Cream Of The Country: Stow-on-the-Wold

Rolling hills, great pubs and a relaxed pace of life are up for grabs in this Cotswold town. By Nick Lloyd Jones
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The Independent Online

A 'wold' is an open stretch of rolling upland countryside, so Stow-on-the-Wold pretty accurately describes the town's commanding position at the highest point of north Gloucestershire's undulating Cotswolds.

It's an ancient settlement, with Stone Age funeral mounds peppering the surrounding hills. It's a small, intimate place that can be crossed by foot in under 10 minutes. With a population of little more than 2,000, it's more like a large village than a small town.

The town's centre is concentrated around a large, 18th-century market place with an ancient Celtic cross as its centrepiece. Branching off from the central square, Church Street, Sheep Street and Well Lane offer a good selection of independent high-street shops, as well as an impressive selection of tea rooms and antique shops.

There is a sprinkling of up-market delis, organic greengrocers and coffee shops, as well as a supermarket hidden away on the town's outskirts. Crime is virtually non-existent and there is a good selection of schools within easy driving distance, such as the state-run Cotswold School in the village of Bourton-on-the-Water two miles away.

Stow is remarkably peaceful, thanks to no major road running through it. Everything about the town is quaint and redolent of a bygone era. There are ancient, beamed pubs, a set of stocks on the main green - where fetes and farmers markets are held - and the local post office still observes half-day closing on Wednesdays. The town has a good track record in terms of conservation and, apart from a few small, modern developments, has managed to preserve its unique historic character and architectural heritage. To the back of the main square sprawls a network of lanes and cosy cottages, many of them more than 300 years old and built from the distinctive honey-coloured Cotswold stone.

The town also offers a good selection of larger town houses. Similar properties at similar prices can be found in picturesque nearby villages, such as Upper and Lower Oddington, while for those with bigger budgets, an impressive selection of stately homes can be found dotted around the surrounding rolling hills.

Stow is easy to get to. Cheltenham and Oxford are 18 miles and 28 miles away respectively, and regular fast trains to London from several nearby stationstake about an hour-and-a-half. It is hardly surprising, then, that a lot of newcomers have been moving into this stretch of country, including celebrities like Kate Winslet. Plus, there are quite a lot of holiday-home owners and retired people based around Stow.

But the most significant influx to the area in recent years has been young, urban professionals with families. Mark Luscombe, of local estate agent Harrison & Hardie, says: "Many are looking to escape the rat race. They appreciate the more laid-back atmosphere here and some of them have even shifted their businesses to the town."

Local house prices have risen steadily as a result. Many houses have more than doubled in value in the past 10 years. But they are still a lot cheaper than in London and many parts of the South East. Added to which, the market seems to be slowing down considerably, with local estate agents reporting a record number of properties on their books.

Fact box

Cost of living: one-bedroom flat from £115,000; two-bedroom Cotswold-stone cottage from £200,000; four-bedroom period town house from £400,000; four-bedroom converted barn in outlying village from £500,000; five- to six-bedroom country houses with extensive grounds from £1m.

Attractions: lovely rolling countryside; good network of local village schools; farmers' market; up-market selection of fresh produce outlets, olde worlde inns, antique shops, wine bars and restaurants.

Downsides: a little clogged with tourists during the summer; no cinema.

How to get there: regular trains from Moreton-in-Marsh, four miles away, to Oxford (35 mins) and to London Paddington (90 mins).