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Wondering how the Cotswolds got its name or when the best time to visit is? Puzzled about what a wool church is or why we chase a giant cheese down a steep hill every year? This introduction to the region tells you everything you need to know about the Cotswolds.
What is the Cotswolds?
The Cotswolds is England’s largest Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), a landscape of almost 800 square miles of rolling hills and unspoilt countryside, dotted with picturesque villages, market towns, castles and country houses, gardens and arboretums.
The Cotswold Hills run from the meadows of the upper River Thames to the Cotswold Edge, a steep escarpment looking out over the Severn Vale. The hills are formed of a type of Jurassic limestone you’ll only find in the Cotswolds, which gives the area’s towns and villages their distinctive honey-coloured look. And the Cotswolds’ mix of rare limestone grassland and ancient beech woodland has made it a refuge for endangered native wildlife.
There’s uncertainty over where the name ‘Cotswolds’ actually comes from. ‘Wold’ is an Old English word for hills, so one theory is that adding the word ‘cot’ – meaning ‘sheep’ – gives us ‘sheep enclosure in rolling hillside’, which is a pretty accurate description. Or perhaps it comes from ‘Cods-wold’ meaning ‘Cod’s hills’, taking its name from a local Saxon landowner.
Where is the Cotswolds?
The Cotswolds is located in south-west England. The majority of the region lies within the counties of Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire, but it also extends into parts of Warwickshire, Wiltshire, Worcestershire and Somerset.
There’s a lot of debate about the Cotswolds’ exact borders. Do you go by the AONB boundary or the local government areas? Or do you just group together places which share a similar history, geology and architectural style? And what about bigger places like Cheltenham, Stratford-upon-Avon and Oxford which are just outside the ‘proper’ Cotswolds border?
There’s no definitive answer, but Explore the Cotswolds takes a fairly loose definition of the Cotswolds and we’ll be including places beyond the border which visitors might also want to visit while they’re in the area (with apologies to the map purists out there!).
This Cotswold map shows the area we cover, with major towns and villages marked and the AONB area in green.
What’s the history of the Cotswolds?
The history of the Cotswolds dates back over 6000 years to when the land was first cultivated. You can still see remnants of its different historical periods as you travel around the region, starting with Neolithic long barrows and Iron Age hill forts.
In the Roman era, Cirencester (then known as Corinium Dobunnorum) was the second largest town in Britain. It was a major stop on the Fosse Way between Exeter and Lincoln, which forms the route of many of our modern roads. There are still remains of Roman villas across the Cotswolds and local Roman artefacts on display at Cirencester’s Corinium Museum.
In the Middle Ages, the Cotswolds was known for having some of the best wool in Europe. The Cotswold Hills were perfect for sheep farming, and a native breed with a long golden fleece called the Cotswold Lion made the area famous. Cotswold wool merchants became rich off the proceeds and spent their money on the grand houses and the cathedral-style ‘wool churches’ you can still see in places like Northleach and Chipping Campden.
The Industrial Revolution saw the wool trade move from water to steam power, with the mills being relocated from the Cotswolds to the coalfields. The Cotswolds was fairly untouched by industrialisation, with its many original buildings adding to the charm that led to a huge growth in tourism in the 20th century, and it’s now the region’s biggest economic sector.
Why should you visit the Cotswolds?
Well for a start it’s beautiful! The area’s unspoilt countryside scenery and picturesque villages are the main reasons people come to the Cotswolds. But there are plenty of things to see and do while you’re here – visit a castle or country house, see autumn colours at an arboretum, explore the ruins of a Roman villa, ride on board a steam train, take a ghost tour, walk through the countryside, taste local gin, follow a Christmas light trail – the possibilities are endless.
There’s a great range of places to stay, from thatched cottages to five-star hotels. And the area’s popularity with affluent London weekenders means it punches above its weight when it comes to luxury spas and fine-dining. The Cotswolds is home to some of England’s best food and drink producers with local produce on the menu of Michelin-starred restaurants and country pubs alike.
Convinced yet? Explore the Cotswolds is packed full of information to inspire your visit.
When’s the best time of year to visit?
As the Cotswolds is in England, it’s best to prepare yourself for every type of weather, whatever time of year you’re visiting. Spring sees average daytime temperatures around 9–17°C but does get a fair few rain showers. It’s a good time to visit the area’s gardens though, with displays of bluebells and snowdrops, as well as for bird and wildlife spotting.
With average temperatures of 19–22°C, sunny days and long light evenings, summer is peak season in the Cotswolds so expect it to be busy. Book well ahead – and consider swapping popular spots like Bourton-on-the-Water for lesser-known areas if you want to avoid the crowds.
Autumn is a great time to visit the Cotswolds – especially at the start of the season when it’s less busy but not so likely to be wet. Daytime temperatures average 9–19°C, and you’ll see beautiful autumn woodland colours and can warm up by a log fire in one of the country pubs.
Despite what the Hollywood movies might suggest, you don’t often see snow in the Cotswolds in winter, with temperatures around 6–8°C. You often get crisp frosty mornings though and there are lots of festive events on around Christmas, from light trails to Christmas markets.
What’s the best way to get around the Cotswolds?
With 800 square miles of the Cotswolds to explore – and pretty patchy public transport coverage – the best way to get around the Cotswolds is by car. If you don’t have your own car, you can hire one in any of the main centres like Cheltenham, Oxford, Stratford, Bath or Bristol, all of which have regular rail services connecting them to the rest of the UK.
Although you won’t be able to cover as much ground, it’s possible to visit various places in the Cotswolds by public transport. Three main train lines run through the region – one from Oxford to Evesham via Charlbury, Kingham and Moreton-in-Marsh, one from Swindon to Cheltenham via Stroud, Kemble and Stonehouse, and one from Bristol to Gloucester via Yate and Cam and Dursley.
There’s also a decent (if infrequent) bus network, with services running out to Cotswold towns and villages from the area’s main hubs in Cheltenham, Evesham, Stratford, Oxford and Bath. And of course there are plenty of walking routes right across the Cotswolds.
Best-known is the 102-mile Cotswold Way, running from Chipping Campden to Bath through some of the area’s prettiest scenery. But there are also several other long-distance routes in the region, including like Warden’s Way, Windrush Way and Winchcombe Way (along with many others which don’t begin with a W!) as well as hundreds of shorter walks to suit all levels of fitness.
And what is with the cheese rolling?
On Spring Bank Holiday each year at Cooper’s Hill just outside Gloucester, a nine-pound round of Double Gloucester cheese is rolled from the top of the hill and chased to the bottom by competitors, with the winner being the first person to reach it… preferably in one piece.
What started as a local event has become an international spectacle – and health and safety nightmare – with people coming from all across the world to take part. The steep and uneven surface of the hill means there have been plenty of injuries, but that’s not discouraged people from trying to win both the glory of being the champion and getting to take the cheese home.
Cheese-rolling might be the most famous, but it’s not the Cotswolds’ only bizarre event or quirky tradition. There’s also Tetbury’s Woolsack Races, Bourton-on-the-Water’s River Football, the Bampton Shirt Race and the Cotswold Olimpick Games to name just a few!