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Introducing The Cotswolds

Glorious villages riddled with beautiful old mansions of honey-coloured stone; thatched cottages; atmospheric churches; and rickety almshouses draw crowds of visitors to the Cotswolds. If you've ever coveted exposed beams or lusted after a cream tea in the mid-afternoon, there's no finer place to fulfill your fantasies

The booming medieval wool trade brought the area its wealth and left it with a proliferation of beautiful buildings. In 1966 it was declared an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), and at 790 sq miles, it's the second-largest protected area in England after the Lakes District. Spreading from north of Chipping Campden to south of Bath, the Cotswolds cuts across six different counties, although the bulk of it is in Gloucestershire. More than 86% is farmland but, even so, around 158,000 people live within the AONB itsef, not counting those in the large towns and small cities on its fringes, such as Cirencester, Cheltenham and Gloucester.

While there are bus routes between the major towns and villages, for flexibility and the option of getting off the beaten track, you can't beat having your own car. The gentle hills are also perfect for walking, cycling and horse riding, as a network of long-distance tracks pass through, most notably the 102-mile Cotswold Way (www.nationaltrail.co.uk/cotswold).