The Cotswolds are often referred to as the epitome of quintessential England, but what exactly are the Cotswolds? At just over 2,000 square kilometres or around 800 square miles, this Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) covers a section of southwest England, marking the English side of the Avon valley from Wales. The Cotswolds cover five counties; Gloucestershire, Oxfordshire, Warwickshire, Wiltshire and Worcestershire. On a map, they can be traced from the charming Chipping Camden in the north down to the city of Bath.
The Cotswolds are famous as the embodiment of England for a good reason. Visitors to this region can enjoy picturesque villages of honey-coloured stone and sprawling lavender fields. A great way to see this region is by hiking along the accessible tranquillity of the 164 km/102 mile Cotswold Way.
The Cotswolds was established as an AONB in 1966, and it is the largest region to hold such a title across England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Made up of around 80% farmland, it is clear why the Cotswolds hold such a status.
The Cotswolds are a delightful pocket of romanticism, but the name quite rightly raises questions. Why the Cotswolds are called the Cotswolds remains a mystery. The most likely origin of the word is that ‘cot’ refers to the sheep pens, which are an all too common sight in the area, and ‘wolds’ in Cotswold means rolling hills. No one knows for certain.
To fully understand this beautiful area, we must go deeper than its outward appearance. We must start at the beginning, discovering how the Cotswolds were formed.
One of the most iconic features of the Cotswolds is its warm golden stone, but what gives the stone its colour? The stone found in the Cotswolds and beyond in the south of England is yellow oolitic Jurassic limestone. Unless you are a geologist or stonemason, that might not help clarify matters, so let’s break it down.
Yellow – The colour of Cotswold stone generally ranges from honey tones in the north of the area to golden in the centre, paling to a creamy white by the city of Bath to the south. Despite this variety, the term ‘yellow’ is used for the group. Limestone is naturally a creamy colour, becoming increasingly golden as it weathers, giving Cotswold stone its colour.
Oolitic – The term ‘oolite’, literally ‘egg stone’, comes from the Hellenic word for egg. This is due to the composition of the stone; it is formed from small beads, the result of calcium carbonate deposits from the skeletal remains of marine organisms being depicted on the surface of sand grains.
Jurassic – You would be quite right to be confused about this talk of marine organisms and sand grains when the Cotswolds are distinctly not underwater. However, the Jurassic segment of ‘yellow oolitic Jurassic limestone’ comes from the fact that this stone was formed between 199 – 145 million years ago, during the Jurassic period.
Limestone – Limestone is a sedimentary rock formed from the precipitation of calcium carbonate from ocean water. That is a simplistic overview of one way in which limestone was formed. Read a more detailed explanation here.
You might have seen Cotswold stone in England without realising it. Some of the best-known examples include Blenheim Palace, Windsor Castle, Eton College, and some of the colleges at the University of Oxford.
“The truth is that it has no colour that can be described. Even when the sun is obscured and the light is cold, these walls are still faintly warm and luminous, as if they knew the trick of keeping the lost sunlight of centuries glimmering about them”
JB Priestly, English novelist, 1894-1984
Following the Jurassic, the next significant period in the history of the Cotswolds was the Neolithic. The Neolithic period in Britain lasted from approximately 4300 BC – 2000 BC. A notable evolution followed the Neolithic period in tools and culture. This is generally recognised to be the result of farming communities arriving from continental Europe. The arrival of these people brought Beaker culture to Britain and heralded the beginning of the Bronze Age.
The Bronze Age in Britain ran from approximately 2500 BC – 700 BC. It is possible to identify the Bronze Age from the emergence of metal weapons, jewellery, and Beaker pottery. The Iron Age followed as travel and trade brought ironworking techniques to England from Europe. Iron is superior to bronze from availability to strength. The Iron Age lasted from around 750 BC to the arrival of the Romans in England in 43 AD.
Archaeologic evidence reveals that the Cotswolds were heavily wooded during the Neolithic period. This is a very different landscape from the one we see today. Humans were likely part of farming communities that settled here from the continent around 3500 BC. Before the arrival of these farmers, people in southern Britain may have been nomadic hunter-gatherers.
However, this is a relatively speculative theory due to the lack of houses that survive the Neolithic period. As is common in archaeology from so long ago, evidence may have been lost to time through ploughing and more recent history occurring over these older remains. Additionally, houses may not have existed in the first place.
One form of evidence that does remain is the Cotswold-Severn Group. These are a series of long barrows and tombs erected in the Cotswolds around 5000 years ago, in the early Neolithic period. Burials are an exciting archaeological find. They can give us important insights into the way of life of the people who lived in a region or during a particular period. Skeletal remains also allow archaeologists to better understand the health and diet of these people, as well as where they came from.
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Located in Dursley, Gloucestershire, Nympsfield is approximately 98 ft/30 m from east to west. Professor Buckman excavated this long barrow in 1862, Mrs Clifford in 1937, and Alan Saville in 1974. Inside, they found at least 13 human skeletons and pottery. The later Neolithic pottery helps date Nympsfield, as its presence suggests that the long barrow was closed before the end of the Neolithic period.
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Better known as Hetty Peglar’s Tump, this long barrow is around 120 ft/37m long and just 10 ft/3m wide. Approximately 5000 years old, Dr John Thurnham excavated the long barrow in the 1850s. It was ‘repaired’ throughout the later 1800s. As a result of this reconstruction, this is one of the best surviving Cotswold-Severn tombs, despite suffering considerable vandalism throughout its history. Excavations revealed 15 or 20 skeletons in the long barrow.
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Dating to around 3000 BC, Belas Knap is unusual for its north-to-south orientation; most other long barrows are west to east. Excavations in the 1860s and 1920s revealed 31 skeletons within the long barrow. Belas Knap is notable for its impressive entrance, which is a false entrance. Instead, entry is through two simple side entrances. There is debate over why this false entrance exists, but excavations uncovered six skeletons behind it. Of the six, four were early Bronze Age infants, demonstrating this historic site’s extended use over time.
The Cotswold-Severn group, of which there are around 200 long barrows, offer a fascinating insight into life in the Neolithic Cotswolds. Two other sites of note from this period are the Rollright Stones and the Three Shires Stones.
The Rollright Stones are a collection of stones, ranging in date across 2000 years, from the early Neolithic to the mid-Bronze Age. The story is that the stones are a king and his men, cursed by a witch. The site is comprised of the Whispering Knights, dating to the early Neolithic (3800-3500 BC), the late Neolithic Kings Men (2500 BC), and the lone figure of King Stone from the Bronze Age (1500 BC). Whatever the story of these evocative stones, they are a hidden gem within the prehistoric landscape of the Cotswolds. Find out more about England’s best secret nature spots here.
The Three Shire Stones are believed to be from a chambered tomb, although they were moved to their current location at some point. This move likely happened around 1736 or 1859. Presently, the stones mark the historic border where Gloucestershire, Somerset and Wiltshire meet. The Three Shire Stones are best known as the inspiration for the Three-Farthing Stone in Lord of the Rings. The author, J. R. R. Tolkien (1892–1973), enjoyed several visits to this area, so he would have been familiar with the stones.
The wealth of evidence revealed from the Neolithic remains throughout the Cotswolds offers an excellent insight into life in the area 5000 years ago. This is some of the earliest evidence of human life in the region. It is a wonderful foundation for our journey through the history of the Cotswolds.
The Cotswold-Severn region remains crucial for studying Bronze and Iron Age England. This is due to its position between prominent kingdoms of the period, such as Wessex to the south and the Welsh marches to the west. The area is a wealth of hill forts, camps and long barrows. Such sites give archaeologists additional insight into the way of life in the area in the last couple of thousand years before the change into the Common Era.
Uley Bury is the largest settlement of its kind in the Cotswolds. It is remarkably well preserved for those wishing to visit. Dating from around 300 BC – 100 AD, this settlement, with a perimeter of 1.6 km/1 miles, was likely home to the Dobunni. The Dobunni were an Iron Age tribe that occupied a region similar to that of the Cotswolds today. Coins found in the interior of Uley Bury show the tribe were active on this site.
There is also evidence of the Dobunni tribe at Salmonsbury Camp, in the north of the Cotswolds. The first evidence of human habitation at Salmonsbury was as a temporary Neolithic enclosure around 4000 BC. By 100 BC, an Iron Age hill fort had been built. Its location in a dip, surrounded by hills, suggests that this was not a defensive site but a farming and market town. In the late 1800s, 147 Iron Age currency bars were found at Salmonsbury. These elongated iron bars are similar in shape to a sword blade.
The hoard is one of the key players in understanding trade in Iron Age England. Salmonsbury is remarkable for the length of time it was in use, from the Neolithic enclosure to its abandonment around 420 AD. This only occurred as the community shifted 1.5 km/1 mile west to an Anglo-Saxon settlement. This would become the picturesque village of Bourton-on-the-Water today.
For those interested in discovering more about the Bronze and Iron Age history of the Cotswolds, look out for the earthworks on Minchinhampton Common, the long barrows at Haresfield Beacon, and the historic Sodbury hillfort.
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The Roman Empire is one of history’s best-known empires. Founded in 27 BC, the Romans held immense control until the empire collapsed in 476 AD. Its roots can be found in the Roman Republic, established in 509 BC. Some would argue that its influence continued until the fall of Constantinople in 1453 AD. They are unavoidable in European history, and their power did not overlook England.
Roman Britain began in 43 AD after an invasion under Emperor Claudius and continued until approximately 410 AD. From monumental landmarks like Hadrian’s Wall in the north to many place names we still use today, the Romans had a lasting influence on England and Wales. The Cotswolds were no exception. This was a prime location of lush countryside and located around the hub of Corinium (now Cirencester) and Aquae Sulis (now Bath).
Cirencester was founded around 70 AD. It quickly became second only to London in significance. It also rivalled London in size – the wall enclosed around 240 acres. The city’s population was over 10,000, while London ranged from 12,000 to 20,000. Cirencester was a hub of activity, likely with inns and public baths. The market hall shows this was a thriving market location. As with many Roman cities, Cirencester boasted an amphitheatre built around 100 AD. It was one of the largest amphitheatres constructed in Britain, able to hold 8,000 spectators. This stadium peaked just as Roman rule collapsed in the western empire. Visitors today can still enjoy the footprint of this impressive structure.
Another building to reach its peak as the Romans left Britain was Chedworth Roman Villa. Founded in the 2nd century AD, Chedworth was one of the Romans’ grandest villas built in Britain. The villa, located in the heart of the Cotswolds, is an impressive ruin in the care of the National Trust. Chedworth boasts an impressive bath complex, temple, and a nymphaeum, which likely inspired the villa’s exact location.
It was here that archaeologists also found a 5th-century Roman mosaic in 2020. This is hugely significant as it had previously been thought Roman settlements were abandoned after the Romans left in the early 400s AD. This mosaic shows that luxury life continued after that point, even as England entered the Dark Ages. The Dark Ages are called such because it is a period when scientific and cultural advancement supposedly ceased. Read about the discovery of the mosaic from National Trust archaeologist Martin Papworth, here.
Another important mosaic in the Cotswolds is the Orpheus mosaic, so called because it depicts Orpheus and his lyre surrounded by animals. The mosaic was in Woodchester Roman villa, a large villa of around 65 rooms, which was used from about 100 – 400 AD. After the Romans left, Woodchester was probably a great fortress in the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Mercia known as Uuduceaster (we like to think this is pronounced oo-disaster).
Also known as the Great Pavement, this Roman mosaic is the second-largest mosaic of its kind in Europe and was laid around 325 AD. Covering approximately 50 ft2/4.6 m2, the mosaic was excavated in the 1790s by antiquarian Samuel Lysons. The mosaic is an even rarer sighting than the book, as it is buried beneath a churchyard. It has only been uncovered in part or in full half a dozen times in the last century to help protect this fragile artefact from the effects of time.
If you are planning on continuing your adventure through the Roman Cotswolds, don’t miss Bourton-on-the-Water, and, of course, the city of Bath. Perhaps better known as a fashionable Regency spa town, Bath was a popular hub in Roman times thanks to the hot spring here. A large bath complex, and city, soon emerged around the spring. Find out more about the Roman Baths in Bath here. Take the time to visit the immense Great Witcombe Roman Villa, which was not only one of the largest Roman houses in Britain, but the Cold Room mosaic also features the only known example of an electric ray on a British Roman mosaic.
The Romans left England around 410 AD, and the Middle Ages began. Previously thought to be a time of cultural regression, the Early Medieval period, or the Dark Ages, is now understood as a time of significant change. This period shaped the very England we know today; the time of the legendary King Arthur, Viking raids, the Normans and the Battle of Hastings in 1066. After the Norman Conquest, a pivotal period of history for the Cotswolds began. This time helps us answers questions such as why the Cotswolds are such a wealthy region and how old their famous houses and picturesque villages are.
The Cotswolds’ ties to sheep, the Cotswold Lion, are crucial to understanding the region’s history. The Lion is a large sheep with a tightly curled, creamy-gold fleece from the same longwool group as the Wensleydale and rare Lincoln Longwool. It was likely the Romans who introduced a predecessor of the Lion to England, and the breed holds the key to the historic success of the Cotswolds.
The Romans brought sheep to England from continental Europe. They may have spun the fleece to provide uniforms for the army. When the Romans left in the early 5th century, their sheep remained in England in the ownership of the Church.
Five hundred years later, the arrival of the Normans brought a renewed interest in sheep. Sheep farming spread across England, and the Cotswolds soon became known as the heart of the country’s wool trade.
The dissolution of the monasteries in the 1530s forced the transfer of sheep flocks from the Church to England’s landowners. Both made a fortune by selling their high-quality fleece to mainland Europe. The Lion’s wool was so valuable that sheep were shorn before heading to market. Farmers left only the lovely forelock as a sample of the fleece quality. The wool trade’s success is evident in several measures the Crown took throughout history. By 1614, an export ban on wool had been introduced. This signified the transition of the Cotswold wool trade from raw fleece to even more valuable cloth.
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The associated wealth of the wool trade is still apparent in the Cotswolds in the form of ‘wool churches’. Upon arriving in the area, it is not long before you spot a towering spire rising from a majestic parish church.
Adding to the picturesque aesthetic today, wool churches were a status symbol for local wool merchants. Some of the finest examples are at St John’s in Cirencester and Northleach Church of St Peter and St Paul. Don’t miss St Oswald’s, a tiny time capsule church outside Burford.
The wool money didn’t just go to the Church, and many of the best-known Cotswold villages date to this period. This included Lower Slaughter, Bourton-on-the-Water, Castle Combe and Chipping Camden, the start of the Cotswold Way.
While thoughts of sheep and chocolate box villages might conjure thoughts of a peaceful time, the Medieval castles of the Cotswolds cannot be missed.
This impressive fortified structure is the oldest building in England to be still lived in by the same family who built it. Erected in the 1100s, and with archives spanning 900 years, the warm glow from the pink stone of this building makes it easy to forget the turbulent times the stone has witnessed.
Built in the early 1200s, the history of this site is older still, suggested as the site of a battle during the Anarchy (civil war, 1138-53). The castle was destroyed in the English Civil War (1642-51) and enjoyed extensive remodelling in the 1500s. The impact of the wool trade extends here too, and legend suggests 5,000 sheep were shorn in the castle’s courtyard in 1336.
The Middle Ages in England had eased into the Early Modern period around 1400 AD, and 300 years later, the Georgian period began (1714-1830s). The Georgian period gets its name from Britain’s monarchs during this time; George I (1714-27), George II (1727-60), George III (1860-1820), and George IV (1820-30). This was the time of some of England’s greatest architectural achievements, and Britain established itself as a major global power. Highlights to visit from this period include the mill in beautiful Lower Slaughter, the uniquely incomplete Woodchester Mansion, and Westonbirt, the national arboretum.
If raw fleece had brought the Cotswolds wealth in the Middle Ages, wool cloth was about to bring more still. At its peak, the heart of the Cotswolds was home to over 100 cloth mills. While no mills survive in such a form today, many of the buildings are still visible across the landscape.
Once home to 20 mills, this golden valley in the heart of the Cotswolds was shaped by the early Industrial Revolution. Records of mills in the valley date to the 11th century. 300 years later, fulling (wool felting) mills were emerging in abundance; mergers and bankruptcies were not unusual. The great transition of the Industrial Revolution had a severe impact, and by the mid-1800s, many mills had closed or turned from cloth to walking sticks and umbrella handles.
There have been mills on this site near the village of King’s Stanley for many years. The current building dates to 1813, and cloth manufacture did not cease until the 1980s. The building is now deteriorating but is one of significance. The mill boasts early examples of fireproofing, including a fireproof roof.
Painswick is a charming example of a Cotswold town, having built its wealth in the wool trade. A mill existed here from the 1400s into the 1800s and was renowned for its superfine broadcloth. Visitors today can also enjoy the legend of the 99 yew trees in the churchyard and a whimsical Georgian Rococo garden.
The Cotswolds were renowned for their quality wool broadcloth in the 1700s. Merchants traded fabric made in this area across Europe. As with earlier history, the success of the wool industry led to the erection of many delightful buildings, from monuments to mansions.
The Tyndale Monument sits high on a hill above North Nibley, on the western edge of the Cotswolds. The 111 ft/34 m tower was built in 1866 in memory of William Tyndale. Tyndale was the first person to translate the New Testament into English in 1525, before his execution a decade later. Today, the tower offers panoramic views of the area from the top.
The majestic Blenheim Palace was built from Cotswold stone in the early 1700s for the 1st Duke of Marlborough. The house was saved from ruin in the late 1800s by the 9th Duke with the financial assistance of his wife, Consuelo Vanderbilt. It went on to be the birthplace and ancestral home of British WWII Prime Minister, Sir Winston Churchill.
This Baroque building is the only non-royal, non-episcopal country house in England to hold the title of ‘palace’. It’s a unique building style, and covers around 7 acres, meaning impressive Blenheim is best seen from a distance.
Above the village of Broadway, this tower is the brainchild of the famed 18th century landscape designer Capability Brown. Completed in 1798, Brown designed this honeyed tower in the style of an Anglo-Saxon tower. Despite its defensive appearance, Broadway Tower is a folly, or decorative building. At 65 ft/20 m and built on the second-highest hill in the area, the roof of this folly is the highest point in the Cotswolds. Climbing the tower offers breathtaking views of a supposed 16 counties on a clear day.
The Cotswolds are a charming region, bursting with thousands of years of history. From the formation of the area’s iconic golden stone 200 million years ago to the beginnings of the famous Cotswold Lavendar in 1999, there is delight and discovery wherever you go.
If you want to step back in time and experience the incredible history of the Cotswolds, why not join one of our trips here? Our six day road cycling tour explores the length of this beautiful area, passing the ancient Rollright Stones and Roman Cirencester. Enjoy stops in some of the region’s prettiest urban spaces, including Bourton-on-the-water and Bath.
If you prefer to travel by foot, our Highlights of the Cotswolds trip showcases the best of the area. Wander the grounds of the majestic Blenheim Palace, uncover the past at Chedworth Roman Villa, and soak in your fill of golden chocolate-box villages. Finally, don’t miss our self guided walk along the Cotswold Way to see the iconic Broadway Tower, Nympsfield long barrow and towering Tyndale Monument. There’s so much to experience in the Cotswolds; which trip will you choose?
If you’re walking the Cotswold Way, don’t forget to take the time to wander through the streets of the historic wool town of Chipping Camden as you begin. After passing through the rich history of the Cotswolds, you’ll end your walk in one of England’s enduring settlements, the city of Bath.
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