Imagine you’re watching a movie. The opening credits roll and the camera pans over a vast landscape of green, as far as the eye can see. Rolling hills dotted with sheep turn into car width narrow lanes that turn into cobblestone cottages adorned in vines. The camera then pans through a small crooked window in need of repair to a princess-to-be ingénue sitting on her bed contemplating life.
You can picture it, can’t you? It’s the start of every great fairytale.
Well, that scene might as well have been filmed in the Cotswolds. Marked as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (which is a title that holds about the same value as a national park), the word Cotswold literally means “sheep enclosures in rolling hillsides”. Tucked away only a few hours from busy London, this area remains to be one of the prettiest spots in England. In fact, I’ve read from at least a dozen other bloggers that it is a fairytale location come true.
And they’re not wrong.
Whether you’re planning a road trip across the UK, or are just looking to get away for the weekend, the Cotswolds are definitely a place worth visiting. A fairly large area spanning almost 800 square miles, the Cotswolds consist of many tiny individualistic villages peppered on the rolling hills, almost as if dropped there by accident.
Okay, let’s dive in!
WHERE TO GO?
Because there are so many villages within the Cotswolds, it can be difficult to choose where to go. With only three days and an awesome campervan, I built us a skeleton itinerary; a few places we could see should we have the time. Because we are based in Plymouth, we chose to head all the way north and work our way back down. Here’s how it went.
To help you out, I’ve tried to categorize each place by size, a better indicator of the level of activity you will find there. The bigger villages are as you would expect, with tons of shops, restaurants and crowds all within walking distance of each other. The medium villages will also have boutiques and cafes, but set up in a quieter, cosier way. The small villages however, will often feel quite remote; a few houses, a church, maybe a local pub. All are beautiful, but these somewhat generalized descriptions give you an idea of what to expect to help tailor your road trip to your preferences.
STOW ON THE WOLD
Our first Cotswolds destination was Stow on the Wold. A medieval village previously used as a wool trading town, this charming spot is medium sized comparatively. Family owned shops line the streets, selling everything from souvenirs to the staple fudge and cheese shops (I swear, there was one of these in every place we stopped and it took everything I had not to buy the whole store each time!). We spent about an hour walking around, nipping into boutiques and taking pictures.
If you can, take a minute to explore the church grounds near the start of the village. Rumour has it that Tolkien visited this place and used some of their grandiose doorways as inspiration for his soon to be series, Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit.
We also stopped for an early lunch at Lucy’s Tearoom for my first cream tea; a cuppa of earl grey and a freshly baked scone to match (make sure to put the clotted cream on before the jam – it’s so much better!).
PARKING: If you have a bigger car like we did, I would recommend parking outside of the village. There was city parking next to the giant Tesco just about ten minutes from the town centre.
Next, we headed to the Slaughters, a tiny village about ten minutes away from Stow on the Wold. Not nearly as terrifying as the name suggests, the area is divided into two sections; Upper Slaughter and Lower Slaughter. Though you can easily access one from the other (they are divided by a road about a mile long that is walkable in about 25 minutes), I much preferred Lower Slaughter to its neighbour.
Now size wise, these two spots are TINY.
I’m talking a church, a pub/hotel and a lazy river running along side some stunning houses. Don’t expect to stay here very long. 30-45 minutes should do the trick, and that’s only if you’re like me, stopping every ten seconds for a picture. However, it was one of my favourite spots.
You can’t help but feel a sense of calm, awe and absolute wonder staring at these beautiful homes that most definitely just came out of a story book (think Kate Winslet’s cottage in The Holiday, which actually was filmed in the Cotswolds – ha!).
PARKING: Okay, so we had a hard time parking here. The only parking available in the Slaughters is tiny narrow road parallel parking, which is really not ideal for van life. We ended up driving a bit further to Bourton-on-the-Water (our next destination) and walking up. It took about 40 minutes and was a beautiful walk, but I would not recommend it on a sunny 30°C day – we were TIRED). Your best bet would be to try and get to the Slaughters as early as you can, it seemed to fill up around 10am.
Having already parked there, we headed back to Bourton-on-the-Water to actually explore the town. This was the biggest village we saw on our trip (excluding Cirencester). Nicknamed “the Venice of England” because of its winding canal through the centre of town, this place was packed. Kids splashed in the water while their parents sat on the canal bank, eating ice cream. Couples wandered through the streets hand in hand, buying custom one of a kind items.
When we first arrived around 1pm, we could not believe how busy it was. Uncomfortably so. However, by the time we walked back from the Slaughters around 4pm, most of the families had gone home, allowing us to appreciate the town for what it is meant to be, without the crowds. It was probably my least favourite spot, but not because it wasn’t beautiful. It was just impossible to appreciate it while dodging other tourists, all aimlessly wandering about trying to figure out where to go.
We did see the miniature village, a (I dare say) tourist trap where (for £4.50 per adult) you can wonder through a mini version of the village, where all the buildings are geographically in the right place. I was tickled by the even more miniature village in the miniature village that itself had a miniature village. Bourton-on-the-Water’s very own Inception!
CAMP SITES: That night, we slept at a camp site just a 6 minute drive from the city centre called Field Barn Park Campsite. Though the long driveway to the site is a bit rough, it was a great place with huge, isolated lots and very clean showers! We highly recommend!
TIME PENDING: Though we decided not to squeeze it in, Burford is apparently another great village to visit in this general area.
Day two started much earlier with a quick 20 minute drive to Bibury. Because it’s such a small town with limited parking, we wanted to arrive early, something I would definitely recommend. By 8:30am, we pulled up to the most idyllic road I’ve ever seen. Only the cheesiest images can describe this place, that’s how beautiful it was.
Shining sun? Check. Chirping birds? Check. A small but pristine creek complete with ducklings and snow white swans? Check. But to feel all this, you have to beat the crowds. The town itself has a pub, a café and a trout farm that is open to visitors. That’s it. Super tiny but super peaceful. However, the big draw to Bibury is definitely Arlington Row, a line of cottages built in 1380 as a large wool store. If I didn’t have an appreciation for European architecture before this trip, I sure did after!
Only about 15 minutes from Bibury, Cirencester is more of a city and often referred to as the “capital of the Cotswolds”. Having been the original London of England, the Romans built this city with a central area that then stretches out in every direction through many small roads (imagine a spider with legs that go all the way around). With a much more commercial feel, you could easily spend the entire morning going from road to road checking out what’s on offer. Because we were meeting a friend for coffee, we didn’t explore as much as we could have, though we did see the Cirencester Abbey which is absolutely beautiful and worth a visit.
Around 2:30pm, we hopped in the van once more and drove about 50 minutes to Castle Combe, another small village that is mostly residential. With its old market cross at the centre of town (basically a raised gazebo from the 14th century where the three main streets meet) and the sprawling estate of the Manor House, Castle Combe is commonly known as the “prettiest village of the Cotswolds”. We spent about 30-40 minutes taking in the picturesque cottages before grabbing an ice cream and hitting the road!
PARKING: It’s pretty much only street parking in Castle Combe but there is a city parking lot in Upper Castle Combe that is only about a ten minute walk down (though the walk is on a slightly steep hill).
WANT TO SEE MORE?
If you have more than two days and want to take advantage of the area, I would super highly recommend stopping in Bath. We spent our third day there and it quickly became my favourite city. Not of the Cotswolds. Not of the UK. But of the whole world (that I’ve seen so far). It’s basically the Cotswolds on steroids.
All those white and beige stones that look so quaint amongst the vines and narrow streets get magnified in Bath, creating an out of this world city of pure beauty. If you can, spend a few days and take your time! We only spent one day and I am already planning my next trip back.
BOOK LOVERS: If you are like me and love novels, bookshops and everything in between, you HAVE to check out Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights. It is the cutest little bookshop with the best charm and the kindest staff. Seriously, I was just about ready to fill out an application!