A gentle upland, cut by river valleys (some shallow, some narrow), rolling in waves to its edge, then falling away into flat cropland; wooded, but not especially so; settled and inhabited, but not especially so. There are, it has to be said, more dramatic landscapes in England – mountains, lakes, white cliffs, even the odd gorge. Why is it, then, that the Cotswolds, that gentle upland bridging the West Country with the Midlands, is so prized? It is certainly beautiful, one easy-on-the- eye view reaching to another; unspoilt too, or at least largely unchallenged by obvious modernity. But for all that, the appeal of the Cotswolds burrows somewhat deeper than mere aesthetic appreciation: here we find, perhaps more clearly than anywhere else, something deeply reassuring – a sense of harmony. It is a harmony sprung from a centuries-long union between the land and those who have lived, worked and built upon it.
A patchwork legacy, traced from prehistory through the Romans, the Tudors, the Jacobeans and, in particular, the Georgians – paths worn down from generations of feet, land carefully husbanded, and a built environment hewn from the material upon which it stands. Consider the way a medieval church nestles within a honey stone village, ringed by pastures, hedgerow-lined lanes and shaded copses, while behind rises a low-slung ridge – the Cotswolds is the exemplar of rural England, the image that forms in the mind of the overseas visitor when asked to conjure the English landscape, the near-perfect fusion of landscape and history.
That the Cotswolds have survived as they have in the south of this crowded island is some sort of minor miracle. Caught in a triangle of motorways and ringed by large and medium-sized cities of industrial heritage (though only 160,000 people live within the designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, there are two million within a 20-minute drive), the Cotswolds rise as an island of rusticity, largely spared the march of the Industrial Revolution and the development that followed. Perhaps it was the lack of coal, the prosperity of the wool trade, the preservation instincts of the local gentry and landowners, but slowly and unequivocally the pace of life in the Cotswolds was left behind and, as other places changed, the agrarian air of the Cotswolds stayed largely the same. In certain places, it is quite easy to believe the scene unchanged for hundreds of years. With that beauty, harmony and patina of history, the Cotswolds became a comforting refuge, a route back to the past (there are more listed buildings, for instance, within the boundary of the Cotswold District Council then in any other district in England). Once it was William Morris and other prominent members of the Arts & Crafts Movement fleeing the capital and settling here – nostalgic, even then, for a simpler age. Today it is more likely a city banker relocating his family or the ex-rock star settling down to making organic cheese. Going back to nature in the Cotswolds has always been a well-to-do business.
All is not still here, however. Behind the sleepy villages and stately manor houses there is a vibrant agricultural mix – from barley and wheat to fruit farms, riverside meadows and open grazing – that is perhaps second only to tourism in the area’s economic make-up. Busy market towns such as Stroud, Cirencester and Chipping Norton (‘Chipping’ deriving from the Old English for ‘market’) hum to the beat of commerce and of getting things done. Then, at the periphery, there are Oxford and Bath, historic cities as fine as any England can offer.
This is a place that invites slow travel – poking around, dawdling, lingering, reflecting. There is no better way to do that, of course, than on foot. Indeed, it would be hard to imagine a more walking-friendly environment – it never demands much in the way of exertion and is always ready with a reward. It is one of the curiosities of the Cotswolds that off-the-beaten track is often much to be preferred to on-the-beaten track. Step away from the crowds and there are a thousand delightful places to discover – dots on the map (often unnamed), wildflower meadows or stands of aged beech trees. Of course, there are some places you should go to no matter how many other people have the same idea – Broadway Tower, for one, Castle Combe for another – and out of season or at the margins of the day they live up to their billing.
About this guide
There is no particular rule as to what constitutes the Cotswolds. The most formal definition is the boundary of the Cotswolds Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) – at 790 sq miles the largest protected landscape in England after the Lake District National Park. Everyone – administrators included – agree that eastern Gloucestershire, western Oxfordshire and a parcel of Worcestershire fall within the Cotswolds. Beyond that there is debate. The approach taken here is inspired more by history, interest and atmosphere than by lines on maps – so, yes, unlikely as it may sound, in these pages the cities of Bath and Oxford and bits of Wiltshire and Warwickshire qualify as ‘the Cotswolds’.
The ground covered rises from easy valley strolls to invigorating climbs up the escarpment. None of the walks are longer than, at most, a few hours. Each route sets out the relevant Ordnance Survey (OS) 1:25,000 map (which you should consult) and an indication of the time it will take. This is intended as a rough guide to assist with planning your day, and does not allow for any of the stops you may have in mind (and there should be lots). Outside of the city walks the route map is only to be taken as a general guide.
Like most of rural England the provision of public transport in the Cotswolds is patchy. Some places – towns, usually – are relatively easy to get to, some are served infrequently and some not at all. There is no escaping the way in which a
car opens up the Cotswolds for practical exploration. When committed to the car please exercise caution and consideration: ideally use a recognised car park (the start point often steers you in that direction anyway); if this is not an option, a small, defined parking area should be. In the rare cases where it is not, be wary of blocking gateways, lanes and passing places.
Farms and livestock
Remember the farmers. Use stiles and gates where they exist and leave them as you find them. Get to grips with the Countryside Code. Keep dogs under control, ideally on a lead, especially when close to livestock and farms. Never come between a cow and her calf – with or without a dog – and in general it is wise to give cattle a wide berth, even if that means temporarily diverting from the line of the path. Sheep dot the uplands – during lambing time farmers are particularly and understandably sensitive. Remember this is a working landscape – a little respect goes a long way. All this helps to sustain a good relationship between visitors and locals.