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A Weekend Guide to the Cotswolds

TravelHannah DrakeComment

Chances are, you picture the Cotswolds when you think of the English countryside.

Rolling hills. Stone cottages. Blooming gardens. Quaint tea rooms. Grazing sheep.

It's perfection.

We've visited the Cotswolds twice now. The first was a surprise trip for my birthday in 2017. The second was just last month when my sister came to visit. And both trips were combined with a day in Oxford, coincidentally. Both times we stayed in an Airbnb, the first time being in Hampnett, the second time a little further away in Carterton. Both times we were met with beautiful, sunny days. And both trips were incredibly lovely.

The Cotswolds is an area in south central England, defined by the bedrock of Jurassic limestone that creates a type of grassland habitat rare in the UK and that is quarried for the golden coloured Cotswold stone. It contains unique features derived from the use of this mineral; the predominantly rural landscape contains stone-built villages, historical towns and stately homes and gardens. Designated as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty in 1966, the Cotswolds covers 2,038 km2 (504,000 acres) and is the second largest protected landscape in England (second to the Lake District) as an Area of Natural Beauty (ANOB). Its boundaries are roughly 25 miles (40 km) across and 90 miles (140 km) long, stretching south-west from just south of Stratford-upon-Avon to just south of Bath. It lies across the boundaries of several English counties; mainly Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire, and parts of Wiltshire, Somerset,  Worcestershire and Warwickshire. The hills give their name to the Cotswold local-government district in Gloucestershire, which administers a large part of the area. The highest point of the region is Cleeve Hill at 1,083 feet, just to the east of Cheltenham.

If you're planning a trip to the UK, I would absolutely recommend spending a weekend in the Cotswolds, but be prepared to rent a car so you can go village hopping across the district and see as much as you can. Between our two visits, we spent time in Bibury, Coln, Cirencester, Hampnett, Woodstock, Carterton, and Stow-on-the-Wold. With less than an hour total drive time, it's easy to do it all in a day. In fact, we did the first four in a day and the final three plus Bibury again in a day as well. However, I recommend slowing it down a bit, getting a place for at least one night, so you're able to explore a bit more. Also, I won't be talking about Woodstock or Carterton in this post as we spent little time in Woodstock, except to visit Blenhiem Palace, and Carterton is newer and unlike the other villages.

No matter where in the district you go, I recommend picking one or two can't miss villages and doing research to find out what else is around there. Even though villages like Bibury and Stow-on-the-Wold are tourist hotspots, there are hidden gems tucked away in the lesser known villages as well.

BIBURY

Bibury is a village and civil parish in Gloucestershire, England. It is on both banks of the River Coln which rises in the Cotswold District and which is a Thames tributary. The village is centred 6 1⁄2 miles northeast of Cirencester. Arlington Row here is a nationally notable architectural conservation area, depicted on the inside cover of all United Kingdom passports.

Bibury is popular among Japanese tourists in particular, widely attributed to Emperor Hirohito having stayed in the village on his European tour.

WHAT TO SEE

Arlington Row has some of the most picturesque homes in the country. While it's a quiet street for cars, it's heavy for foot traffic. It sits at the bottom of a hill dotted with private residences, that makes for a small loop back to the main road.

All of the buildings in Bibury are beautiful and historical. The nineteenth-century artist William Morris called Bibury "the most beautiful village in England" when he visited. I'm sure it's lovely all year round, but it seems to be at its best in the spring and summer while the flowers are blooming. I recommend walking the streets and seeing all the stone cottages, but of course be respectful that these are people's homes.

Bibury Court is the largest building in the village and was built in 1633. It was previously a hotel, but it has been permanently closed.

Arlington Mill, located next to the Trout Farm, has a rich history and was previously open to the public before becoming a private residence.

WHAT TO DO

Visitors can go to Bibury Trout Farm, a historical landmark in the heart of Bibury. You can pay to feed the fish, catch fresh trout, or enjoy a walk around the farm and a bite to eat in the cafe.

Like all bustling villages, there are small, locally owned shops throughout. We've visited some antique shops and shops with locally made products. Last time we were there, I purchased some locally made jams infused with different spirits.

WHERE TO STAY

The Swan Hotel is located on the main intersection in the small village, on the banks of the River Coln. It's so conveniently located that your room might just look out onto Bibury Trout Farm or Arlington Way. It's also available for conferences and weddings.

COLN ST. ALDWYNS

We've spent the least amount of time in Coln. It's a short drive from Bibury and we only stopped here for lunch when we visited the Cotswolds a year ago. Admittedly, I know the least about this little village.

WHERE TO EAT

We had a lovely lunch on the patio at the New Inn. It's classic pub food, but incredibly tasty. We enjoyed eating in the fresh air and taking in the sites around us.

WHERE TO STAY

The New Inn is also--you guessed it--an inn. While we were having lunch, wedding guests were arriving and getting ready for a wedding that afternoon.

WHAT TO DO

It started raining as we finished lunch, so we immediately jumped in the car to head to Cirencester, but Coln does boast a few small shops if you're in the mood for shopping.

In addition, the family at the table next to us at lunch had just walked. Don't sleep on the beautiful Cotswolds walks (around or between the villages). You'll find hidden gems, explore the outdoors, and see things you'll otherwise miss in the car!

CIRENCESTER

Cirencester is a larger market town in the area. It lies on the River Churn, a tributary of the River Thames, and is the largest town in the Cotswold District. It is the home of the Royal Agricultural University, the oldest agricultural college in the English-speaking world, founded in 1840. It is twinned (sister cities) with Izenhoe, Germany.

While it still has old, historic buildings, it's also been more modernised than the smaller villages. We stocked up on groceries at a Tesco Superstore!

In ninth-century Old Welsh the city was known as Cair Ceri (literally "Fort Ceri"), translated Cirrenceaster, Cirneceaster, or Cyrneceaster in the Old English of the Anglo-Saxons, where ceaster means "fort" or "fortress". The Old English c was pronounced /tʃ/. The Normans mispronounced the /tʃ/ sound as [ts], resulting in the modern name Cirencester /ˈsaɪrənsɛstər/. The form /ˈsɪsɪtər/, spelled Cirencester or Ciceter, was once used locally. Sometimes the form Cicester /ˈsɪsɪstər/ was heard instead. These forms are now very rarely used, while many local people abbreviate the name to Ciren /ˈsaɪrən/.

Today it is usually /ˈsaɪrənsɛstər/ (as it is spelt) or /ˈsaɪrənstər/, although occasionally it is /ˈsɪsɪstər/, /ˈsɪsɪtər/ or /ˈsɪstər/.

WHAT TO SEE

The town has a number of churches from various sects of Christianity, including the Church of St. John the Baptist, Church of St. Peter's (a Roman Catholic church), and one of the oldest Baptist churches in England, founded in 1651.

To the west of the town is Cirencester House, the seat of Earl Bathurst and the site of one of the finest landscape gardens in England, laid out by the first Earl Bathurst after 1714.

On Cotswold Avenue is the site of a Roman amphitheatre which, while buried, retains its shape in the earthen topography of the small park setting. Cirencester was one of the most substantial cities of Roman-era Britain.

WHAT TO DO

We spent the afternoon wandering in and out of shops and art galleries. There was even a local art show going on in one of the arcades.

Visit the Corinium Museum for its extensive Roman collection.

WHERE TO EAT

Being a larger town, you have the most options in Cirencester. Whether you're craving something light or a decadent meal, you'll find what you're looking for. We stopped in town for some tea and croissants, but you can also find higher end options, pubs, or sushi.

WHERE TO STAY

Interested in a luxurious spa getaway? Or just want a copper bathtub in your room? (YES!) Check out the Kings Head Hotel

Looking for a cosy room in the heart of the town? Check out the historical Fleece Inn.

HAMPNETT

Hampnett is easily the smallest village we've visited. We stayed here last August in the most perfect Airbnb. We spent the evening wandering around the gravel roads looking at the beautiful houses and cottages. There didn't appear to be any commercial space in the village and the residents were all listed on a single sheet of paper posted outside the small church. So if you're looking to completely escape, stay here.  

WHAT TO DO

Walk. Wander. Explore. Get outside and see what the village has to offer. You can walk through sheep's pastures and down the residential roads. It's quiet and peaceful and it makes you want to relax.

WHERE TO STAY

Check out our Airbnb if you're interested. (You can use this link to sign up for Airbnb if you're not already a member.) It was perfect for the two of us. We had the place to ourselves, a full kitchen to cook a delicious steak dinner, and made friends with the local cat. Literally right outside, there were sheep grazing and a tree swing. We loved it. It's probably the only Airbnb I've stayed at where I would absolutely go back to the same place.

STOW-ON-THE-WOLD

Stow-on-the-Wold is a small market town and civil parish in Gloucestershire, England. It is situated on top of an 800 ft hill, at the convergence of a number of major roads through the Cotswolds, including the Fosse Way (A429), which is of Roman origin. The town was founded as a planned market place by Norman lords, to take advantage of trade on the converging roads. Fairs have been held by royal charter since 1330 and an annual horse fair is still held on the edge of the town.

WHAT TO DO

Stow-on-the-Wold is another popular tourist town and home to many shops, galleries, and restaurants. Even without popping into any of the businesses, you can keep yourself busy wandering the streets, like on a guided tour.

However, don't miss the small town shopping, the art galleries, and museums. One of my favourite furniture companies, Cotswold & Co, has a shop there and I didn't even realise it while we were there! 

WHAT TO SEE

Ancient yew trees at the north porch of to St Edward's Church form the so-called Lord of the Rings Door. As legend goes, the doors inspired Tolkien's door to Moria. He was a frequent visitor of the Cotswolds and the Bell Inn pub in Moreton-in-Marsh is thought to be the inspiration to the Prancing Pony. Of course none of this can ever be proven, but it's fun to imagine and to get lost in Tolkien's world. (Check out more of his inspiration in Oxford and Birmingham.)

The church grounds are free and open to the public, but as with many churches, it's surrounded by an old cemetery so it's important to be respectful.

WHERE TO EAT

There are plenty of places to go, no matter what you're in the mood for. We stopped for afternoon tea and had our pick of the litter when it came to tea rooms. Ultimately we chose Huffkins, frequently on best of afternoon tea in the Cotswolds lists, and it was delicious, but service was slow. You'll mostly find tea rooms, cafes, and pubs around town and if you're lucky, you might walk by an ice cream cart in the summer time.

The Old Butchers caught my eye while we were walking by because of their sign for lobster. Upon closer inspection, I noticed it's a Michelin restaurant.

WHERE TO STAY

The Porch House calls itself England's oldest inn, with timber in the structure carbon dated to 947AD. Needless to say, the inn has a long and rich history, but the hotel itself only dates back to 1970. 

If you're looking for something more modern, check out the Cross Keys Cottage B&B, built in 1640.

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