Travelling for little more than an hour from London, the Cotswolds unfold before you: a bucolic picture of rolling hills, honey-coloured stone villages, country inns, antiques shops – and the occasional weekending A-lister. Britain’s biggest Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty covers more than 800 square miles across five counties, but its charm belies its size.
The Romans made their mark on the ‘wolds – at one time, Cirencester was the country’s second city, after London – but the region owes its aura to the wool trade, the wealthy textile merchants leaving a legacy of magnificent manor houses and soaring spires. Sheep still roam the undulating pastures, but the wool is long gone, the region’s prosperity now resting on its emerging status as a gastronomic mecca. Get a taste for it at Michelin-starred pubs, classy country hotels, and one of Britain’s most talked-about craft spirit producers, the Cotswolds Distillery.
Things to see and do in the Cotswolds
The Arts and Crafts movement left a legacy, from the enchanting summer home of designer William Morris, Kelmscott Manor, to the enticing labyrinth of ‘outdoor rooms’ at Hidcote, created by horticulturist Major Lawrence Johnston. Or there’s Snowshill Manor, established by the eccentric artist and collector Charles Paget Wade.
Try ‘hamlet hopping’ through sleepy unspoilt settlements, like Asthall, Windrush, Sherborne or the charming (though menacing-sounding) Slaughters and you will feel you have stepped back to the era so vividly described in Laurie Lee’s Cider with Rosie.
Take in the region’s tiny towns, incessantly pretty, all of them carved from the same Cotswold stone but each offering a different feel. The medieval market hub of Burford is known for its charming antiques shops and the enormous Burford Garden Company, on the edge of town; beautiful Broadway is heaven for homeware hunters, with the flagship for luxury interior brand Oka set in a Cotswold townhouse; or head to Daylesford Organic farm shop, not far from Stow-on-the-Wold, for its tempting cheese room, offering local specialities like Adlestrop or Evenlode.
Walkers will be drawn to the Cotswold Way, a national trail winding 100 miles from the chocolate-box village of Chipping Campden all the way down to meet the regency splendour of Bath.
Where to eat and drink in the Cotswolds
As a term, ‘gastropub’ may feel a little worn, but it aptly describes some of the region’s best dining options, combining the cosiness of ancient inns with sublime modern takes on traditional pub grub. The Bell at Langford, a rustic village local reinvented by Cotswolds-born Peter Creed and Tom Noest in 2017, enjoys a reputation that transcends its humble stone walls. The bone-marrow flatbread has a legion of fans, as does the Cotswold IPA rarebit with soldiers.
Get down with the bantams in the gorgeous garden of The Swan Inn in Swinbrook – once owned by the last of the Mitford sisters: ‘Debo’, the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire – an idyllic, wisteria-clad inn on the banks of the River Windrush, where the honest, seasonal cooking always delivers.
If you’re looking for a cure, then head to the unprepossessing barn at Upton Smokery, where the aromas are as welcoming as the friendly staff. Or, for first-rate seafood, it’s counter-intuitive, but try The Old Butchers in Stow, to see how chef Pete Robinson is turning heads with his lobster specials.
Where to stay in the Cotswolds
Take a botanical breather at Thyme, a hamlet of restored buildings in the village of Southrop, where no two rooms are the same. There’s fine dining in the Ox Barn and a cookery school if you fancy your chances behind the stove.
For the full Miss Marple, indulge in the old-fashioned country chic of Barnsley House and spa, for rambling gardens, intuitive service, top-notch food and a wine list that goes the extra mile with its ‘maverick’ section.
Or take a honey-hued cottage of your own, from the wide selection at Manor Cottages. Self-catering means you can indulge in some of the celebrated local produce, such as Evesham asparagus, Gloucestershire Old Spot pork or delicious Daylesford Cheddar.
The ultimate Cotswolds drinking destination
Cotswolds Distillery, established less than a decade ago, has already made a name for itself, from its signature grapefruit-driven Cotswolds Gin – famous for the essential oils that form a pearlescent cloud when ice is added – through to its sell-out IWSC gold-medal winning Cotswolds Single Malt Whisky.
The distillery, in Stourton, welcomes visitors for guided tours, tastings and gin-making masterclasses, making the perfect mixer for all that bucolic bliss.
Editor’s note: due to current restrictions, some of the venues and destinations featured are temporarily fully or partially closed, as follows: Kelmscott Manor – Limited opening in 2021; Hidcote – The Gardens, Shop, Plant Centre, Secondhand Bookshop and Winthrop’s Cafe (takeaway only) are currently open; Snowshill Manor – The garden is currently open; Barnsley House – self-contained rooms and spa are currently open, full bookings from 17 May; Cotswolds Distillery – tours & tastings from 17 May.