Taking A Mini Road Trip Around Classic England…
After severe weather put paid to our plans of hiking the Beacons Way in Wales during the Easter holidays, ‘The Cotswolds’ became the focus for the second leg of our English road trip adventure. Covering nearly 800 square miles across six counties (Wiltshire, Gloucestershire, Oxfordshire, Warwickshire, Worcestershire and Somerset), this region of wolds, or rolling hills, is the biggest of the 38 Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) in England and Wales. It is also fringed by some of the country’s most cultured small cities: in the west Cheltenham; in the south-east Cirencester; whilst Bath lies to the south-west; with Oxford to the east.
During the Middle Ages the area became prosperous from the lucrative wool trade which is why there is an abundance of beautiful churches and manor houses to visit, many of these Cotswold locations having featured in TV programmes and films – most recently Poldark, Downton Abbey and the Harry Potter films. Yet about 80 percent of the Cotswolds region remains farmland, divided by around 4,000 miles of dry stone walls, whilst being criss-crossed by numerous walking trails – the most famous being the Cotswold Way, starting from Chipping Campden in the northern extremes and stretching some 100 miles south.
This excited us a lot! Not only did we get to visit several quintessential English market towns and villages and take a tour of some famous sites of historical interest to appreciate our heritage, but as keen walkers, we couldn’t wait to get our boots on and step out into the countryside.
Public footpaths and bridleways create a vast network of picturesque walking trails across the Cotswolds.
Situated midway between Swindon and Cirencester, Cricklade is a small, historic 9th century Saxon town, lying just outside the Cotswolds Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and is the only Wiltshire town situated on the banks of the River Thames. Apart from its Saxon origins, Cricklade’s main claim to fame is its 150 acre nature reserve, North Meadow, which preserves approximately 80% of Britain’s wild Snake’s Head Fritillaries, an unusual looking purple speckled wildflower that blooms in late April to early May. The meadow is situated between the two rivers of the Thames and Churn, and the unique habitat for the fritillary is created by winter flooding.
Our first stop off was at the Saxon town of Cricklade.
The main street is well presented with many honey-coloured buildings – synonymous with the market towns of the Cotswolds.
Simply a nice touch!
The town also boasts Saint Sampson’s Church which dates from 983 AD and is the original parish church from Saxon Cricklade. The dedication to St Sampson is shared with only a few other churches in the UK. The saint lived in the 6th century and founded the bishopric of Dol in Brittany.
Saint Sampson’s Church, the original church from Saxon times.
The stained glass windows depict some of the history of Bishop Sampson who was born in Wales.
With free parking in the centre of town just off the main street, Cricklade made a good rest stop on our journey from Salisbury to Cirencester. Despite being steeped in Saxon history, what we were most impressed with was the amazing selection of hot, home-made pies on offer in the local butchers. We couldn’t resist popping in to buy a tasty mid-morning snack!
The traditional family butchers in Cricklade that offers an excellent selection of home-made goodies along with their meats.
The legendary steak and stilton pies that I just had to sample before saying farewell to Cricklade!
After leaving Cricklade, our next stop was Cirencester, a truly picturesque market town with its honey-coloured stone buildings and inviting green spaces, often dubbed the ‘Capital of the Cotswolds’. Lying at the crossroads of three Roman roads, it is a treasure trove of history – Roman Cirencester, known as ‘Corinium Dobunnorum’ – was second only to London in size and importance. It developed from the establishment of a military fort and grew into a town with a population of between 10,000 and 15,000. Today you can still visit the massive earthwork remains of one of the largest Roman amphitheatres in Britain (situated on the outskirts of town), built in the early second century.
The Church of St John the Baptist is thought by many to be the grandest of all of the Cotswold wool churches and has often been called the ‘Cathedral of the Cotswolds’. Its 120 foot tower dominates the town.
The church’s unique three-storey porch was used as the town hall until the late 19th century. It is also the proud resting place of the Anne Boleyn Cup, which was made for the second wife of Henry VIII in 1535, just one year before she was executed for adultery.
As we only had an afternoon to explore Cirencester, we decided to visit the Corinium Museum to see treasures from the town’s Roman past, including beautiful mosaics, medieval sculptures, as well as Anglo-Saxon gold. The interactive exhibits really held our attention and brought out our competitive sides when we became engrossed in a game of Tabula – a Roman board game, generally thought to be the direct ancestor of modern backgammon.
The newly re-vamped Corinium Museum, right in the town centre, is one of the finest collections of antiquities from Roman Britain that exists anywhere.
Spread over two floors, the museum houses mosaics, tombstones and sculptures together with reconstructions of a Roman kitchen, garden and dining room that include hands-on exhibits and interactive displays.
Several of the best Roman mosaics from Britain are on display in the museum.
Although the museum is particularly famous for its Roman collection, it contains exhibits that detail the story of the Cotswolds from pre-history right up to the late 19th century.
Discovering a Roman game… Neither us of us wanted to be defeated so we sat and played Tabula for over an hour! (Then we went on a hunt around the shops for a backgammon set to add to our car camping kit!)
Bourton on the Water
Following our afternoon in Cirencester, our road trip then took us to Field Barn Park Campsite just outside Bourton on the Water, a picturesque village situated in Gloucestershire. This became our base for the next 3 nights, allowing us to do a couple of day hikes in the surrounding area. Often called the ‘Venice of the Cotswolds’ because of the River Windrush flowing right through the centre of town, this busy yet charming village is a mecca for day trippers travelling from London and the south. The river, with its series of low bridges beside neat tree-shaded greens and tidy stone banks, is what gives Bourton its unique appeal. Combined with traditional Cotswold honey-coloured stone architecture, tourists are undoubtedly wowed by the elegance of the place as Bourton presents the idyllic village scene.
Following the river, we took a peaceful stroll into the village and enjoyed browsing the numerous gift-shops lining both sides of the main street. We were certainly spoilt for choice with the amount of cafés and tea rooms offering a traditional cream tea. The local fish and chip shop was also very tempting because of the wonderful aroma wafting out of the door when we walked past. If you love your food, Bourton does not disappoint!
Leaving our campsite and taking a public footpath through farmland towards Bourton village.
Following the River Windrush into the centre of the village.
The village is well kept and exudes elegance with its traditional Cotswold features – No wonder it is one of the most popular tourist spots in the region.
We couldn’t decide where to have afternoon tea until this café enticed us in with its wonderful window display of cakes!
We also made time to visit the ‘Model Village’ attraction, which is a mini-replica of the village of Bourton itself. The excellent miniature uses authentic building materials depicting Bourton-on-the-Water as it was in 1937 at 1/9th scale. The village was created by a previous landlord of the Old New Inn, taking local craftsmen five years to build, and it was officially opened on the Coronation Day of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth I (the late Queen Mother) in 1937.
Taking a stroll around the model village is an inexpensive and charming way to spend half an hour.
The model village was built using Cotswold stone as a complete replica of Bourton on the Water. It is the only grade two listed model village in England.
Today was a quiet day in Bourton. Having chatted with a local shopkeeper, we found out that the shaded greens alongside the river are usually packed with picnicking day trippers during the summer months of July and August.
Upper & Lower Slaughter
Stow-on-the-Wold, another well-known and popular market town in the Cotswolds, lies just four miles north of Bourton on the Water, so we decided to take a hike to Stow the following day, passing through the beautiful villages of Upper and Lower Slaughter on our walking route.
The Slaughters are idyllic small twin villages situated just south west of Stow-on-the-Wold. Since 1906 the two villages have remained unchanged and straddle the banks of the River Eye, which is also known as Slaughter Brook. The name Slaughter has nothing to do with blood or killing but derived from an old English word Slothre simply meaning ‘muddy place’.
The river at Lower Slaughter, with its little stone bridges, is bordered by 16th and 17th century yellow limestone cottages built in the traditional Cotswolds style. The main feature of the village is the restored 19th century flour mill with an original working waterwheel and chimney for additional steam power. The mill which went into decline in 1958 is now a museum, gift shop and tea room.
A signed footpath joins Lower Slaughter with Upper Slaughter a mile or so away, with lovely views across the fields to the historic Upper Slaughter Manor House (now a luxury hotel). Previously Upper Slaughter was dominated by a Norman castle, but all that can be seen of it today are the remains of the motte and bailey.
Lower Slaughter is another pretty Cotswold village complete with yellow stone cottages built in the traditional style.
The main feature of the village is the restored 19th century flour mill with an original working waterwheel and chimney for additional steam power, set on the River Eye.
The village of Lower Slaughter is also home to a 13th century Anglican Church dedicated to St. Mary the Virgin, built in 1866.
Taking a look inside the Church of St Mary before continuing on our journey to Stow.
Stow-on the-Wold is the highest of the Cotswold towns, standing exposed on the 800 feet high Stow Hill, at a junction of seven major roads, including the Roman Fosse Way. With a quaint feel about it, you will find a typical market town with some interesting shops and delicatessens offering fresh local produce, as well as several good bars and cafés to choose from – definitely our kind of place!
At the height of the Cotswold wool industry, the town was famous for its huge annual fairs where as many as 20,000 sheep were sold at one time. The vast Market Square testifies to the towns former importance. At one end stands the ancient cross, and at the other the town stocks, shaded between an old elm tree. The square is also surrounded by an array of elegant Cotswold town houses, some of them now fine antique stores, art galleries, and gift shops showcasing handmade crafts from the area.
On our walk into Stow the public footpath took us past a beautiful manor house, complete with horse paddock and stables.
We took a little respite after reaching the town and enjoyed a traditional cream tea for two in The Old Bakery Tearoom.
Half Moon House, Chapel Street, Maugersbury – a lovely curved building that caught our eye after leaving Stow-on-the-Wold walking back towards Bourton on the Water.
Returning to our campsite for our final night in the Cotswolds.
Our Hiking Route To Stow-on-the-Wold
You can export a GPX/KML file from this by clicking on the Stow-on-the-Wold Circular link.
Located in Warwickshire, on the edge of the Cotswolds, is historic Stratford-Upon-Avon. Known as the birth place of William Shakespeare, Stratford is a vibrant market town dating back to medieval times, that has grown up and developed along the banks of the River Avon. It is one of the most visited places in England, attracting around three million people every year from all over the world because of its most famous resident.
As we were driving right past the town on our way home to the Midlands, we decided to stop-off for the afternoon and make it the final destination of our week-long road trip. There is much to see and do in and around Stratford, but as we were limited on time we visited two key attractions – Shakespeare’s birthplace and childhood home, and the church of the Holy Trinity where his grave is located. As the weather was so beautiful, we also walked along the river between Holy Trinity Church, past the Royal Shakespeare Theatre to the main shopping area, and sat and enjoyed an ice-cream on the green watching the ‘River Cruisers’ on their journey downstream.
Tudor World is an unusual, small, independent museum set in an original Tudor property in the centre of Stratford-upon-Avon.
Standing outside the 16th century half-timbered house where Shakespeare was born in 1564, located in Henley Street. It remained in the Shakespeare family until 1806.
The Shakespeare Hotel, set in a striking brown-and-white Tudor-style building, dates back to 1637. Situated in the heart of the town centre, each individually decorated room is named after a Shakespearian character or play.
The ‘Bard of Avon’ is simply everywhere!
The ‘Jester’ sculpture located in Henley Street was commissioned by Anthony Bird OBE as a token of his esteem for the town in which he was born. It is constructed of bronze, standing on a stone plinth, and features the Jester ‘Touchstone’ who was in the play ‘As you like it.’
This café caught our eye as prosecco was on the menu instead of a pot of tea!
Shakespeare is buried just below the altar in the Chancel of the Holy Trinity Church, in Stratford-upon-Avon. There was a huge queue of tourists waiting to see the tombstone making us think it is probably England’s most visited Parish Church!
We took a riverside walk from the church back to the centre of town.
Looking back towards Holy Trinity Church, Shakespeare’s final resting place.
You can experience Stratford from the River Avon, by taking a half hour river cruise. There are regular departures from the Bancroft Gardens next to the Shakespeare Theatre. There is a fleet of different boats available, plus rowing boats and punts available to hire by the hour.
Visitors feed swans around the canal basin and keep an eye out for the river cruisers going past.
Although we didn’t get to do as much walking as we’d have liked, overall we still had a fun and enjoyable week camping in the Cotswolds as we were able to explore lots of places in England that we had only previously read about or seen on TV.
Had ‘Plan B’ not have been called into action, they would still be a long way down our ‘bucket list’! So not wanting to go overboard with the clichés, but ‘every cloud has a silver lining‘ and all that…
Here’s hoping for better weather over the next few months, and that British summer will start very soon!