Introduction to the Cotswolds
An overview of geography, heritage, and attractions
Some maps show the Cotswolds stretching from the outskirts of Bath in the south almost to Stratford-upon-Avon in the north, and from the Severn in the west to Oxford in the east. Other interpretations are less liberal, confining the Cotswold designation to the hills and attendant valleys of the Cotswold escarpment itself. This interpretation would limit the span of the Cotswolds to some 50 miles. Yet the long-distance path known as the Cotswold Way winds its intricate way for over 100 miles from Bath to Broadway, across the Worcestershire border.
Some of the confusion is intentional, as towns and villages scarcely within sight of the Cotswold Hills attempt to lure visitors drawn by the reputation of the region as the heart of traditional English countryside charm. Other confusion is unavoidable, as the Cotwold area is a region blessed with distinct geological features which help form much of its undoubted charm. Yet exactly where the golden-toned limestone that contributes so much to the region's character begins and ends is a subject for never-ending debate.
The name "Cotswolds" is rightly applied to a high escarpment running north from the outskirts of Bath and petering out somewhere near the borders of Worcestershire. Along that ridge, and in the valleys that radiate out from it, lie some of the prettiest, most "English" villages in the entire country.
The Cotswold area is famed for its "wool churches", large and highly decorated parish churches built with the proceeds of the profitable wool trade during the late medieval period. Large parish churches like that at Northleach look as though they should belong to a busy, prosperous town instead of a sleepy little village.
Just north of the village are The Rollright Stones, an unpretentious prehistoric stone circle. Nearby Chedworth is the site of perhaps the finest Roman villa in England. Tewkesbury, now bestrewn with fine antique shops, boasts a superb abbey church surrounded by half-timbered Tudor buildings. A few short miles away is Winchcombe, yet another delightful Cotswold village, and home to Sudeley Castle, where Queen Katherine Parr ended her days. Close to Winchcombe is Belas Knap, one of the finest Neolithic chambered tombs in England.
A short drive from Belas Knap brings you to not one, but two, of England's finest gardens, Hidcote and Kiftsgate, while just down the road is Hailes Abbey, where the Cistercians housed a vial of Christ's blood to attract medieval pilgrims. After Henry VIII disbanded the monasteries in the 16th century the "blood" was revealed to be a mixture of saffron and honey!
Cheltenham preserves a different era in English history - the town owes its prosperity - and much of its fine architecture - to the spa which became enormously popular here in the Georgian period. The town is resplendent in Regency terraces of cream-white houses and wrought-iron railings. The Promenade is the heart of Regency Cheltenham, a refined main street filled with beautiful architecture. In the summer months baskets of flowers are hung from the buildings that verge on The Promenade.
The city of Gloucester itself suffers from the benefits of advancing civilization, but the Cathedral is superb, and the city boasts intriguing museums, including National Waterways Museum and the Museum of Advertising and Packaging. To the southwest lies Slimbridge, home of the Slimbridge Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, where geese, swans, and other wildfowl breed in a protected environment.
More dramatic is Berkeley Castle, the grim medieval fortress that was the final prison for King Edward II. It was here, in a small, squalid room just off the main entrance to the castle, that the unfortunate Edward was cruelly murdered by his captors in 1327. The interior of the castle is blissfully original. There is a 14th century great hall built just inside the castle wall, and a lovely 16th century wooden screen graces one end of the hall.
As you can tell in this brief overview, the Cotswolds offer more than a little variety for visitors.
Cotswold Wool Churches
Geology of the Cotswolds