Undulating gracefully across six counties, the Cotswolds region is a delightful tangle of golden villages, thatched cottages, evocative churches and honey-coloured mansions. In 1966 it was designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, surpassed for size in England by the Lake District alone.
No one’s sure what the name means, but ‘wolds’ are rolling hills, while ‘cots’ might be ‘cotes’, or sheep pens. Certainly the region owes its wealth, and exquisite architecture, to the medieval wool trade, when ‘Cotswold Lion’ sheep were prized across Europe. Attentions later turned towards textiles instead, but the Industrial Revolution passed the Cotswolds by. Hailed by William Morris in the 19th century as encapsulating a timeless English rural idyll, it remains both a prime residential area and a treasured tourist destination.
Criss-crossed by long-distance trails including the 102-mile Cotswold Way, these gentle yet dramatic hills are perfect for walking, cycling and horse riding.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout The Cotswolds.
During its thousand-year history, this magnificent castle has welcomed many a monarch, including Richard III, Henry VIII and Charles I. Half a mile southeast of Winchcombe, it’s most famous as the home and final resting place of Catherine Parr (Henry VIII’s widow), who lived here with her fourth husband, Thomas Seymour. In fact it’s the only private house in England where a queen is buried – Catherine lies in its Perpendicular Gothic St Mary’s Church. It also boasts 10 splendid gardens.
Bibury's most famous attraction, this ravishing row of rustic cottages – as seen in movies like Stardust – was originally a 14th-century wool store, before being converted into workers’ lodgings. They overlook Rack Isle, a low-lying, marshy area once used to dry cloth and graze cattle, and now a wildlife refuge. Coach parties galore arrive to admire the cottages, and stroll the flower-lined lane alongside. If you’d like to see a photo, look at the inside front cover of a UK passport.
Most of this wonderful modern museum is, of course, dedicated to Cirencester’s Roman past; reconstructed rooms, videos and interactive displays bring the era to life. Among the highlights are some beautiful floor mosaics, unearthed locally and including a 4th-century mosaic depicting the mythical lyre-player Orpheus charming animals, and the 2nd-century ‘Jupiter column’, a carved capital depicting Bacchus and his drunken mates. There’s also an excellent Anglo-Saxon section, plus exhibits on medieval Cirencester and its prosperous wool trade.
England's only surviving rococo garden, half a mile north of Painswick, was laid out by Benjamin Hyett in the 1740s as a vast 'outdoor room'. Restored to its original glory thanks to a contemporary painting, it’s absolutely stunning. Winding paths soften its geometrical precision, leading visitors to scattered Gothic follies that include the eccentric Red House, which has Latin quotes from the Song of Solomon etched into its stained-glass windows. There's also a children's nature trail and maze.
Home to over 150 birds of prey (owl, vulture, eagle and, of course, falcon), this exciting spot stages displays of the ancient practice of falconry at 11.30am, 1.30pm and 3pm daily (plus 4.30pm April to October). The birds fly best on windy days. Hands-on experiences (from £40) include a one-hour ‘Flying Start’ during which visitors get to fly hawks.
The main sight in Old Minster is Minster Lovell Hall, a 15th-century riverside manor house that fell into ruins after being abandoned in 1747. You can pass through the vaulted porch to peek past blackened walls into the roofless great hall, the interior courtyard and the crumbling tower, while the wind whistles eerily through the gaping windows. To get here, walk through the church gardens at the eastern end of Old Minster.
Burford's splendid church, near the river, took over three centuries to build, from 1175 onwards. Its fan-vaulted ceiling, Norman west doorway and 15th-century spire remain intact. The star attraction is the macabre 1625 Tanfield tomb, depicting local nobleman Sir Lawrence Tanfield and his wife lying in finery above a pair of carved skeletons, one leg bone of which is said to be real.
Created from 1880 onwards by Bertie Mitford (Lord Redesdale), and later briefly home to his famous granddaughters, the Mitford sisters, these exotic 22-hectare woodlands, 1.5 miles west of Moreton, hold around 1600 species of labelled trees, bamboos and shrubs. Drawn especially from Nepal, China and Japan, many are rare or endangered, or were planted pre-WWI. Highlights include flowering Japanese cherries (at their best in spring), some vast North American redwoods and an enormous davidia, and the strangely churchlike ‘cathedral’ lime.
Built in 1798 to resemble an imaginary Saxon fort, this turreted Gothic folly looks down on Broadway from atop the escarpment, 1 mile southeast. William Morris spent a summer here, so exhibitions on its successive levels focus on the Arts and Crafts movement. The main reason to visit, though, is for the stunning all-round views from its rooftop platform.