You could spend a week, a month or even longer in the Cotswolds, that magical piece of England that devotees of British television are so enamored of. But even a long weekend is enough for you to make a pretty good dent in the region. Follow my recent itinerary or strike out on your own. You can’t go wrong no matter where you go.
The Cotswolds, known for the many honey-colored limestone cottages dotting its postcard-worthy villages, is best explored by car. With some planning, you could get by with public transportation, but it will leave you less able to wander off the well-traveled— and often crowded—path. If you’re going the rental route, plan well ahead (preferably before you leave home) and order a car with a GPS already installed, or you’ll be paying a pretty pound or two in data downloads on your personal cell phone.
Starting out from London—where we stayed at the delightful Athenaeum Hotel —we caught the train from Paddington Station to the village of Kemble, where we picked up our car. Then it was on to our first night’s stop in Cirencester at the beautifully restored Kings Head Hotel, a stylish, elegant 45-room boutique hotel in the center of town—an ideal location for exploring this lively town, with its twice-weekly street market, farmers markets and antiques and crafts fairs.
Dominating the town center and serving as a point of reference is the parish church of St. John Baptist, known as the “Cathedral of the Cotswolds” and a symbol of the wealth and influence Cirencester had as a thriving wool town in medieval England.
Cirencester had its beginnings in the Roman period and was one of the regional capitals of Roman Britain. Whether or not you’re an ancient history buff (and I confess that I’m not), the award-winning, interactive Corinium Museum is well worth a visit for a look at how Cirencester has evolved through the centuries.
We also enjoyed the New Brewery Arts Centre, which includes exhibition space, classes, special events such as crafts fairs, and a shop well-stocked with handmade British crafts.
The sun was shining the next morning— not something to be taken for granted or ignored in this part of the world—so we took the opportunity for an early-morning walk in the 19th-century landscaped Cirencester Park, owned by the Bathurst family for more than three centuries. After sufficiently stretching our legs, we left Cirencester (no time for dilly-dallying on this quick trip) for Tetbury, whose centrally located Market House was built in 1655 for the sale of wool and yarn. Tetbury itself dates back to at least the seventh century. Today, Tetbury’s streets are lined with historic buildings, many of which house a wide variety of art galleries and antiques shops.
For souvenirs with a royal pedigree, try the Highgrove Shop, which sells exclusive items for the home and garden that often reflect the personal interests of HRH The Prince of Wales, whose estate is nearby. It’s a good place to stock up on gifts. (I’m still regretting passing on the cashmere socks.)
Sans cashmere socks, we had a quick lunch at local eatery Café 53 and then were on our way to our next overnight destination, Cheltenham, where we tucked in for the night at The Malmaison Cheltenham, a restored Victorian villa with a decidedly contemporary vibe. Start out with wine and cheese in the library as we did, and then dine in the Brasserie, a popular spot for locals and visitors alike.
The following morning, we walked into town and strolled down Cheltenham’s Promenade, with its many stylish boutiques, and then on through the open-air market. Known as a spa town since its first natural springs were discovered in 1716, Cheltenham is also host to numerous inter-national festivals and events, beautiful parks and gardens, and impressive Regency architecture. The Cheltenham Gold Cup marks the beginning of the town’s well-known racing season.
After a morning exploring, it was back into the car for the drive to Stow on the Wold and a quick walk around this quintessentially English village, with its many boutiques and antiques shops. Stop for a bite to eat at Huffkins, a family-owned Cotswolds bakery and tea room that dates back to the late 19th century and includes such traditional treats as Lardy cake (sweet dough with currants, brown sugar and, in deference to healthier times, butter instead of lard).
Well-fortified, we were off to Bourton on the Water, a particularly scenic village. Many of its cottages and houses are at least 300 years old, some going back as far as Elizabethan times. With the River Windrush running through town, crossed at regular intervals by small stone bridges, Bourton on the Water has well earned its nickname as the Venice of the Cotswolds.
If you want to do more than just stroll and snap your smartphone camera, you can also visit the Cotswolds Perfumery, Birdland, the Model Village, the Motoring Museum & Toy Collection and the Bourton Model Railway.
We started out the next day for a quick visit to the sleepy but picturesque village of Burford, known as the gateway to the Cotswolds. If you’re an architecture buff, as I am, you’ll appreciate the variety of styles and periods here—more than in most Cotswold towns. And if you have artistic leanings, check out the exhibitions at the James Fletcher-Watson Gallery. Fletcher-Watson, who died in 2004, was one of Britain’s leading landscape watercolorists, establishing the gallery when he moved to the area. Artists from all over the world come here to take classes of all levels.
By mid-morning, it was time to leave the Cotswolds, as we were heading back to the States the following day and wanted to make a quick visit to Oxford before our overnight stay in Windsor (it’s easier to get to Heathrow Airport from there than from the heart of London). There is, of course, much more to see and do in the Cotswolds, but our quick visit was certainly enough to entice us to return for a longer stay.
For more information, go to visitbritain.com and cotswolds.com.