Matthew Teller is author of the new Rough Guide to the Cotswolds (£12.99; roughguides.com), out on Monday
England's most seductive countryside nestles between Oxford and Gloucester, filling the rough triangle between the M4, the M5 and the M40. Yet the Cotswolds defies demarcation, seeping out into bits of Warwickshire, Worcestershire, Wiltshire and even Somerset: stories abound of puzzled tourists hunting on the map for "Cotswoldshire".
These hills have long entranced outsiders. Thatched cottages, dry-stone walls and mellow, honey-coloured stonework lend a unique warmth and unity of character to towns, villages and countryside. Sheep graze in the shadow of churches, hamlets slumber in the sunshine – catch the Cotswolds in the right place, at the right time, and you could imagine nothing has changed in hundreds of years.
Except, of course, it has. This landscape, tilted from Thames-side water meadows up to the "Cotswold Edge", an escarpment overlooking the Severn, has been intensively managed for centuries. Sheep were introduced by the Romans; by the Middle Ages they had become big business. Villages still cluster around "wool churches", grand designs in buttery limestone bankrolled by wealthy textile merchants, who also put up manor houses and almshouses in the gabled Jacobean style of the day.
The second phase of prosperity has come in our own time, with the the region being designated the Cotswolds Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, or AONB (01451 862000; cotswoldsaonb.org.uk). Tourism, and a rise in property prices, has changed everything. Three-quarters of the 160,000 people living within the AONB commute to jobs outside. For many it has become uneconomic to farm. The heritage industry has taken over.
Beauty spots with main-road access – notably the four Bs: Burford, Broadway, Bibury and Bourton-on-the-Water – stagger under the weight of summer visitors. Top-drawer attractions such as Winston Churchill's birthplace, Blenheim Palace, and the National Trust gardens at Hidcote are no less popular. But the best of the Cotswolds fills the gaps on the map. The finest account of a Cotswold childhood, Laurie Lee's Cider With Rosie, is centred on Slad, a quiet village tucked into the precipitous Stroud valleys.
Walking is a fine way to soak up the beauty. The region's main long-distance route is the Cotswold Way (nationaltrail.co.uk), stretching 100 miles over the hills. Others include the Macmillan Way, Gloucestershire Way and shorter routes such as the Wychwood Way and Glyme Valley Way. You can download maps from the AONB, Cotswolds Tourism (01242 522878; cotswolds.com) and Oxfordshire Cotswolds ( oxfordshirecotswolds.org).
Better still, plan a visit around your stomach. Few regions of Britain have embraced the contemporary food revolution with more enthusiasm. Even the tiniest villages hide pub restaurants serving fresh, seasonal, locally sourced food that is also often organic or ethically produced. Farmers' markets and specialist delis abound. At a time when the old rural ways have changed forever, food has become the clearest, most resonant way to celebrate Cotswolds culture.
The most satisfying one-stop destinations lie at either end of the region. In the north, Chipping Campden gives a fine idea of a prosperous 17th-century Cotswolds wool town. Stop at the old silk mill, where silversmiths bash out designs, then absorb local Arts & Crafts history at the Court Barn museum (01386 841951; courtbarn.org.uk), open 10am-5pm daily except Monday, admission £4. The museum lies in the shadow of St James' church, venue for the Campden Music Festival (01386 849018; campdenmusicfestival.co.uk), a programme of classical concerts from 8-21 May.
Smart hotels are everywhere, such as Cotswold House on The Square (01386 840330; cotswoldhouse.com), with doubles from £220, which includes breakfast, as do all the accommodation options listed here. Alternatively, hole up at the cosy Eight Bells Inn (01386 840371; eightbellsinn.co.uk) on Church Street, which has doubles from £85.
As well as hosting artists and craftspeople (see creativecampden.co.uk), Campden is great walking country, with the Cotswold Way leading up to Dover's Hill, a dizzy viewpoint offering bluebell woods and the Cotswold Olimpicks (01789 868191; olimpickgames.co.uk), an epic festival of gurning and shin-kicking, held next on 3 June.
At the opposite, southern end of the Cotswolds, Tetbury serves up an enticing combination of architecture and well-stocked delis. Its church, which dates from 1781, is one of England's finest examples of Georgian Gothic, while three miles south-west is the glorious National Arboretum (01666 880220; www.forestry.gov.uk) at Westonbirt. Open daily 9am to dusk; admission £8.
Stay at the good-value Ormond (01666 505690; www.theormond.co.uk) at 23 Long Street, which has doubles from £89. For dinner, stroll to the Chef's Table (01666 504466; thechefstable.co.uk) at 49 Long Street for French-influenced bistro nosh.
On 30 May, Tetbury stages a fair alongside its Woolsack Races ( tetburywoolsack.co.uk), where locals carry 27kg bundles up a 1-in-4 hill.
Magical history tour
A zig-zag route from the Stone Age to the 20th century begins in open fields on the Oxfordshire-Warwickshire border. Here stand the eerie Rollright Stones ( rollrightstones.co.uk; admission £1), a 100-foot circle of megaliths offering pensive views but little clue as to why Neolithic people dragged them here. The Romans left a clearer footprint, including the arrow-straight Fosse Way (now the A429) and a string of ruined villas, of which the most atmospheric is at North Leigh (www.english-heritage.org.uk), reached down a silent footpath by the River Evenlode. Admission is free.
Cotswold Saxon churches include the magical St Michael's at Duntisbourne Rouse, standing alone behind a lychgate off a single-track road. Ravishing Sudeley Castle (01242 602308; sudeleycastle.co.uk) is packed with history, from Ethelred the Unready to Henry VIII and beyond. Henry's sixth wife Katherine Parr – who outlived him – is buried in the castle church. Open daily 10.30am-5pm; admission £7.20.
For the medieval period go to St Mary's Church at Fairford (01285 712611; stmaryschurchfairford.org.uk), still with its 16th-century stained glass. Open daily 10am-5pm; free. There's also Chastleton House near Moreton (nationaltrust.org.uk), among England's best Jacobean houses, virtually unchanged in 400 years. Open Weds-Sat 1-5pm; admission £8.25.
Then divert to Kelmscott Manor (01367 252486; kelmscottmanor.org.uk), home of designer William Morris, for Arts & Crafts furniture and textiles. Open Wed and Sat 11am-5pm; admission £9. Finish at Broadway, where the Gordon Russell Museum (01386 854695; gordonrussellmuseum.org) shows the work of this master of modernist British design. Open Tues-Sun 11am-5pm; admission £3.50.
Walk this way
Much of West Oxfordshire was originally covered by the royal hunting forest of Wychwood, long since cleared for agriculture or settlement, though patches survive. A nine-mile trail through the forested Cornbury Park estate begins from Charlbury village ( www.oxfordshire.gov.uk/charlburywalk). The Bull Inn (01608 810689; bullinn-charlbury.com) offers refreshment, and double rooms from £80.
Further west, hilly Winchcombe's long main street is flanked by a fetching medley of limestone and half-timbered buildings. It's a working town with a tongue-twisting website: WinchcombeWelcomesWalkers.com showcases dozens of walks, including two 14-mile trails to Bourton-on-the-Water – the Windrush Way over the tops and the Warden's Way through the villages – and shorter loops to nearby Sudeley Castle. The 16th-century White Hart (01242 602359; whitehartwinchcombe.co.uk) has 11 simple rooms, with doubles from £39.
Within easy reach of Broadway, Stanton is another walkers' treat, blessed with honeystone Jacobean gables and the church of St Michael. As unspoilt Cotswold villages go, there are few better. It has several circular walks, including a six-mile route to Shenberrow Hill and Snowshill village, returning via Buckland Woods. Take in the views from the lofty Mount Inn (01386 584316; themountinn.co.uk).
Tuck inThe Cotswolds host farmers' markets galore – expect relaxed chitchat and lots of sample nibbles. Examples include Stroud (fresh-n-local.co.uk) on Saturdays, from 9am-2pm; Stratford ( sketts.co.uk), held on the first and third Saturday of every month 9am-2pm; or Deddington ( deddington.org.uk) on the fourth Saturday of every month from 9am-12.30pm. For bespoke culinary tours, taking in markets and restaurants, farm visits and cookery demonstrations, contact chef Rob Rees (01285 656813; thecotswoldchef.com).
There are also excellent restaurants everywhere you look. Crudwell, on the Wiltshire-Gloucestershire border, hosts the airily welcoming Potting Shed (01666 577833; thepottingshedpub.com), named Dining Pub of the Year 2011 for its inventive cooking and use of homegrown produce. The ivy-clad Swan at Southrop (01367 850205; theswanatsouthrop.co.uk) is another. Allium (01285 712200; alliumfood.co.uk) offers an innovative take on contemporary British fine dining behind a dour stone frontage in Fairford.
In upmarket Kingham village, book a night at the Plough (01608 658327; thekinghamplough.co.uk), which has doubles from £90. This outstanding pub restaurant is a fine hideaway for gastronomes, a couple of miles from the Daylesford Organic farm shop (01608 731700; daylesfordorganic.com), and the heartwarming King's Head at Bledington (01608 658365; thekingsheadinn.net). Tomorrow, at nearby Chipping Norton, Prue Leith opens the Wild Thyme Food Festival (tickets £3; wildthymerestaurant.co.uk).
Another foodie town is Nailsworth, set in the deep Frome Valley near Stroud. Stay at Egypt Mill, a renovated riverside textile factory (01453 833449; egyptmill.com) which has doubles from £85, then sample the wares of legendary artisan baker Hobbs House (01454 321629; hobbshousebakery.co.uk) at 4 George Street, or stop for oysters at Williams (01453 832240; williamsfoodhall.co.uk), an outstanding deli-cum-fish restaurant at 3 Fountain Street.
Cirencester, the self-declared capital of the Cotswolds, epitomises Gloucestershire's transformation into Poshtershire. This market town, the second-largest Roman city in Britain after London, now hosts upmarket shops and ritzy restaurants, populated by ladies who lunch. Aim for Jesse's Bistro (01285 641497; www.jessesbistro.co.uk) at 14 Black Jack Street, which serves tip-top Cornish fish and seafood, then adjourn to Swan Yard for Cirencester cupcakes (01285 644994; cirencestercupcakes.co.uk).
Admire the Roman mosaics of the outstanding Corinium Museum (01285 655611; cotswold.gov.uk) which is open from 10am-5pm Mon-Sat and from 2-5pm Sun; admission £4.80. Then head for the soaring church of St John the Baptist – flying buttresses outside, Anne Boleyn's silver goblet displayed inside – before sloping off to watch the polo, played in Cirencester Park most afternoons (01285 653225; www.cirencesterpolo.co.uk), where a ticket is £5. B&Bs include the homely 107 Gloucester Street (01285 657861; 107gloucesterstreet.co.uk), which has doubles from £75.
Hide and seek
As popular as the Cotswolds is, you can still hide away. While holidaymakers crowd into Moreton, the narrow lanes of Blockley nearby remain quiet, its houses of Cotswold stone tiered above a rushing brook.
Pop into Mill Dene Garden (01386 700457; milldenegarden.co.uk) which is open May-July from Wed-Fri 10am-5pm; admission £5.50. Alternatively, tackle a five-mile walk skirting the fields to and from Batsford. Stay at Lower Brook House (01386 700286; lowerbrookhouse.co.uk) a lovely B&B in a 17th-century building which offers doubles from £100. For dinner, head for the splendid Horse and Groom in Bourton-on-the-Hill (01386 700413; horseandgroom.info).
From Painswick – a popular stop for its yew-speckled churchyard and rococo garden (01452 813204; www.rococogarden.org.uk; open daily 11am-5pm; admission £6) hilly trails penetrate to Sheepscombe village, folded into a beech-shaded valley. The only thing to do is have a pint and a lazy lunch at the Butchers Arms (01452 812113; butchers-arms.co.uk) before finding a route up on to the ridge to loll amid wrap-around countryside.
There are more: handsome Minchinhampton, with its farm shops and breezy walks on a 600-acre hilltop common; or Coln St Aldwyns, a fine base for touring from the New Inn (01285 750651; new-inn.co.uk) which offers doubles from £140. Minster Lovell, a huddle of thatched cottages beside the bubbling River Windrush, feels lost in time: walk up behind its ancient church to find the toothless ruins of a 15th-century manor house.
In among headline festivals hide dozens of low-key events. On 14 May, Burford hosts debates on social justice for Levellers Day ( levellers.org.uk), commemorating dissenters from Oliver Cromwell's New Model Army. Admission is £12. Or aim for the historic Fleece Inn at Bretforton (01386 831173; thefleeceinn.co.uk), where, on 29 May, the annual Asparagus Auction is a highlight of the British Asparagus Festival ( britishasparagusfestival.org).
Kid you not
TV presenter Adam Henson's Cotswold Farm Park (01451 850307; cotswoldfarmpark.co.uk) on the high wolds west of Stow, offers family "edutainment", with rare breeds showcased alongside tractor rides and lambing demonstrations. Open daily 10.30am-5pm; admission £7.70.
At the Cotswold Ice Cream Company (01454 861425; cotswoldicecream.net) in titchy Farmington, kids can play in the meadows then scoff organic ice cream. On a hot afternoon cool off with a splash in the River Eye at pretty Lower Slaughter – then retire to your yurt at Abbey Home Farm (01285 640441; theorganicfarmshop.co.uk), where a family of four pays £130 for a minimum two-night stay.
Giffords Circus (0845 459 7469; giffordscircus.com) tours the Cotswolds in the summer, this year with a musical show based on War and Peace featuring clowns and acrobats. Tickets cost £20 (£12 for under-16s).