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The Cotswold Lions and the Woolsack Races

The World Championship Woolsack Races

If you thought that hurling yourself down a hill trying to catch a cheese was just a little odd, how about running uphill with a giant sack of wool on your back??

The ‘World Championship Woolsack Races’, held in Tetbury each May, draws a crowd of over five thousand people waiting to watch strong young men impress with their wool carrying ability and is a tradition that draws on the true heritage of the Cotswolds – its Lions.

Though most visitors might not be aware of it, they visit the Cotswolds because of its lions. More specifically, because of its sheep. It is little known to tourists that the Cotswold Lion, a particular breed of indigenous sheep, was at one time the backbone of industry in medieval England. Indeed, these sheep quite literally carried the wealth of England on their backs. It was the character of the wool industry and the nature of its decline that has left us today with the market towns, farms and quaint villages that make up the picturesque Cotswold landscape. In fact, there are even wool churches funded by the wealth of wool that can still be seen today on our Active England Bike Tours.

The Roman Sheep

The name Cotswolds comes from the Anglo Saxon ‘cotes’ meaning sheep enclosure, and ‘wolds’ being hills. So even the name of the area recognises its debt to the sheep! It was the Romans however who are believed to have introduced of the particular breed of Cotswold Lion around 2000 years ago, or who at least cultivated their growth in numbers, building on the methods of their Celtic forbearers.

After the Norman conquest of 1066, the church helped instigate an open field system in order to support much larger flocks of sheep, with monasteries owning some of the biggest flocks and increasing the church’s wealth. During the Middle Ages Cotswold sheep became the main source of England’s wool exports to mainland Europe. Cotswold sheep’s fleece was coveted because of its long nature, relatively quick growth and mohair likeness.

Stemming from this period, the Lord Chancellor’s seat in the House of Lords was made of wool – at the time Cotswold wool – and named the woolsack, as a reminder of the nation’s dependence on wool. Our Lord Chancellor still sits on this today as a continued reminder of wool-based heritage.

Following the dissolution of the monasteries the Church lost its controlling influence on the wool trade, bringing great wealth to wool merchants – many of whom patronised fine houses which sat alongside the wool churches, and contain a beauty relished today as classic picturesque Cotswolds.

On our tours you’ll notice that we stay in The Lamb Inn in Burford on Sheep Street and near to Shepherd’s Lane. The signs of our woollen past are everywhere – what were once grass grazing verges for sheep are now lawns for the golden-stoned cottages that line the streets of this historic town.

During the late sixteenth century the wool weaving industry developed around Stroud where the water running off the Cotswold escarpment powered the new woollen mills. However, with the industrial revolution (circa. 1750- 1850) wool production in the North of England took advantage of newer, more efficient forms of power. Unable to compete, the Cotswold woollen industry rapidly declined and a desperate poverty spread through the Cotswolds. With little money spare to develop the Cotswolds buildings, towns and villages, much has remained as it was in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Bizarre to think that it was wool that both brought enormous wealth to the Cotswolds, building its characteristic golden-stoned buildings and churches, while also bringing the great poverty that has kept them preserved through time.

By the turn of the twentieth century the Cotswold Lion had become a rare breed, though efforts of conservationists have expanded the breed to over fifty flocks, safeguarding the sheep that has shaped our landscape. Designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, the Cotswolds owes this title to its sheep!

Look out for these sheep on our tours as we pass several flocks, noticeable because of their long ‘fringes’ and wide-set build.

Cotswolds Autumn Cycling -   Self-Guided Weekend 

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Cotswolds Autumn Cycling – Self-Guided Weekend

Cotswolds Villages Autumn Walking – Self-Guided Weekend

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Cotswolds Villages Autumn Walking – Self-Guided Weekend

Cotswolds Short Walks Autumn– SG Weekend

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Cotswolds Villages Autumn Walking – 4 Day Self-Guided

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Cotswolds Villages Autumn Walking – 4 Day Self-Guided

Cotswolds Short Walks  Autumn – 4 Day Self-Guided

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Cotswolds Short Walks Autumn – 4 Day Self-Guided

Walk The Ridgeway – 7 Day Self-Guided

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Walk The Ridgeway – 7 Day Self-Guided

Walk The Ridgeway – 7 Day Guided

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Walk The Ridgeway – 7 Day Guided

Walk The Cotswolds Way - 11 Day Self-Guided

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Walk The Cotswolds Way – 11 Day Self-Guided

Walk The Cotswolds Way – 11 Day Guided

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Walk The Cotswolds Way - 11 Day Guided

Cotswolds Villages Walking – 5 Day Guided

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Cotswolds Villages Walking – 5 Day Guided

Cotswold Villages Walking – 6 Day Self-Guided

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Cotswold Villages Walking – 6 Day Self-Guided

Cornwall Walking – 6 Day Self-Guided

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Cornwall Walking – 6 Day Self-Guided

Cornwall Walking – 6 Day Guided

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Cornwall Walking – 6 Day Guided

Walk The Lake District - 9 Day Self-Guided

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Walk The Lake District - 9 Day Self-Guided

Walk The Lake District - 7 Day Self-Guided

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Walk The Lake District - 7 Day Self-Guided

Walk Coast to Coast – 14 to 18 Day Self-Guided

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Walk Coast to Coast – 14 to 18 Day Self-Guided

Lake District Adventure Holiday - 6 Day

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Lake District Multi Activity – 6 Day Adventure Holiday

Lake District Adventure Break - 4 Day

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Lake District Adventure Break- 4 Day 

Cycle Hadrian’s Wall – 3 Day Self-Guided

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Cycling Hadrian’s Wall - Self-Guided

Cycling Coast to Coast - 4 Day Self-Guided

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Cycling Coast to Coast - 4 Day Self-Guided

Cycle Coast to Coast - 3 Day Self-Guided

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Cycle Coast to Coast - 3 Day Self-Guided

Cotswolds Adventure Long Weekend - 3 Day

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Cotswolds Adventure Long Weekend - 3 Day

Cotswolds Adventure Holiday - 6 Day

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Cotswolds Adventure Holiday - 6 Day

Cotswolds Adventure Break - 4 Day

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Cotswolds Adventure Break - 4 Day 

Cornwall Adventure Holiday - 6 Day 

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Cornwall Adventure Holiday - 6 Day

Cotswolds Villages Cycling – 5 Day Guided

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Cotswolds Villages Cycling – 5 Day Guided

Cotswolds Villages Cycling – 5 Day Guided

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Cotswolds Villages Cycling – 5 Day Guided

Cornwall Adventure Weekend– 4 Day

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Cornwall Adventure Weekend - 4 Day Active Weekend

Cotswolds Villages Cycling – 6 Day Self-Guided

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Cotswolds Villages Cycling – 6 Day Self-Guided

Cornwall Cycling – 6 Day Self-Guided

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Cornwall Cycling – 6 Day Self-Guided

Make This Tour Your Own

Turn this into a private trip, exclusive to your group, family or friends. Tailored to the activities you would like to do, the sights you want to see! Talk to our team today to create your own private tour:

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