Stretching across 800 square miles of bucolic hills, Britain’s Cotswolds region includes countless charming villages in five counties that personify the enduring appeal of the English countryside. Medieval wool merchants built stately manor houses and remarkable, timeless churches that have been lovingly preserved. And Britain’s largest designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty is blessed with an abundance of Roman sites, abbeys, gardens and castles.
A host of celebrities own homes in the Cotswolds and some of the region’s towns have a decidedly upper crust vibe, leaving those who lack quality driving gloves and a fancy hat worthy of Kentucky Derby Day feeling a shade out of place. But anyone, regardless of accent or horseback-riding ability, can enjoy the thrill of driving down a quiet narrow country lane in the shadows of towering hedges toward one of the lost-in-time country hamlets that make this slice of south central England one of Europe’s most rewarding destinations.
Set in a village that’s owned and preserved by the National Trust, the nearly 800-year-old Lacock Abbey was founded as an Augustinian convent for nuns in 1232. Its assets were seized by Henry VIII (along with hundreds of other religious houses) in 1539, and it was sold to Sir William Sharington, who converted it into a grand private home. His descendants lived here until 2011, and the place is filled with exquisite furnishings and artifacts.
Ask the knowledgeable and gregarious docents to show you the Brito, a magnificent dictionary of theological words that was handwritten by scribes in the 1300s. If the place seems eerily familiar, you may have seen it before — the abbey was a stand-in for Hogwarts in two Harry Potter films. Make time to stroll the village’s quiet streets and then make the 20-minute drive north to Castle Combe, an inviting village on the banks of the Bybrook River. (adults £13.40, or about $18; free with National Trust membership).
Snag a table before 7 p.m. at the Cirencester branch of Côte Brasserie, a popular chain that serves authentic yet affordable French cuisine, and you can feast on a three-course meal for just £13.50. A superb recent meal here included mussels cooked in white wine, coq au vin and decadently rich chocolate mousse. Cirencester is a walker’s paradise, so you can work off the calories on the atmospheric streets. This was the largest city in Britain after London in Roman times, and though its population is now just 19,000, Cirencester is still one of the best-preserved towns in the Cotswolds.
On the banks of the River Windrush, Bourton-on-the-Water is a quintessentially pretty Cotswolds village. But it’s no secret, so arrive early before the tour bus crowds and make a beeline for Bakery on the Water, a family-run establishment that serves up fabulous breads, baked goods and nourishing breakfast and lunch items. Everything here is delicious but the almond croissants and the scones are particularly memorable. After breakfast, rent a bike from Hartwells (£10 for up to three hours), the village ironmonger, and take a moderately taxing, but scenic spin to The Slaughters (Upper and Lower), a pair of photogenic villages full of old stone cottages and low-slung bridges.
It’s hard not to fall in love with Stow-on-the-Wold, a market town that invites exploration. This is a town that is so trusting and friendly that the public library in the historic Market Square allows visitors to borrow books and DVDs. Meander around the square and its environs, visit St. Edward’s Church, with its Tolkienesque north door, browse at the cozy Borzoi Bookshop, which has a surprisingly comprehensive selection of travel books, and then repair to the Huffkins Bakery & Tea Room for lunch.
Huffkins makes their own shortbread and clotted fudge cream, and they claim to make fruitcake for the Queen. Try their Brie, bacon andcranberry toastie served on house-made sourdough bread, and don’t miss the delectable peanut butter brownies. J.R.R. Tolkien devotees should cap their meal with a pint of ale five miles south at The Bell Inn, in Moreton-in-Marsh, which many believe was the author’s inspiration for the Prancing Pony in “The Lord of the Rings.”
There are hundreds of manor houses in Britain, but few reflect the personalities of their owners more precisely than the delightful Snowshill Manor and Garden, a medieval estate that was transformed by Charles Wade, an architect and collector. The home, which Henry VIII once gave to Katherine Parr, was purchased by Wade in 1919; he spent more than 30 years turning the grand manor into his own personal doll house.
Wade packed Snowshill with some 22,000 collectibles — everything from life-size samurai to Balinese masks to suits of armor — while he lived in a tiny cottage with no electricity behind the estate. Each room reveals a different element of his quirky personality and the engaging docents are full of stories (adults £11.60, free with National Trust membership).
The Ebrington Arms, a 300-year-old inn and pub in an appealing village of the same name, checks all the boxes for what you want in a great British pub: cozy rooms with fireplaces, locally produced, cask-conditioned ales and a picturesque beer garden. The unexpected bonus is the food, which is a few notches above standard pub grub. Settle in with a pint of the Village Idiot Brown Ale and tuck into seasonal offerings like the Barnsley lamb chop (£16) with white beans, heritage tomatoes and herb dressing.
Make the short drive west to Chipping Campden, another enchanting village, and enjoy a long stroll.Take in the village’s handsome High Street, with its gabled Market Hall, constructed in 1627, and look for the Grevel House, built around 1380 for a wealthy wool merchant named William Grevel. Once you’ve worked up an appetite for pudding (a catchall British term for dessert), amble over to Huxleys, a lovely Italian cafe in a 500-year-old building that has excellent homemade cakes.
Start your Sunday at The Broadway Deli, with their appropriately named Big Breakfast — pork sausage, bacon, roasted tomatoes, sautéed mushrooms, black pudding, baked beans, scrambled eggs and extra buttered toast (£11.95). You’ll need the calories for your next adventure: a circular four-mile walk along the scenic Cotswold Way. The hike will take you along Broadway’s High Street, past imposing mansions and spectacular countryside on your way to the Broadway Tower, where you’ll have a panoramic view of up to 16 counties from the top. The castle-like tower, which had a nuclear bunker next to it during the Cold War, was built in 1798 as a folly project for the wife of an earl who wanted to know if a beacon light lit at the tower could be seen from her home 22 miles away. (It could.)
Anne Boleyn may have been Henry VIII’s most famous wife, but Henry’s sixth wife, Katherine Parr, may have been his most interesting partner. The best place to learn about her is at the magnificent Sudeley Castle and Gardens. Parr lived here with her dashing but somewhat unscrupulous husband, Thomas Seymour, whom she married a few months after Henry died. She died seven days after giving birth; Seymour was executed for treason six months later.
The great Tudor palace fell into ruins in the 1640s during the English Civil War, and some local women stumbled across Parr’s grave on the premises in 1782. Parr supposedly still had her hair, teeth and nails, and her skin was in remarkably good condition. Locks of her hair and a mounted, blackened tooth are on display in the Long Room. Among the many exhibits is Queen Parr’s privy, which has a velvet canopy and a seat of crimson velvet for the royal posterior (adults £16.50; 20 percent discount with National Trust membership).
The Sunday roast is an integral part of British culture and a great excuse to wrap up your weekend in a gastronomic orgy of meat and potatoes. The tradition dates back to at least the reign of King Henry VII, who established the Yeoman Warders as the royal bodyguard in 1485. They were said to have feasted on roast beef every Sunday after church, and soon came to be known as beefeaters. There are few better places to tuck into a traditional Sunday roast then The Plough Inn at Ford, a child-friendly, 16th-century country pub that’s also a bed-and-breakfast. Get the Scotch roast sirloin of beef with Yorkshire pudding or the roast breast of chicken with stuffing and bread sauce, and ask for a gravy boat. Expect to pay from about £12.95 to £18.95 for main courses.
There are two historic inns in the heart of beautiful Stow-on-Wold that are smart choices for travelers. The Porch House has 13 rooms, each full of character, and claims to be the oldest inn in England. (Bed-and-breakfast from £110.) The Kings Arms has seven comfortable rooms in a 500-year old building, along with a nice pub. Bed-and-breakfast, from £120.
The Broadway Hotel, part of the Cotswold Inns & Hotels group, is a luxury hotel with 19 rooms in a gorgeous, 16th-century, half-timbered building on Broadway’s High Street. Bed-and-breakfast, from £130.
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