We explore the honey-coloured villages that make up the Cotswolds, home to artists, antiques and Olympick games
Just what is it about the Cotswolds? Why are they such a favourite corner of England for so many people? Although the average visitor probably isn’t terribly interested in either, they owe it all to stones and sheep. The Cotswold Hills lie along a limestone escarpment that runs between the southern Midlands and Bath, about 120 miles to the south west, between the farmlands of Oxfordshire to the east and Gloucestershire to the west. The limestone under these green hills has been used for centuries to build field walls and buildings which form a perfect visual complement to the countryside. This is particularly true of the stone quarried in the northern Cotswolds, the colour of which deepens with age, turning a golden honey tone.
During the medieval period, this part of England became hugely wealthy, thanks to the lucrative wool trade, which funded the building of some spectacular churches and many beautiful civic buildings and country houses. Sheep even named the hills: a literal translation of ‘Cotswolds’ from the Anglo-Saxon is ‘sheep hills’. Thankfully, from a modern perspective, the Cotswolds then entered a long economic decline. They lacked the coal and iron ore exploited mercilessly in neighbouring regions, so the green hills, beech woodlands, clear rivers and streams, and impossibly pretty villages were all spared the ravages of industrialisation.
Finally, towards the end of the 19th century, the Cotswolds were idealised by members of the Arts and Crafts Movement, who admired the rural crafts still practised here, gloried in the unspoiled scenery, and worked to protect ancient buildings and landscapes. All these lucky twists of fate helped ensure that the Cotswolds survived largely unspoiled into the modern age. They were designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) in 1966, which was extended in 1990 to cover 790 square miles, 80 per cent of which is still farmland.
The Cotswolds are not a museum – this is a living, working landscape – but there are reminders of the past everywhere. They include prehistoric monuments like Belas Knap Long Barrow, a 5,000-year-old Neolithic burial chamber near Winchcombe; and Roman sites, including the villa at Chedworth, near Bourton-on-the-Water, where visitors can see some exceptional mosaics. The edible snails found in the nearby woods are thought to have been introduced by the Romans to give meals consumed in this far-flung province a bit of Mediterranean zing.
The sheep on the hillsides are also important reminders of the past. You can see the breed that made the medieval Cotswolds so rich, the Cotswold Lions, at the Cotswold Farm Park near Temple Guiting, north west of perhaps the most famous of all Cotswold villages, Bourton-on-the-Water.
Bourton’s main street is split along its length by the River Windrush, diverted through the village to power three watermills in the early 17th century, and now crossed by five small stone bridges. The village can get quite crowded in summer, but there’s still something very relaxing and comfortable about it, and plenty to do, including visiting the Cotswold Perfumery, the Motor Museum and Toy Collection, and the model village at the back of the Old New Inn.
Aficionados of antiques will find several shops to explore in almost every Cotswold town and in many of the larger villages too, but should definitely visit Stow-on-the-Wold, a pleasant town just north of Bourton, and the picturesque village of Broadway, farther south, both of which are packed with antiques shops. Broadway is dominated by 18th- and 19th-century buildings dating from the period when it was a staging post on the London to Worcester coach road. It’s still a very good place to seek refreshment: try the Crown and Trumpet Inn, or the Swan.
There are also some excellent antiques shops in the classically pretty little town of Chipping Campden, in the northern Cotswolds. The high street contains some superb stone buildings, including the medieval Town Hall and the huge 15th-century “wool” church of St James.
The town is also the northern end of the Cotswold Way long distance path, which runs along the Cotswold escarpment for 103 miles to Bath. Even if you’re not going to attempt to walk the Way, it’s worth tackling its first climb up Dover Hill, from where there are terrific views over the Vale of Evesham and the Severn Valley. It’s named after Robert Dover (1582-1652), who organised the first Olympic Games held in England: the Cotswold Olympick Games, thought to have been staged for the first time in 1612, when events included jumping, wrestling, shinkicking and swordplay. The games were revived in the 1960s, and are held each spring, when hopefuls compete in events including the painful-sounding shin-kicking to become Champion of the Hill. “Robert Dover seems to have believed that people of all classes and all ages should enjoy themselves and compete in honest, harmless sports,” says Dr Francis Burns, secretary of the Cotswold Olympicks. “I like to think that what’s happening here continues the proper Olympic spirit.”
The Cotswold Way later passes through Stanton, one of the most perfect Cotswold villages, boasting a particularly unspoiled main street, where wisteria and roses climb out of immaculate gardens onto the walls of honey-gold stone cottages and houses. Stanton owes its almost eerie perfection to Sir Phillip Stott, who bought most of the village in 1906 and refused to sanction any modernisation until his death in 1937. Make sure you stop off for a drink at the Mount Inn, with its panoramic views to the Malverns Hills.
The southern Cotswolds are not so well visited as the towns and villages farther north, but have much to recommend them. Just east of the pretty little town of Lechlade is Kelmscott Manor, a 16th-century riverside farmhouse that became the favourite home of William Morris, one of the most important figures in the Arts and Crafts Movement. In fact, he rented it originally as a retreat for his wife Jane and fellow artist Dante Gabriel Rosetti, who were conducting a love affair at the time. Later, Kelmscott became a precious country bolthole for Morris himself, and the trees and plants in the garden are thought to have inspired some of his most famous designs. He is buried in the nearby churchyard.
The pretty town of Tetbury, in the southwestern Cotswolds, is another important centre for the antiques trade, and full of intriguing old buildings. Visit in May and you can watch the town’s Woolsack Races, an endearingly mad tradition in which men and women race 240 yards up and down a steep hill carrying woolsacks (weighing 60lb for the men, and 35lb for the women).
This part of the Cotswolds is also full of treats for gardeners, including the National Arboretum at Westonbirt, containing more than 3,000 species of trees and shrubs in its 600 acres; and Highgrove, home of the Prince of Wales, who has overseen the transformation of its grounds over the past two decades into a garden designed to inspire others to grow and farm using organic methods.
Highgrove is just one of many fine country houses in the Cotswolds. Snowshill Manor, a Tudor manor house near Broadway, was formerly the home of a true English eccentric, Charles Paget Wade, and offers a salutary lesson in what can happen if the urge to collect antiques gets out of hand. His vast collection includes probably the largest assemblage of Samurai body armour outside Japan, as well as toy soldiers, bicycles, and dolls’ houses. It grew so large that he was forced to sleep in an outbuilding.
The Cotswolds also boasts perhaps the strangest country house in England, the domed and turreted Indian fantasy of Sezincote House, built in 1810 for Charles Cockerell, who had worked in India, by his brother Samuel Pepys Cockerell (their grandfather was a nephew of the famous diarist). It inspired both the Prince Regent, later George IV, who built Brighton Pavilion after a visit in 1812; and the poet John Betjeman, who visited the Dugdale family here a century later. Today it is the home of Edward Peake, whose family bought it in 1944. “It’s a bit of a hidden gem,” he says. “It’s in a little magic valley of its own, a real sun trap.”
Quite different, then, from another unique Cotswold house: Woodchester, near Stroud. This huge shell of a Gothic mansion is now a venue for training in crafts including stonemasonry, something that seems appropriate, deep in the hills that have been decorated and defined over the centuries by the beauty and strength of worked stone.
Cotswolds Cotswold Antique Dealers Association (CADA): details of 50 Cotswolds antique dealers plus exhibition dates. Tel: (07789) 968319; www.cotswolds-antiques-art.com
Chastleton House (National Trust), nr Moreton-in-Marsh: magnificent, elegant Jacobean country house. Tel: (01494) 755560; www.nationaltrust.org.uk
Festivals in Cheltenham: the legendary Gold Cup takes place at Cheltenham Racecourse as part of the National Hunt Festival each March, and in October literary giants gather for the Cheltenham Literature Festival.
Kelmscott Manor, Lechlade: the riverside house and garden that inspired William Morris and the Arts and Crafts Movement. Tel: (01367) 252486; www.kelmscottmanor.org.uk
Snowshill Manor (National Trust), nr Broadway: fabulous English eccentricity on display in Charles Paget Wade’s extraordinary collection, plus gorgeous gardens to enjoy outside. Tel: (01386) 852410; www.nationaltrust.org.uk/main/
Sports with a difference: in May you can visit Tetbury for the Woolsack races, or watch the fearless competitors at the Cotswold Olympicks near Chipping Campden. Each spring bank holiday (25 May 2009) Cheese Rolling takes place at Cooper’s Hill where competitors race down the hill after a round of Double Gloucester.
Stanton: this classic Cotswold village featured in the episode of Sherlock Holmes Last Vampyre, and nearby Stanway House made an appearance in the film Vanity Fair (2004).
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