Written by Lynsey Oxton.
If you can imagine a place home to thatched-roofed houses with honey-coloured stone, lavender fields and an abundance of colour….well, that’s the Cotswolds!
Whereas we’d normally be in Florida in October, the ongoing pandemic put a stop to that tradition – so we packed the car up and off we went to the Cotswolds for an autumnal adventure in merry old England instead…
The Cotswolds extends across 800 miles of countryside in central southern England and is made up of lots of pretty towns and villages spread over five counties – Gloucestershire, Oxfordshire, Warwickshire, Wiltshire and Worcestershire. A little fact for you: the word ‘cot’ means ‘sheep enclosure’ and the word ‘wold’ means ‘hill’ – perhaps that’s why almost every village in the Cotswolds has a ‘Sheep Street’!
To help you plan your own trip, here are 10 of my most recommended villages, towns and cities that you might want to fit in during your stay…
1. BURFORD (Oxfordshire)
Beautiful Burford – our home for the week. If you are looking for the epitome of Cotswold living, this is the stop for you! Cobbled streets, independent shops, country pubs (complete with roaring fires) and wonderful restaurants – what more could you want? Because of its location on the far West of Oxfordshire, Burford is known as the ‘Southern Gateway to the Cotswolds’ – and what an entrance it is.
There’s something for everyone here. Those with a sweet tooth can buy an ounce of bonbons at the old-fashioned sweet shop; carb-lovers can rave over the bread selection at the traditional bakery; posh folk will delight at the offerings in the artisan delis; antique hunters are bound to find something sought after in ‘Gateway Antiques’. Whatever your pleasures, you’re bound to enjoy a wander along Burford’s high street.
If afternoon tea is more your thing, I can’t recommend The Lamb Inn (on Sheep Street!) highly enough. Gorgeous surroundings that will make interior designers drool, great service with a masked smile – and most importantly, the best damn cakes you’ve ever had. We had to take half of them away in a box because there was too much! Oh yum!
Whilst in Burford, you might like to visit the furry faces at the Cotswolds Wildlife Park, located just 5 minutes away by car. From lions, to penguins, to giraffes, to lemurs – there’s plenty to see, even if it isn’t the biggest zoo in the UK. Because of the current climate, you must book your tickets online in advance, otherwise you’ll be turned away. And you don’t want that.
So where did we eat? Burford has so many great eateries, you’ll be spoiled for choice! But here are some extra great ones: The Highway Inn is perfect for a cosy, candlelit meal with your other half, the famous shortcrust pies at the Royal Oak are a must (I recommend the game pie) and if a ruby is on the cards, the Spice Lounge serves up a marvellous massala! All are fantastic and slap bang on the high street.
So where did we stay? We found a gorgeous little cottage called ‘The Cider Press’ which was on a quiet side road and set on the River Windrush. There wasn’t anything more that we could have wanted from our accommodation – just steps from the centre of the town, super-cosy and complete with welcoming fresh flowers and a bottle of wine (book via Sykes Cottages – you’ll be glad you did).
2. BOURTON-ON-THE-WATER (Gloucestershire)
Also sitting on the River Windrush with a multitude of footbridges, is the pretty village of Bourton-on-the-Water – known as the ‘Venice of the Cotswolds’.
Provided you get a good day, a meander along the river, combined with a bit of shopping should be enough to keep you entertained in this little haven.
If not, there’s the long-standing Motoring Museum that houses classic and retired cars, including the famous ‘Brum’ from children’s tv. Remember him? There’s also a model village – and not just any old model village – but one that featured in the 2014 kids film ‘Nativity 3’. Yep, it’s famous (kind of). Or if you are more of a puzzle-solver, the Dragonfly Maze is a bit of fun for half an hour – follow the maze, reveal 14 cryptic clues and then work out what to do to release the dragonfly! Did we manage to do it? Kind of….
Bourton-on-the-Water is one of the most popular tourist places in the Cotswolds. Once there, it’s easy to understand why. I imagine in the height of Summer, it’s filled full of people (a Thursday in October wasn’t so bad). As such, it’s best to get there early to have as much of it to yourself as possible. Like most of the villages in the Cotswolds, there’s plenty of free parking available.
3. CHIPPING CAMPDEN (Gloucestershire)
Chipping Campden is a lovely old medieval market town in the North Cotswolds. There are a few ‘Chippings’ to be found in the Cotswolds and the word literally means ‘market’.
Upon driving into the town, the first thing that stuck me was the old, traditional country cottages – the type with overhanging thatched roofs that look like they belong on the front of a jigsaw puzzle.
The high street in Chipping Campden is full of buildings of all shapes and sizes, as well as cute boutiques, gift shops and of course, a market hall. Historians can stand in the centre and imagine the days of old, when the streets would be full of pack-horses bringing in the wool that Chipping Campden was so known for back then.
This turned out to be a great little find on my mini road trip. I’d heard about Chipping Norton (which was next on my route) as a place where the rich and famous reside – the likes of Hugh Grant, Kate Winslet and the Beckhams. In honesty, Chipping Campden gets my vote – it has a nicer ‘vibe’ and just feels more traditional. But don’t let me put you off seeing both.
4. SNOWSHILL (Gloucestershire)
Calling all Bridget Jones fans! This tiny village in the country is actually rather famous in the ‘world of film’.
Some of you might recall this village church from scenes in the first of the trilogy when Bridget visits her parents for Christmas? Apparently, diehard fans come from near and far just to catch a glimpse of the red phone box and church. I also managed to locate the house used as Bridget’s parents home, with thanks to the ever trusty google maps. Who remembers Bridget walking up the path to this house in the deep snow?
Only in Hollywood: The filming of Bridget Jones Diary actually took place in July, so Snowshill was treated to a premature snow flurry courtesy of the film crew. Not only that, but they also cut the heads off the flowers, put fairy lights in residents windows and erected a Christmas tree in the village green!
Scary fact: Can you believe that film will be 20 years old in 2021?!
With or without its fame, Snowshill is one of the prettiest villages I found in the Cotswolds – even in overcast weather. If I didn’t know better, I’d swear the Vicar of Dibley and Postman Pat lived here!
True, there isn’t quite as much to see in Snowshill as there is in its neighbouring Chipping Campden, but trust me, it’s one not to miss – so add it onto that list!
Tip: Although shut when I visited (Covid again), apparently Snowshill Manor from the Tudor era is a must-see. So if you’re planning on going to Snowshill, it might be worth checking if it has reopened.
5. STOW-ON-THE-WOLD (Gloucestershire)
Another tourist-favourite is Stow-on-the-Wold, meaning ‘where the wind blows’ – possibly named due to it being the highest of the Cotswolds towns, set on an 800 foot hill.
Right there is one of the reasons this village draws in the crowds; this doorway at St Edwards Church is rather like something from a fairytale. It is said to have been the very thing that inspired JRR Tolkien ‘doors of durin’, from the Lord of the Rings novels. How instagrammable!
The town is great to have a wander around too. There are plenty of cake shops, chocolatiers, antique houses and gift shops. If you plan to spend a night here, there’s some cute pubs that you might like to try out too, such as The Bell.
If you’ve heard the term ‘chocolate box village’, Stow-on-the-Wold is a great example.
6. BANBURY (Oxfordshire)
Remember the children’s nursery rhyme “Ride a cock horse to Banbury Cross to see a fine lady upon a white horse….”?
Banbury is a bustling town right on the edge of the Eastern Cotswolds. Unlike the little villages in the Cotswolds, Banbury has more to see and do, including a decent shopping centre, a museum devoted to the towns history, a castle and a mix of olde-worlde pubs and trendy wine bars. In fact, we have spent weekends here in the past.
But if the busy streets make you feel as though you’ve stepped out of the Cotswolds for a moment or two, there’s no mistaking the iconic Cotswolds buildings with their cottagie good looks!
If Banbury makes your list, there’s two things you must do:
1. Visit Banbury Cross to see the bronze statue of the ‘Fine Lady’.
2: Try a famous ‘Banbury Cake’ with their spicy, fruity flavour.
Ok, there’s actually three. If you’re spending some time in Banbury, why not pop 30 minutes down the road to Bicester Outlet Village where you can spend, spend, spend at the likes of Jimmy Choo and Paul Smith? Take the plastic because you’ll need it!
7. BIBURY (Gloucestershire)
Admittedly, I didn’t spend long in Bibury – half an hour, tops – but it’s one that has to feature on my top ten because of its famous landmark…
…Arlington Row. This is – as it says on the tin – a row of old English cottages – well, weavers houses, to be precise – that date all the way back to the 1300s. A highly sought after postcode!
Arlington Row is actually the most photographed spot in the whole of the Cotswolds and one that you will find on many a postcard.
And the reason for that? Well the row of cottages was the image used on the front cover of the 2010 UK passport! I didn’t realise until I got home that it’s actually on my own…
To have a look at the houses yourself, you can park up on the main road and walk back, crossing over a small footbridge. You might notice the sign as you cross the bridge that asks you to view the row from the road, respecting the privacy of the residents. I snuck just to the side of the first house to take my photo, but would have loved to have walked all the way up and had a ‘proper nosey’.
It’s easy to see why a visit to the Cotswolds should include a little look at Arlington Row – as far as beauty spots go, this one is right up there.
8. CIRENCESTER (Gloucestershire)
Just a short, 15 minutes drive through the countryside from Bibury, you will arrive at the historical town of Cirencester.
In Roman Britain, Cirencester was the largest town outside of London and some say it may well have been the UK capital in the 4th Century – so not only is it very old, but it is very well thought of! During the Roman times, Cirencester was called ‘Corinium’ and there’s a museum there now by the same name, that houses antiquities from the time. The Roman amphitheatre is also available to visitors.
Today, there is an array of colourful shops, coffee houses, a craft market and the impressive St John Baptist Church. Its a great place – as I found – to park up for a couple of hours, have a look around and grab a mid-morning tea and cake.
If you choose to do some shopping, you can expect to find high street regulars such as Boots, Waterstones and FatFace, as well as small independents that sell plastic-free products, scented candles and – you’ve guessed it – antiques.
If you do decide to venture into Cirencester, you might choose to go on Mondays and Fridays for market day. It is one of the oldest charter markets in the country and got a mention in the doomsday book in 1086. The monthly farmers market is every second and fourth Saturday in the month, where you can find lots of local produce such as pies and brewed ales.
9. BROADWAY (Worcestershire)
Or to be specific, Broadway Tower.
In fairness, this one wasn’t planned but as I drove through the countryside and saw a striking tower in the distance, I pulled into the nearby carpark to have a closer look!
Set in 50 acres of parkland, Broadway Tower and Park is an English Heritage site, open to the public to go and have a look inside and marvel at the rolling countryside from the roof platform. Way back when, William Morris (a famous textile designer, poet and novelist in the 1800s) used the 65 foot Broadway Tower as his holiday home.
Of course, the tower is undoubtedly impressive, but the real reason I’ve put this on my list is for the red deer reserve that’s in the park! Only recently did I venture all the way to the Scottish Highlands with grand plans to see a stag (and failing miserably) – and here they were – lots of them. My only regret is not having my proper camera to hand!
If you’re a walker, you can find lots of routes from Broadway Tower. Snowshill and Chipping Campden are more than doable, or for the more adventurous, a few hours later you could even reach the Slaughters (not as fearsome it sounds).
Whatever time of year you visit, it’s bound to be gorgeous – but who can resist the crisp Autumnal air?
Broadway itself is another popular Cotswold villages with its pretty tree-lined high street and its mix of stone cottages and period houses. There’s museums, galleries, shopping and dining…everything you come to expect to find in this part of the country.
10. BATH (right on the edge!)
So last on the list may officially be in Somerset, but it’s right on the tip of the South Cotswolds – so by my reckoning, it counts.
I decided to take the train to Bath Spa from Charlbury Station (10 mins from my base in Burford). Despite two changes and an overall journey time of 1 hour 45 each way, Bath had always been somewhere I thought I’d like to go and see. So see it, I did.
The weather disappointed – I went to Bath and got caught in a heavy shower – but the place itself didn’t. It reminded me a little of York – little alleyways, interesting independent shops, plenty of tea rooms – and of course, that Roman connection.
Obviously there’s what Bath is most known for – the ancient Roman Baths (AD43). The sign outside reads ‘These hot springs were used by the Romans as early as the first century. In area, in grandeur, in completeness, the baths of aquae sulis were unequalled. The remains of their magnificence are here disclosed’.
There’s also a more modern option – Thermae Spa – that is home to Britain’s only thermal natural hot spring where you can go and bathe, should the fancy take you!
Of course there’s the shopping too. Bath is a big city after all, so it goes without saying that it’s a shopaholics dream. In fact, it has six areas just dedicated to retail! Aside from the wonderful and quirky independents, you can expect to see names like Apple, Space NK, Goldsmiths, Neals Yard – and designer labels too.
It was a shame that the weather was a bit miserable when I visited Bath, but it’s easy to imagine how stunning it would be in the sunshine. So, if this is on your list of places to go when you’re in the Cotswolds, try and plan for a sunny day, but take your umbrella just in case!
Have I managed to convince you that you must book a trip to the Cotswolds?
This blog is just a snapshot of what’s on offer in this gorgeous part of England and I look forward to returning myself again soon. Keep your eyes peeled for Part 2! Besides, when I win the lottery, I’m buying this house as a holiday home…