You could spend a week, a month or even longer in the Cotswolds, that rural, magical piece of south central England that devotees of British television are so enamored of.
But believe it or not, even a long weekend is enough to make a pretty good dent in this picturesque region. Here’s my recent itinerary while visiting the area, but feel free to strike out on your own. With the Cotswolds, you just can’t go wrong.
Known for its rolling hills, quintessential English villages and markets and honey-colored limestone cottages, the Cotswolds is best explored by car. With some planning, you could get by with public transportation, but it will leave you less able to wander off the well-traveled — and often quite crowded — path.
If you’re going the rental route, plan well ahead (preferably before you leave home) and order a car with a GPS already installed, or you’ll be paying a pretty pound or two in data downloads on your personal cell phone.
Starting out from London — where we stayed at the delightful Athenaeum Hotel — we caught the train from Paddington Station to the village of Kemble, where we picked up our car.
Then, it was on to our first night’s stop in Cirencester at the beautifully restored Kings Head Hotel, a stylish, elegant, 45-room boutique hotel. The Kings Head is an ideal location for exploring this lively town, with its twice-weekly street market, farmers markets, and antiques and crafts fairs.
Dominating the town center and serving as a point of reference is the parish church of St. Peter and St. Paul, known as the “Cathedral of the Cotswolds” and a symbol of the wealth and influence that Cirencester had as a thriving wool town in medieval England.
Cirencester had its beginnings in the Roman period and was one of the regional capitals of Roman Britain. The award-winning, interactive Corinium Museum is well worth a visit for a look at how Cirencester has evolved through the centuries.
We also enjoyed the New Brewery Arts Centre, which includes exhibition space, classes, special events such as crafts fairsand a shop well-stocked with handmade British crafts.
The sun was shining the next morning (not something to be taken for granted or ignored in this part of the world), so we took the opportunity for an early morning walk in the 19th-century landscaped Cirencester Park, owned by the Bathurst family for more than three centuries.
After sufficiently stretching our legs, we left Cirencester (no time for dilly-dallying on this quick trip) for Tetbury, whose centrally located Market House was built in 1655 for the sale of wool and yarn. Tetbury itself dates back to at least the seventh century. Today, Tetbury’s streets are lined with historic buildings, many of which house a wide variety of art galleries and antiques shops.
For souvenirs with a royal pedigree, try the Highgrove Shop, which sells exclusive items for the home and garden that often reflect the personal interests of His Royal Highness, the Prince of Wales, whose estate is nearby. It’s a good place to stock up on gifts. (I’m still regretting passing on the cashmere socks.)
Sans cashmere socks, we had a quick lunch at local eatery Café 53 and then were on our way to our next overnight destination, Cheltenham, where we tucked in for the night at The Malmaison Cheltenham, a restored Victorian villa with a decidedly contemporary vibe. Among the most famous natives of Cheltenham was Brian Jones, founder of the Rolling Stones.
The following morning, we walked into town and strolled down Cheltenham’s Promenade, with its many stylish boutiques, and then on through the open-air market. Known as a spa town since its first natural springs were discovered in 1716, Cheltenham also is host to numerous international festivals and events, beautiful parks and gardens and impressive Regency architecture. The Cheltenham Gold Cup marks the beginning of the town’s well-known racing season.
After a morning exploring, it was back into the car for the drive to Stow-on the-Wold and a quick walk around this quintessentially English village, with its many boutiques and antiques shops. Stop for a bite to eat at Huffkins, a family-owned Cotswolds bakery and tearoom that dates back to the late 19th century and includes such traditional treats as Lardy cake (sweet dough with currants, brown sugar and, in deference to healthier times, butter instead of lard).
Well-fortified, we were off to Bourton-on the-Water, a particularly scenic village. Many of its cottages and houses are at least three centuries old, some going back as far as Elizabethan times.
With the River Windrush running through town, crossed at regular intervals by small stone bridges, Bourton-on-the-Water has well earned its nickname as the “Venice of the Cotswolds.”
We started out the next day for a quick visit to the sleepy but picturesque village of Burford, known as the “Gateway to the Cotswolds.” If you’re an architecture buff, you’ll appreciate the variety of styles and periods here, more than in most Cotswolds towns. And if you have artistic leanings, check out the exhibitions at the James Fletcher-Watson Gallery. Fletcher-Watson, who died in 2004, was one of Britain’s leading landscape watercolorists, establishing the gallery when he moved to the area. Artists from all over the world come here to take classes of all levels.
By mid-morning, it was time to leave the Cotswolds, as we were heading back to the States the following day and wanted to make a quick visit to Oxford before our overnight stay in Windsor (it’s easier to get to Heathrow Airport from there than from the heart of London).
There is, of course, much more to see and do in the Cotswolds, but our quick visit was certainly enough to entice us to return for a longer stay.