Just what is it about the Cotswolds that captures the imagination of millions of visitors each year? The essence of what makes the Cotswolds one the the UK’s most visited areas is almost impossible to pin down to a single article. But we’ve given it a go.
The Cotswolds is quite large, 101 miles (160km) if you care to walk the Cotswold Way between Chipping Campden and Bath. There are over 100 hamlets and villages between the two, each of them comprised of houses and buildings made from the local limestone.
Visitors are attracted by that rare uniform quality of architecture and the Cotswolds’ reputation (well-deserved) for beautiful, historic gardens and houses. The Cotswolds is also well known for fine dining and classic English pubs. These are the main elements of the appeal of a stay in the Cotswolds, enhanced by in-house facilities such as spas, tennis courts and swimming pools. Many of the best restaurants are to be found in hotels here, from Michelin-starred dining rooms to traditional Inns.
The word ‘Cotswolds’ refers to one of England’s geographical feature, a group of gentle hills and limestone geology which is bounded by Stratford upon Avon, Oxford, Bath and Cheltenham.
Because of a favoured landscape and one or two elements of good fortune, the area is famously beautiful, with a unique sense of place and a unity of geology, landscape and architecture than seems to have an almost universal appeal. Ask a visitor from, say, the USA or Japan what their image of English life is like and they might well say that the Cotswolds area represents their expectations.
The area owes its good fortune to sheep, still the symbol of the area. From medieval times, the heavy fleeced Cotswold breed commanded high prices in the markets of Europe. The Cotswolds are in fact perfect for sheep-raising. all those slow-flowing streams and rivers, gentle hillsides and clean air. Wool merchants prospered, and with that prosperity came a wave of building, homes, Manor Houses – and notably churches. Many of the larger houses date from that period and in fact some of those buildings are now the best Cotswolds hotels – it’s an exciting thought that your accommodation is actually a part of the story of the Cotswolds.
Cotswolds Hotels Food and Drink
Speaking of food (and drink), local goodies to look out for include lamb (naturally), cheeses (over a hundred are) made in the Cotswolds these days) – the classic ones are Gloucester cheeses but you can go right through the cheeseboard locally, from Cerney Ash pyramids to brie cheeses to blue cheese. Orchard fruits are always magnificent, apples, pears and plums.
We’re also big fans of Gloucester Old Spot pork (It’s an almost automatic guarantee of welfare standards since the breed doesn’t thrive in conditions of intensive farming). A perfect foodie day (as far as we’re concerned) would involve a full, traditional Cotswolds hotel English breakfast, a Ploughman’s pub, with a pint of Donningtons Ale and some fine-dining in the evening back at base, with a short walk to bed. Plenty of walking in between of course.
Incidentally, various distilleries have sprung up in the UK since Sipsmith won a legal battle with Her Majesties Revenue and Customs in 2009. The outcome was that, yes, distilleries won the right to distil and sell gin in small batches. Some are better than others. We look for a distillery that actually distill rather than buying in spirit to flavour. Incidentally it’s not all about gin, do look out for Cotswold Distillery Whisky. No touristy product this, it’s a very well made labour of love that is challenging the world’s best. Highly recommended.
The great thing to remember is that the Cotswolds are not some stuffy backwater. In terms of cultural events , entertainment and things to do generally, there’s a busy calendar of events. A single day might include a World Heritage Site visit, a burlesque-tinged circus performance or boutique shopping for antiques or clothing.
The main Heritage sites are heavy hitters, Blenheim Palace was designed to make a statement and still does. The only non-royal or episcopal palace in the country, it is impressive. Try to have your visit coincide with one of their program of events – it adds a lot of value. Warwick Palace to the north of the Cotswolds is probably the most commercially operated castles in the country, it’s tongue-in-cheek history, and correspondingly entertaining. Sudeley Castle, near Cheltenham belong to Katherine Parr, one of the two wines to survive Henry VIII – her tomb is the chapel there and it’s the sort of place to give you goose bumps if you are sensitive to history and atmosphere. Try to visit in June for the roses. Berkeley Castle, a little further south, not far from Gloucester, is rather less homely-looking. Its origins in the 11th century make for a more austere appearance, but the story that is told there is quirky and entertaining and, in the case of the death of Edward II, gripping. It is one of the most remarkable castle’s in Britain.
Religious buildings, from ‘Wool Churches’ in Northleach, Fairford or Burford to the Gothic-impressive Gloucester Cathedral are so much more than churches. They tell the social history of the area, from money given by wealthy wool merchants to build impressive churches to the way in which perhaps forty men or women have been priests or vicars in sequence over a period of a thousand years. You’ll find pew ends worn away by sheepdog chains, ornate carvings, the ravages of Henry VIII’s religious revolution or the Civil War.
The four seasons
Finally, if you’re planning a visit consider the time of year and what the glorious gardens of the Cotswolds might have to offer. From Snowdrops in January to December tree shapes there’s always something.
Spring and the summer are the seasons to visit well known gardens such as Kiftsgate Court or Hidcote Manor but there are perhaps 20 nationally important larger gardens to visit too. Painswick Rococo, Miserden Park, Sezingcote and Bourton Hill deserve to be much better known.
In the Autumn the arboreta at Westonbirt and Batsford come into their own. In fact any corner of the Cotswolds will offer colourful fall displays of the local beech tree. Check with your hotel reception team to find out where the locals go!