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You may never have heard of the Cotswolds, but chances are you’ve seen this scenic part of England in a movie or television show.
This collection of 113 villages in West England gives new meaning to the word “charming.” From the homes made of yellow limestone to colorful flower boxes hanging under windows and the pubs with funny names dotting every corner, this could be a movie set for the BBC. But these are real towns filled with friendly residents who have chosen a slower pace of life in one of England’s most scenic regions.
Late last year my brother, Erik, and I spent several days walking The Cotswold Way--a 100 mile trail that runs through most of the villages in this region. We walked about a third of this trail which afforded us the opportunity to see a dozen different villages. By the end of our journey we had discovered five Cotswold villages that we’d return to in a heartbeat.
Where Are The Cotswolds?
Located in West England, the Cotswolds is a large area stretching 90 miles South to West and 25 miles across. The total area covers 797 square miles and includes five different counties. Before embarking on a journey to this region, it’s important to know your destination within this large area. To help orient yourself, see the map below.
How To Get To The Cotswolds
Getting from London to the Cotswolds can be achieved by car or train. Erik and I opted to take a train so we didn’t have to worry about parking or moving a car during our walking tour. There are trains available throughout the day from London’s Paddington Station. And for most destinations in this region, the train ride should last just one to two hours.
Below is a Cotswolds map featuring my favorite villages.
The first village we arrived in was Moreton-in-Marsh which has been one of the main market towns in the Northern Cotswolds since 1227. It’s history dates back almost 1700 years when a Roman settlement was founded nearby.
In the U.S., many small towns are centered around a large square, often covered in grass and trees and typically containing a city hall or other government building. But in this region, the main part of town lies vertically since this allowed travelers to pass through its center and easily access the market. Instead of the central street being named “Main Street” it’s commonly called “High Street.”
The Moreton-in-Marsh market is still offered every Tuesday with over 200 vendors present. If you can arrange your visit on this day, you’ll see local life at its busiest. Right in the center of town is Redesdale Market Hall, a gathering spot for the residents. During the week the hall houses about a dozen local artists selling their wares throughout the week. When we visited we purchased a few bars of locally made chocolate which were delicious and helped fuel our long walks.
Take some time to stroll along High Street to appreciate the 17th and 18th century buildings. There are many boutique shops and cafes to explore along the way. Then pop into one of the pubs to sample local beers or grab a bite to eat. Erik and I enjoyed a lovely dinner at White Hart Royal Hotel & Eatery which was built in the 16th century.
There are a few important things to know about Moreton-in-Marsh and most of the villages in the area. Shops here open around 10 a.m. and close about 5 p.m. So if you are eager to browse the boutiques, plan your day accordingly. While there are always plenty of coffee shops and bakeries in each town, they rarely open before 10 a.m. So if you are an early riser like me, the best place for coffee and breakfast will be at your hotel or inn.
On our first day of walking The Cotswold Way we stopped for lunch in Stow-on-the-Wold. Erik and I were winding our way along a curvy road when we turned a corner and saw this delightful town’s High Street. Tiny shops, pubs, and inns could be seen along both sides of the road adorned with vines, British flags, and hanging pots of flowers.
Unfortunately, we also saw hordes of people and dozens of tourists buses. This was by far the busiest town we visited in the Cotswolds and clearly a popular destination for day trips from London. But I would still recommend visiting Stow since it’s charm overcame the crowds.
Stow was founded as a market town in 1107. But there are many prehistoric sites in the area dating as far back as the Stone Age. At its peak, this market sold as many 20,000 sheep annually. The last battle of the English Civil War took place here in 1646,
We began with lunch at The Porch House--England’s oldest inn dating back to 947 A.D. It turns out that the age of the building has been verified through carbon dating of one of it’s wooden beams. I live in a Southern California town that is less than 50 years old, so I loved all the historic buildings and sights we saw regularly in the Cotswolds.
After lunch, Erik and I explored the shops for a while and then headed to St. Edward’s Parish Church. Most churches we encountered in this region were open to visitors and we found them to be nice places to take a break from the trail. St. Edwards was built between the 11th and 15th centuries. Surrounding it was an old cemetery with tombstones dating back hundreds of years. Inside were lovely stained glass windows. When visiting a village in the Cotswolds, definitely seek out the church and take a few moments to explore it.
We had to get on with our walk, but I am eager to revisit Stow in the near future. In addition to how we spent our short time here, there are many antique shops and tea houses to explore. Nearby there are manor houses and gardens open to the public.
Bourton-on-the-Water is named for the Windrush River that runs through it. Five low bridges cross the river while walkways follow its winding banks. Add in dozens of Cotswold cottages and large leafy trees, and this might be the most picturesque village in the region. In fact it’s regularly voted one of the prettiest villages in England.
The number of visitors to this village rivals Stow-on-the-Wold, so many of its shops and restaurants are dedicated to tourists. While the experience can at first feel touristy, I recommend getting off High Street and exploring the smaller side streets to see the homes and gardens of locals.
Like the other villages mentioned, there are layers of history here dating all the way back to neolithic times. But it was in the 11th century that a church was built and a town began to develop which eventually became Bourton-on-the-Water.
When Erik and I arrived in Bourton it was raining and almost dark, so we did not have much time to explore. I ventured out early the next morning to photograph the river and side streets. Visitors will definitely enjoy browsing the shops, cafes and bakeries. If you have more time there is a Motoring Museum and a model village. Nearby is Greystones Nature Reserve offering trails and historic exhibits.
During our second day of trekking, Erik and I were both feeling pretty tired. At the same time we could see a big storm moving in. So we decided to end our day early, called for a taxi, and arrived in Winchcombe in the late afternoon. Fortunately, this gave us ample time to check-out this town. We strolled along High Street, explored the local shops, drank a beer in one of its pubs, and eventually settled down for dinner at a Thai restaurant.
Winchcombe is an ancient Anglo Saxon town dating back to the first century. In the surrounding countryside there is evidence of neolithic and Roman activity. Over the centuries, this town has experienced both economic booms and deep depressions. Many of the finest buildings in town were constructed during its heyday, but when the economy slipped, Winchcombe became known for cattle rustling and general lawlessness.
What is particularly attractive about a visit to Winchcombe are some of the nearby sights including Sudeley Castle and Hailes Abbey Ruins. Many of the Cotswolds walks will pass Sudeley Castle, but since we had taken a cab, we missed that opportunity. However, we did get to visit the abbey on our third day of walking.
Hailes Abbey was founded in 1246 by the Earl of Cornwall. It became an important pilgrimage site since it claimed to have a vial of Christ’s blood. However, during the reign of King Henry VII, the abbey was destroyed in 1539. Not much is left today, but the story of what took place here over three hundred years is fascinating. There’s a fee to see the ruins which includes a well-done audio guide. There is also a small museum with artifacts from the abbey. I really enjoyed our time here, and in my opinion, a visit to the abbey is one of the best things to do in the Cotswolds.
A note about the food in the Cotswolds; while Erik and I definitely enjoyed visiting pubs for a pint of beer each day, we were getting tired of the food. If you are spending a few days in the Cotswolds and need a break from fish and chips or shepherds pie, head to one of the ethnic restaurants. Like London, we found many great ethnic options to choose from including Thai, Chinese, and Indian.
Our third day of walking was both our longest and toughest. The hills were steep, it rained frequently and our feet were sore. So arriving in Broadway felt like a reward for all three days of hard work. It’s tough to choose our favorite village in the Cotswolds, but if pressed, I’d probably say Broadway.
It’s believed that Broadway began when the nearby abbey was chartered by King Edgar in 972--though recent archeological evidence suggests settlements here going back as far as the mesolithic era. As a major stagecoach stop, Broadway was bustling from the 11th through the 19th centuries. However, with the introduction of rail service throughout England, Broadway became much quieter. That resulted in its attraction for artists, and today this town is seen as a peaceful and relaxing place for a short getaway.
Broadway is one of the larger villages in the Cotswolds. It features dozens of yellow limestone cottages, ancient walnut trees, upscale boutiques, and some excellent restaurants. After shopping and eating be sure to check-out the Broadway Museum and Art Gallery featuring local art and artists. Nearby is the Broadway Tower Country Park featuring a historic monument, a herd of red deer, shops and a restaurant. If you’re here in the summer then check-out the lavender fields.
After settling in at our bed and breakfast, Erik and I spent some time exploring Broadway. Eventually we found a place for dinner, and followed that with a visit to the wine bar. The next morning we did some shopping and caught a taxi to take us to the train station and then back to London.
Just a quick note: We found that several of the Broadway restaurants were fully booked on the night we were there. This was the only Cotswold village where we experienced this. I’d recommend dinner reservations if you plan to visit.
Where To Stay In The Cotswolds
All of our accommodations were booked through Macs Adventures, the company that helped us organize our three day walk. We spent each night in a lovely bed and breakfast, and I would highly recommend each of these places.
Moreton-in-Marsh, Redesdale Arms
Bourton-on-the-Water, Chester House Hotel
~The Chester House also offers a Italian restaurant, L'Anatra, where Erik and I had a delicious dinner.
Winchcombe, The Lion Inn
~The Lion Inn was very comfortable, but was also our only inn without television.
Broadway, Olive Branch
~This was the highlight of our four nights. The owner, Pam, is friendly, helpful and funny.
To learn more about the Cotswolds I've provided some guide books to consider purchasing on Amazon. See the links below.