A Day in the Cotswolds

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VISITING the Cotswolds in south-central England is like travelling back in time. As a first-time visitor, I found it hard to believe that once upon a time, in the early 1800s, this was the centre of Europe’s wool industry and one of the wealthiest regions in the country.

The Cotswolds has stayed relatively the same since the mid-1700s, when the rest of the country marched forward following the Industrial Revolution. Thus, the area retains much of its medieval English charm.

The region has kept much of the old wealth from the wool trade, as evidenced by the beautiful buildings and churches that dot the area. The average per capita of a typical household, according to available statistics, is £65,000 (RM350,160) — one of the highest in the country.

The Cotswolds is best described as an expanse of gently sloping green hills dotted with ancient picturesque towns and villages. Indeed, some of the most beautiful landscapes can be found here, like those we only get to see in postcards or on chocolate boxes and biscuit tins that boast all that is English.

While the Cotswolds is a tourist attraction, its charms may not appeal to those who prefer the bright lights and hustle and bustle of a city. Many parts of the region do not see crowds of tourists throughout the year, making it the perfect getaway for those who want a quiet place to chill out, read a book and take long walks in the countryside.

Personally, I found the experience almost surreal from the moment we (this includes a guide and a friend) drove into the Cotswolds from Stratford-upon-Avon, the birthplace of William Shakespeare. Perhaps it was because there were busloads of tourists thronging the birthplace of The Bard as well as the modern shops and cafés that line the bustling streets.

However, once we left the town and drove into the Cotswolds, it was like entering a different era. We drove through several enchanting but quiet villages, and it was not difficult to conjure up images of women and men of days long past, strolling down the market street with their parasols and hats in the summer.  

One can get a panoramic view of the countryside from Broadway Tower

It was early summer during my visit. The weather was still cool, but the sun was beginning to linger longer as each day rolled by. The good thing about visiting the Cotswolds is that you also have the opportunity to visit the surrounding ancient towns, such as Bath, which is almost synonymous with Jane Austen; the university town of Oxford and, of course, Stratford-upon-Avon.

Is one day enough? No, but it is enough to make you want to return for another visit. For those with time constraints and the Cotswolds on their “must-do” list, a one-day tour should enable them to see the best of the gorgeous region.

Ideally, the Cotswolds, because of its beauty and rich history, should be savoured and enjoyed over a few days at the minimum. After all, you cannot say you have experienced the real Cotswolds until you have gone on one of the many country hikes available or enjoyed a lazy afternoon at one of the many quaint cafés, having scones slathered with rich clotted cream and jam and then washing all that down with a few cups of English tea.

The Cotswolds is 40km across and 145km long, stretching from the south of Stratford-upon-Avon to the south of the Georgian city of Bath. The whole area covers 2,038 sq km, 80% of which is taken up by farmland, and is home to only 85,000 people.

The Cotswolds has a long history. People have lived there for 6,000 years. Apparently, there is evidence of very early settlement in this part of England, according to reports. Stone and Bronze Age burial mounds are common, while currency from the Iron Age dating back to 300BC was found during an excavation in the area.

In fact, one of the many stories on how the Cotswolds derived its name tells of a 12th century Anglo-Saxon chieftain called “Cod” who owned the highlands, which was known as “wold” at the time. “Cod’s Wold” eventually became the name by which it is known today.

As we drove along the narrow country roads, past stone walls and old buildings, rolling grasslands, beech woods and captivating villages, I found the Cotswolds to be one of the most beautiful and serene areas in England. Also fascinating were the names of the towns and villages — Chipping Camden, Winchcombe, Broadway, Snowhill and Stow-on-the Wold.

What makes the Cotswolds stand out from the other English districts is the ancient limestone used in the building of its villages and market towns. Given our time constraints, we did not stop at many of the villages, although there are several that I have put on my list of villages to visit when I next come to this part of the world.

One of the places we did visit was Chipping Camden, a small market town. From High Street, which is lined with honey-coloured limestone buildings constructed using the famous Cotswold stone, we walked to the centre of the town, where we found the market hall. It was deserted. Our tour guide, Matt, told us that the hall, built in 1627, is hardly ever used nowadays.

During the half hour we were in Chipping Camden, we met fewer than five people. The town was so quiet that you could almost hear a pin drop.
We took to the road again. As we neared a small village, Matt suggested that we get down and trek for about a mile to enjoy the countryside. “You might even see a pheasant or two in the fields,” he said.

Arlington Row was constructed some 600 years ago as a factory for processing wool

We welcomed the opportunity to stretch our legs, and stopped every so often to take in the scenery — sheep grazing in the fields and even some horses, which came close the fence to investigate their human visitors and were friendly enough to allow themselves to be patted. Unfortunately, we did not see any pheasants. Next time, perhaps.

We headed to Broadway, home of the Broadway Tower, which sits on a little hill, and the Cotswold Way, a walking trail which you can access by taking a steep climb up from Broadway Village. One can get a panoramic view of the countryside from Broadway Tower, the base of which is located 312m above sea level. The tower itself is 20m high.

I would have liked to visit Bourton-on-Water, one of the larger and busier villages that is commonly featured on postcards and in write-ups about the Cotswolds. However, Matt said there are other villages that are far prettier, and without the crowds.

Instead, we went to Bibury, which has been described as one of the most picturesque villages in the world. It sits on the River Coln and is known for its 17th century stone cottages with steep roofs.

The main attraction of the village is Arlington Row — a row of cottages constructed some 600 years ago as a factory for processing wool. Most of the tourists, us included, spent some time posing for pictures in front of the cottages and later, browsing in the tourist shop that sold a myriad of things, from lavender gel to books and fridge magnets.

As daylight started to fade, it was time to bid farewell to Bibury and head “home”, which in this case was Cambridge. Would I come back again? Yes, and next time, I will give myself more time to enjoy the Cotswolds.

This article was first published in the September 2014 issue of Personal Money — a personal finance magazine published by The Edge Communications.