Daydreaming of a trip to England quickly conjures up the image of sheep grazing in rolling green hills, quaint villages with quiet lanes dotted with thatched cottages and local cozy pubs, medieval churches, and lazy, winding rivers. Nowhere does the word “bucolic” apply more than in the Cotswolds. The largest Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty in Britain, the Cotswolds is a quintessential piece of rural southern England spread across several counties. This region, whose name comes from the Old English “cot” for sheep enclosure and “wold,” meaning hill—“sheep pens among rolling hills”—spans 800 gorgeous square miles.
An Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) is the term given to a precious landscape whose distinctive natural beauty is so noteworthy that it is in the nation’s interest to safeguard it. The AONBs, of which there are 46 in the UK, were established to conserve the beauty of mostly lowland rural agricultural landscapes. This AONB distinction was created by the same legislation that led to the national parks but they were also designed to be run quite differently. The national parks in England were given free reign to develop their own bureaucracies, complete with planning powers, large staffs and central funding, while the AONBs remained tied to local government (and thus usually have a tiny core staff and relatively meager funding).
The Cotswolds, located just about two hours northwest of London, was designated in 1966 and extended to its current size in 1990. Human history here goes back some 6,000 years – the landscape is speckled with the remains of Neolithic long barrows and Iron Age hill forts. It has since become one of the most popular AONBs, receiving more than 23 million tourists a year. If you are planning a trip to the Cotswolds, make sure to go with a provider who offers the chance to see the smaller hamlets (Widford, Swinbrook or Asthall are good ones) for that picture postcard UK experience.
Along the Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty’s western rim is the region’s defining feature—the Cotswold Edge, a stunning 52-mile escarpment of Jurassic oolitic limestone that ascends to elevations of 900 feet. To the southeast, the slope gently diminishes to form the Cotswolds’ recognizable landscape of farmland, grassland and woodland. The limestone provides the area’s famous Cotswold stone, a golden colored rock that has been quarried and used for building grand country houses and even entire towns (such as Laverton) here since Roman times. In medieval times, the Cotswold region was also famous for the quality of the wool it produced, and many wool merchants became fabulously wealthy. They often lavished this wealth on their local churches which were made of Costwold stone, so be sure to check out the gilded interiors as well.
Those with an interest in wildlife will be drawn to the woodland that makes up about ten percent of the AONB, much of it ancient, semi-natural beech, and some stands of poplar, chestnut, rowan and whitebeam. These woodlands are a valuable breeding habitat for birds and rare invertebrates. A threatened Cotswold habitat is unimproved limestone grassland, which covers over 7400 acres, half of which are classed as Jurassic limestone grassland. During the 1930s, this limestone grassland covered 40 percent of the Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty – but today that number has nosedived to 1.5 percent. Even so, it’s still more than half of Britain’s total, and remains a thriving plant habitat. Visitors who explore places such as Painswick Beacon at the end of May or beginning of June could potentially see twelve species of orchid. In the autumn, they would be welcomed with harebell, thyme, wild marjoram (and the butterflies such as the small, chalkhill and large blue that thrive by those plants).
The Cotswolds is also a stronghold for water voles, otters and brown hares, and an occasional elusive hedgehog, while horseshoe bats roost in disused stone mines. The woodlands aren’t the only place for wildlife spotting – many species of butterflies prefer to live in the flower-filled meadows or on the steep, south-facing slopes that have been grazed by the cattle, flying low over the short grass. The lovely Adonis blue butterfly is a Cotswolds conservation success story – it has recently returned to the area after a thirty year absence. Environmental initiatives are paying off in other ways, as the number of buzzards has increased 20-fold and breeding pairs of ravens have been found where none were found before.
Aviary enthusiasts should not miss the chance to visit to the Cotswold Falconry Center. There guests can be educated on the more than 130 birds of prey of 60 different species in the area, including Cotswold natives like sparrowhawks, common kestrels, red kites and peregrine falcons. Since its founding in 1988, the center has made raptor conservation its mission.
For the chance at your own birds-eye view of the Cotswolds, head to the 1024-foot Broadway Tower, one of the highest points in the Cotswolds, to gaze out across 16 counties. This landmark was the creative project of 18th-century landscape designer Capability Brown, who enlisted esteemed architect James Wyatt to help see the project to fruition in 1798. Many members of the Arts and Crafts movement used Broadway tower as a country holiday retreat. History buffs will be happy to know that it was precisely here that William Morris started his campaign for the preservation of historic monuments.
While the Cotswolds can be visited at any time of the year, May through September are months typically blessed with moderately warm (think 70F or so as a high) rather than scaldingly hot temperatures, perfect for comfortably strolling through small villages or flower-filled fields. The Windrush Valley is one of the most lovely walking destinations in the Cotswolds, with scenes straight out of a fairy tale. There are medieval churches, quaint cottages with beautiful gardens, cozy pubs, and picturesque bridges spanning the Windrush river.
There are many AONBs in England, but there is something about a visit to the Cotswolds that makes time seem to slow down and make one stop in awe to notice the little things in life. Whether that may be happening upon a Large Blue Maculinea arion (the UK’s rarest butterfly but still spotted in the Cotswolds) or sheep quietly meandering in a meadow as the sun sets over verdant rolling hills, the Costwolds will be sure to carve out a special place in your heart.