Stretching across five counties in south-central England, the villages and market towns in the wolds (forest on a high land) offer a fairytale picture of English countryside life. From the southern city of Bath to Shakespeare’s hometown of Stratford-upon-Avon in the north, the Cotswold area is a blend of natural beauty and centuries of history revealed by medieval castles, old stone houses and churches.
Known for the wool trade since the Middle Ages, the area is predominantly rural, and the road will take you over forested hills and winding streets. Each place has its charm, and while wandering the narrow streets with limestone cottages, you will discover a fantastic small world.
Since there are hardly any railways between the Cotswold villages, the best way to travel is by car, or if you have more time to spare, you can take the local buses or go by bike. Whatever the option, the scenery is absolutely fantastic and it worth every minute spent in the area. Here are some of my favourite villages in the Cotswolds.
Northeast of Bath, in the county of Wiltshire, lies the medieval village of Lacock. With limestone houses from the 13th-18thcenturies, often decorated with flowers and the Norman style Church of St. Chyriac, the village has a very picturesque appearance. In the Middle Ages, Lacock was a wool township, like most rural communities in the area.
A major point of interest is Lacock Abbey. Founded in 1229 by Ela, Countess of Salisbury, the building remained a nunnery until the 16th century when all Catholic institutions were suppressed. The former convent became the residence of several nobility members. In the 19th century, William Henry Fox Talbot, the pioneer of photography who lived here, created the first photographic negative after taking a picture of a window in the abbey’s South Gallery. Not accidentally, Lacock Abbey has appeared in films such as Pride and Prejudice, Harry Potter, or Downton Abbey, because when you get there, you enter into an imaginary world that only your mind can create.
One of the most beautiful villages in the Cotswolds is Castle Combe. Located North of Lacock, the village was named after its uphill Norman castle, although only the ruins remain today. The cottages of the wool weavers built along the By Brook Valley offer a magical atmosphere. Weavers had a privileged status during the medieval era, so they were granted land by the river, as the water was essential in the woollen clothmaking process. Due to the prosperity brought by the wool industry, Castle Combe was granted permission to hold a weekly market. The 14th-century Market Cross, at the centre of the village, was built to commemorate this important moment.
Another attraction is St. Andrew’s Church, built between the 13th and 15th centuries, with one of the oldest working clocks in England. Since the 1960s, Combe Castle has been frequently used as a filming location. It appeared in movies such as Doctor Doolittle (1967), AgathaChristie: Poirot (1989), Stardust (2007), Wolfman (2009), Steven Spielberg’s HorseWar, DowntonAbbey (recent series), although the villagers were not very pleased with the constant disruption of their daily life.
The Queen of the Cotswolds – is the name that Painswick received due to the town’s prosperity over time and to its beautiful houses. The town is on the road from Stroud to Cheltenham, in the county of Gloucestershire. In the 15th century, the wool clothing trade flourished, and many of the town’s most admired buildings were built around that time.
Today, Painswick is best known for St. Mary’s Parish Church and the Rococo Gardens. The construction of the church began in the 11th century with later extensions. The ancient yew trees, planted in the churchyard among the early 17th century tombs, are the main attraction for visitors.
The Rococo Garden is the creation of Benjamin Hyett II, who inherited Painswick House from his father, a member of the British Parliament. It was designed in the 1740s as a pleasure garden where he could entertain his guests. Laid out around Painswick House, it is the only 18th-century Rococo garden in England that has been entirely preserved.
Just 9 miles from Cheltenham, the road takes you to the small town of Winchcombe, whose name means the valley with a bend. Unlike other Cotswold towns and villages, Winchcombe owes its prosperity, not to the wool trade but the cultivation of tobacco. At the beginning of the 17th century, Sir John Tracy and his relative, John Stratford, started a business in the area by growing tobacco. In 1619, the state decided to ban the cultivation of tobacco in England, so that this could be done on a large scale in the colonies. But because it was the only source of income for many, people opposed the government forces and continued to grow tobacco until the end of the 17th century.
The town with its beautiful stone houses and the 15th-century St. Peter’s Church has a lot of character. But the main attraction today is the magical Sudeley Castle, one mile from the centre of the town. In the 15th century, Ralph Boteler, who inherited the castle, built a new structure on the site of an older fort. King Henry VI gave him the title as Baron Sudeley. However, in 1469, King Edward IV confiscated the castle and gave it to his brother, the future King Richard III of England.
Several queens visited the castle and fell in love with its divine gardens. Katherine Parr, the sixth and last wife of King Henry VIII, resided here and was buried in St. Mary’s Chapel. Today, Sudeley Castle is owned by Lady Aschombe and her children, who have opened it up to the public for several months a year. The over 1,000 acres of land surrounding the castle include the ruins of the former medieval castle, the chapel, numerous fountains and gardens of extraordinary beauty where peacocks roam freely.
Sudeley Castle and the gardens with maze-like yew trees offer an enchanting picture. Walking among the shrubs, you feel like you are in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll’s imaginary world. And as I wandered through the coloured roses, the tall mulberry trees and yew hedges, a blonde little girl appeared unexpectedly from the yew trees only to disappear again, letting me wonder if Alice was here.
A small village with less than 350 people, Stanway has only a few houses along the Cotswold Way. The hamlet is often associated with the imposing Stanway House, a Jacobean manor house. Owned initially by Tewkesbury Abbey, in 1533 it was transferred to the Tracy family, who managed to keep the property over the centuries through their descendants, the Earls of Wemyss and March. The current structure of the manor is due to the Tracy’s who rebuilt the house and later added the beautiful gatehouse.
Today, the manor house, which is surrounded by 20 acres of land with 18th-century gardens and water features, is owned by Lord Neidpath, the 13th Earl of Wemyss and March. An impressive element of the water-garden is the 91 m single-jet fountain, the tallest in Britain. Stanway House is open to the public for a couple of days a week during summer. Adjacent to the house is the 12th-century St. Peter’s Church, which has remained almost untouched for 100 years.
On the edge of the Cotswold Hills lies the small village of Stanton with its fine Cotswold stone houses and a population of just 200 people. The hamlet is crossed by the High Street, the main road, with the 17th-18th centuries cottages and farmhouses along the way. Stanton Court, a Jacobean manor house from the early 17th century, and the Church of St Michael and All Angels built on the site of an ancient Saxon church are some of the attractions offered by this small settlement.
Sheppey Corner, a thatched roof cottage from about 1650, is the main feature that draws tourists to Stanton and can be found at the top of the High Street. Due to its beauty, the house is often illustrated in the Cotswold postcards and calendars. Another landmark of Stanton is the village cross. Situated at the junction of High Street with Church Lane, it was declared an ancient monument of national importance.
A broad street, hence the name of the place, crosses the village inviting people to stay in the old inns or have a drink in the honey-coloured limestone pubs and teahouses. Most buildings date back to the 16th century, but there is evidence of a much earlier settlement. Between the 11th and the 13th centuries, the village prospered, but then entered into a period of decline during the Black Death, which decimated half of Europe’s population in the mid-14th century.
It took two centuries after the terrible plague ended for Broadway to revive. The village owes its growth mainly to the wool trade, like other towns and villages in the Cotswolds. Situated in Worcestershire county on the border with Gloucestershire, Broadway has been a source of inspiration for many writers and artists, including Henry James, Edmund Gosse, John Singer Sargent, or Francis Davis Millet – who tragically lost his life in 1912 aboard the Titanic.
In the Middle Ages, Chipping Campden was a very prosperous wool trading centre and a market town, as its name suggests (in the Old English, ceping refers to a market-place). Due to its 14th-17th centuries houses along the High Street, the town was designated a conservation area. Many of the fine buildings in Chipping Campden are linked to the name of one man, Sir Baptist Hicks, the town’s benefactor.
A wealthy merchant, Hicks, was also a politician and friend of the royalty. In 1608, he acquired Campden Manor and built there a mansion for him and his family. The manor no longer exists today, as it was burnt down during the English Civil Wars at the order of Hicks’ grandson, who preferred to sacrifice his family house than to leave it into the hands of the Parliamentary forces. Only two Banqueting Houses and the entrance Gatehouse remained from Sir Baptist Hicks’ large domain.
However, Hicks’ love for the town is mainly reflected in his charitable activities and the buildings he has funded. The Alms House was founded in 1612 for the elderly and the poor (still in operation today with the same purpose), while the Market Hall was built in 1627 to support local trade. He made important contributions to St. James Church, one of the finest wool churches in England. Sir Baptist Hicks became Viscount Campden in 1628. He is buried in St. James Church next to his wife, Lady Campden.
Chipping Campden is also linked to the Arts and Crafts movement when artists, artisans and writers settled in the area at the beginning of the 20th century. Architect Charles Robert Ashbee founded the Guild of Handicraft in London but moved it to Chipping Campden in 1902. Famous writers, such as Graham Greene, found inspiration in this beautiful market town. In the 1930s, he wrote his novel Stamboul Train in Chipping Campden.
Snowshill is a charming and secluded village with ancient cottages and a 19th-century church. Emblematic for the small village, with less than 200 people, is Snowshill Arms, a local pub in a 13th-century building. Other attractions in the area include the Snowshill Lavender Farm, which stretches over 35 acres of lavender fields, and Snowshill Manor, dating back to the 9th century. For a long time, Winchcombe Abbey owned the manor until King Henry VIII confiscated it in 1539.
Two idyllic villages – Upper Slaughter and Lower Slaughter – one mile away from each other are crossed by the River Eye, offering a romantic scenery. What is absolutely delightful is that for over a century no new building work was done in these villages. And no, the villages have nothing to do with any killings but with the muddy place (from the Old English slohtre) that there was once.
There are no specific tourist attractions in the two villages, except maybe for the historic Norman Church of St. Peter’s in Upper Slaughter and the 19th-century water mill in Lower Slaughter. But the unspoiled character and charm of their 16th-19th centuries stone cottages can hardly be found elsewhere in England. Probably this is the reason why Copse Hill Road in Lower Slaughter was voted the most romantic street in Britain in a 2011 Google Street View survey.
Although Lower Slaughter has more visitors than its twin, I found Upper Slaughter one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen. Hidden between the forested hills, with the river that narrows down as it crosses the village, the site seems depicted from a fairytale.
Bibury is one of the most visited and photographed villages in England. In the centre of the village stands the old Church of St. Mary the Virgin with 11th-century features. Close to the church is Bibury Court, the largest building in the village – today a hotel – dating back to the first half of the 17th century.
However, the village attraction is on its lower ground, starting from the famous cottages on Arlington Row and going down the river to the bridge and the Bibury Trout Farm. From here, River Coln widens into a lake providing the fishery for the farm. Established in 1902, it is one of the oldest trout farms in the country. The wildlife here is impressive, millions of trout living in the farm’s water, along with swans, gulls, ducks, water voles, even herons and otters.
The village’s landmark is Arlington Row, a row of cottages built in 1380 as a monastic wool store. In the 17th century, they were converted into weavers’ cottages, where wool clothes were produced. The clothes were then sent to Arlington Mill – today a residential house in Bibury – to be degreased.
Due to their beauty, the American automobile industrialist Henry Ford tried to buy the entire row and move it to his Greenfield Village at the Henry Ford Museum in Michigan. But fortunately, the cottages were not for sale. Today, Arlington Row is an architectural conservation area and is illustrated on the inside cover of all British passports. It was also featured in films such as Stardust and Bridget Jones’s Diary.