Family and friends visiting the UK always ask us if the Cotswolds are worth exploring. Of course, this is a question of personal preference. What you enjoy and why you have come to England.
Many tourists, only visit London and may tie in Edinburgh if they have time. Both are respectable destinations with a ton to see, do and experience. However, there are thousands of little villages across the UK that have their own character and history. These little villages may be small but they play a significant role in British culture.
So back to our original question, are the Cotswolds worth visiting? If you have come to experience English culture then you must make it outside of London on your journey. The Cotswolds have such a concentrate of true English beauty and an extensive history leading back to the Romans and Anglo-Saxons, if not further. So for us, the answer is definitely yes, the Cotswolds are worth visiting.
What are the Cotswolds?
The English Cotswolds are roughly 800 square miles designated as an area of outstanding natural beauty. It stretches from just below Stratford-upon-Avon to just below Bath and is home to around 139,000 people.
The land is very hilly, with over 80% used for agricultural purposes. Under the Cotswolds lies a bedrock of Jurassic stone. Mined over the centuries, this stone gives the buildings and housing their distinctive golden glow. In the north, the color is more prominent. As you head south towards Bath the stone becomes whiter.
What makes the Cotswolds special is the timelessness of the towns and villages. Most buildings are from the 14th – 16th centuries and very little has changed in the last 300 years. The villages are picture perfect and often compared to fairy tales.
What to do in the Cotswolds?
The number one thing to do in the Cotswolds is to pick a few lovely little villages to wonder around and take photos. Absorbing the beauty is really what a visit to the Cotswolds is all about.
Even the landscapes are phenomenal. The rapeseed fields burst in yellow in May. Poppies start appearing in June. The lavender fields are a bit more rare but from mid-June to early August can be seen at the Cotswold Lavender farm in Broadway. In the villages and gardens, keep an eye out for the many variations of the English rose which are in bloom over the summer.
If you like walking, the Cotswolds offer over 3000 miles of public footpaths. National and regional walking routes such as The Cotswolds Way Trail, Macmillan Way, and Oxfordshire Way pass through the area. There are also plenty of smaller circular trails around the towns. Tourist information centers can help with how to find the smaller trails.
Antiques shopping is also very popular in the Cotswolds. Villages like Stow-on-the-Wold and Tetbury have tons of little stores to hunt through.
The Cotswolds are the perfect place to indulge in Afternoon Tea, an English cultural experience. There are plenty of quaint tea houses in most of the large villages. However, if you really want to do it right, find a lovely garden to enjoy your tea, like at The Close Hotel in Tetbury. Or, sip like an aristocrat at one of the areas many gorgeous manor homes like Whatley Manor in Malmesbury.
Cotswold Water Park
If you are imagining giant water slides, this “water park” is quite different than what the name may suggest. It is set on 40 square miles with 150 lakes and operates as part conservation area for wildlife, part recreational park.
With so many lakes in the park there is an extensive list of water sports. Boat hire, canoeing, kayaking, paddle boarding, wakeboarding, water skiing and windsurfing are all available. It is advisable to book in advance for the summer high season.
In addition to water sports, the park has literally countless dry land activities, such as archery, paint balling, cycling, horseback riding, even rally car driving. Of course, there is also the opportunity for bird watching and other wildlife spotting in the nature reserve areas of the park.
For a full list of activities, visit the Cotswold Water Park website.
Westonbirt National Arboretum
One of our favorite places to visit in fall, though beautiful all year round, is the Westonbirt National Arboretum. Used for both conservation and research, the arboretum is a collection of 2,500 different species of trees from all over the world and 15,000 specimens. Currently 170 are “champion trees”, meaning they are the tallest or largest trees of their kind in the British Isles.
There are several hiking trails throughout the forest, including seasonal trails which highlight the best of the park for the time of your visit.
For more information on the park visit their website at Forestry England.
Chedworth Roman Villa
Built in the 2nd century and expanded upon in the 3rd and 4th centuries, these ruins are what remain of an elite Roman villa. Though it is a bit out of the way, the site is worth visiting for the preserved roman mosaic tile floors. They are some of the most complete examples remaining in England today. Other highlights include the hypocaust floor heating system and the bathhouse rooms.
For more information visit the National Trust’s website.
Helicopter flight school
If you are looking for a very different way to see the Cotswolds, consider a helicopter flying lesson from the Cotswold Helicopter Center. They offer several “experience day” packages. Soaring over the color bursting fields below is exhilarating and you cannot beat the view.
Alternatively, if you want the landscapes without actually taking the lever, consider a charter flight. Imagine arriving in style to the Thornbury Castle Hotel.
For more information on options and pricing, visit the Cotswold Helicopter Centre’s website.
What are the best villages to visit in the Cotswolds?
Picking a few of our favorites was harder than we thought. There are so many villages, each with their own unique character. Some are larger towns, like Cirencester and Bradford-on-Avon. Others are just little specs on the map, like Upper Slaughter and Castle Comb.
Going from north to south, here are some of our favorites.
The Slaughters (Upper and Lower)
The names of our first choices may seem off-putting but we assure you they are much prettier than their name implies. There is not a lot to do in these first two towns but they are worth a short walk around before heading to nearby Bourton-on-the-Water.
The shallow and well-manicured River Windrush flows under five small stone bridges in this village. The High Street follows the river on both sides. This is where you will find plenty of stores to peruse and restaurants to try. Grab an ice cream made with local cream and browse the village.
Bourton-on-the-Water is more than just a pretty place to take photos. We really enjoyed the Cotswold Motoring Museum and Toy Collection. It is much bigger than it looks from the outside and has a fantastic collection of classic cars, motorcycles and even a few caravans.
The impressive Model Village is also worth a visit. This attraction features a 1/9th scale replica of the entire Bourton-on-the-Water village in fantastic detail, including the working water mill.
Though Bourton-on-the-Water is one of the prettiest villages in the area, it is also probably the busiest. It is very well set up for tourism, with decent sidewalks, a coach bus parking lot, and two car parking lots.
Tip: If you are driving, consider coming after 3 pm when the Rissington Road car park offers free parking.
This medieval town center was once a wealthy wool trading community. Towards the top of the High Street is the Tolsey market house. Impressively built in the 1500’s, this is where traders would come to sell their wool. Today, the building houses a museum of Burford’s history. It is free to enter but donations are welcome.
The town itself makes for a lovely walk with plenty of shops to pull your curiosity. At the end of the town is a medieval arched bridge. Before you get to the bridge, pop into Burford’s St. John the Baptist church.
If you cannot find a parking space easily on the High Street, there is a large free parking lot behind the village.
One of the cutest places in the Cotswolds is Bibury.
Start your adventure at the free car park near the Swan hotel. Cross the street and pay a small admission to explore one of England’s oldest working trout farms. If you are there on a weekend from March to October, you can even catch your own trout if you are so inclined.
From the trout farm, cross back over the road and follow the walking path from the car park alongside the river. After a few minutes walking you will come to a small bridge leading to Arlington Row. This is one of the most famous and photographed areas in the Cotswolds. Built in 1380, this row of little cottages became weaver’s cottages in the 17th century.
From Arlington Row, continue along the main road following the river to Church Road. Past the cemetery, then around the corner is St. Mary’s church. This Saxon church is one of the most historic churches in the area. It is most known for its unique 17th century table tombs in the graveyard.
If you are a history buff, Malmesbury is the place for you. Formed with a charter granted by Alfred the Great in 880, Malmesbury is not only a beautiful place to visit, it is England’s oldest borough. Some historians even argue it is England’s first capital.
This all centers around the rule of King Æthelstan who many historians regard as the first King of England. Credited with uniting and creating the kingdom of all England, King Æthelstan ruled his kingdom from Malmesbury. Some claim he made Malmesbury the capital in 925 AD. The king died in 939, and was buried at Malmesbury Abbey.
Malmesbury Abbey was once a grand abbey with a spire larger than Salisbury Cathedral. However, the original spire at 431 feet, fell in a storm in the 1500’s and the remaining tower fell 100 years later. The two events decimated the western wing of the church. Today only the nave of the abbey still stands.
It is free to visit the abbey, though donations are welcome. In the church you will find the empty tomb of King Æthelstan, his bones lost during the collapse of the abbey. There is also a 15th century bible, Henry VII’s crest and plenty of examples of Norman architecture.
Other things to see while in town include the 1490 Market Cross, and the Abbey House Gardens.
If you want a historical place to sit down for a nice meal, look no further than The Old Bell Hotel, England’s oldest hotel. Located right next door to Malmesbury Abbey.
Nick-named the prettiest village in England, Castle Combe is by far our favorite of the villages. It is so small that if you blink you may miss it but what is there is jaw dropping gorgeous. As picture perfect as it is, the town is a popular location to film period dramas such as Steven Spielberg’s War Horse and Downton Abbey.
There is very little parking. It is likely you will have to park on the side of the road into town. Just be very careful walking along the road and that you don’t hit someone else walking.
Outside of the little town of Upper Castle Combe is the racing circuit. Famous British shows such as Top Gear and Fifth Gear have used the circuit as a filming location to test and race cars. You can visit for one of the racing events or car shows. If you are keen to get behind the wheel you can even book a driving experience day (must have a valid full UK driving license).
As far south as you can get in the Cotswolds is the gorgeous market town of Bradford-on-Avon. The town originally got its name from a broad ford where the Town Bridge is today. The small building on the bridge was originally a church. Later it was a small jail.
Except with less tourists, Bradford-on-Avon is similar to Bath, its more famous next-door neighbor. The same Cotswold stone gives the historic buildings its character. The river Avon winds its way around the center. Small curious alleyways hide little shops and cafes.
Most of the main attractions are down in the city center, a short walk from the Town Bridge. However, if you want the best view over the town head up the winding roads to the Chapel of St. Mary Tory.
Bradford-on-Avon is also on the train line, making it easy to get to and from the larger cities of Bath and Bristol. A short drive or a 10 minute walk from the train station is the historical Tithe Barn, a 14th century monastic stone barn.
A little further out of town is the impressive Ilford Manor Gardens. Designed in the early 20th century, little narrow trails weave in and out of this Italian garden. Reserve about 2 hours to enjoy.
Getting to and around
Though completely possible, it is not easy to get around the Cotswolds by public transportation. It is mostly just the larger towns like Bath, Cirencester (via Kemble) and Bradford-on-Avon that have access to the major train routes from London Paddington.
There are buses that operate between the main towns; however, they are not very frequent so your schedule will need to be tied to the bus timetable.
If you are keen to give public transport a try, the Cotswolds Conservation Board has done a wonderful job putting together a car-free guide to exploring the Cotswolds which you are likely to find useful.
Driving in the Cotswolds
There are plenty of tours to visit the main tourist towns but we seriously recommend renting a car and doing it at your own speed. One of the best things about the Cotswolds is getting lost and finding a random storybook village.
Here is the catch. English country roads can be very small and the Cotswolds have a lot of them. If you are not used to driving on small roads, they can be a little intimidating.
“A” roads like the A429, and A40 are major roads. They may be single or double lanes. If you are a nervous driver, these are the ones you want to stick to as much as possible.
“B” roads are minor roads. They vary greatly in size and condition.
No named roads are normally paved farm tracks between towns. Be aware these are NOT one way roads, even if they seem only big enough for one car.
On these single track roads there are occasional pull-off spots. They are for passing, not for parking. Just go slow and use these pull-off spots when another car approaches. Some of the best small villages, like Castle Combe, are only reached by these small roads.
This would be a good time to mention that we recommend renting the smallest car you can. Not only will you be more comfortable on these smaller roads, and when parking in tiny spaces, but gas (petrol) is also very pricey in the UK.
We hope you now have plenty of reasons to get out of one of the big cities and visit the little villages of the Cotswolds.
What Cotswolds village you find the most interesting?