Just two hours drive from London, visiting the Cotswolds is like stepping into a fairytale. Its chocolate box cottages, rolling hills and cosy village pubs are all part of its magical charm, inspiring the likes of artists, Gainsborough, Constable and Turner, writers Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters, and poet William Blake.
Its villages are scattered amongst river valleys and rolling hills, and its historical towns brim with stories of famous writers, politicians and royalty. No wonder this southwestern corner of England was named an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty in 1966.
But with so much to do and see in the Cotswolds, where do you start? We’ve compiled our top 10 towns and villages you must visit while you’re in the area.
Active England pro tip: Find Queen Katherine Parr’s tomb at Sudeley Castle
Winchcombe is a quaint little Anglo Saxon town about 15 minutes from Cheltenham. It’s characterised by its curved high street, which gives its name the translation of “valley with a bend”.
The town itself is bursting with characterful inns, tea rooms and independent shops, as well as a marvellous pub, the White Hart, a favourite among the locals. Meanwhile, the surrounding area is lush with rolling hills and the nearby Sudeley Castle, where the last of King Henry VIII’s wives, Katherine Parr, got lucky and died naturally. She’s now entombed in the 15th Century church nestled amongst the gardens.
In fact, Sudeley Castle is bursting with historical interest. Well worth a visit is the “Queens Garden”, so-called because four English queens, Anne Boleyn, Katherine Parr, Lady Jane Grey and Elizabeth I all admired the myriad of roses growing there. You can also peruse the family’s private rooms, as well as the “Haunted Staircase” and the “20 Treasures of Sudeley”, a collection of historical artefacts including Katherine Parr’s love letters.
2. Chipping Campden
Active England pro tip: Sample an English breakfast tea with homemade scones at the Bantam Tea Rooms.
Chipping Campden, one of the most northerly towns in the Cotswolds and marks the start of the Cotswold Way, the 102-mile route running along the Cotswold escarpment all the way to the historic city of Bath.
Chipping Campden itself is a vibrant village, and one of the largest in the area. Historically a wool market village, its centre is dominated by a lovely honey-coloured stone marketplace, flanked by quaint independent shops, tea rooms and thatched cottages.
Bantam Tea Rooms, originally built in 1693, is a must for visitors, with its offering of traditional homemade cakes and scones, as well as bed and breakfast for those who need a place to rest their heads.
If you’re lucky, or just well-organised, you’ll coordinate your visit with one of Chipping Campden’s music or literary festivals. Or there’s the Cotswold Olympick Games, held here every Spring since the early 1600s, introducing you to the age-old games of shin-kicking, tug o’war, and wheelbarrow racing.
Active England pro tip: Taste the local “champagne” at the Painswick Hotel
Painswick, otherwise known as the “Queen of the Cotswolds” for its outstanding beauty, is an old wool town, held together with a network of cute narrow laneways. Its central feature is a 14th Century church of St Mary’s with its outlying churchyard of fairytale quality.
Slightly out of town is the 18th Century Rococo Gardens where you can look around the flowers, family trails and art exhibitions, and the whole area is set to a backdrop of breathtaking views over the Cotswolds valleys.
The boutique hotel, aptly named The Painswick, is an upmarket option for a place to stay, or even a glass of local Cotswolds Woodchester Valley bubbly in the garden. A charming place to kick back and relax after a long day of rambling or cycling in the Cotswolds.
4. Castle Combe
Active England pro tip: How many MGs you can spot whizzing through the town?
Castle Combe, “the prettiest town in England”. You’ll see why when you visit. In fact, so intense is its beauty, Castle Combe has been host to a number of movie sets – Speilberg’s War Horse, as well as Stardust and Wolf Man.
Honey-coloured cottages surround a 14th Century market square and its church of St Andrews hosts a faceless clock – possibly the oldest clock in England.
Active England pro tip: Check out St Mary’s Church – the setting of all Downton Abbey births, marriages and deaths.
Bampton, although not technically within the Cotswold perimeter, is a must for visitors to the area, not least because of its synonymity with Downton Abbey. The local Church of St Mary’s has been the setting for many a birth, death and marriage among the Downton characters, and definitely worth a look around if you’re a fan of the show!
Active England pro tip: Catch and eat a trout fresh from the water.
The village of Bibury, “the capital of the Cotswolds” sits on the banks of the River Coln and is well known for its trout farm, a must-see for keen fisherfolk. There, you can “catch your own” fish (open March to October) and barbecue it on-site.
You can’t visit Bibury without paying a visit to Arlington Row lined with adorable 14th Century weavers’ cottages. You’ll see why they’re the most photographed cottages in the country, and indeed why Henry Ford wanted to transport them directly back to the United States during his visit.
Built originally in 1380 as monastic wool storage, the buildings were converted into homes for local weavers in the 17th Century and, to this day, exude all the charm you’d expect to find in a children’s book.
7. Upper and Lower Slaughter
Active England pro tip: For a luxury place to stay, book a room at The Slaughters Manor House
The villages of Upper and Lower Slaughter are connected by the River Eye and, although the term “slaughter” might sound terrifying for a quaint Cotswold village, the term means “muddy place”, which is entirely more accurate.
And their story goes back over a millennium, having been mentioned in the 1086 Doomsday Book, the national survey drawn up by William the Conquerer to document the extent, ownership, and value of the land of England.
Upper Slaughter is of particular interest because it’s one of the thirteen English villages known for being “Doubly Thankful”, meaning that all who went to war, came home again.
Meanwhile, Lower Slaughter, with its babbling stream and traditional limestone cottages, is home to Copse Hill Road, the so-called most romantic street in Britain.
Active England pro tip: Go back in time and choose a mix of your favourite sweets at the old-fashioned Burford Sweet Shop.
Ah, the “gateway to the Cotswolds”, Burford is the first Cotswolds village you come to as you drive west from London.
It’s a busy little area, and the high street is perched on a hill, overlooking the rather magnificent church of St John the Baptist at the bottom. The church was built in the 1100s, although took another 400 years to reach completion. Its highlight: the beautiful 13th Century Lady Chapel and its stained-glass windows.
Burford is bursting with antique shops, and independents and has the reputation of having the biggest concentration of pubs in the country. Sheep Street in particular has two great pubs: The Lamb Inn and The Bay Tree, both of which offer both a delightful overnight stay and superb menus.
Active England pro tip: See if you can spot Wales’ Black Mountains from Broadway Tower.
Broadway boasts some of the most stunning houses in the Cotswolds. Honey-hued homes fill chestnut tree-lined streets, and the centre of town is burgeoning with restaurants, cafes, antique shops and art galleries.
For a place to stay, we’d recommend the historic Lygon Arms Hotel, which was where Charles I met with his supporters during the English Civil War in the 17th Century. The hotel, once called The White Hart, has also housed Oliver Cromwell, King Edward VII and even Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. In fact, anyone who’s anyone has spent the night here!
Just outside of town is Broadway Tower, standing tall among Broadway Tower Park designed by the 18th Century landscape gardener, Capability Brown. The three-storey museum will give you outstanding views over 16 counties and into Wales. On a clear day, you might even stop the Sugar Loaf, one of the mountains in the South Walean Black Mountain range.
Active England pro tip: Buy a pot of Bloody Mary Chutney from Huffkins bakery and tea room.
Finally, there’s Stow-on-the-Wold, the highest of the Cotswold villages. At an 800 foot climb, Stow Hill homes a bustling market town, with charming Cotswold Stone cottages, a large market square (once heavily involved in the buying and selling of sheep), and plenty of independent shops. In fact, it still has a busy farmer’s market on the mornings of the second Thursday of the month.
For the history lovers, Stow-on-the-Wold staged the final battle of the English Civil War in 1646, and, due to its high positioning, was said to have seen the Roundheads at the top of the hill, see victory over the Cavaliers at the bottom. The legend goes that “rivers of blood” were seen flowing down the hill.
So there you have it, your Top Ten Towns and Villages you need to visit when you’re next in the Cotswolds. And these are just a starting point. Why not check out our ten favourite Cotswolds walks, and our top ten Cotswolds pubs?