Quintessentially English in every leaf, lamb, honeyed stone cottage and hill, the Cotswolds nestles between Oxford, Bath, Evesham and Stratford-upon-Avon. Named after the hills – wolds – that frame this incredibly beautiful area, the Cotswolds receives over a million visitors each year. And who can blame them? It’s the kind of place that takes your breath away, even if, like us, you visit regularly. Here I’m taking you to 21 of the prettiest Cotswold villages and towns we’ve had the pleasure to explore.
- 1 When To Visit The Cotswolds Prettiest Towns And Villages
- 2 What Makes The Prettiest Villages and Towns So Beautiful?
- 3 Getting To And Around The Cotswolds
- 4 Bourton-on-The-Water
- 5 Burford
- 6 Shipston-on-Stour
- 7 Chedworth
- 8 Cirencester
- 9 Fairford
- 10 Bibury
- 11 Broadway
- 12 Upper Slaughter
- 13 Lower Slaughter
- 14 Guiting Power
- 15 Winchcombe
- 16 Chipping Campden
- 17 Stow-on-the-Wold
- 18 Bradford On Avon
- 19 Castle Combe
- 20 Tetbury
- 21 Bretforton
- 22 Upper Swell
- 23 Snowshill
- 24 Chipping Sodbury
- 25 Charming Costwolds Villages And Bustling Market Towns
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When To Visit The Cotswolds Prettiest Towns And Villages
I have to break this to you. There’s no bad time. Spring’s a celebration of the countryside bursting into blossom. There are lambs in the fields, birds in full song and the sun is starting to warm the earth. Then there are the lazy days of summer with flowers in the gardens, sun warming those honeyed stone cottages and the smell of freshly mowed lawns.
Visit in autumn, and you’ll see that legendary mellow fruitfulness. There are plums and apples on the trees, the leaves are starting to make a stunning russet carpet, and there’s the smokiness of bonfires in the air. Then winter, with hoar frosts outlining the trees, and the cheerful glow of lights at dusk in the Cotswold villages. Even the rain is beautiful, as without it there would be no verdant countryside to enjoy.
What Makes The Prettiest Villages and Towns So Beautiful?
There’s the spectacular countryside for starters. Then there are the houses. Made from local yellow limestone, there is a real Cotswold style in their design. Look out for projecting gables, string-courses in the stone, mullioned windows, dripmoulds and stone hoodmoulds over the doors. Even the smallest Cotswold villages have preserved their spectacular houses.
Getting To And Around The Cotswolds
Although this is a small island, the Cotswolds covers a large area, and you may want to choose whether to explore a part of it in depth, or to enjoy a grand tour. It’s an easy day trip to the Cotswolds from London or Oxford, Birmingham or Stratford-upon Avon, and Bristol or Bath. From whichever direction you approach, there will be many villages and towns to enjoy.
Traveling without a car? You can still explore with ease. Guided tours are available from London or Oxford. I’d recommend taking the Cotswold Line from London Paddington to Oxford and beyond. There are stations at Moreton-in-Marsh and Kingham. You can hire a bike at Moreton-in-Marsh from a 24/7 self-service app-based facility to take you further into the countryside.
If you are driving, it is worth noting that unsurprisingly the Cotswolds is particularly busy on public holidays and gorgeous sunny days. There tends to be a morning peak from 10-12, so my advice to you would be to get there early, park up and wander for a while before moving onwards.
Ready to go?
Described as the Venice of the Cotswolds, the River Windrush flows through the centre of Bourton, one of the best known Cotswold villages. There are five low arched footbridges – the oldest dating back to 1684 – to cross the tranquil water. If you should be visiting on the last Bank Holiday in August you can see the traditional medieval football match in the river and cheer on Bourton River Football Club. The aim is to score as many goals as possible. Spectators can expect to get rather soggy.
Here you’ll find the mini village – a small and perfectly formed version of Bourton which opened in 1937. The model village also contains a model of itself, a piece of particularly English whimsy that I love. There’s the Cotswold Motoring Museum, and like us, you may be lucky enough to see many vintage and veteran cars on the road enjoying the beautiful days. Stop off at Birdland Park and Garden, home to more than 500 birds from penguins to parrots. Then there’s the Kit Williams designed Dragonfly Maze. The 100 mile Heart of England Way footpath starts in Bourton.
Known as the Gateway To The Cotswolds, Burford is famed for antiques. The High Street has antiques of its own: seventeenth and eighteenth century buildings. Also set on the River Windrush, you’ll find Burford full of boutiques, cafes and pubs. Don’t forget to try Oxford Blue, the local cheese.
The church of Saint John the Baptist is known for the merchants’ guild chapel, the memorial to King Henry VIII’s barber-surgeon, Edmund Harman. During the Civil War, the church was used as a prison where the New Model Army Banbury mutineers were held. Carvings and graffiti from the 340 prisoners still survive in the church.
Just south of Stratford-upon-Avon on the route to the Cotswolds, Shipston is a regular day trip for us. This was originally an important staging place on the coaching route and is now a great place to shop for antiques and curiosities. Visit the clockmaker with the beautiful clock above the shop door, offering sage advice on each of its two faces.
Don’t forget to call in at Taste of the Country for local delicacies in this beautiful deli, wonderfully suited for picking up a picnic. Indeed, there’s a picnic spot in the town alongside the River Avon. Time it right and you may get to see one of Taste of the Country’s beautiful gingerbread extravaganzas. Over the years we’ve experienced the gingerbread royal wedding, Christmas cheer and most recently the Easter scene shown here.
Want to visit a traditional English pub? We’d recommend the Black Horse. This thatched building has horse brasses, a warm welcome and a list of local beers.
There’s a wealth of evidence of Roman Britain across the Cotswolds. If you’ve arrived from Stratford, you may have traveled the ancient Fosse Way as part of your journey. Chedworth is noted for its Roman Villa, a place so profoundly interesting that I still remember my first visit there when barely in my teens. This is one of the best preserved Roman sites in Britain, so definitely worth a detour to see the mosaics and finds from the digs on the site. The 1700 year old villa has bathhouses, hypocausts (the Romans had underfloor heating long before us) and a water shrine.
Also in Chedworth, you’ll find the church of St Andrew’s with an ancient spring in the grounds. The church was built in the 12th century, but is notable for its later perpendicular architecture. You’ll find a nearby cafe and farm shop too, allowing you to enjoy the local produce from the area.
The “Capital of the Cotswolds” is a pretty market town with a wealth of treasures to explore. It grew at the centre of a series of turnpike roads connecting London and Oxford to the West of England, with its wealth founded on grain and wool.
The Corinium Museum holds plenty of the area’s history from Roman relics to Anglo-Saxon gold. Visit the historic Fleece Hotel to imagine your life as a medieval trader. Cirencester was also important in the Arts and Crafts movement in the Cotswolds, with Ernest Gimson and Norman Jewson working there. Love a beautiful garden? Cirencester House has one of the finest landscape gardens in England laid out by the first Earl Bathurst in 1714.
Fairford was an important town on the London to Gloucester coaching route. There are many walks to enjoy here along the banks of the River Coln. The wealth of the town was built on the wool trade, the funds from which created the impressive 28 medieval stained glass windows telling stories from the Bible in the parish church.
Hear a whoosh overhead? That’ll be RAF Fairford in action. Every year (usually on the third weekend in July) the base hosts the three day Royal International Air Tattoo, the world’s largest military air show.
William Morris – who it has to be said knew something of design – described Bibury as “the most beautiful village in the Cotswolds”. With competition this tough, that means something rather special. Possibly the most photographed village of them all, streets such as Arlington Row will induce in you the best lifestyle envy. If you have a UK passport, you’ll find this gorgeous row of houses depicted on the inside cover. The street once housed weavers for the cloth used at Arlington Mill, the houses having originally been used as a monastic wool store. The nearby water meadow is home to coots, mallards and moorhens and is a wildfowl reserve.
Should you be lucky enough to be here at Christmas, Boxing Day will see the (rubber) duck race on the River Coln, where you can sponsor a duck for charity. Mince pies and mulled wine will keep you happy while your duck does his or her stuff on the river. Any time of year you can stop off in the Catherine Wheel pub, dating from the 15th century and studded with old ships’ timbers to form its beams. Visit in winter, and you can snuggle up by a log fire too. The Swan Hotel has a pretty courtyard to enjoy in the warmer months.
Named the jewel of the Cotswolds, Broadway has many charms. The Broad Way itself is a wide grass-verged street lined with chestnut trees and honeyed stone buildings, many dating from the 16th century. In addition to the picturesque high street, you’ll find all kinds of shopping treats and treasures here, plus a wealth of cafes and restaurants to feed the inner explorer.
Once a stagecoach stop on the road from London to Worcester, Broadway offered a chance to hitch up extra horses to make the laborious climb up Fish Hill. Victorian writers, composers and artists were drawn to the village’s tranquility including Elgar, John Singer Sergeant, J.M Barrie and Vaughan Williams among their number. Broadway is now one of the most visited Cotswold villages with plenty of hotels and restaurants including the Lygon Inn which dates from the 1600s. You can read more about our most recent day trip to Broadway here.
You can’t miss a trip to Broadway Tower. Standing in a commanding place on the hill overlooking the village, Broadway Tower is an English folly, a building designed purely for pleasure. Designed by Capability Brown for Lady Coventry, it sits on a beacon hill, where beacons were lit on special occasions. It was a country retreat for William Morris and the pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Burne-Jones.
Read more: Exploring English Folly Buildings
Want to find a spot where time stood still? This is absolutely it. The River Eye flows through this small village, where pretty cottages surround a village green. Stop here, and you’ll find a glimpse of England as she once was and still is.
The name isn’t as gruesome as you think. It’s derived from the Old English slough meaning wetland. Upper Slaughter Manor is recorded in the Domesday Book of 1086, and is now mostly Elizabethan from later additions. It is a family home, but opens for several weeks a year. You can stay at the Lords of the Manor Hotel, dating from 1649. The cottages around the square are in fine condition, having been reconstructed by the architect Sir Edward Lutyens in 1906.
Less visited than its Upper sibling, Lower Slaughter is full of stone cottages, flowers and a ford across the river. Like Upper Slaughter, the village is built on both banks of the sleepy River Eye. The river is crossed by two footbridges. At the west end of the village, you’ll find a 19th century water mill. The water shoots under the wheel, and the mill has a chimney for extra steam power. The red brick mill contrasts with the village homes which date back to the 16th and 17th centuries. The houses are made of Cotswold limestone and have mullioned windows plus other embellishments.
You have the opportunity for a mini adventure here driving through the ford where the river widens in the village (please make sure to check the depth first). There won’t be much of an audience though; the village had 236 residents in 2016. Visit the Old Mill Museum and its River Cafe plus Riverside tea room.
This brilliant and most unusually named of the Cotswold villages is famed for its traditional pubs, old Post Office and tearooms. Home to less than 300 people, the village is managed by a charitable trust, ensuring homes are available at an affordable rent. The extent of the amenities available in such a small village speaks well of the work of the trust.
Interested in local walks? The Wardens’ Way passes through the village on its way from Bourton-on-the-Water to Winchcombe. This joins the Oxfordshire Way to the Cotswold Way and can be combined with the Windrush Way to make a circular tour.
There’s a 17 acre wetland nature reserve here. If you’ve ever enjoyed Countryfile, the BBC’s programme on rural life, you might have heard of Adam Henson. His Cotswolds Farm Park is here with 50 breeds of farm animal and a campsite with a variety of pitches should you wish to stay. Visit at the end of July and you could also enjoy the 10 day Guiting Music Festival (classical, folk and jazz), with eight concerts in the village hall and two outdoors.
There’s been a settlement here since Neolithic times, with the long barrow Belas Knap perched on the hill above the Winchcombe. Formerly one of the chief cities of the Kingdom of Mercia, town life got a little more rumbustious here during the Restoration period. Cattle rustling and illegal tobacco growing were prolific.
Winchcombe is a hub for walkers with 6 long distance footpaths converging here, including the Cotswold Way and the Gloucestershire Way.
It is also the home of Sudeley Castle. The present castle was built in the 15th century, possibly on the site of its 12th century counterpart. It is notable for being the burial place of Catherine Parr, the sixth wife of King Henry VIII. Her marble tomb is set in St Mary’s Chapel. Sudeley Castle is still a family residence, and as such is only open on selected dates during the year. The castle has a stunning knot garden, all outlined with hedges, and the Queens’ Garden, so named because four queens – including Elizabeth I – have visited.
Chipping is derived from the old English ceapen meaning a market. So it will be no surprise that this is a market town. It’s also a town whose wealth was based on wool, with wealthy merchants creating notable buildings made of Cotswold stone. The high street is historic and full of charm, including the Market Hall with its fabulous arches, which was built in 1627.
You’ll find links to the Arts and Crafts movement here. The Court Barn near St James’ Church is a museum dedicated to this important era of design. Metalworking for jewellery and enamels plus copper working and iron work were important here, as was furniture making. You can visit Hidcote Manor Garden, owned by the National Trust. The Cotswold Way ends (or begins) here.
Visiting on the Friday after the Spring Bank Holiday? You could be an Olympian – or rather an Olimpickan – on Dover’s Hill here. The Cotswolds Olimpick Games date back to 1612. There’s a gymkhana, tug of war, judo, piano-smashing, dwile flonking, Morris dancing, and for the particularly brave amongst you, shin-kicking. Dwile flonking, should you not be familiar with the concept, involves dodging an ale-soaked cloth flung by the other team.
This is another charming and bustling town. Situated on the Roman road known as the Fosse Way, the town was founded in Norman times by lords eager to take advantage of trading opportunities. Fairs and markets have been established in Stow since 1330, with goods ranging from livestock to handmade goods. It is rumoured that on one occasion 20,000 sheep changed hands, making it unsurprising that one of the town’s roads is named Sheep Street. You can see lots of little alleyways known as tures, and it’s here that the sheep were herded to market.
You’ll find many places to eat and drink or provision for picnics here, with delis, teashops and restaurants aplenty. It’s also a fine place for shopping, covering everything from fudge to clothing and antiques to kitchenware and furniture. If you are looking to stay in the Cotswolds for a long weekend, Stow would form a great base for exploring. It’s also a great base if you are not driving, as the station at Kingham is just 5 miles away and that at Moreton-in-Marsh even closer at 4 miles distant.
Bradford On Avon
Settled from Roman times – there are remains of a villa with a mosaic on the school playing field – Bradford grew around the ford on the River Avon. Its name comes from the Broad Ford. The stone bridge was originally for packhorses, but was widened in the 17th century. The small building on the bridge was once a chapel, but was later used as the town lock-up.
Widbrook Grange is a Georgian manor house now run as a hotel. The town itself has plenty of 17th century buildings dating from the town’s most affluent times as a textile manufacturer. The weavers’ cottages are situated on Newtown, Middle Rank and Tory Terraces. The author Daniel Defoe noted the wealth of the town when he visited in the early 18th century.
They told me at Bradford that it was no extra-ordinary thing to have clothiers in that country worth, from ten thousand, to forty thousand pounds a man.”
One of the features of the town is the large Tithe Barn, where taxes would have been collected in the form of goods and then used to fund the church.
If you are staying in Bristol or Bath, Castle Combe would make a great start to a Cotswolds day trip. You can’t argue with a place described as “the prettiest village in England”, especially when you consider the other glorious Cotswolds villages we’ve visited here. The village is divided into two parts, one surrounding the By Brook, and the other on higher ground. You’ll find the original market cross from the 14th century, plus the nearby steps which helped horse riders to mount and dismount.
The high street is lined with tearooms and hits that quintessentially English mark perfectly. The village itself is no stranger to fame; it appeared in the musical Doctor Doolittle (the Dower House being the Doctor’s house) and more recently in War Horse. Many of the houses here are listed as ancient monuments, and you can spot the fascinating Archway Cottage, Castle House and the five-century old inn, the White Hart.
And Castle Combe presents this charming scene,of hill, woods and meadows cloth’d in green.Here grand terrestrial scenes, almost celestial nice,makes Castle Combe, sweet vale, an earthy Paradise.Edward Dowling (19th Century)
Visit Tetbury and you have 1300 years of history at your disposal. The Market House here was built in 1655, and the town itself was a medieval wool town with its fortune made on fleeces. Life wasn’t always easy in the Cotswold villages though. The Woolsack Races – with 60 pound sacks of wool carried on the back up and down a steep hill- are a reminder of Tetbury’s past. As are the numerous antique shops. Look out for the Market House, still used for markets and meetings.
Prince Charles’ residence, Highgrove, is situated near Tetbury, and it is possible to visit the gardens. You’ll also find Westonbirt Arboretum just outside the town with its 18000 trees and shrubs. The Old Arboretum includes many exotic and rare specimens, while the Silk Wood is based on a traditional working woodland.
There may not be a lot to do in Bretforton, but that’s really the entire point. The largest farming village near Evesham, this place is a treat for the eyes, with thatched cottages, half-timbered pubs and a village green. Visit in Spring for the best of the blossoms. And just breathe deep, listen to the birds sing, the bees working the blossoms, and the distant sound of a tractor in the fields.
There’s a large Jacobean manor here, a Gothic hall, and a grange. The village used to manage farmland for Evesham Abbey. There are lots of ghostly legends, including the tale of Lola Taplin, former landlady of the Fleece Inn. She is reputed to throw food and other objects in the bar. Originally a longhouse – a farm where animals lived on the lower floor – the inn was bequeathed by Lola to the National Trust. Spot white circles on the hearths? Those are witch circles, originally a medieval tradition and requested by Lola to keep the witches away.
Aside from having a wonderful name, this little Cotswold village near Stow-on-the-Wold is another place to find peace and tranquility. The Heart of England Way footpath passes through both Upper and Lower Swell, enabling you to enjoy the spectacular countryside. There is a reservoir in Upper Swell, attracting birdlife. You’ll also find the small Norman St Mary’s Church here.
The village overlooks the valley of the River Diker. The river is crossed by an 18th century bridge, above which a weir contains water for the millpond and the 19th century mill. If you have an interest in prehistory, you’ll find lots of barrows and earthworks in the area.
There’s been settlement here for centuries. Up at Snowshill you’ll find a long barrow from the Bronze Age. A hoard was found here in the nineteenth century, including a battle axe, dagger and spear head.
The village itself is home to an old manor house. Snowshill Manor is a National Trust property open to the public. The house itself is a collector’s dream, stuffed with furniture, musical instruments, clocks, toys, bicycles and armour, all amassed by architect Charles Paget Wade. The gardens are arranged as a series of outdoor rooms, fragrant and full of bright colours.
If you can smell something rather gorgeous, that will be Snowshill Lavender. The farm has 35 acres of lavender plants and also sells lavender products.
Another market town, Chipping Sodbury sits at the crossroads of the coaching route between Bristol, Oxford and London. It has now partly joined up with nearby Yate. Indeed, Chipping Sodbury likes a good get-together. Here you’ll find the Mop Fair, held twice a year. There’s also Festival Week, including the Big Lunch where the main road is closed and residents picnic on the street. There’s a further Big Lunch in December, designed to ensure that older residents are not alone at Christmas. Victorian Day is held on the first Saturday in December including a guaranteed snowy visit from Father Christmas and plenty of music. It would be difficult to imagine a more sociable town.
Broad Street, home of the town’s market, is bordered with houses from every period, but mainly 17th century. You’ll find a 15th century manor house at nearby Little Sodbury, and an Iron Age hill fort above.
Charming Costwolds Villages And Bustling Market Towns
…the most English and the least spoiled of all our countrysides. The truth is that it has no colour that can be described. Even when the sun is obscured and the light is cold, these walls are still faintly warm and luminous, as if they knew the trick of keeping the lost sunlight of centuries glimmering about them.” J.B Priestley on the Costwolds in English Journey 1934
It’s true that the Cotswold villages and towns are magical places. Whether you want to enjoy the bustle of the most visited spots or escape into solitude and beauty, the Cotswolds has so much to offer the visitor.
Once the charm of the Cotswolds has seduced you, there are other parts of England that you might want to explore. Oxfordshire’s Vale of White Horse has some of the oldest towns in England, many long distance walks including the Thames Path, and some quirky traditions including bun throwing. Head further west to the Welsh borders and you can explore the Black and White Village Trail in Herefordshire, named for the timbered and half-timbered houses that line the route.
Still struggling to choose where to visit in England? Head over to our choice of 10 day UK itineraries, where you’ll find six options to make the most of your trip to Britain. And many of them can be achieved without a car.
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