Known as the Gateway to the Cotswolds, Burford is one of the most picturesque towns in Oxfordshire, famous for its steep high street which sweeps downhill towards the River Windrush past Cotswold stone cottages, Georgian townhouses, a medieval church, shops, tearooms and historic pubs. Explore this charming Cotswold town with our insider’s guide from local expert Jessica, who takes us through the best things to do in Burford in the Cotswolds.
As you head down Burford’s High Street towards Fulbrook or Stow-on-the-Wold you’ll find a three-arched medieval bridge across the River Windrush. It’s this river crossing that gave Burford its name, taken from the Old English ‘burh’ (fortified town) and ‘ford’ (river crossing).
It isn’t known exactly when settlers first came to Burford, but the Domesday Book of 1086 records 200 people living in the town at that time. In the early 11th century, Burford was granted a charter by Robert Fitzhamon, which encouraged traders from all over the country to visit and trade. Inns were built so they had somewhere to stay, some of which are still standing today.
On 17 May 1649, Burford was the site of a grisly day during the English Civil War when over 300 ‘Levellers’ – a radical political movement – were captured by Oliver Cromwell and held in the Church of St John the Baptist. Three of their leaders were executed the next day, and the bullet holes and carvings from captured prisoners can still be seen in the church walls.
The event is commemorated by the annual ‘Levellers Day’ to celebrate their ideals of democracy, equality and religious freedom. It’s been taking place in Burford each May for over 40 years, with a mix of political debates, music and dancing, guest speakers and a street parade.
During the 1800s and 1900s, Burford prospered from the many local industries it supported over the centuries, including farming, agriculture and building. It has been a town for over 900 years, and its excellent position on one of the country’s major crossroads has ensured frequent visitors and remarkable trade throughout its entire history, right through to the modern day.
Things to do in Burford…
Take a walk up Burford Hill for some of the town’s most beautiful scenery. The hill is lined with pretty Cotswold stone cottages, with benches where you can stop and take in the view over the town and the surrounding countryside. The hill leads onto the High Street and spending a few hours browsing its independent shops is one of our favourite things to do in Burford.
Burford is a great place to shop for antiques. Gateway Antiques specialises in 17th to early 20th-century English and Continental furniture and decorative items, and nearby Burford Antiques & Interiors have a range of vintage and contemporary furniture, mirrors and lights.
There are also lots of cute interiors, home and gift shops along the High Street. Some of our favourites are the Cook Shop for gadgets and culinary utensils, Three French Hens for cards and gifts like candles and door signs, Burford Wood Craft for beautifully crafted wooden items, and the Oxford Brush Company for plastic-free, sustainable brushes for every occasion!
Halfway up the High Street is the former Burford Corporation’s ‘Toll House’. This black and white building was built in the early 1500s and is where the Guild of Merchants used to meet to collect payment for local markets and fairs, as well as being a meeting point for wool merchants. It now houses the Tolsey Museum which has exhibits on local history, culture and industry.
The Grade I listed Church of St John the Baptist towers over the centre of Burford. It was founded in 1175 and was developed and enlarged over the next 400 years as money from the wool trade flooded into the town. The spire was added in the fifteenth century, though not all that sucessfully as it started to move, and was shored up later and is still carefully monitored.
Highlights of the church include its beautiful stained-glass windows, medieval wall paintings and ornate tomb monuments. There’s a 1569 memorial to Henry VIII’s barber-surgeon Edward Harman, which has one of the first depictions of Amazon Indians, and in the north chapel there is an Italian-style 17th-century canopied tomb for Sir Lawrence and Lady Tanfield.
A visit to the Burford Garden Centre is one of the most popular things to do in Burford. It’s just outside town and sells everything from food and drink to homewares, flowers, plants and indoor and outdoor furniture. There’s a huge children’s section, rose garden and outdoor play area as well as a café. It’s particularly worth visiting at Christmas when it’s beautifully decorated.
If you want to get out into the countryside, circular walks from Burford visit the surrounding villages of Fulbook, Swinbrook, Widford, Asthall-Leigh and Shilton. The Cotswolds and Burford Circular is a 6.5-mile trail taking in Burford’s must-sees with large stretches of rural farmland so you can enjoy some peace and quiet before following the River Windrush back to the start.
… and nearby
Cotswold Wildlife Park and Gardens is a couple of miles south of Burford on the A361. Set in 160 acres of beautifully landscaped gardens, the park is home to over 250 different species of animals including rhinos, giraffes, wolves, lemurs, leopards and lions, as well as one of the largest reptile collections in the country. There’s also a children’s playground, gift shop and café.
One of the most popular areas of the park is ‘Madagascar’, a walk-through lemur exhibit where visitors can get up close and personal with free-roaming lemurs and native birds. You can also book an animal encounter or ‘keeper for the day’ experience to see behind the scenes.
If that’s not enough animals for you, Burford is also only 3.5 miles from Crocodiles of the World, the UK’s only crocodile zoo where you can get face-to-face with these giant predators. They have over 80 crocodiles from around the world, including some rare and endangered species, as well as other reptiles, with underwater viewing, talks, animal encounters and feeding sessions.
For something a bit more relaxing, Burford is 7 miles from the National Trust’s Lodge Park and Sherbourne Estate. This rare 17th-century grandstand was built for deer coursing spectators and is surrounded by grounds with water meadows for wildlife- and bird-watching.
And if that’s not enough things to do in Burford then you’re also within easy reach of several other gorgeous Cotswold towns and villages like Bibury (10 miles) with the famous houses of Arlington Row and the Bibury Trout Farm, the wool town of Northleach (9 miles) with its church known as the ‘Cathedral of the Cotswolds’, and riverside Bourton-on-the-Water (10 miles).
Places to eat & drink in Burford
Burford is known for its delicious lardy cakes. Similar to Chelsea buns without the icing, lardy cakes are made with sugar, spices, currants and sultanas, and are a local staple.
The best place to find lardy cakes in Burford is Huffkins on the High Street. Huffkins is a family-run bakery now with eight branches, which was founded in 1890 back when its cakes and bread were delivered by donkey and cart. Other local cafés perfect for a stop-off when you’re exploring Burford include Lynwood & Co and The Priory Tearooms who do tasty cream teas.
Burford has a fantastic selection of historic pubs with lots of character features where you can warm up by the fire in winter or enjoy the sunshine in a beer garden in the summer. The Golden Pleasant, The Angel and The Mermaid all serve traditional pub food and local ales, with The Royal Oak well-known for its homemade shortcrust pies served with lashings of gravy.
For more restaurant-style dining, The Lamb and The Bay Tree serve creative British dishes using local, seasonal ingredients. Or for something a bit less traditional, Spice Lounge is an award-winning Indian restaurant on the High Street which serves inventive Indian dishes using organic ingredients and healthy recipes which aren’t too rich, to eat in or take away.
Burford also has an array of brilliant delis and food producers. Check out Mrs Bumbles for meats, cheeses, pies and some of the best sausage rolls in the Cotswolds. The Cotswold Cheese Company stocks many locally produced cheeses, including their own Oxford Blue Cheese. Burford also has an old-fashioned Sweet Shop with all the retro classics which is a step back in time.
And a few miles outside town you’ll find Upton Smokery, who smoke their own meats and fish, from traditional smoked salmon to delicious smoked duck breasts. Their shop also sells other local produce and there’s both a gin and vodka distillery and a brewery on site.
Where to stay in Burford
Many of Burford’s inns also offer accommodation. The Angel at Burford* is a multiple winner of the ‘Cotswold Pub of the Year’ award. This 16th-century inn has been stylishly renovated but has kept its original charm with wooden beams, crooked ceilings and stone fireplaces. There are three cosy bedrooms with king-size beds and en-suite bathrooms with a shower and bath.
Burford House* is a half-timbered inn midway down the High Street with exposed beams and leaded windows. There are six en-suite bedrooms, including four-poster rooms perfect for a romantic break, as well as the separate self-catering Bumble Cottage which sleeps two.
The 17th-century Bay Tree* is a stone building in the centre of Burford draped in wisteria. Its 21 bedrooms – split between the main building and the cottage annex – have been given a contemporary makeover and some have spa or roll-top baths, fires or separate lounges. As well as the bar and restaurant the hotel also has a library and walled garden to relax in.
Dating from 1390, Bull Cottage* is one of Burford’s oldest cottages. With its medieval stone arches, timber beams and flagstone floors it’s full of character, but it’s also well equipped with modern comforts including a wood-burning stove, fitted kitchen and three comfortable bedrooms.
How to get to Burford
By car: Positioned where the A40 crosses the A361, Burford is in a prime location around half an hour from both Oxford and Cheltenham. Burford is accessed either by the top or bottom of the High Street (the hill) from surrounding villages as well as the A40. Parking is free in Burford. The riverside car park is the best place to leave your car, but gets extremely busy during the summer. There’s also on-street parking, but there are time limits in place during the day.
By public transport: The nearest train stations are in Charlbury and Long Hanborough, but you would need to take a taxi to Burford so it may be easier to take a train to Oxford or Cheltenham. The 853 bus connects Burford to Cheltenham (50 minutes), Northleach (15 minutes) and Oxford (55 minutes). The 233 bus also runs from Burford to Carterton, Witney and Woodstock.
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