lavender fields, English countryside, Cotswolds

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Places We Visit in the Cotswolds

Oxford

Oxford 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.

Minster Lovell

While 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.

Windrush Valley

Green 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.

Aston Pottery 

While this stop offers the opportunity to purchase Cotswold hand-stenciled pottery items in the on-site store, the true highlight is the delicious home-cooked lunch served in the award-winning cafe. Local produce is used in savory quiches and mouth-watering tarts, and there are plenty of cakes, scones and breads to choose from as well.

Bampton

Bampton is one of the oldest villages in England, dating back possibly as far as the iron Age. Today, this scenic town is best known as the location for filming most of the outdoor scenes in the PBS series Downton Abbey. While the locals are welcoming to visitors, they are occasionally startled to find tourists walking into their homes or gardens, not quite realizing that Bampton is an actual town with actual inhabitants, not simply a set created for the series. After six years of filming in this town, the locals and the TV crew built a bond, and the Downton Abbey cast and crew hosted a barbeque for the townsfolk as a parting gift.

Wytham Woods  

Wytham Woods covers 1,000 acres and is home to over 500 species of plants and 800 species of butterflies and moths, as well as a large number of badgers and three species of deer. The site contains four important habitats: ancient semi-natural woodland (dating back to the last Ice Age), secondary woodland (dating to the 17th century), modern plantations (from the 1950s and 60s), and limestone grassland. Bequeathed to Oxford University in 1942, this is one of the most researched areas of land in the world, and scientists here have collected valuable bird data for over 60 years (including a breeding study of over 40 generations of great tits), badger data for over 30 years, and climate change data for the past 18 years.

Highgrove House

Feel like royalty as we visit the grand residence of the King of England! Built in 1796, this manor is now a favorite home of King Charles and the Queen Consort, 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.

Westonbirt Arboretum  

Westonbirt Arboretum was founded in 1829 by wealthy landowner Robert Holford, who paid plant hunters to bring back rare and exotic species from the farthest corners of the British Empire. He then planted them aesthetically instead of by species or native geographic location. The result is a renowned botanical collection that is famous today not only for its incredible diversity but also for its picturesque beauty. Covering an area of approximately 600 acres with 17 miles of trails, the arboretum contains 2,500 different tree species from all over the world, with some specimens dating back to the 1850s. Keep an eye out for trees with a blue label; these indicate Westonbirt’s “champion trees,” the tallest or largest (in trunk girth) of their kind in Britain. There are currently 140 champion trees at Westonbirt Arboretum!

Slimbridge Wetland Center

Slimbridge Wetland Centre is located in Gloucestershire and is one of the UK's largest wetland reserves. The center is managed by the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT) which is dedicated to protecting wetlands and the wildlife that inhabits them. The WWT was founded by Sir Peter Scott, the son of the polar explorer Robert Falcon Scott. Peter Scott was also a founding member of the World Wildlife Fund and received his knighthood in recognition of his conservation activities.

Slimbridge has the world’s largest collection of captive waterfowl as part of a breeding program, so visitors can count on seeing a wide range of bird species throughout the year. On-site viewing blinds offer excellent viewing of the many species of swans, shovelers, flamingos, ducks and cranes that make the wetlands home.

Painswick Rococo Gardens

Rococo gardens are known for their unrestrained exuberance. The Rococo style, whether applied to gardens, home interiors or paintings, is steeped in romance and frivolity. It represents a time of decadence, when England’s elite would show off their wealth by hosting parties in gardens such as the one at Painswick. Changing values caused these decadent gardens to fall out of favor and by the 1760s, the Painswick Garden started being cultivated into a more typical—and more restrained—English country-style garden.

Fortunately, in 1748, a painter named Thomas Robins captured the original Painswick Gardens at its peak. This painting became the template for recreating the original Rococo style here and, today, this is the last complete example of a Rococo-style garden in all of England.

Upper and Lower Slaughter

These two scenic towns that sit just one mile away from each other are connected by the shallow River Eye. It is the slow-moving water through this valley that gave these towns their names, which are based on the old Saxon word for “slough.” Both hamlets date back at least to the 10th century, and they were recorded in the Domesday Book of 1086. This book recorded every landholding in England to allow William the Conqueror to collect taxes.

Upper Slaughter is one of only 14 villages in England that lost no men during either of the world wars, earning it the status of a “doubly thankful” or “double-sainted” town. Lower Slaughter has been home to a manor house since the year 1004 AD. It was given to the High Sherriff of Gloucestershire in 1611 AD and it was occupied by his descendants until it was renovated as a luxury hotel in the 1960s. Apart from renovations like this, no new construction has happened in either of the Slaughters since 1906.

Bourton-on-the-Water

The history of this village dates back more than 6,000 years. Neolithic pottery has been found in excavations just outside the current town, as well as tools from the Bronze and Iron Ages. It was the location of an important ford across the Windrush River (it was deeper and wider back then) for the Roman army when they occupied England. Roman coins and pottery have been found at an old settlement site to the west of Bourton-on-the-Water.

Today, Bourton-on-the-Water is considered by many to be the most beautiful village anywhere in England. Picturesque stone bridges cross the Windrush, quaint stone cottages line the streets and beautiful blossoms adorn the trees in the spring.

Broadway

Shed the crowds by walking from the Broadway Tower hill into the scenic village of Broadway. We are likely to see far more sheep than people along the way, and there is a high likelihood of young lambs as well. We will also learn about the changing attitudes toward pheasant hunting in this region. For decades, farmers here have partially supported themselves by raising pheasants and charging hunters from the city for the opportunity to hunt them. As hunting is falling out of favor, this is no longer a reliable source of income. The village itself is known as the “Jewel of the Cotswolds.” Although modest in size overall, the hamlet is named after the broad, tree-lined roadway through the center of town that once served as an important connecting link between Worcester and London through Wales.

Hidcote Gardens

After 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 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 representatives are more than happy to tell you about it.


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