The highest of the Cotswold towns, hilltop Stow-on-the-Wold lies in the north of the region, surrounded by pretty villages and rolling countryside. This historic wool town is known for its market square, its antique shops and its great selection of traditional pubs and inns – making it a Cotswold must-visit. Discover the best things to do in Stow-on-the-Wold with our local expert Kate, who gives us an insider’s guide to visiting this charming Cotswold market town.
Stow-on-the-Wold is the highest town in the Cotswolds at 800 feet, and its hilltop location was originally the site of of Iron Age fort. It also gave the town its name, which translates as to ‘holy place on the hill’ from the old English words ‘stowe’ for holy place and ‘wold’ for hill.
Stow’s hilly position also inspired the 18th-century rhyme “Stow-on-the-Wold, where the wind blows cold” – which you can experience for yourself on a winter’s day.
Stow-on-the-Wold’s location at the junction of six Roman roads, including the Fosse Way from Exeter to Lincoln, meant it became an important trading centre. In 1476, Edward IV awarded a charter to Stow to hold two annual fairs – one on 12 May and the other on 24 October. These grew into major events for the wool trade, and with them Stow’s importance grew.
St Edward’s Church in the town also played a significant role in the English Civil War. The Battle of Stow-on-the-Wold took place on 21 March 1646, when the Parliamentarians overwhelmed the Royalists in nearby Donnington. The Royalists fled back to Stow where legend has it Digbeth Street ran red with blood, and over 1000 survivors were imprisoned in the church.
Things to do in Stow-on-the-Wold…
The historic heart of Stow-on-the-Wold is its impressive Market Square, which has hosted regular markets since 1107, with over 20,000 sheep changing hands there in its wool trade heyday. Look out for the high-walled alleyways known as ‘tures’ which would funnel sheep into the square. And the Market Cross which was built as a reminder for merchants to trade fairly.
Today the square is surrounded by townhouses, antique and gift shops, cafés and tea rooms built from the area’s golden stone. It’s a great place to spend an afternoon browsing. Some of our favourite Stow shopping spots are the Fosse Gallery for contemporary British art, Borzoi Bookshop, Tudor House Antiques, Cutter Brooks and the Cotswold Sweet Company.
The square is also surrounded by reminders of Stow’s history. Look out for the medieval wooden stocks on the green, which were originally used to punish criminals, and the 15th-century crooked house. There’s also the 500-year-old King’s Arms, which hosted Charles I in 1645.
Stow’s St Edward’s Church goes back to the Middle Ages, but the building you see today is mixture of elements from the 11th century to Victorian period. Inside is a memorial Royalist soldier Captain Hastings Keyte and a painting of the Crucifixion by Flemish artist Gaspar de Craeyer.
But it’s the church’s north entrance which has become one of Stow’s most photographed spots. The Yew Tree Door – a thick wooden door studded by nails and surrounded by gnarled oak trees – looks like a gateway to another world. And there are rumours it inspired JRR Tolkien to create Doors of Durin in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, but no one knows for sure.
Stow is surrounded by beautiful Cotswold countryside which is great for walking. One of our favourite things to do in Stow-on-the-Wold is the 6-mile walk to Bourton-on-the-Water, which runs through the villages of Icomb and Wyck Rissington and across Salmonsbury Meadows nature reserve on part of the Oxfordshire Way – which takes around 2–3 hours each way.
There’s also an easy 45-minute walk to the nearby village of Maugersbury. Or if you fancy a bigger challenge, Stow is also on the route of several long-distance walking paths, including the Gloucestershire Way, North Cotswold Diamond Way and Macmillan Way.
… and nearby
Stow-on-the-Wold is surrounded by some of the Cotswolds’ best-known towns and villages, making it a great base for exploring the area. Bourton-on-the-Water is only four miles away, with the picturesque villages of Lower Slaughter and Upper Slaughter slightly closer. And foodie favourite Kingham and historic Moreton-in-Marsh are both under five miles away.
Cotswold Farm Park, much-loved by local families, is a 10-minute drive outside of Stow. It’s owned by Countryfile presenter Adam Henson and helps preserve historic rare breeds. You can see over 50 breeds at the park with farm demonstrations, farm safaris, feeding and petting sessions for kids. They also hold special events throughout the year, including a Christmas light trail.
Stow-on-the-Wold is also close to some of the Cotswolds best parks and gardens. Batsford Arboretum (6 miles) covers 50 acres and is particularly beautiful in spring and autumn. And next door to Batsford is the quirky Indian-inspired Sezincote House and Gardens.
The fascinating National Trust Chastleton House, preserved as a time capsule of family life over the last 400 years, is only 6 miles from Stow. And Kiftsgate Court Gardens, famous for its roses, and the Arts and Crafts-inspired Hidcote Manor Gardens are both 14 miles away.
The area also has one of our favourite short walks, starting in Lower Oddington and following the footpath alongside Saint Nicholas Church and on along the bridleway to the rear entrance of Daylesford Organic Farm Shop, where you can stop for coffee and a browse before retracing your steps. Its only 20 minutes and is paved the whole way so is suitable for all the family.
Places to eat & drink in Stow-on-the-Wold
If you’re craving tea and cake, Stow-on-the-Wold is the place to be. The town has a host of traditional English tearooms, including Huffkins in a 17th-century building in the market square, known for its own-blend tea and lardy cakes. Our other favourites include the Old Bakery Tearoom for delicious scones and Coach House Coffee for tasty gluten- and dairy-free cakes.
Stow also has a wide selection of character-filled historic pubs where you can tuck into traditional pub food and local ales and warm up by a roaring fire in winter. The Porch House* is the oldest pub in Britain, with wooden beams carbon-dated to over 1000 years old. Look out for the 16th-century stone fireplace carved with ‘witch’s marks’ to ward off evil spirits.
Other great Stow pubs include The Bell on the edge of town and the Queen’s Head, run by the Donnington Brewery, both of which serve classic pub dishes and real ales as well as a good Sunday roast. More restaurant-style are The Sheep, which is located in a historic Cotswold building decorated in colourful contemporary style and does fantastic crispy wood-fired pizzas. And The Old Stocks Inn* which serves modern British cuisine using local, seasonal ingredients.
Stow also has plenty of food shops if you’re self-catering or fancy a picnic. The Cotswold Cheese Company has over 80 artisan cheeses from around the world as well as crackers and chutneys to go with them. D’Ambrosi Fine Foods offers chef-prepared meals to take away. And Cotswold Baguettes sells hot and cold filled baguettes and jacket potatoes.
Where to stay in Stow-on-the-Wold
The Porch House* has been welcoming guests to Stow for eleven centuries. It’s bursting with historic features like beamed ceilings, crooked staircases and flagstone floors. The 13 bedrooms range from compact cosy rooms to a two-floor suite with roll-top bath and antique furniture.
The Old Stocks Inn* is a former 17th-century coaching inn next to the village green and medieval stocks which give it its name. Three terrace houses have been combined and given a Scandinavian-style makeover with velvet sofas, colourful walls and roll-top baths. There are 16 bedrooms as well as a three-bedroom self-catering cottage a short walk away.
If you’re looking for a more traditionally English bed and breakfast experience, Lucy’s Tearoom* in the Market Square also has two cosy en-suite bedrooms in a converted barn – named Darjeeling and Earl Grey in homage to a good cuppa. A tasty home-cooked breakfast in the tearoom is included, where you can also pick up one of their delicious cakes.
Or for something a bit different, you can rent a penthouse apartment in a former Methodist church next to Stow’s clocktower. The Clock Tower Stow* is a light, airy and spacious apartment overlooking the village green which sleeps four in two en-suite bedrooms. The big open-plan kitchen/lounge comes wooden beams, exposed stonework and underfloor heating.
How to get to Stow-on-the-Wold
By car: The A424 connects Stow to Burford and on to the M/A40 to Oxford and London, or Junction 9 of the M5 near Tewkesbury is 30 minutes to the west. There’s free car parking in the Market Square, but it gets busy. There is also a pay and display car park on Maugersbury Road (GL54 1HH) and a larger Tesco car park a few minutes’ walk from town (GL54 1DN).
By public transport: The nearest train stations to Stow-on-the-Wold are Kingham and Moreton-in-Marsh, both of which are on a direct line from London Paddington. You can reach Stow by the 802 bus from Kingham or the 801 from Moreton-in-Marsh, both of which take 15 minutes. If you’re travelling at the weekend, Sunday bus services are limited so you may need to take a taxi.
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