Characterised by rolling views of green countryside and English pubs, hotels and shops, a trip to the Cotswolds shows off a delightfully relaxed side of Britain. It’s the perfect place to simmer down the pace of life and get close to nature, but it’s not just bracing country walks on offer. From kid-friendly farm centres to quirky theatres to the UK’s only crocodile zoo, here are ten great things to do in the Cotswolds.
Known as the ‘gateway to the Cotswolds’ and mentioned in the Domesday book, the town of Burford is a postcard-perfect entry point from which to explore the region. For food or accommodation try The Lamb Inn (not to be confused with the Crawley venue mentioned below), with its snug fire in the front area, or The Bay Tree. The local architecture is stunning, plus it’s a brilliant place for antique hunting. Start at the Burford Antique Centre or Gateway Antiques, both found on the Burford Roundabout, plus venues such as The George on the main high street.
The sleepy, leafy village of Crawley, found in the heart of David Cameron’s home constituency, doesn’t seem like an obvious location for the country’s only crocodile zoo. Yet Crocodiles Of The World is here, and open every Saturday and Sunday, and definitely ranks as one of the most unusual things to do in the Cotswolds. It’s home to over 80 crocs, and there's a glass underwater viewing section and opportunities to handle some of the baby animals. It’s a fairly small set-up so a visit won't take too long – The Lamb Inn nearby offers a charming stop-off for lunch and the town of Witney, with its shopping centres, restaurants and cinema, is a short drive up the road.
A hub of inclusive artistry, Chipping Norton Theatre is a pleasure to visit, no matter what happens to be showing there. Founded by former Dr Who actor Tom Baker in 1975, this 213-seat venue is one of the smallest and most charming in the country. A wide variety of plays are shown as well as films, comedy gigs and live music, while their non-starry Christmas pantomime is a Cotswolds institution. The theatre also puts on affordable workshops and holds art exhibitions in the building, so check the website for what’s on.
The Cotswolds is swimming in fantastic country inns perfect for sunny Sunday lunches in gardens or cosy winter sessions. In our opinion cosying up by the fire with your significant other is one of the most romantic things you can do in the Cotswolds too. In many of the charming villages in the region the pubs these are the only eating and drinking venues on offer. Some of our favourites include The Royal Oak in Ramsden (try the smoked haddock “smokies” dish) and The Plough in neighbouring Finstock. Go to the latter on Christmas Eve and you’ve got a good chance of catching the Finstock Mummers: a group of local men who act out a traffic-stopping comedic seasonal tale in the street out front. Wherever you end up, be sure to try some local real ales. Offerings from Hook Norton Brewery are particularly wonderful and most pubs will have special local guest beers on tap.
Picture-perfect in the summer, bracingly beautiful in the autumn and even unforgettably atmospheric in the pouring rain, a walk in the grounds of Blenheim Palace always feels special. Tourists usually head to the palace where there are exhibitions, or the butterfly house, eateries, maze and the lovely Formal Garden. They are all worth seeing, but much of the joy of Blenheim is taking a walk on the outskirts of the estate. From the centre of Combe village take Park Road and leave your car in the layby at Combe Lodge. Go through the “kissing gate” and turn either right or left for an hour’s walk around the grounds.
Head to Bourton-on-the-Water to see a one-ninth scale model of a cotswold village. Modelled on Bourton itself, the tiny stone houses, rivers and tiny flower gardens will appeal to all ages. There's even a model of the model village hidden within the whole. The model village has been a fixture of Cotswold life since the 1930s (it was opened on the Coronation Day of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother). The model village is in the garden of the Old New Inn – it was the brainchild of a former landlord.
A taste of farm life is essential for anyone wanting insight into the Cotswolds way of life. and Cotswold Farm Park, run by farmer and TV presenter Adam Henson, offers just that. It’s a working farm where guests can see rare cattle breeds plus it has a conservation area, viewing tower and a barn where you can interact with some of the animals. There are plenty of child-friendly activities such as driving electric tractors and trying the hair-raising zip wire.
A cut above many of the UK’s zoo-style venues, Cotswold Wildlife Park (just two miles south of Burford) showcases some incredible creatures as well as the areas natural green beauty. Strolling around the park feels at times like perusing the grounds of a stately home rather than a zoo. There are big cats, giraffes camels, penguins, rhinos and the usual creepy crawlies you’d expect, plus a kid-friendly children’s farmyard and adventure playground. Another popular activity for kids is the brass rubbing in the park’s manor house.
Another picturesque Cotswold market town, Gloucester’s Stow On The Wold is worth visiting for an afternoon with no particular plan. The market square found in the centre of town is a great starting point from which to explore the inviting pubs and pretty streets with endearingly quirky shops and restaurants. However, plan your timing well and you could experience one of the area’s most impressive spectacles: the Gypsy Horse Fair. Taking place twice a year, the event is a huge meet-and-greet for the travelling community, with many heading to the town from all over the country to buy and sell horses. The fair dates back to 1476 when a charter was granted to allow the event. It takes place on the Thursday nearest to May 12 and October 24 each year.
While the Cotswolds boasts many fantastic farms and park areas geared up for tourists, enjoying the simple pleasures of a country walk is just as enjoyable. One of the most beautiful such walks takes you through the 1,700-acre grounds of Cornbury Park ancestral home of Lord and Lady Rotherwick. A stroll from the village of Finstock through the grounds to Charlbury takes you past herds of deer and offers sweeping views of the River Evenlode, with a wealth of country pubs in the latter town where you can reward yourself with lunch.
To explore more of the Cotswolds and surrounding areas, pick up the latest edition of the Rough Guide to Britain.
Cotswolds blooming spring © PJ photography/Shutterstock