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Things to Do in the Cotswolds

By Dawn Rainbolt
More by Dawn

Discovering the Cotswolds...

What are the Cotswolds?

Designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, the Cotswolds cover an impressive 1,200 km of gently rolling hills, undulating wildflower meadows, meandering valleys, winding rivers and idyllic chocolate box villages. Whether you’re hiking the entire Cotswolds Way or driving around through the region to visit your favourite sites, the Cotswolds has much to offer.

Where are the Cotswolds?

The Cotswolds are located in the southwest of England. The area spans 5 counties in the south of England, stretching from Bath in the south to Chipping Campden in the north. The city of Bath is easily accessible by train from London, and the nearest airport is located in Bristol, just a short hop away from Bath.

Things to Do in the Cotswolds

Bath, Gateway to Cotswolds

The spectacular town of Bath is often described as the Gateway to the Cotswolds, and it is the start and end to the 102-mile Cotswold Way. Bath is often called a Georgian city for its amazing Georgian facades built in the golden-hued Bath limestone. But Bath is a medieval and Roman city too. At the heart of the town, the iconic Bath Abbey is a marvellous piece of architecture, and next door are the ancient and wonderfully preserved Roman Baths, built on top of a thermal spring. Both are well worth a visit, including a climb to the top of the tower for a bit of history along the way and a great view at the summit.

Afterwards, reward yourself by testing the thermal waters yourself at the modern spa next door. Wander the city streets to visit the shops, perhaps picking up a Sally Lunn bun from the local bakery, and then perhaps hike up to Sham Castle to enjoy the woodlands surrounding Bath, with an aerial view of Bath and the Cotswolds unfolding before you.

Read more about the fascinating Bath and its environs.

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Kennet and Avon Canal

The Canal near Bath ©VisitBritain/Casper Farrell

Running through Bath, the Kennet and Avon Canal is an 87 mile (140 km) man-made structure built to transport goods from Bristol to Reading and the River Thames, first opened in 1723 (though not finished until 1810).

Incorporating 105 locks, the canal runs east to west instead of north to south, so it merely crosses the Cotswolds at the bottom of the region. However, it was once an important industry in this part of England, later falling out of use due to the rise of the Great Western Railway (itself later replaced with motorways).

The canal is lined with a lovely canal-side path, making for great and accessible walking. For example, you could walk the roughly 10 mile stretch from Bath to Bradford-on-Avon and take the train back to Bath for a lovely outing.

Village of Bradford-on-Avon

Bradford-on-Avon is a very pretty village at the tip of the Cotswolds, and is easily accessible from Bath. In fact, you can walk along the charming canal-side path about 10 miles, and take the train back, or simply hop on the train both ways.

The village of Bradford-on-Avon is home to a notable Tithe barn, a spectacular monastic specimen from the 14th century with an impressive timber roof. The village itself is built from the iconic limestone seen in Bath and throughout the Cotswolds.

It sits along the scenic Kennet and Avon canal at the southern part of the Cotswolds, though not along the Cotswolds Way like many other places listed here.

The Cotswolds Way

Running through the centre of the Cotswolds, the Cotswolds Way is a 102 mile or 164 km way-marked trail that takes in some of the best and most unique sites, landscapes and historic connections this region has to offer. It runs from Chipping Campden in the north to Bath in the south and generally takes about 8 days to walk. Of course, it’s possible to walk a section or two but to get the full majesty of the Cotswolds, you might just have to walk all one hundred miles!

Walk the Cotswolds Way yourself on a self-guided adventure.

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Witcombe Roman Villa

©Jonathan Billinger

England has a rich Roman history, from 80 BC to about 400 AD. When talking about Roman Britain, most people today will automatically think of Hadrian’s Wall, the once formidable northern wall to the Roman Empire. But it serves to remember that Roman Britain was more than just a northern barrier – the rest of England was full of everyday Romans as well as soldiers.

In the Cotswolds, find the remains of the Witcombe Roman Villa, built about 250 AD, once the centre of a sprawling estate. The small site contains the ruins of a villa, bathhouse and shrine, and was inhabited until the 5th century, after which it started to fall into ruin. It’s an easy site to visit for those walking the Cotswolds Way.

There is no charge to visit the ruins, however, for anyone arriving by car (as opposed to walking the Cotswolds Way), there is a small charge to use the car park.

Broadway Tower

One of the most iconic sites in the Cotswolds area is surely Broadway Tower. Broadway is an 18th-century folly, or fake castle. Built to look like a Norman castle, this type of building was very popular in the 1700s and 1800s when wealthy landowners wanted very much to have a castle, chapel or ruin of some kind on their property, and if they didn’t have one already, they solved the problem by simply building one themselves.

(One good example is Sham Castle in Bath. Same thing – a wealthy man wanted to see a castle from his Bath townhouse, and he owned the land up the hill, so he simply built a fake castle wall and towers).

Broadway was built in 1798, the work of the famous landscaper Capability Brown for the local earl. Since then, the tower has been used to house a printing press, a holiday retreat, a farm, a Cold War-era aircraft observation post and even as a nuclear bunker! Check online for opening and ticket information.

Broadway Tower features on our Dramatic Castles of England blog.

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Visit Blenheim Palace

Famous as being the birthplace of Winston Churchill, Blenheim Palace is the only non-royal house in England to hold the title of “palace.” And what a palace it is! Finished in 1722, Blenheim was intended as a gift to the 1st Duke of Marlborough for his prowess on the battlefield at the Battle of Blenheim in 1704 (hence the name). Today, the palace is protected by UNESCO.

One of Blenheim’s most bizarre features are found inside the roof of the portico – a series of painted eyes, put there by Gladys, the second wife of the 9th Duke, an American socialite who became friends with the duke’s first wife before eventually taking her place. While the house is still owned and lived in by the 11th Duke of Marlborough, portions of it are open to visitors. Check their website for up to date opening hours and charges.

Belas Knap Long Barrow & Cleeve Hill

Sunset view from Cleeve Hill. ©Cotswold Tourism

The Cotswolds and south of England are full of Neolithic sites. One of the most impressive Neolithic tombs in the Cotswolds is that of Belas Knap. This long barrow is a particularly good example of a Neolithic era long barrow, likely built around 3,000 BC. As was the tradition of the time, the barrow would have been re-opened throughout the years to add new burials to the site.

Belas Knap is interesting in that it has a “false entrance” or portal, while the actual entrances to the four burial chambers were well hidden. This fake entrance is a mystery – was it to deter future grave robbers? A “spirit door” to allow spirits to pass through during certain rituals – something similar to fake doors in Egyptian tombs? Or some other reason? Like the other long barrows in the region, it was excavated in Victorian times, during which over 36 individuals were uncovered, as well as Roman pottery fragments (indicating it was open at some point during Roman times). There is no charge to visit the ruins.

Also of note in the vicinity is Cleeve Hill. Clocking in at 330m or 1,083ft, it might not be the Alps, but Cleeve Hill is the highest point in the Cotswolds Hills. There are a number of trails up and near Cleeve Hill, including the Cotswolds Way, which crosses the hill. Hikers can expect breathtaking views over Cheltenham, the Malvern Hills and occasionally even out to Wales.

Sudeley Castle

Sudeley Castle is a stunning and stately castle in the northwestern corner of the Cotswolds region. Today it remains the only private castle in England to have a queen buried within the grounds – Queen Katherine Parr, the final wife of the vicious King Henry VIII. Upon the king’s death, she went on to reside at Sudeley Castle until her death.

Sudeley Castle was built in 1443 and has been renovated several times. The estate is large – some 1,200 acres – and comprises several gardens, pathways, and even a section of the Cotswolds Way. The castle is open to the public, with exquisite castle rooms as well as exhibitions in the original castle wing that showcases a remarkable collection of priceless objects and curiosities that illustrate the history of Sudeley Castle. Don’t miss St Mary’s Church, the final resting place of Queen Katherine Parr. See online for admission charges and opening times.

Sudeley Castle features on our Dramatic Castles of England

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A Few Cotswolds Adventures...

Daylesford Farm

For those who want to learn a new skill on their holiday, they might like to visit Daylesford Farm in the northern stretches of the region.

They have an exceptional cookery school and host some interesting events, such as cooking or floristry workshops.

Daylesford Farm also has a fantastic farm shop – stop by to get some delicious local ingredients for a Cotswolds picnic.

Chipping Campden

A wee thatched cottage that once housed author Graeme Greene, a stone’s throw from Chipping Campden.

Chipping Campden is the start or endpoint to the Cotswolds Way. This medieval village is exactly what you might expect from a quintessential English village. Built from the 14th to 17th centuries in the lovely “Cotswolds stone” (actually oolitic limestone, quarried locally), Chipping Campden was once an important wool trading centre in the Middle Ages.

Though not a large place, Chipping Campden has an impressive 250+ historical listed buildings of all sizes and functions, including a huge market hall at the heart of the day. Built back in 1627, the marketplace is still in use today. Find churches, shops, almshouses, silk mills, gardens, grand houses. thatched cottages and more.

Visitors might like to take a peek at the Arts and Crafts museum in town. Just a short walk from the village is a wee thatched cottage once lived in by the author Graeme Greene.

Gloucestershire Warwickshire Steam Railway

Travel back in time on this historic volunteer-operated steam railway in Gloucestershire and Warwickshire.

Once part of the former Great Western Railway’s mainline from Birmingham to Cheltenham, this heritage train now offers a 28-mile round trip steaming through the quintessential landscapes of southern England past sleepy hamlets, iconic villages, and gorgeous views of the Malvern Hills.

Learn more about booking your place online.

Bibury Village

Bibury is one of the many Cotswolds villages. ©VisitBritain

Sometimes called “the Capital of the Cotswolds,” Bibury (pronounced “buy-burry”) matches with most people’s expectations of a Cotswolds village. More than once Bibury has been called the most beautiful/picturesque/charming village of the Cotswolds (sometimes even England!). The village is constructed using the ever-popular Cotswolds limestone, giving the village a slight golden hue.

The most famous part of the village is Arlington Row, originally erected in 1380 as a store for the monastery’s woolstock, later converted into weaver’s cottages in the 1600s. Arlington Row is said to be the most photographed cottage row in England.

There are also a number of other sights along Bibury’s charming streets, like the Saxon church, the river and its bridges and the Church of St Mary, home to an impressive modern stained glass window.

“The Model Village” in Bourton-on-the-Water

In the little village of Bourton-on-the-Water, find a slightly unusual attraction – a Cotswold stone model village circa 1937! Delighting both kids and adults, welcome to the only grade II listed model village in the UK.

The adorable stone village is built from the same local limestone as the Cotswolds themselves and offers an aerial view of what a Cotswolds village looks like.

In fact, there is even a tiny river flowing through town, the “River Windrush,” tiny musical instruments in the church chiming out the hours, and carefully-pruned plants give the village a real-world feel. There is even a tiny version of the Model Village of Bourton within the real Model Village of Bourton (within the real village of Bourton!).

Meticulously modelled after the village in which it resides, the attention to detail in the model village is astounding. Learn more about opening hours and admission charges online.

Dyrham Park

Step into a world of luxury at Dyrham Park, a 17th-century mansion with beautiful gardens and an ancient 270-acre deer park. The house’s original owner made his fortune by serving the British Empire for many years abroad, which he invested into a landed estate – one of the first to do so. Explore his baroque manor and its fine collection of art, Delftware and furnishings. Outdoors, wander the stunning meadows, orchards, ponds, woodland and gardens. Check online for admission fees and opening hours.

Cotswolds Brew Co

Who doesn’t love a good pint of beer?

For those interested in craft beer and trying local brews, a visit to the Cotswold Brew Co might be a fun outing. The tour covers the history of the brewery, of beer in England, how to brew lagers – Cotswolds Brew Co’s specialty – alongside a bit about the Cotswolds setting that has inspired the brewers and their delicious craft.

Of course, you can’t leave without a chance to sample some of the beers yourself! Join a tasting tour to see what all the fuss is about.

Nympsfield Long Barrow

View from Uley Long Barrow.

Another Neolithic tomb of note in the Cotswolds is that of Belas Knap. One of the most common in this part of the country is the “long barrow” – a type of ancient tomb.

Ancient peoples built this roughly 5,000 years ago, and at least 13 individuals have been found entombed here. The mound had been ploughed over and stones removed in more recent times.

Very close by Belas Knap is the Uley Long Barrow (seen in the image here). This barrow is partially reconstructed and has been excavated several times throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. If you have an interest in Neolithic history, it might be worth visiting both barrows. There is no charge to visit the ruins.

Painswick Rococo Gardens

Painswick is another quaint Cotswolds village, originally built to facilitate the booming wool trade that brought fortune to many of the local villages. Just outside of the village is Painswick Rococo Gardens. “Rococo” describes an ornamental and asymmetrical style of art fashionable throughout Europe in the 1700s.

Painswick Rococo Gardens are built in a fantastical and frivolous style, meant to impress visitors, show off wealth, style, beauty and artistic appreciation. A visit to the gardens are full of delights, as they are peppered with follies of all kinds, as well as stunning arrays of flowerbeds.

Check their website for updated ticketing and opening hours info.

Hidcote Manor & Garden

At Hidcote Manor, find an unusual spot – an “arts and crafts” inspired garden created by the American horticulturist Major Lawrence Johnston. The “outdoor rooms” of Hidcote are full of sweeping paths, secret gardens, mazes of wildflowers, exotic plants and vibrant blossoms.

Hailes Abbey

 

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Founded in 1246 by the Earl of Cornwall, Hailes Abbey is a stunning example of a once-thriving early medieval Cistercian abbey. Walk amongst the romantic, grass-topped ruins to get a feel for what the abbey was once been like.

The construction and upkeep of Hailes Abbey was partially financed by the stream of dutiful pilgrims who visited the abbey in order to see an ancient relic once thought to be the blood of Christ (a relic which ironically contributed to both the rise and fall of Hailes Abbey).

Visitors will also want to discover the new visitor centre to learn about the daily life of the monks who once called Hailes home. There are a number of interesting articles of note, including a rare 14th-century pair of spectacles, 13th-century statues, imposing sections of stonework, paintings, coats of arms, and other items that help share what life was like during Hailes Abbey’s 300 years of worship.

Check online for updated opening times and prices.

Rollright Stones

Continuing on with the Cotswolds tour of ancient sites, another place of interest is the Rollright Stones.

Legend has it that the huge stones are actually a king and his court after they were petrified by a spiteful witch. This is shown in the names of the three sections: the King’s Men stone circle, the Whispering Knights burial chamber, and the solitary King Stone.

In reality, the stones date back to the Neolithic and Bronze Ages. Stone circles were common sites in both periods (though perhaps slightly more associated with the Bronze Age). These stones span some 2,000 years of human history.

They are easily accessible from Rollright Road. There is no charge to visit the ruins.

Minster Lovell Hall Ruins

Another picturesque ruin is that of Minster Lovell Hall and the nearby dovecote. This 15th-century hall is a romantic crumbling ruin that was once a fine Oxfordshire manor house. Situated alongside the River Windrush (the same one we saw in Bourton-on-the-Water), the setting is incredibly rural England.

The original owner, William the Baron of Lovell and Holand, once numbered among the richest men in England, and it was later passed to Francis, Viscount Lovell, who just so happened to be a close ally of King Richard III.

There is an impressive dovecote on-site, once housing up to 700 pairs of nesting birds (bred for food). The estate once contained vast woodland, pastures and fields, and was used for hunting and fishing. Erected in 1430, it fell into ruin some centuries later after changing hands multiple times and was finally partially dismantled in the 18th century. There is no charge to visit the ruins.

Stoney Littleton Long Barrow

The last Neolithic highlighted site is the Stoney Littleton long barrow, located at the southern border of the Cotswolds region just outside of Bath.

Stoney Littleton is one of England’s best examples of a Neolithic chambered tomb. About 30 metres long, the barrow has a rather large and impressive interior, with several open burial chambers.

The barrow is dated back to about 3,500 BC and its quiet location along a narrow road outside of Bath offers great views of the rolling countryside south of the Cotswolds. There is no charge to visit the ruins.

Salisbury Cathedral

One of the most famous cathedrals in England the world in general, this truly remarkable building is sure to amaze anyone who enters its spectacular interior. One of the first examples of Gothic architecture in England, this cathedral dates back to the 13th century – completed in just 38 years (constructed from 1220-1258)! For the last 450 years, its spire has been the tallest in England, it has the largest cloister and cathedral close in Britain, and its clock is also amongst the oldest such clocks in Europe. One of the most interesting details is one of the first four copies of the Magna Carta, on display in the church.

Stonehenge & Avebury and associated sites

Likely nearly everyone has heard of Stonehenge. This is probably the world’s most famous Neolithic site. This ancient place is made up of two rings of massive stones, some topped with huge lintels. It is thought to have been built between 3,000-2,000 BC, in several phases, and is oriented with the Summer Solstice. But it’s not the only ancient site here. About 25 miles north is Avebury, Europe’s largest Neolithic stone circle – so large in fact that bizarrely an entire English village was built within its earthworks and stones! There are many other long barrows and associated sites in the area, including the massive human-made mound Silbury Hill, West Kennet Long Barrow, and many others.

Wells Cathedral

This huge 12th-century building is one of the most impressive and most beautiful cathedrals in the south of England. Some of the most remarkable features include some 300+ statues and a clock dating back to 1390. Like Salisbury, it’s one of – perhaps the very first – English cathedrals to be built in the Gothic style, leaving the simpler Romanesque style behind.

Glastonbury Tor & Abbey

Glastonbury Tor is a conical hill near the town of the same name. Today topped with the ruins of 15th century St Michael’s Tower, the hill has links to King Arthur, pagan rituals, and ancient legends – often remarked as one of the most spiritual sites in the country. Views from the top are far-reaching and worth the short climb.

Nearby are the atmospheric ruins of Glastonbury Abbey, also known to have connections to the King Arthur myths. Even if you aren’t interested in Arthur and Guinevere, both sites are very beautiful.

Lacock Village

Though about the size of a teacup, Lacock is a village where little has changed in more than 200 years. Like much of the Cotswolds, Lacock earned its fortune from the wool trade. The village is beloved by film producers for its beautiful, unspoilt and decidedly historic facades, appearing in several productions including Downton Abbey, BBC’s Pride & Prejudice and Cranford, Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince, Fantastic Beasts: Crimes of Grindelwald, Wolf Hall, The Other Boleyn Girl and others. Wander the narrow streets of this quintessential English village, visit the beautiful abbey which has featured in so many films, and travel back in time.

Stratford-upon-Avon

It’s likely you’ve heard of Stratford. It’s equally likely you’ve heard of Shakespeare! This is Shakespeare’s birthplace and his home outside of London. This is where his wife Anne Hathaway spent her life, and where his daughter grew up and eventually married. The town is buzzing with all things Shakespeare, and is worth the visit to any book lovers or Bard enthusiasts. You can even catch a play there at one of the many playhouses.

Visit the Cotswolds

Meet the Author: Dawn Rainbolt

American by birth but European in spirit, Dawn has called the US, Costa Rica, Spain, England, Poland, France and Ireland home over the years. While she has travelled to more than 30 countries, she is passionate about sharing her love of the UK & Ireland with visitors from across the world.

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