From honeypot towns to villages that look like they’ve fallen out of the pages of a fairy-tale book, here are the best villages in the Cotswolds
The Cotswolds epitomise what so many of our visitors love about Britain: cute tea shops, creaking wood-beamed pubs, crooked houses, cobbled lanes and picturesque views abound.
Are you intrigued by Britain’s peculiar traditions and pastimes? Then the Cotswolds is the place to be. Thinkcheese rolling or fleece auctions. If it’s quirky and offbeat, the chances are they do it here.
But while much of the region’s allure lies in its small towns and villages, where the grocery store might double as the post office and everyone seems to know everyone’s name, the Cotswolds covers a large area – close to 800 square miles – and crosses several English counties, including Oxfordshire, Gloucestershire, Warwickshire, Wiltshire, and Worcestershire.
An Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, famed for its rolling hills, pastoral scenes, and idle sheep – known as the Cotswold Lion – the Cotswolds is also home to an impressive array of stately homes. Sudeley Castle, final resting place of King Henry VIII’s sixth and final wife, Catherine Parr, is worth a visit, while mellow yellow Elizabethan Chavenage House has often been chosen as a filming location, perhaps most memorably in period TV shows such as Lark Rise to Candleford and Poldark.
However, it’s the old leaning buildings and chocolatebox towns and villages that really appeal to visitors, so it’s essential you factor in at least one or two. Though with so many to choose from, spread out across such a big area, where is one to begin?
The best villages in the Cotswolds
Our advice is to select one or two places you’d like to visit, take your time, and surrender yourself to the slow hum of rural life.
Make sure you factor in plenty of time for dawdling in dusty antiques shops, having a leisurely cream tea in one of the many tea shops and stopping for a natter with locals, be it on a countryside amble or in the village pub. Because nowhere does country pubs quite like the Cotswolds, where they manage to strike the perfect balance between dirty paw prints on the wooden floors, wellies at the bar, and gastro fine dining, often within the glow of a real fire.
If you’re looking for the picture-postcard view of The Cotswolds, then Bibury, in Gloucestershire, a short journey from Cirencester, is it – William Morris, the designer, writer, and artist renowned for his keen eye, called it ‘the most beautiful village in England’ – and it is without a doubt one of the best villages in the Cotswolds.
An accolade indeed, since Morris’s summer home of Kelmscott Manor – a place he considered so in keeping with its rural surroundings that it was as though it had “grown up out of the soil” – was in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds so he would have been familiar with many of the best villages in the Cotswolds.
Of course, it’s the pretty line of 600-year-old cottages, built in 1380 and converted into weavers cottages in the 17th century, known as Arlington Row, that draws most admirers here. In summer, the Cotswolds’ stone of the cottages seems to mirror the sun’s yellow, though the illusion can be shattered slightly by the many other visitors itching to get a photo. If you can, try to visit very early in the morning, or better still, out of season.
Just a few miles northeast of Bibury is Burford, a town on the River Windrush on the Gloucestershire/ Oxfordshire border, which is considered something of a gateway to the Cotswolds and so has lots of wonderful inns and hotels to service the steady stream of visitors.
One of the best-loved pubs in Burford is the Carpenter’s Arms, a short walk from the main thoroughfare. It has been a staple here for centuries, and in recent years has been given a contemporary uplift since coming under the management of a trio of friends who all met working in high-end restaurants and hotels. The modern British menu with Asian inflections is very welcome after a day spent at the nearby Cotswold Wildlife Park.
Another of the very best villages in the Cotswolds, is Bourton-on-the-Water. Further north, it is known as the ‘Venice of the Cotswolds’ due to its five arched stone bridges that span the River Windrush, and it’s in its river rather than beside it (as would be customary surely anywhere else) that its annual football match takes place each August.
During the wet event, two teams wade up to their ankles or knees as they compete to see who will be named champion. Spectators are advised to wear waterproofs – rain, or no rain.
Edge north of Bourton-on-the-Water and you’ll come to the intriguingly named Slaughters – twin villages known as Lower and Upper Slaughter that are linked by a tributary of the River Windrush, the River Eye, which gives them their name; ‘Slaughter’ comes from the old English for ‘muddy place’.
These are two of the best villages in the Cotswolds. It’s a ridiculously pretty place with stone cottages overlooking the river, where time seems to slip slowly by.
Just north of the Slaughters is Stow-on-the-Wold – once a thriving wool town, but today one of the most popular places to shop for antiques and gifts.
More antiques can be found further north in Broadway, Worcestershire. Its wisteria-clad buildings and avenue of independent shops with a village green between have led many to call it the ‘Jewel of the Cotswolds’ – undoubtedly one of the best villages in the Cotswolds.
During the 19th century the village was home to the Broadway Colony, a group of American artists that included John Singer Sargent, who painted his masterpiece, Carnation, Lily, Lily Rose while staying there. Be sure to stop by the Broadway Museum and Art Gallery to hear more about the history of the village and its rich cultural heritage.
A little out of town, the Broadway Tower offers stupendous views of the Cotswolds countryside – on a clear day you can see across 16 counties – while back in the village, pop into The Lygon Arms Hotel for a drink, or better still stay the night, in the very place that once hosted both King Charles I and Oliver Cromwell – though not at the same time we might add.
The Cotswolds’ riches came from its bustling wool trade in the Middle Ages and so it would be remiss not to visit Chipping Campden, once an important trading centre (the word ‘Chipping’ means ‘market’) and still home to a well-preserved High Street and one of the region’s most elegant wool churches – The Church of St James.
It’s also here that the Cotswolds ‘Olympick’ games are held each year, which predate the modern Olympic Games by almost three centuries, and which includes such wacky events as the World Shin-Kicking Championships, which are undoubtedly as painful as they sound.
Way over in west Gloucestershire, Slad the home village of Cider with Rosie author Laurie Lee, offers a quieter, some might even say more authentic, taste of Cotswolds life.
Hidden within the Slad Valley near Painswick and Stroud – also worth a visit – life in the village centres round the little Woolpack Inn, which is like a time capsule transporting you to simpler, happier times. Lee enjoyed a blissful upbringing in this little village, and you can see his schoolhouse opposite the pub and even pay your respects at the churchyard where he is buried.
Finally, Castle Combe in Wiltshire is like turning back the pages in a book. No new homes have been built here since 1600, so it’s little surprise it’s been used as a backdrop to period dramas and films, from Downton Abbey to War Horse.
This is an extract, read the full feature in our August/September 2023 issue of Discover Britain, available to buy from 7 July here.