and Hailes Abbey
- 18 Witney – market town near Oxford, known historically for its woollen blankets
- 19 Bourton-on-the-Water – attractive riverside village known for having a model village of itself
- 20 Broadway – country retreat of Victorian designer William Morris; a good base for hiking, including up to Broadway Tower
- 21 Castle Combe – this pretty village has no castle, but it does have a motor racing circuit!
- 22 Chedworth – Chedworth Roman villa is a ruin, but does have some impressive 4th-century mosaics
During the Middle Ages, the Cotswolds became prosperous from the wool trade with the Continent. Much of this wealth was directed towards the building of churches, the area still preserving a large number of large, handsome Cotswold Stone "wool churches". The area remains affluent and has attracted wealthy Londoners and others who own second homes in the area or have chosen to retire to the Cotswolds.
Typical Cotswold towns are Broadway, Burford, Chipping Norton, Cirencester, Moreton-in-Marsh and Stow-on-the-Wold. The Cotswold town of Chipping Campden is notable for being the home of the Arts and Crafts movement, founded by William Morris at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries. William Morris lived, occasionally, in Broadway Tower a folly now in country park.
The Cotswolds run generally south-west to north-east, the northern and western edges marked by steep escarpments down to the valleys of the rivers Severn and Avon and the city of Gloucester, the eastern boundary by the city of Oxford (the university "city of dreaming spires"), the west by Stroud, and the south by the middle reaches of the Thames Valley and towns such as Cirencester, Lechlade and Fairford. Key physical features of the area, including the characteristic uplift of the 'Cotswold Edge' can be clearly seen as far south as Bath.
The Cotswolds are characterised by attractive small towns and villages built of the underlying rock, known as "Cotswold Stone" (actually, a yellow oolitic limestone).
Due to the regional spread of the Cotswolds you will hear many different accents. Predominantly though, as most of the Cotswolds lies in the county of Gloucestershire, you may find locals speak with a heavy Gloucestershire accent. The area has attracted the Royals and various celebrities, which together with the beauty of the area in general, has attracted residents originating from London and the South East, so this too diversifies the accents you may hear.
Kemble (near Cirencester), Stroud, Stonehouse, Gloucester and Cheltenham all have train stations on a main line from Swindon and London Paddington. Stagecoach has buses from different areas of the country (cheaper, although slower than the trains).
As you'll find all over Great Britain, the cost of public transport is high (compared to mainland Europe, Asia, Africa, etc.). People under 25 can buy a Young Person's Railcard. This gives you 1/3 off standard rail fares, but costs £25, so it might only be worth it if you're planning to spend a long time in the UK. Railcards can be bought from any train station ticket office. You'll need a passport photo and proof of your age.
Trains exist between some main towns, but the line from Cirencester was axed 30 years ago. The key lines are:
- Bristol Temple Meads–Filton Abbey Wood–Bristol Parkway–Yate–Cam & Dursley–Gloucester–Cheltenham Spa–Ashchurch for Tewkesbury–Worcester Shrub Hill–Worcester Foregate Street
- Swindon–Chippenham–Bath Spa–Bristol Temple Meads
- Oxford–Hanborough–Charlbury–Kingham–Moreton-in-Marsh–Honeybourne–Evesham–Pershore–Worcester Shrub Hill—Worcester Foregate Street
As Bill Bryson said, this is the only option to see the Cotswolds. He was probably right. It's great walking country though - gentle hillsides not mountains.
Note: Take care of the cows on commons (they stand/lie on the roads at night).
The bus services in the Cotswolds are very limited, although the first time visitor might have some luck exploring the Fosse Way by bus - a Roman road connecting Moreton in Marsh and various market towns to Cirencester. Research is definitely needed. Many villages only get one bus a day, or some only one bus a week. Even larger towns, such as Cirencester and Stroud, only get one bus every hour.
The Cotswolds are hilly but there are well-marked cycle routes on quiet roads.
Perhaps Bill Bryson was wrong - there are lovely walks throughout all the Cotswolds, taking from a couple of hours for a gentle stroll between villages to a week or more on a walking tour. Local companies offer guided and self-guided walks and tours which explore the rich history of the area. The Cotswold Way is a 102-mile long-distance walk, designated as an official National Trail in 1998, running from Chipping Campden to Bath.
The Cotswolds attract people with a visual appeal derived from a long history and the charm of hundreds of honey-coloured stone villages spread over an area approximately 100 mi (160 km) north to south and 50 mi east to west. While lacking a single large attraction or theme park, it is a wealthy area that nevertheless retains something of the appeal of a working environment. For visitors, the area is particularly well known for historic gardens, pubs and inns, farm and outdoor attractions and retail – especially book and antique shops. There is a thriving arts and crafts scene, drawing on a legacy that includes William Morris and extends to new artists at work in hotspots such as the Stroud Valleys.
- Gardens, historic houses and farm attractions. There is a listing at the local tourist board website.
- Roman villa ruins near Chedworth
- Cotswold wildlife park
The Cotswolds are home to a number of important historical houses, often set in their own estates and therefore not part of a particular town or village. The local tourist board provides information on houses open to the public, which include Snowshill Manor, Chavanage, William Morris's house at Kelmscott, Sudeley Castle and Berkeley Castle. Some houses are closed but provide the setting for nationally important gardens such as Hidcote Manor, Painswick Rococo or Abbey House Gardens.
- Chastleton House, Chastleton, near Moreton-in-Marsh
- Walk some or all of the Cotswold Way. Beautiful views over the Cotswold edge the entire way.
- Cotswold Water Park. Great Britain's largest water park, consisting of 133 lakes which were formed by filling old gravel quarries. It is about five miles south of Cirencester and offers many water sports and activities, including dragon boat racing.
- Classic Motoring. For visitors wishing to tour the area in a classic car, the Cotswolds is home to Classic Motoring, a company specialising in the self-drive hire of Jaguar E-Type convertibles.
- Weekly farmers market in Stroud
The Cotswolds has a strong food culture with frequent well-established Farmers' Markets, local organic producers and individual businesses such as bakeries and orchard drink producers. Look out for Double and Single Gloucester (and up to 100 other) cheeses, Old Spot Pork and local organic game and venison - plus soft fruits in season. The local food culture is extending to pub noticeboard menus.
Enjoy a pint at one of the area's excellent pubs.
- Donington Ale in the north Cotswolds (brewed in Donington, near Stow-on-the-Wold)
- Hook Norton Ale ('Old Hooky' and the like)
- Battledown Brewery (Cheltenham Spa Standard, Premium and Porter)
- Stroud Organic Ale in and around Stroud.
The area has a long history of hospitality since being adopted by Londoners with newly available reliable motor cars a hundred years ago and there remains a concentration of high-quality hotels and B&Bs in the area.
Hotels and larger B&Bs are typically expensive in the more picturesque towns and villages. However, smaller B&Bs can be found for a reasonable cost. For a longer stay a cottage, barn or church conversion or other private accommodation can be rented – typically for a weekend up to stays extending several weeks.
The area is very safe, with little crime.