November 29, 2023

Destination: Cotswolds

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A 2024 Guide to Visiting the Cotswolds

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The Cotswolds is a spectacular part of England. Whether it’s because of the undulating hills dotted with quaint villages and vibrant market towns, meandering stone walls, or definitive links to moments in time – we should know – it’s been our base and backyard since day one.

For international visitors, the Cotswolds gives you the perfect flavour of English culture, history, landscape, society and cuisine – amongst many other things of course!

Are you planning to visit the Cotswolds in 2024? This article gives you a background to the region, all the key visiting information and plenty of facts, first-hand experience and insider hints and tips along the way – there’s even talk of sheep, service stations and shin-kicking. Happy active travelling in the Cotswolds everyone!

Geography

Where are the Cotswolds?

The Cotswolds, sometimes mistakenly written as ‘Cotswalds’, covers a relatively large tract of land in England. On its northernmost tip, it sits in central England before extending towards the South West. In all, the Cotswolds covers six counties of England: Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire are the key two, but the region also includes areas of Warwickshire, Worcestershire, Wiltshire and Somerset. The Cotswolds measure nearly 800 square miles of land.

A typical Cotswold residence, built in stone. Image: Ben Arthur

The Cotswolds is 1 of 33 areas in England to be given the designation: National Landscape. This is an area of land which represents significant value for conversation purposes. Until November 2023, these were referred to as Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty or AONBs. The term Cotswolds AONB remains in use in the region.

Cotswolds Map

Travelling in the Cotswolds

Close to some major cities in England, like Birmingham and Bristol, the Cotswolds is relatively easy to get to. From London – the likely arrival if arriving from abroad – travellers can choose to drive to the region, although catching a train is perhaps the easiest and fuss-free option. The stations at Moreton-in-Marsh (North Cotswolds) and Bath (South Cotswolds) are two sensible options.

Once you arrive in the Cotswolds, public transport options are a little harder to find. Although there are some smaller train stations and bus routes, the best way to get around is by car.

Or, of course, you could make walking and cycling part of your holiday – you see the best bits by foot or by bike and we’ll sort your transfers!

Where to? Afternoon cream tea, or Garden centre? Image: Ben Arthur

History

The Cotswolds has a rich and varied history that dating back to prehistoric times. In the Roman era, the region was known for its wool trade and was home to several villas and towns. 

During the English Civil War, the Cotswolds was a site of significant conflict, with several battles fought between the Royalists and Parliamentarians. Stow-on-the-Wold was the site of the final battle of the war in 1646, which saw the Roundheads victorious over the Cavaliers.

In the 19th century, the Cotswolds played a significant role in the Arts and Crafts movement, a design and social movement that emerged in Britain. The movement was led by William Morris, who established workshops in the region to produce handcrafted items. The Cotswolds also became a popular destination for wealthy artists and writers, including the likes of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Edward Burne-Jones.

The River Coln in Bibury. Image: Ben Arthur

Cotswolds Stone

For many, the Cotswolds are most easily recognised in pictures by its distinctive stone buildings. The light brown, honey-coloured stone has been widely quarried in the region since the Roman times. Look closely during your visit and you can see the colour of the stone change as you move from the North Cotswolds to the South. 

In picture-postcard villages like Broadway, the stone is honey in colour. Move into the central Cotswolds and the stone begins to darken somewhat, before appearing much whiter in Bath.

The beautiful Picton House in Broadway, now a fine art gallery. Image: Ben Arthur

Cotswold Sheep

The Cotswolds and sheep have been intertwined for thousands of years and although it is fiercely debated the word ‘Cotswolds’ is said to derive from a description of a ‘sheep enclosure in hilly terrain’. The word ‘wold’ has distinct links to terms used for a hill.

It was the Romans who first built a strong sheep-farming presence in the region. Although the practice spread in the years that followed, it is thought the area around Cirencester was the Roman hub of sheep farming.

A suffolk cross mule lamb in the foreground, with a ewe (mother) in the background. Image: Ben Arthur

The relationship between sheep and the Cotswolds continued throughout much of the preceding centuries, even outlasting the Romans and the Black Death! But, as we’ve already alluded to, it wasn’t meat that brought prosperity to the Cotswolds it was the sheep’s wool that was so prized. The wealth of yesteryear can still be seen today in the so-called ‘Wool Churches’ of Cirencester and Chipping Campden.

Today, there’s even a breed of sheep named after the region, characterised by its long coat and floppy fringe. Although you’re unlikely to see any when walking through a Cotswold field – it’s recently been labelled as ‘at risk’ by a monitoring body.

For those looking to learn more about Ovis aries, we can heartily recommend a recent publication by the English author (and farmer) John Lewis-Stempel: The Sheep’s Tale: The story of our most misunderstood farm animal. Perfect reading for a Cotswolds walking holiday we’d say!

When to visit the Cotswolds

Although the weather in summer is appealing to the majority of travellers, the Cotswolds remain a fantastic place to visit at any time of the year

Average temperatures range from 68°F (20°C) in the summer to 33°F (1°C) in Winter. It’s not uncommon for it to rain during the summer, but most of the region’s falls in the colder months of the year.

Spring (March through to early May) is our favourite season in the Cotswolds. Luscious greenery appears from its winter hideaway, lambs bound in the fields, and once late Spring arrives, yellow Canola or Oilseed flowers carpet the landscape.

Campanula flowers on display at Hidcote Gardens. Image: Ben Arthur

The onset of warmer months brings plenty of benefits in the Cotswolds. Summer conditions make early morning hikes and biking incredibly rewarding and there’s no better way to restore yourself than by wallowing in a classic British pub garden until the sun goes down.

For green-fingered travellers, summer is also the ideal time of year to enjoy the region’s resplendent gardens. Hidcote, Kiftsgate and Blenheim Palace all shine in the summer months, especially when their Roses are on display.

Fall is a great time to visit the UK. It’s often quieter (and cheaper) plus you can marvel at the reds, oranges and yellows of fall foliage.

Christmas is also a magical time to visit the Cotswolds. In high or exposed spots, snow flurries can cause the odd problem, but more often than not it adds an even greater dusting of romance to the place!

Where to stay in the Cotswolds

Thanks to a buoyant tourism market, the Cotswolds has a plethora of places to rest your head. From rentals and Airbnb through to traditional British hotels and more luxurious options, there’s something for everyone.

Most accommodation options are congregated around the major towns of the region. Places like Moreton-in-Marsh, Broadway, Chipping Campden, Stow-on-the-Wold, Painswick and Tetbury.

The distinctive roof line of The Lamb Inn in Burford. Image: Ben Arthur

Cotswold Hotels

At Active England we’ve frequented more hotels in the region than we’d care to imagine. Some of the best hotels in the Cotswolds include The Lamb Inn in Burford and The Manor House in Moreton-in-Marsh. These are two perfect bases for exploring the region – one in the North and one further South – and two hotels in which cyclists and walkers like ourselves are welcomed with open arms.

Most hotels in the region have a homely, welcoming feel. As a traveller, that means sinking into an enveloping armchair at the end of your day surrounded by the stone, the region is famous for. Before heading upstairs, sample some classic English fare – locally sourced of course!

If you’re after something less run-of-the-mill can we recommend 10 of our favourite luxury hotels in the Cotswolds? These hotels are peak Cotswolds. Often housed in buildings dripping in centuries of history, they feature all the creature comforts modern travellers desire.

Places of interest in the Cotswolds

From historic country houses, to carefully manicured gardens and other sites of visual wonder, there are many places to visit in the Cotswolds. Here’s a condensed list.

  • Blenheim Palace. Birthplace of Winston Churchill. World Heritage site.
  • Broadway Tower. A three-story tower with commanding views.
  • Chavenge House. Historic Elizabethan manor house.
  • Chedworth Roman Villa. An elaborate Roman villa.
  • Cooper’s Hill. Site of the annual cheese rolling event.
  • Dover’s Hill. Site of the Cotswold Olympiks.
  • Hidcote Gardens. Gardens with ‘rooms’.
  • Highgrove. The private residence of King Charles III and Queen Camilla.
  • Rollright Stones. Prehistoric megalthic moments.
  • Shakespeare’s Birthplace. 16th century timbered house.
  • Sudeley Castle. A building of historic importance.
  • Westonbirt Arboretum. 18,000 trees set in 600 acres.

Dotted in the idyllic rural landscape are many Cotswold villages and towns. Whilst it might not be possible for you to visit all of our top 10 during your stay, here is some information that could help guide you.

Cotswolds Towns

The larger towns in the Cotswolds include Bourton-on-the-Water, Burford, Chipping Norton, Malmesbury, Minchinhampton, Moreton-in-Marsh, Painswick, Stow-on-the-Wold, Tetbury and Winchcombe.

All of these towns feature homely inns, pubs, hotels and restaurants plus boutique, independent shops that promise much for souvenir hunters. But which are our favourites?

First it’s the quaint little Anglo-Saxon town of Winchcombe which is characterized by its curved high street, which is why it is named “valley with a bend”.

The town is full of characterful inns, tea rooms, and independent shops, including the beloved local pub, the White Hart. Meanwhile, the surrounding area is lush with rolling hills and is home to the nearby Sudeley Castle. This castle is famous for being the final resting place of the last of King Henry VIII’s wives, Katherine Parr. Her tomb can be found in the 15th-century church nestled amongst the gardens.

St James Church in Chipping Campden, one of the regions Wool churches. Image: Ben Arthur

Another hub to visit is Stow-on-the-Wold, the highest of all the Cotswold towns. It’s a bustling market town, featuring charming Cotswold Stone cottages, a large market square (which was once a hub for buying and selling sheep), and plenty of independent shops. In fact, there is still a busy farmer’s market on the mornings of the second Thursday of each month.

History buffs will appreciate that Stow-on-the-Wold was the site of the final battle of the English Civil War in 1646. Positioned high up, the Roundheads were said to have seen victory over the Cavaliers at the bottom of the hill. Legend has it that “rivers of blood” were seen flowing down the hill.

We haven’t included much larger places like Bath, Cheltenham, Cirencester, Gloucester or Oxford here. Bath and Oxford are certainly worth a visit in their own right, (that’s why we include them on some of our guided walking and guided cycling tours) but for the sake of brevity, we won’t detail them here.

Cotswold Villages

Smaller residential areas dominate the Cotswolds. Clustered around narrow lanes and often sliced through by a babbling stream, these spaces have to be visited to be appreciated. Most have been relatively unaltered by the march of modern life and for that reason, they give visitors a porthole through which they can imagine what life was like in England hundreds of years ago.

It’s been tricky to narrow down our favourites but here we go. Number one our list is Broadway. Although it’s one of the larger villages it boasts plenty for visitors to get their teeth into. Take a stroll up the wide main street to the top of the hill, turn around and marvel at the architecture set out before you. 

If you have time for a longer walk you can climb the hill to Broadway Tower for even better views before continuing onto the equally delightful village of Snowshill. We liked this route so much that we included it on our Hidden Hundred – 100 of the most unique places to visit in the UK.

Broadway, in Summer. Where else would you rather be? Image: Ben Arthur

Second on our list of must-see Cotswolds villages is Bibury. Arlington Row, Bibury (pictured at the very top of this article) is said to be the most photographed street in the country. The steep sloping roofs, the foliage-covered frontages and the gentle stream certainly are a photographer’s dream.

Our third and final village is Castle Combe. Castle Combe is often referred to as the “prettiest town in England” and it’s not hard to see why. When you visit, you’ll be captivated by its stunning beauty. In fact, Castle Combe’s charm has attracted many movie makers over the years. It has been a backdrop for several films including Speilberg’s War Horse, Stardust and Wolf Man.

The town’s 14th Century market square is surrounded by honey-coloured cottages and the church of St Andrews, which is home to a faceless clock, thought to be one of the oldest in England.

Things to do in the Cotswolds

Whether your idea of a vacation is a packed itinerary or something more sedate, the Cotswolds presents a whole host of activities, and because the area isn’t vast, many are easily accessible in a day. Our top 20 things to do in the Cotswolds should fill up your week easily!

If you plan to visit Oxford, The Cotswolds and Bath our 5-day itinerary is well worth a read.

Walking in the Cotswolds

Offering excellent terrain, the Cotswolds is excellent walking country. Arguably it’s the best region in England for walking. Routes are plentiful, as are supplies and accommodation and the views are always bound to put a smile on your face. 

Cotswold hills can be described as rolling and although they can be steep at times, they don’t tend to err towards the extreme side of things. The height of the Cotswolds above sea level isn’t too eye-watering either. The highest point of the Cotswolds is Cleeve Hill (1,083 ft,330 m), a point that overlooks the famous Cheltenham Racecourse, a mecca for fans of horse racing.

Walking routes in the Cotswolds are generally well marked. This symbol indicates this route is on a National Trail. Image: Ben Arthur

The generally mild weather in the Cotswolds makes it possible to walk all year round. In summer even a dowsing of rain shouldn’t put you off your stride.

Popular walking routes in the Cotswolds include the likes of The Cotswolds Way, a 100 mile route that traverses the length of the Cotswolds, the Wychavon Way and the Winchcombe Way. Lesser known routes that we can recommend include sections of the Fosse Way (a notably linear route that can be traced back to Roman times) and sections of the E2 walking route which slices through the region before heading North (or South depending in which way you are walking it).

For more informal walking, the area is pockmarked with various options for Cotswolds circular walks, riverside walks or pub walks. In all, there are over 3000 miles of publicly accessible walking routes in the Cotswolds.

Whether you are a hiker who enjoys the outdoors with a guide and like-minded people or you prefer solitude and smaller groups, we offer a list of tailor-made walking tours in the Cotswolds. Most of our walking tours in the Cotswolds are of moderate walking difficulty. Daily distances range from 4 to 10 miles.

Cycling in the Cotswolds

The Cotswolds is a great place to ride a bike. Spin up gently rising hills and whizz through whisper-quiet villages, all under your own steam and with a smile on your face.

The thousands of tiny lanes that crisscross the region provide the most excellent biking. Whilst most rides will encounter the odd busy intersection it’s easy to get away from traffic. Cycling is popular with the locals too so don’t be surprised if you come across a lycra-clad road rider or a mud-splattered mountain biker.

With thousands of lanes to choose from, cyclists in the Cotswolds are spoilt for choice. Image: Ben Arthur

The region frequently plays host to Britain’s largest professional race, The Tour of Britain and its sister event The Women’s Tour. Here are some of our favourite Cotswolds cycling routes to get your juices flowing.

Our Cotswolds cycling tours have been hewn to show off the best of the region. We offer both guided and self-guided options that visit key sites like Broadway Tower, Blenheim and Bibury (we will visit other places that don’t begin with B, promise!) and deliver fantastic riding in between.

Cotswolds Food and Drink

If you were paying attention earlier in this article, you’d have read that the Cotswolds is an area with a proud agricultural history. Whilst the region can’t hold a claim to any unique food it’s a prolific producer of foodstuffs – 80% of Cotswold land is used for agriculture.

Although the region’s flock of sheep is on the decline (due to a reduction in profitability, amongst other reasons), other produce enterprises continue to go from strength to strength. Cheesemaking (Kingstone Dairy) and other milk-based products (Jess’s Ladies and Wholly Gelato), brewing (Hook Norton and Hawkstone) and Oils (Cotswolds Gold) are some notable examples.

Pull up a chair, no pull up a barrel and sample some local produce. Image: Ben Arthur

There’s even an emerging wine-producing segment in the region with the likes of Woodchester Valley looking to give their better-known French neighbours in Champagne a run for their money. On our Cotswold walking and cycling tours we are also frequent visitors to Bibury Trout Farm, a delightful place to sample this delicately flavoured fish.

Much of this produce is sold in various shops or farm shops across the Cotswolds. Some of the best include Daylesford (enter the cheese room at your peril!) and Diddly Squat (Yes the shop made famous by a certain Jeremy Clarkson in his comic yet honest Amazon Series). We’d also heartily recommend a visit to Lower Clopton Farm Shop – a small, but un-heralded farm shop near Hidcote Gardens. It sells its own traditionally farmed lamb, beef and at Christmas, Turkey!

A gas station might seem a strange place to find some of the region’s best food and drink –  especially when you consider the questionable history of English roadside food – but Gloucester Services is well worth a visit. There’s a Farm Shop packed to the brim with goodies and an onsite restaurant that serves up good honest British grub and caters for all ages.

Cotswolds Pubs

The Cotswolds is home to a plethora of quintessentially English public houses many of which are the focal point of the community.

While Cotswolds pubs nowadays offer a cosy and quintessentially “English” escape, they would once have been bustling hives of activity, from buying and selling to political meetings and electioneering, and even recruitment centers for military leaders setting out on their crusades!

Typical pub interior in the Cotswolds. Image: Ben Arthur

Some of the best pubs in the Cotswolds offer both enticing heritage and beautiful scenic backdrops that will make you want to stay forever. Ours is a pint of Ale, please.

Cotswolds Restaurants

Catering for visitors to the region are a host of restaurants. From Michelin Star options to more basic, but no less enjoyable eateries, there’s something for travellers on all budgets.

Dining in a Cotswolds restaurant. Image: Ben Arthur

For visitors looking for a traditional experience, many of these restaurants will also host a traditional afternoon tea. From soft finger sandwiches to moorish scones and jam (all washed down with a cup of tea) – here are our recommended spots for afternoon tea in the Cotswolds.

7 interesting facts about the Cotswolds

  1. The Cotswold Olympiks (a forerunner to the modern day Olympics) first began in 1612 and includes the curious sport of Shin Kicking.
  2. Clarkson’s Farm, the hit Amazon Prime series was filmed in the Cotswolds.
  3. Bampton was frequently used as a set for the popular Downton Abbey.
  4. One of the largest hauls of Jurrasic Enchinoderms was found in a Cotswolds quarry in 2021.
  5. The Rollright Stones are thought to date to around 3800BC.
  6. From Broadway Tower (on a good day) views stretch over 16 counties.
  7. The River Windrush in Bourton-on-the-Water plays host to an annual river football match.

Cotswolds Event Calendar 2024

To help plan your trip to the Cotswolds in 2024, here is a condensed calendar of major events in the region.

March

Cheltenham Festival

April

Active England Cotswolds walking tours begin

Shakespeare Celebrations

May 

Active England Cotswolds cycling tours begin

Chipping Campden Literature and Music Festivals

Cooper’s Hill Cheese Rolling

Cotswold Festival of Steam

June

Cotswold Olympiks

Cotswolds Lavender Opens

July

Forest Live

Cotswold Beers Festival

August

Wilderness Festival

The Big Feastival

Bourton-on-the-Water river football match

September 

Moreton-in-Marsh Show

The Jane Austen Festival

November

Bath Christmas Market

December

Christmas lights at Blenheim Palace

That concludes our bumper 2024 Cotswolds travel guide. We look forward to seeing you in the area – on foot or on your bike of course!

Experienced by

Jago

Operations Director

Signature Tours

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