It’s no wonder they’re one of the most popular day trips from London: the picture-perfect Cotswolds villages below are pretty much the literal embodiment of the word “quaint”, a ubiquitous term you’ve certainly become acquainted with over the course of your reading about England. For it’s simply not possible to even begin to appropriately describe the Cotswolds and forego the adjective.
For all I know it probably originated right here, in southern England.
Anyhow—located just a few hours outside the bustling capital, the Cotswolds is the kind of place you go to explore villages on foot, indulge in a cheeky cream tea and a scone (or two, or three) and immerse yourself in the complex history the region famous for its abundance of honey-coloured cottages.
Here is a list of Cotswolds villages you simply cannot miss, either because of their significance or their sheer visual appeal (totally a valid reason) as well as a few useful tips for planning your itinerary.
This easily one of my favourite stops in the area largely due to the impressive High Street sweeping downhill towards the River Windrush, flanked by a continuous ensemble of gourmet boutiques, ancient pubs and other striking shops —one of which, a chemist’s since 1734, is said to be England’s oldest pharmacy— on either side of it.
Most notable is the Tolsey building situated halfway down the High Street; Tudor in style, with striking black and white timber, it used to be a meeting point for wool merchants that would come here to pay their taxes and discuss their respective guilds.
Another historical point of interest is the Burford Church, which was built over 800 years ago by wealthy merchants; it was more recently used as a temporary prison —and, tragically, a merciless execution site— by Oliver Cromwell after the English Civil War.
Grab a pint of local cider on one of the many sprawling terraces, walk into that heavenly-smelling cheese shop or, better yet, sit down for tea at Huffkins.
Comprising of Upper Slaughter and Lower Slaughter —which, rest assured, have nothing to do with the actual slaughter of living beings— two quaint (oh there’s that pervasive word again) hamlets that are worth a brief photo stop. There aren’t any commodities or particular attractions here, simply two supplementary examples of perfectly preserved Cotswolds villages.
Interesting to note, though, that there is a walking path linking the two Slaughters for those looking to burn off the scone-induced calories.
Not only is this a fine-looking castle (there’s a pleonasm if there ever was one), it’s also a historical one, too; Sudeley Castle and its 1,200-acre estate is indeed England’s only private castle to have a queen buried within its grounds, namely Katherine Parr, the last of Henry VIII’s six wives.
In fact, it seems that queens of all eras relished the gardens of this lavish estate as not only Katherine Parr but also Anne Boleyn, Lady Jane Grey and Elizabeth I walked upon the original Tudor parterre of the aptly-named Queens Gardens.
Sudeley Castle is a wonderful place to stop for a royal afternoon tea or simply for a stroll in the luxuriant gardens come springtime.
Often referred to as one of the masterpieces of Cotswolds villages, a crown jewel if you will, Chipping Campden is indeed a quintessential stop on any Cotswolds itinerary. Its 17th-century Market Hall was built solely to shelter cheese, butter and poultry merchants from bad weather and not wool merchants, contrary to popular belief. It’s nonetheless a superb landmark that is well worth stepping into.
Chipping Campden’s high street is slightly more peculiar than that of its neighbouring towns as it curves in a shallow arc, revealing ostentatiously-embellished houses at each turn (again a testament to the prosperous wool trade).
Pay special attention to the beautiful thatched-roof cottages on the periphery of Chipping Campden, some of the most expensive and sought-after properties in England.
Not to be missed nearby, too, is the stunning 55-acre Batsford Arboretum. As Britain’s largest private collection of trees and shrubs, this botanical garden is largely inspired by the original owner’s—the 1st Baron of Redesdale, Algernon Bertram Freeman-Mitford— extensive travels in Asia where he walked upon forests of Japanese maples, magnolias and pines.
One of the larger market towns in the Cotswolds and definitely a fun place to spend a few hours. Its sprawling central square has been bustling with activity for well over 500 years as it used to be a major trading centre when the area went through the so-called wool golden age; back then, almost 50% of England’s overall economy was connected to the wool industry in some shape or form. There are multiple testaments and trinkets linked to that heritage scattered across town; keep an eye out for them! Since then, Stow-on-the-Wold has become a lively parish with plenty of antique shops, tea rooms (check out Lucy’s if you have time!) and inviting pubs if the weather’s just a little too cold for comfort.
Bourton on the Water
The crown jewel of Gloucestershire, this seductive village is definitely the one you’ve been seeing on literally every single postcard of the region. Ducks quacking on the canals, crooked stone houses with attractive bakeries, vintage shops and tea rooms, elderly ladies gossiping on a park bench: Bourton-on -the-Water hits all the right notes.
A little tip before you go: try and avoid lunchtime and early afternoons in Bourton-on-the-Water, as this is when coaches upon coaches upon coaches filled with tourists on a group day trip from London. Best to go in the morning or later afternoon and get the streets to yourself (and the far less invasive, much friendlier locals).
Bibury is a minuscule civil parish, perhaps the tiniest in this selection. But it’s also home to the emblematic Arlington Row, making it one of the most quintessential Cotswolds villages. Situated on the banks of the River Coln, a tributary of the Thames, and first built in 1380 (!) as a monastic wool store, the steeply vaulted homes on Arlington Row were converted into weaver’s cottages in the 17th century in order to supply cloth to the nearby mill, back when the wool trade with the new world started picking up and accounted for almost half of England’s economy.
Fun fact: Arlington Row is a national conservation area and is depicted on the inside cover of all United Kingdom passports.
Cotswold Woollen Weavers
As you can probably tell by now, wool used to play a major role in England’s, more generally, and the Cotswolds, more specifically, economy. The medieval weavers of 12th century happily sang: “the best wool in Europe is English and the best wool in England is Cotswold”.
Therefore, my guide Alan planned a stop at the Cotswold Woollen Weavers, knowing that in the early days of the company 400 years ago, they used to weave various woollen goods destined to the trade with the Indians in what would become Canada.
Surely you’ve seen THE emblematic photo of the Castle Combe street evidenced above in a multitude of publications; rightfully so, in my opinion, as it is indeed quite a lovely view.
Again, not a village with commodities or particular attractions (although, for the record, there is a lovely tea house called The Old Stables Coffee Shop that is worth popping into) but just a generally pleasing north-west Wiltshire destination for photographers and all-around Anglophiles out there. Both the Market Cross and St Andrew’s Church date back from the 13th century.
Cotswolds villages: know before you go
Transportation in the Cotswolds
I used two driving services in the Cotswolds as I was too much of a wuss to drive a car on the other (tempted to stay “wrong” side, if you ask me) side of the road:
- Cotswold Tours: Alan Foster used to be an English history teacher before he founded Cotswolds Tours. Would be more suitable for the quiet, laid-back travellers looking to get as much information as they can on the Cotswolds.
- CJP Tours: Established in 2002, CJP Tours is a family-run company providing private escorted tours and bespoke itineraries of the southern and northern Cotswolds for up to seven passengers. Definitely the more entertaining, lively type of your with Chris Peake’s numerous stories and knack for foreign accents.
If you are more courageous than I am and are not worried about navigating the narrow, winding country roads of the Cotswolds, then a self-drive is a great option as it will allow you to fully control your schedule and impromptu stops along the way.
I wouldn’t advise on relying on public transit in the Cotswolds, as service is sparse and infrequent. You would end up spending more time waiting for a bus than actually visiting the area.