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Cotswolds: The honeyed stone heart of England

The golden-stone villages, idyllic communities and spectacular landscapes — not to mention the notorious ‘Chipping Norton set’ — make the Cotswolds one of England’s most desirable regions. But what lies at its heart?

Cotswolds: The honeyed stone heart of England
Lower Slaughter, Cotswolds. Image: Getty

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I leave the rather out-of-place multi-storey car park behind and squeeze through the packed streets — entering a world where artisan cheesemakers load their stalls to bulging, one with teetering wares that are all but toppling onto those of a pesticide- and fertiliser-free jam producer who flavours her marmalades with Southern Comfort.

This is a real market, operated by farmers who rear real animals and depend on the weekly showcase as a meaningful platform for their living. For a grassroots market it has an appeal that spreads far and wide and it’s drawn the attention of everyone from the Hairy Bikers to Blue Peter. If you want to see what the Cotswolds are, who they are, and how life is lived here, then Stroud market is your journey’s beginning.

I can’t help feeling as I wander around, though, that Stroud Farmers’ Market — Stroud itself — is at risk of being a little twee for its own good. Unfair? Possibly. The same goes for much of the Cotswolds; you could, however, construct a good argument that the world could do with a little more tweeness at the moment. Gaze around pretty much any Cotswold town or village — as I will on my journey — and you pick out steeply pitched roofs, ridge tiles and coping in honeyed stone, tall chimneys, large stone window sills and detailed window surrounds. At first glance this is, I decide, a reassuringly snug part of the world.

Describing just what and where the Cotswolds are defies any pithy description. It’s easy to say what the Cotswolds are not: they’re not the Chilterns, although they gently lap their way towards the valleys of Oxfordshire and the home counties; and nor is their epicentre Stratford upon Avon, despite the fact that a good deal of tourist literature in Cotswolds towns shamelessly appropriates the Bard’s proximity.

More straightforward is to say what the Cotswolds are by looking at the land: smoothly contoured hills overlooking steep-sided valleys and dry stone walls that straggle huge areas of sheep-nibbled grasslands, and villages built seemingly uniformly out of rich, honey-coloured limestone. Topiary, too, helps to single out the Cotswolds: after leaving Stroud I drive south past Brockhampton Park — a 17th-century mansion that you’d assume was owned by the National Trust but is in fact divided into privately owned flats — where the gardener’s handiwork has created surreal, verdant Swiss Rolls; while at St Mary’s church in Painswick, I find the yew trees rather hauntingly clipped and shaped as though they might at any moment muscle-up upon visitors. All of a sudden, such features have disappeared — and then I know I’m Not In The Cotswolds.

The Vintage & Paint shop, Stow-on-the-Wold. Image: Lauren Atkinson-Smith

The Vintage & Paint shop, Stow-on-the-Wold. Image: Lauren Atkinson-Smith

Crossing hairs

As a rule of thumb, if you find yourself in the area enclosed by the M4, the M5 and the M40, then you’re in the right part of the country; although the formal boundaries of the Cotswolds Area of Outstanding Natural beauty — the largest of the 38 AONBs in England and Wales — meander all over the place, as though drawn up after one too many pints from the Hook Norton Brewery. It scoots south of Bath before making a dart north east via Tetbury and Chipping Campden, veering south east to brush up against Woodstock, takes a nibble out of Worcestershire to the north west, before finally dissolving into the membrane that separates the region from the Welsh Marches. In between are some of the most quintessentially English communities you’ll ever see, such as Bourton-on-the-Water, Moreton-in-Marsh, Broadway, Stow-on-the-Wold, Winchcombe, Bibury and Painswick, as well as sturdy towns such as Cirencester, and — even if it is technically speaking outside the AONB — Cheltenham. The rivers, too, such as the Windrush and Churn, with their limestone beds, are as enchanting as their names suggest.

A little infamously, the Cotswolds also include Chipping Norton on their eastern flank — a town known as Chippy by some locals and, rather derisively in some media circles, as Chipping Snorting or London-on-the-Wold, an undeserved stereotype that has more to do with the pretensions of some of its more high-profile residents. For it’s in and around Chipping Norton that the dinner party and marquee circuit of media and politicos operates behind remote-controlled gates and high hedges. Or at least they did, until so rudely interrupted and eviscerated by the tabloid phone-hacking scandal. Former Sun editor Rebekah Brooks and her husband Charlie, a former racehorse trainer, live in nearby Sarsden; Jeremy Clarkson lives near Chadlington; and David Cameron owns a house in the village of Dean.

As an outlier, SamCam’s mother, Annabel, lives with her husband, Viscount Astor, further south in a 17th-century house near Wantage. Nobody has really bettered the political commentator Peter Oborne’s excoriating dismissal of the Chipping Norton set back in 2011: “an incestuous collection of louche, affluent, power-hungry and amoral Londoners, located in and around the prime minister’s Oxfordshire constituency”.

They could have done worse than outsource their dinner party catering to the stallholders at Stroud.

It’s fair to say the Chipping Norton set know a good place to live when they see it. Perhaps all the honeyed stone reminds them of the solid brickwork of their public schools; more certainly, and more simply, it’s a pleasant part of the world close to London. Other parts of the UK may be just as gorgeous, but if you’re part of the London Elite and in Who’s Who, then the only time you’ll consider venturing into countryside beyond the M25 is for a dinner party in this little bubble.

The Cotswolds offer indulgence for all who care to seek it out. The region gets regularly combed over by luxury hotel experts Mr & Mrs Smith and Sawday’s, and should you ever inherit a Georgian townhouse here — and don’t we all from time to time? — or are seeking to sink some stock market money into bricks and mortar, then opening a boutique hotel or restaurant in the Cotswolds is as sure a way as any to get a return on your investment.

It says something about the wealth through which the 100-mile Cotswold Way Trail runs that it’s the only one of Britain’s long-distance paths where I’ve been able to stay at a luxury hotel or guesthouse every night along the route — from Chipping Campden (Cotswold House Hotel & Spa) to Broadway (the Lygon Arms, where I was told Jeffrey Archer once worked); Winchcombe (The Lion Inn, the only place where I’ve seen a couple order two Daily Mails to read at breakfast — one each); Cheltenham (take your pick; mine was Hotel Du Vin & Bistro Cheltenham); Painswick (Court House Manor); another Chipping, Sodbury, this time (Grade II-listed Rounceval House); finishing at the door of Bath Abbey (Macdonald Bath Spa Hotel).

It’s also the only walking trail where I’ve actually put on weight, waddling from one English breakfast to another via pleasant fine dining experiences of an evening. Along the way I pass villages such as Stanton that seem to have been dipped in honey and now snore peacefully as the 21st century passes by.

I suspect the Cotswolds are also favoured by the moneyed classes because they are just, well, so snug. Go for a pre-pub lunch stroll and you’re not going to have to call mountain rescue — although it’s surely only a mater of time before someone holds a dinner party in the shadow of the mock Saxon tower on Broadway Hill and dials 999 for a helicopter delivery of piccalilli. Pausing for a coffee in Painswick, I pick up a copy of Cotswold Life, where I’m invited to open its pages to read about ‘the terror of the 1am avocados’.

Village of Naunton. Image: Getty

Village of Naunton. Image: Getty

Climbing frame

In truth, though, the Cotswolds’ velvet glove does contain an iron fist — the landscape, in parts, can be surprisingly fierce: the hills erupt gently to anything from 200ft above sea level to a shade over 985ft. Most spectacularly, the Cotswolds fall away sharply to the great escarpment that drops down into the Severn Vale. The same Cotswold Way Trail that I walked while spending my evenings in a good deal of comfort in aggregate climbs over 28,870ft higher than Mount Everest.

And climb you should, at least once, to take in this landscape. My favourite walk is along the Cotswolds’ northwest edge. I take the steadily rising path up Bredon Hill from Kemerton. In the week, the village sleeps, waking on a Sunday to keep the church busy and the modest, locally-owned village store open. The pub, The Crown Inn, was rescued from oblivion a few years back by the community and the Overbury Estate, the main local landowner. I once walked in to find Henry Blofeld — ‘Blowers’ — of Test Match Special fame holding forth to a captivated audience. Linger anywhere in the Cotswolds long enough and you’re sure to encounter someone in the public eye.

On the way up Bredon Hill, I pause by the delightful Daffurn’s Orchard, a community conservation project, and smell the apple blossom. Opposite is a standalone churchless graveyard, fronted by two plump yew trees. It’s summer and Bredon Hill is bathed in an intense golden light, reams of poppies providing the walker with a guard of honour. On another occasion up here, Adam Henson, the Countryfile presenter and farmer, jogged past, giving a cheery and slightly irritatingly healthy ‘hello’ as he did so. This time, I catch sight of a fallow deer, skittish and swift, darting into woodland, its kicking heels dismissively sending me on my way.

The view from the brow is, I’d argue, one of the finest in England: now, in summer it’s lush and wooded, pitchy smoke rising here and there from chimneys and stubble fires. Return in winter and you’ll discover a petrified landscape from a Brueghel painting. In times of flood — which seem more frequent with every year — the Avon overtops in biblical quantities and the view becomes an illustration from a geography textbook. Today, I can see beyond the Malverns, deep into mid-Wales and the hazy silhouettes of the Cambrian Mountains. To the south is Sugar Loaf mountain. Way to the north lie the uprisings of the Shropshire Hills; below lies the town of Pershore and innumerable tiny villages… I suddenly realise why some people have called the area Cotswoldshire.

I make my way to the east of this picture frame to another idyllic village, Dumbleton. There’s no sight, as such, here — and no pub — only the final resting place of Patrick Leigh Fermor, one of the giants of 20th-century travel literature. It says something that this great writer, wanderer and lover of Greece, chose to be buried here, in the graveyard of the Church of St Peter, a compass on his tombstone.

Bourton-on-the-Water. Image: SuperStock

Bourton-on-the-Water. Image: SuperStock

Medieval trade

The next day, I take the train through the heart of the Cotswolds, boarding a branch line at Bath and alighting at Ashchurch, the stopping point for Tewkesbury. There’s precious little Cotswold stone in Tewkesbury, although there’s enough of it in the surrounding villages. Instead, I find a different Cotswolds; the town’s high street a jumble of half-timbered medieval houses, and Tudor, Georgian and Victorian properties.

Tewkesbury Abbey and its Norman tower have stood over the town for the best part of 900 years; its lower reaches often ankle-deep in floodwater (being at the confluence of the Rivers Avon and Severn was good for medieval trade, less so for those who bought from unscrupulous housing developers). The abbey is tucked away from the high street, overlooking a car park; here I discover a small farmer’s market that offers the same quality as Stroud but with a fraction of the crowds.

The thing I love most about Tewkesbury, though, is its alleyways. More than 30 chisel their way through the cracks in the high street, leading to dusty, overgrown cemeteries or suddenly springing you on Tewkesbury Ham, a vast watery landscape grazed by sheep that’s a wonderful place to catch unusual birdsong. I make time to visit The John Moore Museum — named for the eponymous and prolific writer and naturalist who never quite achieved the fame of Laurie Lee. It’s one of those quietly impressive places you so often find if you venture away from the madding crowds.

I head back towards Stroud for my last exploration of the Cotswolds. Just north of the town lies the Slad Valley, where Lee spent his childhood — he and his six siblings were raised by his mother alone — and which inspired Cider With Rosie. The town sprawls narrowly, as if built around a railway line that never materialised on the western flanks. The valley is a steep-flanked, down-up geological ensemble that rises to a crest on the far side of Swift Hill. Lee’s own description of the valley and its ‘saddles of heathland’ is a match for any literary account of any natural feature in the British Isles: ‘The valley was narrow, steep and almost entirely cut off; it was also a funnel for winds, a channel for floods and a jungly, bird-crammed, insect-hopping sun-trap whenever there happened to be sun.’

The book has its disturbing moments and documents the interwar period, when the traditional Cotswolds were changing rapidly. Eventually, Lee used royalties from his writing to buy some of the valley, in a bid to keep development at bay.

I wind up my journey in the beer garden at The Woolpack Inn, overlooking the valley. The 16th-century pub’s name is apposite, echoing the Cotswolds’ historically pivotal role in England’s wool trade with Europe. The inn is another example of how you can get fine food at the drop of a hat in these parts and is also a metaphor for the region in general: the food has had the gastro treatment — spelt and wild garlic arancini, etc. — but, for all that, retains its rustic charm. The clientele ranges from families gathered for Sunday lunch to locals who appear to be ensconced by the bar and its barrels of Pigs Ear bitter.

The noticeboard features a request by someone seeking seasonal grazing land for their sheep. In the back room is a cabinet that pays a modest homage to Lee’s compendium of works. I look around and find it surprisingly easy to visualise Lee’s account of how the men of Slad crushed glasses with their bare hands to celebrate the end of World War One. There’s elegance here, fine food and history — all of it easy on the eye. If the Stroud market was my journey’s beginning, I find its end here, just a few miles north of the town.

Essentials

Getting around
By car is the way to explore the Cotswolds. The main towns are also well served by train and joining the dots between stations can make for a picturesque journey, including Kemble, Moreton-in-Marsh, Bath, Evesham, Banbury, Stroud, Stonehouse, Cam and Dursley, Bradford on Avon, Gloucester and Cheltenham.

When to go
The Cotswolds are at their best on a warm summer’s day but can easily be visited at any time of year. In winter, snowstorms are not uncommon and can leave villages dusted with snow and even more beautiful than before.

More info
cotswolds.com
oxfordshirecotswolds.org


Published in the Jul/Aug 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)