Cute Cotswolds villages a blast of England’s past

  • By Rick Steves
  • Thursday, April 24, 2014 3:11pm
  • Life

England’s Cotswolds villages — while just a couple of hours’ drive away from London — feel like a world apart. This tidy little region of characteristic old towns and gentle green hills is perfect for travelers looking to balance urban Britain with some thatched cuteness.

Each of Europe’s famously quaint regions has a historical basis for its present-day charm. For the Cotswolds, it’s a combination of old sheep wealth, which produced big fancy manor houses, gorgeous churches and stately market towns — all paid for by wool — and isolation from the rest of England both economically and physically.

My favorite place to stay is in the north Cotswolds. Two of the coziest towns are Chipping Campden and Stow-on-the-Wold. Either makes a fine home base for exploring the countryside. Another option, especially for those without a car, is Moreton-in-Marsh, which though not as quaint, feels less touristy and has the best public transportation.

Chipping Campden was once the home of the richest Cotswold wool merchants. Both the great British historian G.M. Trevelyan and I call Chipping Campden’s High Street the finest in England. Like most market towns, the street was wide enough for sheep business on market days, when livestock and packhorses laden with piles of freshly shorn fleece would fill the streets. Campden was a sales and distribution center for the wool industry, and merchants from as far away as Italy would come here for the prized raw wool.

Located 10 miles south of Chipping Campden, Stow-on-the-Wold — with a name that means “meeting place on the uplands” — is the highest point in the Cotswolds. It’s a crowded tourist town, but most visitors are day-trippers, so nights are peaceful. Stow has no real sights other than the town itself, some good pubs, antique stores and cute shops draped seductively around a big town square and a set of old-time stocks. Stocks were originally used to publicly ridicule people as punishment. Today, a visit to Stow is not complete until you’ve locked your partner in the stocks on the green.

Just outside Stow, the Cotswold Farm Park delights young and old alike with a chance to meet rare and endangered breeds of local animals. While it feels like a kids’ zone, it’s actually a fascinating chance for anyone to get up close and (very) personal with piles of mostly cute animals, including the sheep that made this region famous — the big and woolly Cotswold Lion. Be careful. I greeted a rare old goat and he ate my map.

But the best activity in the Cotswolds is to take a hike through the countryside. I recently took some time to do the nearly five-mile stroll from Stow to Lower Slaughter, then on to Bourton-on-the-Water. The hike gave me an intimate backyard look at local farm life — and taught me a valuable lesson: Even if you only have two or three hours, taking a hike is about the best time you can invest in places like the Cotswolds.

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