Why visit the Cotswolds? Well, I live here, so let me try and answer that question. I moved to the area when I was nine. My grandparents had raised their own children on the very edge of the Cotswolds in Oxfordshire, attracted by the open spaces and rural pace of life. My parents wanted the same after a decade of living on military bases as a family—they found a house in a village called Minchinhampton and never left. I grew up in an area known as the Five Golden Valleys—picture-postcard villages, affluent market towns, rolling hills and the best pubs in the country. Who wouldn’t love that?
In the summer, the countryside was blindingly colorful as fields of mustard, rapeseed and lavender came to flower. The woodlands were carpeted with fragrant wild garlic and colorful bluebells. If you knew where to look you could enjoy the rare blossoms called snake’s head fritillary—the 60.8 acres they cover here represent more than 80 percent of the entire country’s population of the flowers. When Britain wants to export our image of green and pleasant perfection, we use the Cotswolds. In the winter, frost and snow just made the Cotswolds look even more like a film set, which it frequently becomes whenever a director requires a quintessentially English setting. As snowflakes fell, we would toboggan down slopes that had been built as ramparts by the invading Roman army in 43 AD.
As a teenager, I had the pleasure of propping up various ancient oak topped bars in buildings that had been serving ale for hundreds of years. That sense of history pervades life here—the notion that the human population is just passing through, and it is the landscape and architecture that remains untouched. Over 80 percent of the Cotswolds is farmland, and we have the largest protected Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (awarded by the government in 1966) in the UK. Small nature reserves are dotted throughout the region to ensure that anything not covered by sustainable agriculture (typically on farmland managed by the same family for generations) and government charter are protected from development. Our most prominent center for higher education is the Royal Agricultural University, which teaches best practices to the next generation of land managers from around the world. It didn’t take long to understand that there was clearly something special about my home county—a balance existed that had been conserving the region for hundreds of years. Naturally, the chance to travel back in time is exactly what attracts so many visitors. The pub may be serving the very latest culinary trends, but it is serving them in a building that has been touched by the English Civil War and every major national event since. You could even find yourself enjoying a pint of real ale with a member of the royal family, as several live on estates in the Cotswolds. Prince Charles has made his home at Highgrove House near Tetbury, and Princess Anne lives at Gatcombe Park close to my parent’s village.
When our adolescent peers in the city were loitering in shopping centers and fast food chains and failing to absorb adequate levels of sunshine, we were watching traditional woolsack races, hooting with enthusiasm for the annual cheese rolling competition and sneaking into the National Arboretum at Westonbirt. You know you are a country kid when you break into a tree museum to enjoy the oak avenues! Even going to the movies is different here—we have the smallest cinema in the country in what used to be a Fish and Chip shop! Whilst a few of my peers left school to work in the big city, others were training to build Cotswold stone walls or repair traditional stone and thatched roofs. Traditional rural skills are evident throughout the region as the fabric of the Cotswolds is repaired but rarely altered in our endless crusade to conserve what we have. We even learned to drive on nice straight roads built by the Romans and still favored as the quickest route from A to B over the less effective efforts of the current roads authority. Maybe that is part of the magic of the Cotswolds—if it ain’t broke…don’t fix it!
A good example of the local attitude to land management is the ongoing business of gravel quarrying. This industry began 50 years ago, and in a different region, it might have just led to vast pieces of the landscape being scoured away and left devoid of life once the gravel was removed. In the Cotswolds, every quarry has to be assessed by an archaeologist before extraction begins. This has led to the area becoming the most archaeologically researched in the country. They have uncovered 6,000 years’ worth of human activity and wildlife dating back to the Ice Age. Once quarrying ceases, the gravel pits are rehabilitated to create great habitats for wildlife such as aquatic plants, fish, invertebrates and water birds. In this way, 150 lakes and 2,470 acres of open water have been added to the landscape. This habitat is crucial for 20,000 wintering waterbirds as well as large numbers of breeding warblers, nightingale, little ringed plover and common tern. There are more than 200 species of birds now visiting the lakes. There are six wildflower meadows and crystal clear limestone streams, not forgetting the River Thames, which has its source here. The local otter and water vole populations are growing, further evidence that what could have been something of a wasteland has become a biodiversity hotspot for the South West of the country.
The history of the Cotswolds is reflected in its rich architecture. The Romans were the first occupants to build stone buildings that were meant to last, for protection from the wild locals and to intimidate them. The rural Britons at that time were mostly living in hovels, and the Romans thoroughly outclassed them with fancy under-floor heating systems, walls that stayed up even when it got windy and bedrooms that had beds and no livestock. The Cotswolds is home to some of the finest examples of Roman construction in the country. Cirencester (Corinium, if your name is Senator Gaius Flavius) was the second most important city in Roman Britain. It still has the remains of an amphitheater, the town walls, the Roman street layout and a newer award-winning museum. In the Middle Ages, the wealth generated by wool production resulted in a construction competition between market towns wanting to have the highest church tower, the biggest covered market place or the finest guildhall. This was an extremely influential time for the Cotswolds in terms of infrastructure and human manipulation of the landscape. A great deal of what we enjoy today was built in that period of affluence. The expansion of the cloth industry around Stroud and the surrounding valleys at one point led to 150 fulling mills in operation. They needed the precious water supplied by local rivers to drive their machinery. The fine dyed cloth known as Stroud Scarlet became the favorite of the royal family and the army. Beautiful villages like Painswick, Minchinhampton and Bisley exist entirely thanks to the wealth of the wool merchants. The mills are now converted into luxury hotels, business premises or swanky apartments whilst the old weavers’ cottages change hands for small fortunes thanks to their charming locations. Arlington Row in Bibury is just such a collection of weavers’ cottages dating from 1380 and is now one of the most photographed scenes in the Cotswolds! Finally, in the 1700s, Georgian architects shaped the likes of Bath and Cheltenham with their ordered Regency style, most famously found in Bath’s breathtaking Royal Crescent.
So, when it came to designing an itinerary that would capture the Cotswolds in its very best light, I really just took a walk down memory lane, several hundred years as it turned out. Everything I love about this unique corner of the country is included, right down to what isn’t described in our detailed itinerary. You can see the highlights for yourself and hopefully agree that it’s a tough act to follow—a private tour of a forgotten mansion, exclusive access to the most beautiful private gardens and some of the prettiest walks in the British Isles, to name a few. I want to add that all the moments that connect these highlights are just as essential to enjoying the area—the beautiful landscape you will drive through still makes me stop and marvel most days. It is a simple pleasure to sit in the corner of a great pub and watch the world go by or chat with the local who doubles as the village historian. Many of these experiences and the timings have been given the ‘local’ treatment because as ever, we want you to enjoy the Cotswolds without the crowds. It is not the easiest challenge in a place as popular as this, but with a bit of careful planning…
By Ben Forbes