This summer I am approaching a mid-life milestone. Far from becoming anxious about the ensuing day, I see it more as a celebration of 40 glorious years living in the Cotswolds.
Childhood memories of dandelion-filled days when friends and I would wave goodbye to parents for a day’s bike ride with little more than a packet of sandwiches and a Penguin biscuit as a picnic, never really getting very far courtesy of the undulating nature of the Cotswolds and a bicycle with limited gears; long country walks to isolated barns (they’ve all been “done up” now into designer dwellings); and the smell of warm blackberry jam bubbling in a pan having spent the afternoon picking fruits among the brambles, scratched arms the uncomfortable result of reaching for the plumpest berry.
More recently, I finished writing a guidebook to the Cotswolds, based upon the accumulated knowledge that I’ve gleaned over those years as a lifelong resident. Such a project made me focus hard – and in a different way – on the places I’ve grown up to love. Here I share some of those – both well-known places and some hidden secrets worth finding.
Designated as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (similar in status to a national park) and covering 787 square miles between Bath and Stratford-upon-Avon, Cheltenham and Oxford, understanding the Cotswolds in a weekend is impossible. So I recommend exploring at a leisurely pace by taking a snippet of this rolling limestone countryside, criss-crossed by trademark dry-stone walls and rich architectural masterpieces
built upon a prosperous medieval wool trade.
My favourite area to spend time, and what I believe feels the cosiest part of the Cotswolds, is around Chipping Campden. The golden-coloured town itself is a jewel, with architectural splendour along its alluring S-shaped High Street.
Close by, in Sheep Street, is the Old Silk Mill, where the town’s Arts and Crafts Movement began in 1902 and continues with small galleries of working artists and craftsmen. But take time to discover the satellite villages of Blockley, a hillside gem, Hidcote, renowned for both Hidcote Manor and Kiftsgate gardens, and Snowshill, famous for both the curious collection of knick-knacks at Snowshill Manor and as the film location for Bridget Jones’ Diary – it is also home to Snowshill Lavender (www.snowshill-lavender.co.uk), the Cotswolds’ very own slice of Provence.
A mile north of Chipping Campden is Dover’s Hill. It’s the perfect spot for a summer picnic and, as one of the highest points in the area, a prime location for views across the Vale of Evesham and the distant Malverns.
For quiet, get-away-from-thecrowds Cotswolds, my choice is the villages between Stow-on-the-Wold and Chipping Norton: Adlestrop, made “famous” by the poet Edward Thomas whose railway carriage poem is etched into a seat at the on the tastiest of treats at the increasingly-renowned Daylesford Organic Farm Shop; and Bledington, with its picturesque village green that straddles the tiniest of streams and is overlooked by the King’s Head, one of the Cotswolds finest pubs. Catch a train to the tiny station at nearby Kingham and explore on foot.
Two miles north of Chipping Norton are the Rollright Stones, a miniature Stonehenge with legends of a king, his soldiers and conspiratorial “Whispering Knights” turned to stone by a witch. Count the stones that make up the circle – another story says that you should never get the same number twice. Here are further views of the gentlest aspects of the Cotswolds; smooth, rounded hills covered by woodlands. While in the area, take advantage of visiting Whichford Pottery (www.whichfordpottery.com), two miles further north still, where Jim and Dominique Keeling have been making their world-renowned terracotta pots for over a quarter of a century.
While researching for my guidebook, one aspect that I’d never truly appreciated previously was the connections between the Cotswolds, the Pre- Raphaelite Brotherhood and the Arts and Crafts Movement. Kelmscott Manor (www.kelmscottmanor.co.uk), near Lechlade, is the key attraction as the family home of William Morris (and Dante Gabriel Rossetti) and a firm favourite for visitors to the area. But lesser-known places also exist and much of the work from these periods can be viewed throughout the Cotswolds.
In the grittier and more rugged part of the Cotswolds around Stroud, where the hills are steeper and the valleys more prominent, my pick of destinations is the elegant town of Painswick, plus the commons around the sleepy villages of Sheepscombe and Cranham. Here, the vast beech woods that decorate the hillsides are so significant to the Cotswolds – indeed the country – that they are given national nature reserve status for their international importance. Their spacious, open nature provides perfect dappled respite from a glaring summer sun.
There is no better way to experience the Cotswolds than getting under the skin of what they are about and meeting the communities that live and work there. And even though I have lived there all my life, I feel as if I have so much still to learn about it myself.
There is easy access from the M40 and M4. The Cotswolds and Malvern Line operated by First Great Western (www.firstgreatwestern.co.uk) runs to the northern Cotswolds while First Great Western trains stop at Stroud and Bath, covering the southern Cotswolds, both from Paddington. Cheltenham (tourist information centre: 77 Promenade, 01242 522878) is a key Cotswolds gateway, as are Stratford-upon-Avon, Oxford and Bath.
For car-free travel, regular buses operate between main towns but public transport to surrounding villages can be sporadic. A pair of walking boots offers the best opportunities for making the most of the Cotswolds – including the Cotswold Way, a 102-mile National Trail along the western escarpment from Chipping Campden to Bath.
While cosy B&Bs are the obvious thought, there are plenty of unique self-catering options plus boutique hotels and a selection of quirky accommodation too, such as the Pudding Club bedrooms – all decorated in honour of a famous British pud –at the Three Ways
House Hotel in Mickleton (www.threewayshousehotel.com) or, offering luxurious “glamping” in woodland glades close to Sapperton, near Stroud, Cotswold Yurts (www.cotswoldyurts.co.uk). The famous Lygon Arms (www.barcelo-hotels.co.uk) in Broadway continues to impress its guests, as it has done for generations.
For visiting the Cotswolds, go to www.cotswolds.com (Cotswolds and Forest of Dean Tourism) and www.oxfordshirecotswolds.org (Oxfordshire Cotswolds). For information on the Cotswolds Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (and activities organised by the Cotswolds Conservation Board), go to www.cotswoldsaonb.org.uk.