Places We Visit in the Cotswolds
OxfordOxford is home to the oldest university in England and is the birthplace of Narnia, Hobbits and Alice in Wonderland. CS Lewis spent most of his academic life in Oxford, along with other friends who were also great names in literature, including JRR Tolkien and Lewis Carroll. Once you arrive in Oxford, you’ll understand their inspiration.
It is nicknamed “The City of Dreaming Spires” due to its beautiful skyline of Gothic towers and steeples. Its true name, however, is derived from the old Saxon word “oxenforda.” With the River Thames running through the area, this was an important crossing point for ox carts. Now, a perfect mix of ancient and modern, Oxford is also home to some of England’s finest surviving examples of untouched lowland wildflower and grazing meadows. Some of these meadows even contain traces of Bronze and Iron Age settlements.
Windrush ValleyGreen rolling hills. Medieval stone bridges. Quiet, idyllic villages seemingly untouched by time. This valley is a picture-perfect example of classic English Cotswold countryside. The Windrush River snakes through the scenic valley, past ancient ruins, Norman churches, Elizabethan manor houses and quaint cottages as it makes its way to the River Thames.
Called the Windrush because of the way the river winds through the rushes that line the riverbanks, the valley is home to many bird and wildflower species. It is also home to herds of Cotswold Lions–the region’s namesake sheep that have grazed the local pastures for centuries.
Minister LovellWhile this charming riverside village is a destination in itself, most people come here to see the ruins of Minster Lovell Hall. Built in 1435 by the seventh Lord Lovell, it was an upgrade to the property that had been held by the Lovell family since the 12th century. This family and its estate was deeply mired in the politics of the time. Members of the family played roles in the War of the Roses, the Battle of Bosworth and the Lambert Simnel Rebellion. After being convicted of treason as a result of his part in the Battle of Bosworth, the ninth Lord Lovell, Francis, was forced to turn over the lands and the hall to the king. That ended the Lovell connection to this property and later owners dismantled the house, leaving the ruins that can be visited today.
SwinbrookIn a quiet, rural area adjacent to the River Windrush lies the village of Swinbrook. This sleepy hamlet is an ideal Cotswold town with well-preserved limestone walls, centuries-old stone manor houses and an inn that made an appearance in the show Downton Abbey. St Mary’s Church, located in the center of Swinbrook, is notable for its interesting stone effigies of six family members who lived in the manor in the 17th century.
Highgrove HouseFeel like royalty as we visit the grand residence of the heir to the throne of England! Built in 1796, this manor is now the home of Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall, Camilla Rosemary Shand. After being purchased by the Duchy of Cornwall in 1980, it was stripped clean and redecorated for its new inhabitants. The on-site Royal Gardens add color and life to the stately home. With years of devotion and attention, the organic gardens are now an esteemed feature of the estate. Environmentally conscious practices (like making their own compost) keep the gardens thriving, thanks to His Royal Highness who plays an active part in its management.
Slad ValleyHome to English poet and novelist Laurie Lee, this untouched slice of the Cotswolds was made famous by his book, Cider with Rosie. While he died in May 1997, his book has become an enduring classic that captures the essence of the “tangled woods and sprawling fields” of his youth.
This valley was once the heart of England’s cloth and wool industry, but the mills are barely evident today. A Site of Special Scientific Interest, the valley is rich in wildflowers supported by limestone grasslands. It’s also home to several nature reserves that host more than 70 different types of birds and other wildlife.
Woodchester MansionThis unfinished Victorian Gothic masterpiece is located in a hidden, isolated valley known as Woodchester Park. While building began around 1857, it was abruptly stopped in the mid-1860s. Left behind was a home that appears complete on the outside. However, the interior is a different story. Entire floors and ceilings are missing. There are unplastered walls and tools left behind by the builders when they abandoned the building.
While never completed for human habitation, today there are some who call Woodchester Mansion home. Some may be supernatural–the mansion was featured on an episode of Ghost Hunters International–but you are more likely to see the colonies of endangered greater and lesser horseshoe bats that have lived at the residence since at least the 1950s and have been studied since 1959. The bats generally arrive during April and May to have babies and leave in September to hibernate. A variety of other bat species also call the roomy mansion home, with the estate supporting approximately 14 of the 17 bat species found in the UK.
Broadway TowerSometimes mere curiosity results in stunning monuments. In the early 1790s, the Countess of Coventry, Barbara St. John Bletsoe, wondered if a beacon on this hill could be seen from her home 22 miles away. Membership in the royal family carries some weight, so landscape designer “Capability Brown” leapt into action and designed this Saxon tower on a 1,024-foot-high escarpment to find out. Architect James Wyatt helped with the final design and the tower was completed in 1798. The stunning view from the top of this tower encompasses 16 counties and the reciprocal view from Lady Coventry’s house does, indeed, reach back to the tower.
A visit to Broadway Tower also allows an exploration of the 200-acre estate and its resident herd of red deer. For Cold War buffs, a quick trip underground reveals a restored nuclear bunker that was actively used as a monitoring center until 1991.
Hidcote GardensAfter his mother bought the 300-acre plot in 1907, Hidcote Gardens was created by the talented American horticulturist, Major Lawrence Johnston. This must-see National Trust property has become famous for its collection of rare and exotic plants, shrubs and trees. These curated specimens were hunted down by Johnston in his travels to far-flung locations. In 1948 the site was the first of many significant gardens acquired by the National Trust under its Gardens Fund.
Today gardeners flock from around the world to get a glimpse of this influential Arts and Crafts Movement-inspired garden. Arranged as separate “rooms,” each area of the garden is distinct, peaking with color at different times of the year. Water features abound, creating an even more peaceful and calm atmosphere. There’s mystery here too. None of the plants are labeled, although if something catches your eye, the National Trust is more than happy to tell you about it.