The Complete Guide to The Cotswolds

J B Priestley described the region that covers Oxfordshire, Herefordshire, Worcestershire and Gloucestershire as "the most English of all our countrysides". Rhiannon Batten explores the many charms of the Cotswolds' rolling hills and honey-coloured stone


WHAT'S SO SPECIAL ABOUT THE COTSWOLDS?

WHAT'S SO SPECIAL ABOUT THE COTSWOLDS?

You mean apart from the rolling green hills, honey-hued limestone walls, rose-covered cottages and babbling streams? The Cotswolds, a region stretching roughly from Chipping Campden in the north to Bath in the south, and covering the counties of Gloucestershire, Herefordshire, Worcestershire and Oxfordshire, has been designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

However, things have moved on since 1933 when J B Priestley described the Cotswolds as "the most English and the least spoiled of all our countrysides". The scenery may still be more quintessentially English than a box of Quality Street, but if you know where to look, there are plenty of other attractions to tempt you, from hi-tech museums to some of the hippest hotels in the country. There are practical reasons, too, why the Cotswolds is such a popular area. Unlike other English holiday-destination favourites, such as Devon, Cornwall and the Lake District, it's fairly centrally located. What's more, the region is also surrounded by a circle of ancient towns - including Oxford, Gloucester, Stratford-upon-Avon, Bath, Bristol and Cheltenham - any of which make sensible sightseeing points along the way.

Events worth timing your travel for include the Longborough Festival Opera, 18 June to 31 July; the Cotswold Show and Country Fair, 10 and 11 July; and the autumn colours at Westonbirt arboretum.

WHERE SHOULD I START?

With some history. As you'd expect for a region that incorporates the ancient Fosse Way, there are some excellent Roman attractions in the Cotswolds. Chedworth Roman Villa at Yanworth is particularly good for children, with several fourth-century mosaics and an excavated hypocaust on display. It is open Tuesday-Sunday, 10am-5pm; entrance is £4.10 for adults, £2 for children (01242 890256; www.nationaltrust.org.uk). There is also excitement about the revamped Corinium Museum in Cirencester, which is set to reopen in September (01285 655611; www.cotswold.gov.uk). More recent history can be seen in the churches at Fairford, Cirencester, Northleach and Chipping Campden, all of which elegantly highlight the one-time wealth of the wool trade in the area.

AND MORE RECENT STILL?

Try the ghoulish shape of Woodchester mansion, near Stroud. The building was abandoned, semi-finished, in 1870 and is now a romantically Gothic home for rare bats. It is currently open to visitors on the first weekend of the month, but opens every weekend in July and August. Entrance is £5 for adults, free for children (01453 861541; www.woodchestermansion.org.uk). William Morris fans should also make a detour to Kelmscott Manor, his one-time country home, now run by the Society of Antiquaries. The interior boasts a fantastic display of Morris designs, but it's only open on Wednesdays and some Saturdays (entrance £8.50; 01367 252486; www.kelmscottmanor.co.uk).

Other interesting historic buildings include the Arts and Crafts showpiece Rodmarton Manor, open on Wednesdays, Saturdays and bank holidays until the end of August, entrance £7 (01285 841253; www.rodmarton-manor.co.uk). Or there's Tudor-style Owlpen Manor, near Uley, open daily except Mondays, 2-5pm, entrance £4.80 (01453 860261; www.owlpen.com). Owlpen also has some stylish self-catering cottages available.

WHAT ABOUT THE GREAT OUTDOORS?

Pack some wellies. Not because of the weather - the Cotswolds gets more than its fair share of England's sunshine - but because many of the local attractions involve water. The Cotswold Water Park in Shorncote, near Cirencester, is Britain's largest, with 133 lakes to paddle across, picnic next to or walk or cycle around, and two neighbouring country parks to explore. There are various sections of park, but most are roughly open from 9am to 5pm daily. Entrance is free but you usually pay for car parking and for activities (01285 862962; www.waterpark.org).

Then there are the Cotswold Canals - the Stroudwater Navigation and the Thames and Severn canal. These are currently being restored with the aim of eventually linking up the two rivers. The project won't be finished for years, but, in the meantime, the Cotswold Canals Trust runs occasional boat trips on sections of the canal that are in water, when possible. For more information, visit www.cotswoldcanals.com.

WHAT IF I HAVE ANIMAL INSTINCTS?

Head to Cotswold Wildlife Park, just outside Burford. Here you will see everything from meerkats to spider monkeys clambering through the graceful grounds of an old manor house. Open daily, 10am-4.30pm, entrance is £8 for adults, £5.50 for children (01993 823006; www.cotswoldwildlifepark.co.uk). If you're more of a twitcher, there are over 500 species of birds on display at Birdland park and gardens in Bourton-on-the-Water. Open daily, 10am-6pm, entrance is £4.85 for adults, £2.85 for children (01451 820480). Or, there's Prinknash bird and deer park, run by Benedictine monks from nearby Prinknash Abbey, which has been designed as an 18th-century park. Open 10am-5pm daily, entrance is £4 for adults, £2.50 for children (01452 812727; www.prinknash-bird-and-deerpark.com).

AND IF I PREFER NATURE TAMED?

There are some magnificent gardens open to the public in the Cotswolds. Hidcote Manor Garden, at Chipping Campden, is a stunning Arts and Crafts garden, open daily except Thursdays and Fridays, 10.30am-6pm, entrance is £6.20 for adults, £3.10 for children (01386 438333; www.nationaltrust.org.uk). The fabulous Westonbirt national arboretum further south is open daily, 10am-8pm, entrance £6 adults, £1 children five-15 (01666 880220; www.forestry.gov.uk/westonbirt). However, there are plenty of others worth visiting, including Sudeley Castle's organic garden, open 10.30am-5.30pm daily, £5.50 for adults, £3.25 for children aged five-15 (01242 602308; www.sudeleycastle.co.uk); Painswick Rococo Garden, open daily 11am-5pm, £4 for adults, and £2 for children (01452 813204; www.rococogarden.co.uk); and organically run Snowshill Manor Gardens, open Wednesdays to Sundays 11am-5.30pm, entrance £3.80 (01386 852410; www.nationaltrust.org.uk). A good source of information on local gardens is www.cotswoldsgardens.com.

WHAT ELSE IS ON THE MENU?

There's no shortage of good restaurants, but one of the most eccentric gastronomic experiences you can have here involves The Pudding Club. This was started at Three Ways House hotel in Mickleton, near Chipping Campden, 20-odd years ago with the idea of protecting good old marmalade pudding and spotted dick from an onslaught of synthetic, frozen stand-ins such as Black Forest gateau and strawberry cheesecake. You can come here just for lunch or dinner, but if you think you may need to sleep off your excesses, the hotel has pudding-themed rooms from £115, including breakfast (01386 438429; www.puddingclub.com).

WHERE ELSE CAN I STAY?

One thing the Cotswolds has always done well is luxury boltholes. One of the most famous in the south of the region is Lucknam Park, just outside Bath. A listed Palladian mansion, it boasts the kind of sweeping driveway usually only seen in TV period dramas, a chef with so much Michelin-starred experience that the kitchen is virtually glowing, and its own spa and stables. However, it still manages to feel homely - albeit the kind of home that costs from £225 a night (01225 742777; www.lucknampark.co.uk). Another classic Cotswolds hotel of long-standing is the Lygon Arms in Broadway, which has doubles from £179 with breakfast (01386 852255; www.the-lygon-arms.com).

However, more recently there has been a quiet revolution in the region's hotels, with newcomers shunning silk upholstery and opulent marble bathrooms in favour of the kind of pared-down, glammed- up style better suited to well-heeled thirtysomethings in search of urban amenities in a country setting. The trend started with Cowley Manor, established by a couple of Oxford academics as a way of realising their dream hotel, which offers a laid-back atmosphere but hi-tech service, from £220 per night, including breakfast, in the village of Cowley (01242 870900; www.cowleymanor.com). It also has one of the best spas in the area, C-Side, with a sleek, slate-walled indoor pool, and another outside.

Other more modern hotels include Barnsley Manor, in Barnsley, which has rooms from £260 per night, including breakfast, where Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin stayed on a recent visit to the Cotswolds (01285 740000; www.barnsleyhouse.com). It features on Condé Nast Traveller's 2004 Hot List, and was once home to the doyenne of 20th-century English gardeners, Rosemary Verey. The garden is regularly open to the public. However, the ultra-modern hotel interior is likely to come as a surprise to lovers of the more traditional garden.

I'M LOOKING FOR SOMETHING A BIT MORE LOW-KEY...

Across the road from Barnsley Manor, and owned by the same people, is a great little Cotswolds hideaway, The Village Pub. A gastropub with six rooms upstairs (doubles from £95, including breakfast), this is Liz Hurley's local and, connections apart, tends to get booked up (01285 740421; www.thevillagepub.co.uk). Anther good gastropub with rooms is the Howard Arms in Ilmington, on the northern edge of the Cotswolds, which has doubles from £90, including breakfast (01608 682226; www.howardarms.com). Or, for a list of hotels and B&Bs in picturesque stone cottages, contact the tourist board for a free Welcome to the Cotswolds brochure (01285 623545; www.cotswold.gov.uk/tourism).

CAN I RENT A TRADITIONAL COTSWOLD-STONE COTTAGE?

Take your pick. Moreton-in-Marsh is where the upmarket UK rental agency Rural Retreats is based, and it offers several local properties. Prices start at around £170 for two nights for a two-person cottage (01386 701177; www.ruralretreats.co.uk). Other letting companies with relevant properties include Discover the Cotswolds (01386 841441; www.discoverthecotswolds.net) and Cottage In The Country (01993 831743; www.cottageinthecountry.co.uk).

HOW SHOULD I GET AROUND?

It helps to have a car, especially if you want to get to some of the more remote villages or just venture off the beaten track. For days out, the Gloucestershire-Warwickshire Railway runs occasional trips on historic trains along its 10 or so miles of track for around £9 return (01242 621405; www.gwsr.com). For public transport information, call 0870 608 2608 or visit www.gloscotswolds.com. There is also a "Lion" hop-on, hop-off bus, which takes a circular route around attractions in the north Cotswolds, from and to Gloucester, on summer Saturdays and Sundays, and costs £3 (01451 862000; www.cotswoldsaonb.com). There are also several cycle routes through the region, including a 12-mile circuit around the Cotswold Water Park. If you intend to do quite a bit of cycling, it is also worth getting hold of Gloucestershire Rural Transport Partnership's foldaway cycle maps, available from tourist information centres, or from www.cotswold.gov.uk/planning/cycling.

WHAT ABOUT ON FOOT?

This is ideal walking country, and there are plenty of well-signed footpaths if you fancy a stroll. There are also several long-distance footpaths that cross the Cotswolds, including the Cotswold Way, which runs from Chipping Campden to Bath; the Oxfordshire Way, from Bourton-on-the-Water to Henley; and the Macmillan Way, from Dorset to Lincolnshire via the Cotswolds. Local long-distance routes include the Wysis Way and the Wardens' and Windrush Way. Details from the relevant tourist information centres. Companies offering organised walking holidays, some with luggage-carrying options, include the Pudding Club (01386 438429; www.puddingclub.com); Contours Walking Holidays (01768 867539, www.contours.co.uk); and Cotswold Walking Holidays (01242 254353; www.cotswoldwalks.com).

WHERE CAN I GET MORE INFORMATION?

There are various websites on the Cotswolds, including the excellent www.the-cotswolds.org, and the official tourist information site (01452 425673; www.glos-cotswolds.com). Local tourist information centres include Bourton-on-the-Water (01451 820211); Chipping Campden (01386 841206); Cirencester (01285 654180); Moreton-in-Marsh (01608 650881); Stow-on-the-Wold (01451 831082); and Tetbury (01666 503552). Most are currently open daily from 10am-5.30pm.

COTSWOLD VILLAGES

ON THE BEATEN TRACK...

BROADWAY

The ultimate Cotswold village, and one of the grandest, Broadway's busy and beautiful main street is almost always chocka with people popping out of tea shops, stopping to buy an expensive hat or just admiring the old stone.

BURFORD

Set on a slope and, like Broadway, boasting expensive boutiques, antique shops and posh pubs, this village is one of the busiest Cotswold destinations. Its impressive church was one of the most obvious to benefit from the wool trade - and, in 1649 was used as an impromptu prison for around 300 Levellers.

BIBURY

Described by William Morris as "the most beautiful village in England" and set, admittedly prettily, along the river Coln, Bibury's residents must be ruing the day this remark was made - it's now sometimes hard to navigate a path through the crowds.

BOURTON-ON-THE-WATER

One of the most popular villages in the area, you can get a good overview of Bourton-on-the-Water from its Model Village, which was built of Cotswold stone in the 1930s, but to a 1:9 scale (open 9am-5.45pm daily, entrance £2.75; 01451 820467).

...AND OFF IT

SHERBORNE

One of the most unusual villages in the Cotswolds, with neat little rows of cottages, the Sherborne Estate was bequeathed to the National Trust in 1983 and, as well as the house, the Trust now owns much of the neighbouring village - including its quaint post office and shop.

THE BARRINGTONS

Set on two sides of a grassy dip with the river Windrush running down the middle, the scenery in Little Barrington and Great Barrington is more windswept than your average Cotswold village, but no less impressive - and filled with battalions of mums in outdoor gear.

DIDMARTON

The main attraction in this quiet south Cotswolds village is the simple 18th-century church of St Lawrence. Its dignified whitewashed walls and pale-green painted pews have recently been brought back into service.

ELKSTONE

Another village and another church, this time Norman. Elkstone is perfectly pretty in its own right but the church is well worth stopping for - the altar is set between graceful Norman arches and is lit by pale-gold light seeping through a small stained-glass window.

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