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.