Cotswolds travel guide
Our Cotswolds travel guide covers the top attractions and the best Cotswolds hotels, plus where to eat, drink and shop, from our resident expert Harriet O’Brien.
The glorious, honey-coloured towns and villages of the Cotswolds look as if they have strayed into the 21st century from another era. The sheep-shaped past here is appealingly evident in striking wool churches and manor houses built by wealthy textile merchants. Flourishes of later heritage include a fine legacy of the Arts and Crafts movement.
You’ll also find rich seams of contemporary living, from roads dominated by 4x4s to pubs coated in Farrow & Ball paint tones – and much present-day charm too. The area is characterised by gentle dynamism, with lively galleries, vibrant festivals and a liberal endowment of intriguing museums.
Covering nearly 800 square miles across five counties (Wiltshire, Gloucestershire, Oxfordshire, Warwickshire and Worcestershire), this region of “wolds”, or rolling hills, is the biggest of the 38 Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) in England and Wales.
About 80 per cent of it remains farmland, divided by around 4,000 miles of dry stone walls and lavishly crisscrossed by walking trails – the Cotswold Way, from Chipping Campden in the northern extremes, stretches some 100 miles south. This rural region is fringed by some of the country’s most cultured small cities: in the west is Cheltenham; in the south-east is Cirencester, while Bath lies to the south-west and Oxford to the east (neither is included in this guide because they are very much destinations on their own).
The western side of the region is dramatically marked by the steep escarpment of the Cotswold Edge; at the centre is an area of bucolic uplands, edged by absorbing heritage from the Industrial Revolution, most notably around the Stroud valleys.
Southwards lie royal reaches: the Princess Royal’s Gatcombe Park and the Prince of Wales’s Highgrove estates. Further south again the landscape opens out, offering wider spaces and featuring glories such as Corsham Court country house and the National Trust’s village of Lacock, where this guide takes a bow.
When to go
Every season has intrinsic appeal. Crowd-free winters are ideal for bracing walks, fire-side pub sessions – and lower hotel prices.
Come in spring to see lambs and wild daffodils. Visit in summer (inevitably with many others) for magical light, particularly in the long evenings. This is also peak festival season, from family-friendly Wychwood Festival near Cheltenham (June 8-10) to the holistic Wilderness Festival at Cornbury Park, Charlbury (August 10-12).
Or make an autumn excursion for a quieter atmosphere and wonderful leaf colour, especially at the two great arboreta, Westonbirt and Batsford.
This is the rolling heartland of southern Britain, so access is easy. The major gateways are Oxford to the east, Birmingham to the north, Bath to the south and, of course, Cheltenham and Cirencester. If you’re travelling from overseas, bear in mind that the closest international airports are Birmingham and Heathrow. (Oxford and Gloucestershire airports are tiny operations principally offering charter services, as is the Cotswold Airport near Cirencester.)
The M40 lies to the east and, given a clear run, provides smooth entry to the northern Cotswolds. The M5 flanks the western edge and presents good gateways to the core of the Cotswolds. The M4 cuts a swathe across the southern reaches, providing fairly quick access to Cirencester and to Bath and Lacock.
Take one of the region’s loveliest drives along B4425. It dips and twists between Cirencester and Burford, taking in the classic Cotswold beauties of Barnsley and Bibury.
The much-loved Cotswold Line runs through the northern district. It’s a section of the service operating from London Paddington to Worcester and it makes three appealingly tucked-away Cotswold stops: Charlbury, Kingham and Moreton-in-Marsh. The Golden Valley Line serves stations further south and runs from London via Swindon to Kemble (four miles from Cirencester), Stroud and Cheltenham. Both lines are operated by First Great Western (firstgreatwestern.co.uk). The Cross Country Service (crosscountrytrains.co.uk) from Plymouth to Edinburgh calls in at Cheltenham, while the Cross Country route from Nottingham via Birmingham to Cardiff also stops at Cheltenham. More information on all these services is atnationalrail.co.uk and thetrainline.com.
The Oxford Tube (oxfordtube.com) and the Oxford Bus Company (oxfordbus.co.uk) both run coach services from London to the eponymous city, from where you can proceed by train or bus. National Express (nationalexpress.com) offers services to Cheltenham and Cirencester from Leeds, Birmingham and London; Stroud and Cheltenham from London; Oxford from Birmingham and Liverpool; and Bath from London.
Private car is, by a long chalk, the easiest means of transport. The network of local buses is patchy – and Sunday services are at best sporadic. There are a bewildering number of bus operators: for comprehensive route options and timetables consult either Traveline (traveline.info) or the Cotswold Conversation Board, which publishes downloadable information at cotswoldsaonb.org.uk (hard copies of timetables can also be sent by mail).
Know before you go
Don’t ask about Jeremy Clarkson, Rebekah Brooks, Kate Moss, Alex James, Jilly Cooper and others from a long list of the great, the good and the notorious who call the Cotswolds home (or second home). Locals are largely uncharmed by celeb culture.
Enjoy the affluence of the Cotswolds – the well-kept towns and villages, the carefully conserved countryside. But be aware that the cost of living is especially high: it is a challenge to find comfortable hotel accommodation at less than £90 a night for a double room.
Traffic at peak times can be a nightmare, particularly the A429 between Stow-on-the Wold and Cirencester during July and August. Avoid the A40 between Burford and Cheltenham on Bank Holidays and (going eastwards) on Sunday nights.
1st Choice Concierge – www.1stChoiceConcierge.co.uk
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