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Travel: Driving through the impossibly picturesque Cotswolds

Each village in the Cotswolds has its own identity, but all have plenty in common: ancient woodlands, thatched cottages, honey-coloured stone walls, cobbled streets, and rolling hills

Cotswold Tourism records reveal that as many as 300,000 visitors arrive in Bourton-on-the-Water every year.
Cotswold Tourism records reveal that as many as 300,000 visitors arrive in Bourton-on-the-Water every year. (Courtesy

When we drive into Bourton-on-the-Water, ignoring the hundredth plaintive “are we there yet?” from the tween, it seems that all of the UK has descended on the idyllic village in the rural Cotswolds in south-central England. 

The profusion of people—on the village green, in cafes, by the banks of the river, and in the indie stores—wasn’t what we were expecting. But perhaps it was to be expected. For the Cotswolds have boomed in popularity on the back of their gorgeous landscapes (this is the age of Instagram, after all) and the fact that they house some of the most beautiful villages in the world.

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The Cotswolds—the ‘cots’ comes from its many sheep pens and ‘wolds’ stands for the rolling hills—grew wealthy centuries ago on the back of the wool trade. The UK’s second largest protected landscape covers an area of 800 square miles and runs through five counties: Gloucestershire, Oxfordshire, Warwickshire, Wiltshire, and Worcestershire. 

Each village in the Cotswolds has its own identity, but all have plenty in common: ancient beech woodlands, thatched cottages, honey-coloured stone walls, cobbled streets, and the rolling hills. The stone stands out, lending the region a gentle, golden hue at all times of the day. The Cotswold stone is a form of limestone, a sedimentary rock variety that has a granular structure and calcium carbonate derived from the skeletal remains of millennia-old marine organisms. The rural region seems suspended in a time loop, with interior villages showing scant signs of commercialisation. 

“It is thought that the Romans were the first to discover the properties of Cotswold stone and then used it to construct buildings throughout Britain,” says Ella Drapper, a lettings negotiator at Harrison Hardie, an agency that aims to help families “find their forever homes in the Cotswolds”. Over centuries, the eponymous stone has been used to build most of the quaint homes in the Cotswolds. However, it also made its way outside the region and can be seen at Windsor Castle, Blenheim Palace, Eton College, and some colleges at University of Oxford.

The Cotswolds owe their wealth to the Cotswold Lion, large sheep said to have been introduced to the UK by the Romans who used the wool, known as ‘golden fleece’, for uniforms. According to English Heritage, the Romans left in the early 5th century, leaving the sheep behind in the ownership of the Church. Five hundred years later, the arrival of the Normans led to a renewed interest in sheep. As sheep farming spread across England, the Cotswolds became the heart of the country’s wool trade.

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In the 1530s, the dissolution of the monasteries meant the sheep flocks were transferred from the Church to landowners, who made a fortune by selling the high-quality fleece to Europe. Historian David Ross says the wealth was soon visible for everyone to see in the form of “wool churches such as St John the Baptist’s Church in Cirencester, the Church of St Peter and St Paul in Northleach, St Oswald’s outside Burford, St James’ Church in Chipping Campden, and St Mary’s Church in Chipping Norton”.

The wool money also funded some of the best-known Cotswold villages, including Lower Slaughter, Castle Combe, Chipping Camden, and Bourton-on-the-Water. The last is where we are, set amid glorious countryside in the heart of Cotswolds. The picturesque Bourton-on-the-Water is home to 4,000 people and numerous indie shops, cafes, and tea rooms. The five arched stone bridges that span the Windrush River, date from between 1654 and 1911, and give the village the name, ‘Venice of the Cotswolds’. 

“Constructed of local stone, the Mill Bridge, High Bridge, New Bridge, Paynes Bridge, and Coronation Footbridge, span the slim river, creating a scenic sight,” Ross says. The Windrush, a slim ribbon of a river, has an average depth of only 10 inches as it flows through Bourton before flowing down to other villages like Windrush, Burford and Witney, and then joining the Thames for her ultimate journey to the sea. 

Cotswold Tourism records reveal that as many as 300,000 visitors arrive in Bourton-on-the-Water every year. “Some days, usually weekends, our village is bustling like a resort. The earlier or later in the day you visit, the quieter and more tranquil you will find it,” says Elisabeth Keyte, the owner of Bakery on the Water, a tiny family-run bakery renowned for its breads, sweet treats, and soups.

We explore the small village, setting foot into almost every little store on the high street: a small pottery store, perfumery, artisan store, china and cookware shop, gift shops, and the sweetly named Once Upon A Candy shop. At the Cotswolds Distillery outlet, we stop for a small taste of wildflower gin (and to pick up a bottle) before pottering around in The Looking Glass, a charming old-world store with an inventory of antiques and collectables, including Lalique, Wedgewood, and Moorcroft pieces. Other attractions include the Cotswold Motoring Museum, and Birdland Park and Gardens.

The Cotswolds are renowned for its many walking trails, and Bourton is placed perfectly for gentle ambles and strenuous hikes. The village is at the intersection for nine waymarked walking routes, including the lovely Monarch’s Way and Heart of England Way. There are many others—Oxfordshire Way, Windrush Way, Warden’s Way, Donnington Way, Macmillan Way, and Gloucestershire Way—that necessitate an abundance of time and energy. The Cotswolds house pastoral perfection and some impossibly picturesque villages—from Bibury and Stow on the Wold to Winchcombe and Tetbury, all of which we travelled to—but Bourton-on-the-Water stands out as the village that personifies the sylvan region.  

Teja Lele writes on travel and lifestyle.

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