Explore Oxfordshire, the Cotswolds and around
The limestone hills that make up the Cotswolds are preposterously photogenic, dotted with a string of picture-book villages, many of them built by wealthy cloth merchants between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries. Largely bypassed by the Industrial Revolution, which heralded the area’s commercial decline, much of the Cotswolds is technically speaking a relic, its architecture beautifully preserved. Numerous churches are decorated with beautiful carving, for which the local limestone was ideal: soft and easy to carve when first quarried, but hardening after long exposure to the sunlight.
The Cotswolds have become one of the country’s main tourist attractions, with many towns afflicted by plagues of tearooms and souvenir and antiques shops – this is Morris Dancing country. To see the Cotswolds at their best, you should visit off season or perhaps avoid the most popular towns and instead escape into the hills themselves, though even in high season the charms of towns like Chipping Campden – “Chipping” as in ceapen, the Old English for market – Burford and Northleach are evident.
As for walking, this might be a tamed landscape, but there’s good scope for exploring the byways, either in the gentler valleys that are most typical of the Cotswolds or along the dramatic escarpment that marks the boundary with the Severn Valley. The Cotswold Way national trail runs for a hundred miles along the edge of the Cotswold escarpment from Chipping Campden in the northeast to Bath in the southwest, with a number of prehistoric sites providing added interest along the route. The section around Belas Knap is particularly rewarding, offering superb views over Cheltenham and the Severn Valley to the distant Malverns.Read More
Self-styled “Capital of the Cotswolds”, the affluent town of CIRENCESTER lies on the southern fringes of the region, midway between Oxford and Bristol. As Corinium, it became a provincial capital and a centre of trade under the Romans. The town flourished for three centuries, and even had one of the largest forums north of the Alps, but the Saxons destroyed almost all of the Roman city, and the town only revived with the wool boom of the Middle Ages. Few medieval buildings other than the St John the Baptist church have survived, however, and the houses along the town’s most handsome streets – Park, Thomas and Coxwell – date mostly from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Today Cirencester’s heart is the delightful, swirling Market Place, packed with traders’ stalls on Mondays and Fridays.
Secluded in a shallow depression some ten miles north of Cirencester, NORTHLEACH is one of the most appealing and least developed villages in the Cotswolds – a great base to explore the area. Rows of immaculate late medieval cottages cluster around the village’s Market Place with more of the same framing the adjoining Green; the most outstanding feature is the handsome church of St Peter and St Paul, erected at the height of the wool boom.
On the northern edge of the Cotswolds, CHIPPING CAMPDEN gives a better idea than anywhere else in the Cotswolds as to how a prosperous wool town might have looked in the Middle Ages. The short High Street is hemmed in by ancient houses, with an undulating line of weather-beaten roofs above and twisted beams and mullioned windows below. The seventeenth-century Market Hall has survived too, an open-sided pavilion propped up on sturdy stone piers in the middle of the High Street, where farmers once gathered to sell their produce. The town also served as a crucible for the burgeoning Cotswolds Arts and Crafts movement, largely thanks to the pioneering work of C. R. Ashbee.