Rising gently from the Upper Thames Valley in the southeast to a dramatic escarpment overlooking the Severn Vale in the west, the Cotswolds cover around 770sq mi/2,000sq km, encapsulating rural England in concentrated form. Airy open uplands, sheltered in places by stately belts of beech trees, alternate with deep valleys enfolding venerable golden limestone villages and small county towns. This tour runs north through some of the region’s most delightful small towns and villages towards the escarpment above Broadway with its spectacular views.
Cirencester to Chipping Campden : 40mi/64km; Allow a day.
A Bit of History
The region has long been favoured for settlement. The commanding heights in the west are crowned more often than not by the hill forts of prehistoric man, whose burial places also abound, from the chambered tombs of the Neolithic to the round barrows of the Bronze Age. Great estates were farmed from the Roman villas lying just off Ermin Street and the Fosse Way. In the Middle Ages it was the wool from countless sheep grazing on the fine pasture of the wolds which gave rise to a trade of European importance and to a class of prosperous merchants, whose monuments are the great “wool” churches which they built from the underlying oolitic limestone. Ranging in colour from silver or cream to deepest gold, this loveliest of building stone is synonymous with “Cotswold character”. Yielding the sophisticated masonry of manor houses, the “tiles” of cottage roofs, rough-dressed walls of barns and even the drystone boundaries of fields, it creates a rare harmony of building and landscape. Far removed from coalfields and big cities, the area escaped the effects of industrialisation; its rural pattern is intact, an idyllic setting for quiet exploration of the past.
The “Capital of the Cotswolds” is still the market town for a prosperous rural region. It was founded as a Roman fort, Corinium, established early in the Roman occupation at the junction of three major roads – Ermin Street, Akeman Street and the Fosse Way. By the 2C AD it had become a walled city, second only to London in size, the centre of a flourishing countryside of villa estates. The old town is compact and has kept a traditional townscape, little marred by incongruous intrusions. It is hemmed in by the green spaces of two ancient estates: the gardens of the abbey sloping down to the pretty River Churn (the abbey buildings were demolished at the Dissolution) and the grandiose formal landscape of Cirencester Park, which contains the magnificent Broad Avenue (5mi/8km) and the great house, concealed from the town by a high wall and an even higher yew hedge.
On Coxwell Street, the Church of St John the Baptist is one of the largest parish churches in the country, and an important example of a Cotswold “wool church”. The lofty tower of 1400–20, supported by powerful spur buttresses, rises grandly above the town. The unusual three-storey porch opening into the marketplace once served as the town hall. The nave is exceptionally high and spacious; its immensely tall piers carry angels bearing the coats of arms of those pious townsfolk responsible for the ambitious rebuilding of 1516–30. Throughout the interior there is a wealth of detail: an unusual pre-Reformation pulpit; the Boleyn Cup, a gilt cup made for Anne Boleyn; memorial brasses grouped in the Chapel of the Holy Trinity; and, in the Lady Chapel, the charming effigies of Humfry Bridges (d.1598), his wife and their numerous children.
On Park Street, the Corinium Museuma is a modern well-arranged museum explaining Cotswold history from geological to recent times. It holds one of the finest and most extensive Roman collections in the country, including a series of superb mosaic pavementsa. The building also houses the local tourist information office.
From Cirencester drive east on the A 429 and the B 4425.
William Morris’ epithet of “the most beautiful village in England” is justified by the combined prospect of the River Coln, stone bridges, Arlington Row weavers’ cottages and the gables of Bibury Court against a wooded background.
From Bibury return SW by the B 4425; at the crossroads turn left; in Poulton turn left on to the A 417.
This old coaching village is famous for the Church of St Marya, harmoniously re-built in the late-15C. Sculptures, some humorously grotesque, enrich the exterior. Inside, the screens, stalls and misericords of the choir are of exceptional quality. But the church’s glory is its wonderful set of stained-glass windows (c.1500), tracing in colour the Bible’s story from Adam and Eve to the Last Judgement.
From Fairford take the A 417 E and the A 361 N.
Cotswold Wildlife Park
The peaceful natural habitat of the park and gardens (160 acres/65ha), set around a listed Victorian manor house, is home to a wide variety of wildlife. Come eye to eye with giraffes on a high-level walkway; see rhinos, zebras, lions, leopards and ostriches behind unobtrusive moats; spot monkeys and otters; walk through the aviary in the old walled garden, or through the tropical house. Other attractions include an adventure playground, brass rubbing centre, children’s farmyard and narrowgauge railway.
Continue north on the A 361.
One of the focal points of the wool trade, later an important coaching town, Burford’s growth stopped when the turnpike road (A 40) bypassed it in 1812. With its wealth of beautifully preserved buildings, nearly all of Cotswold limestone, it is one of the region’s “show villages”. The single main street descends to cross the pretty River Windrush. About half-way down, the black-and-white timber -fronted building on stone pillars is the 16C Tolsey, once the courthouse, and toll collecting point, now the local museum.
Slightly apart from the town is the large Church of St John the Baptist, its tall spire rising gracefully above the watermeadows. Norman in origin, the church exhibits a rich variety of work from many periods; the pinnacled three-storey 15C porch is outstanding. Note the exuberant monument to Edward Harman (d.1569), decorated with American Indians, and rows of kneeling children.
Take the A 40 west to Northleach.
This small market town is graced with many fine historic buildings but its “wool church” takes pride of place. It boasts Britain’s finest collection of memorial brasses, dedicated (unsurprisingly) to the merchants whose money built the church. Note the huge brass dedicated to John Fortey (d.1458), over 5ft /1.5m long, beneath the North Arcade. On the High Street is Keith Harding’s World of Mechanical
Music Museum, a showcase of ingenious self-playing musical instruments and automata, introduced and played by expert guides.
Take the A 429 south and turn right to Chedworth.
Chedworth Roman Villa
This large wealthy villa stood at the head of a small valley beside its own spring. It was undoubtedly one of the grandest buildings of the Roman Cotswolds. The remains, including good mosaic floors, have been carefully excavated and are well presented. The museum displays items found on the site.
Return to Northleach and continue N on the A 429.
The village owes its special charm to the clear waters of the Windrush, which run between well-tended grass banks beside the main street and under elegant small stone bridges. It is the most commercialised of the Cotswolds villages, due in no small part to three very popular family attractions: The Model Village; the excellent Cotswold Motoring Museum & Toy Collection, home to the popular children’s TV character Brum; and Birdland Park and Gardens, complete with penguins.
Make a detour west of the A 429 by a minor road to the Slaughters.
Frequently cited as two of the prettiest villages in the Cotswolds, both Lower and Upper Slaughter are picturesquely sited by the River Eye. The word “Slaughter” is in fact derived from the Old English word “Slohtre” meaning muddy place.
The Old Mill at Lower Slaughter is worth a stop, not just for its local history museum but also for its riverside tearooms and handmade organic ice cream parlour.
Take the minor road north east into Stow-on-the-Wold.
This is the highest settlement in Gloucestershire and probably originated as a Roman lookout post on the Fosse Way. It is a regular stop for visitors on the traditional Cotswold circuit, to browse in the antique shops, admire the 14C cross in the marketplace or the Crucifixion by Caspar de Crayer (1610) in the church.
Take the A 436 north east; at the crossroads turn right onto the A 44.
This is one of the Cotswold’s liveliest towns with a good number of pubs, restaurants and shops and an
acclaimed theatre. It has a fine wool church and a modest local museum.
Take a detour 2.6mi/4.2km north via the B 4026 to Little Rollright, where you will see signs to the Rollright Stones. Set in a field is an ancient small stone circle – 70 stones, 104ft/31m in diameter – which according to the local legend represents a future king of England and his knights, turned to stone by a witch. The circle, some 4,000–4,500 years old, is known as The Kings Men. There is the (separate) King Stone, and the remains of a
5,000-year-old megalithic tomb, known as The Whispering Knights.
Return along the A 44.
This rare gem of a Jacobean country house was built in the early-17C by a wool merchant and is a near-perfect time capsule. The absence of shop, tearoom and other modern accretions adds to the atmosphere.
The Great Hall, one of the last of its kind to be built, the richly decorated Great Chamber and the tunnel-vaulted Long Gallery, running the whole length of the top floor, evoke the atmosphere of domestic life in the 17C.
On the forecourt are the 17C stables and the little Church of St Mary. To the east of the house is a great rarity, a small formal garden surviving from about 1700.
Continue west on the A 44.
The route passes through Moreton-in-Marsh, an attractive little market town, where the Fosse Way broadens out to form the main street.
After 6mi/10km turn left onto the B 4081.
Snowshill Manor and Garden
This typical Cotswold manor house (c. 1500) is snugly sited below the rim of the escarpment. The low-lit house is very atmospheric and crammed with a fascinating jackdaw’s nest of objects, acquired by the eccentric owner Charles Wade (1883–1956), the most striking of which is the Samurai armour collection
displayed to its full menacing effect on brooding warrior mannequins in the gloom of the Green Room. Stepping out into the light, Wade also laid out the enchanting terraced gardena.
Return northeast on the B 4081; turn left onto a minor road.
Broadway Tower, a battlemented folly (1800), marks one of the highest points (1,024ft/312m) in the Cotswolds. It houses exhibitions on three floors about the history of its occupants. On a clear day the panorama extends to the Welsh borders. The surrounding-country park includes a red deer enclosure and beautiful nature walks.
Continue on the minor road; turn left into the A 44, down a long hill.
This handsome village, more formal than its neighbours, is famous for its variety of genteel upmarket antique and craft shops, cafés and restaurants, hotels and guesthouses.
The long, partly tree-lined ‘broadway’ rises gently from the village green at the western end to the foot of the escarpment, flanked by mellow stone buildings, from picturesque thatched cottages to the stately Lygon Arms hotel.
Take the B 4632 and B 4035 north then east to Chipping Campden.
The long curving High Street, lined with buildings of all periods in the mellowest of limestone, makes Chipping Campden the embodiment of the Cotswold townscape. The town has been quietly prosperous since the great days of the medieval wool trade and something of its present state of preservation is due to the care and skill of the artists and craftspeople who were attracted to Chipping Campden in the early-20C. Many of the houses in the High Street are substantial but, more than individual distinction, it is the overall harmony of the street scene which impresses. The centre of the town is marked by the arched and gabled Market Hall of 1627. Further north, distinguished by its two-storeyed bay window, is the house of William Grevel, “the flower of the wool merchants of all England”, who died in 1401 and is commemorated by a fine brass in the splendid St James’s Church. In Church Street stand the almshouses built in 1617 by Sir Baptist Hicks. His own mansion (opposite) was destroyed but two pavilions survive, together with pepperpot lodges and the gateway, near the entrance to the church.
Take the B 4081 north (signed).
The horticulturalist Lawrence Johnstone has managed an enchanting variety of effects in such a small space (10 acres/4ha) and created one of the greatest English gardens of the 20C, an Arts and Crafts masterpiece. Calm expanses of lawns (one of which is open for croquet), vistas down avenues or into the countryside contrast with luxuriant but carefully controlled wildness. A labyrinth of “garden rooms” encloses an arrangement of herbs, plants entirely in white, and a mysterious pool.
Photo credits: © R. Taylor / Sime/Photononstop