Exploring an English Fairytale
While London is typically one of the first cities in Europe visited by US tourists, it’s a shame how few of those visitors make it out to the Cotswolds for a couple of nights.
We loved the Cotswolds so much that it is one of the few places we went back to for a second visit. Even though we visited during the winter, meaning our pictures aren’t the best, the grey skies and periodic drizzle didn’t dampen our experience at all. There are so many magical little towns to explore, each one feeling more precious than the last. There are numerous streets that feel like sets of a “Harry Potter” movie, the countryside and thatched huts are reminiscent of something from “The Hobbit”, and the abundance of flowers, vines, creeks and precious gardens will have you practically hearing the animals talking to each other as in the fairytales. A stroll through the Cotswolds prods the imagination as if you were a child. They also have excellent beer and were doing farm-to-table fare far before it became a foodie buzz word.
How to Get There
For our first trip, we took a train from central London out to Oxford. As you might imagine, there are plenty of frequent trains and they aren’t expensive. The reason I chose Oxford is because there is an AVIS rental car station right at the Oxford train station. This approach allowed us to get clear of London so I didn’t have to drive in the main area of the city (while on the wrong side of the car and the wrong side of the road). Oxford is only about 45 minutes of mostly countryside driving from the first few stops you’ll want to make as you arrive in the Cotswolds.
For our second trip, we rented a car straight from London Heathrow. It was a little tricky getting out of the airport area, especially with jetlag added to the already challenging driving conditions. However, after about 15 minutes and a few roundabouts we were again on the country roads and in good shape. LHR is only about an hour from the area.
I should note, the only Cotswold village with a train station is Moreton-in-Marsh. While there are frequent 30-minute trains to/from Oxford, the train station at Moreton-in-Marsh did not offer the rental car options/convenience found in Oxford. Further, despite Moreton-in-Marsh being listed on many Cotswold’s guides as a top destination to visit, it was our least favorite and we’d recommend skipping it for some of the other places noted below.
Throughout the pictures and descriptions, if you see:
Go!Go!Go! = Bucket list experience, don’t miss it!
Go!Go! = You’ll love it; Try your best not to miss it!
Go! = Worth doing.
While there are dozens of towns to explore, our favorites, in no particular order, are as follows:
Bibury and Arlington Row: Go!
Home of perhaps the quaintest street in all the Cotswolds, “Arlington Row”. There is also a fabulous lunch option here – The Catherine Wheel (GO!). While Bibury is a bit out of the way compared to the other villages, it’s worth the drive just for the Arlington Row Instagram pic alone!
One of the larger villages with lots of great boutique shopping and restaurants, Burton-on-the-Water is a must-stop if visiting the Cotswolds. The stream running right through the center of town just adds another layer to the cuteness. If open, be sure to stop for some Winstones (Go!Go!)homemade ice cream, just under the Green and Pleasant Tea Room sign. Burton-on-the-Water is also known for its locally crafted “HobGoblin” Ale (Go!). While not my favorite, it’s quite good and it’s just a perfect name for a beer to sip on while you sit and enjoy the storybook surroundings.
Although one of the more crowded towns in the Cotswolds, it’s a must see. From the architecture to the shopping to the restaurants to the hotels, “Stow” makes for an excellent lunch stop and an even better overnight stay and home base for your Cotswolds stay.
We always try our best to eat and drink the very best of what a region is known for making. When we decided to go to the English countryside, we knew we needed to find a great place for afternoon tea. Specifically, I wanted fresh, homemade, divine scones with clotted cream unlike anything you’d find stateside. On our first trip, we tried the popular Huffkins (Go!)chain, and it did not disappoint. However, on our second trip, we did a little more research and found “The Old Bakery and Tea Room” (Go!Go!Go!) in Stow. There are only 8-10 tables so get reservations if possible, or get there early, or wait. Do whatever you have to do, just go there, order their scones with fresh clotted cream and jam, and marvel a dish you’ll never find again anywhere else. It’s the quintessential afternoon tea experience.
We also had a great dinner at “The Bell at Stow” (Go!), which is located right next to a great public parking lot to target when visiting Stow. For drinks, we recommend the cozy bar at the Kings Arms (Go!) or the Queen’s Head Inn (Go!)
Finally, for any “Lord of the Ring” fans, or fans of historic churches, you will want to visit St. Edwards Church (Go!). On the north side of the church resides a door shouldered by two massive trees, said to be the inspiration behind the doors to Moria in the J.R.R Tolkien novel.
GoGoGo! The Old Bakery and Tea Room: If you visit Stow-on-the-Wold, you have to make reservations for the Old Bakery and Tea Room. While not as fancy and ornate as some of the other afternoon tea experiences we’ve had, it was by far the best tasting!
Despite not having as cute of a name as some of the other places we visited in the Cotswolds, Broadway was one of my overall favorites. It’s simply delightful to stroll through High Street, and Broadway has a great mix of hotels, restaurants, cafes, and shopping. Broadway feels like the perfect size town, and is both sophisticated and charming. The houses and storefronts along High Street are in pristine condition, and the landscaping is meticulous. Broadway will have you stopping every few seconds to take a picture.
During both our visits to Broadway, we stopped at The Swan (Go!) for a beer or two and an appetizer. Our first experience at the Swan was exceptional, and our second was still good but not quite as memorable. The Swan still gets a Go! rating, and probably upgrades to a Go!Go! if you’re in the mood for a local brew on draft or an amazing cheese plate. Broadway also has a couple of great afternoon tea places; including The Tea Set, Tisane’s Tea Room, and Hunters Restaurant & Tea Room.
Broadway is also nearby, you guessed it, the Broadway Tower (Go!). The Broadway Tower sits at one of the highest points in the Cotswolds, and as you’ll see if you look it up online, makes for some excellent photo opportunities. You can of course climb up for great views or just walk around the area and soak in the countryside.
Chipping Campden (Go!Go!Go!)
We chose Chipping Campden as a home base for our first trip to the Cotswolds, and we were glad we did. It was a perfect size for us – plenty of hotel and dining/drinking options, but not as commercial or crowded as some of the larger stops in the area. The former marketplace structure located on an island of sorts in the middle of High Street gives it a unique visual appeal, and the St James Church (Go!) on the edge of town is very atmospheric. Most importantly, Chipping Camden has easy access to the “Cotswolds Way” (Go!Go!Go!) hiking trail directly from the center of town! The GoGoGordons always plan a hike or two during each trip, and being able to walk out of our charming hotel, down the street, and see the sign for the Cotswolds Way hiking path was PERFECT! The Cotswolds Way is one of Europe’s most beautiful and scenic nature trails. The full trail goes for over 100 miles, from Chipping Campden all the way to Bath, but there are plenty of day hikes and half-day hikes. The trail stretches through rolling hills of lush greenery, dotted with sheep and overflowing with colorful flowers. You’ll walk right through the back yards of thatch roof cottages and around gardens that you will swear are right out of a children’s storybook.
While staying in Chipping Campden, we also had a great time enjoying a few local beers and visiting with a few local characters at the Noel Arms Hotel bar (Go!). We had dinner one night at the hotel where we stayed, the Cotswold House Hotel and Spa (Go!), but our favorite meal was at the Eight Bells Inn (Go!). The ambiance is exactly what you want when you’re visiting the Cotswolds, and the locally sourced food was delicious.
It was a cloudy, cold day, but we still LOVED our hike along the Cotswolds Way – which we picked up just a few blocks from our hotel in Chipping Campden. Cotswolds Way = Go!Go!Go!
We had a great meal in Chipping Campden at the Eight Bells (Go!). It’s a Michelin Guide restaurant, and has that low ceiling, wood beam, fireplace, cozy little living room feel that we were looking for while staying in the Cotswolds. Go!
The Cotswold House Hotel and Spa is a great choice for a stay in the Cotswolds. In addition to it being close to the Cotswolds Way hiking trail, it’s a short drive to all our favorite little villages. It’s a medium size stop…larger than Snowshill or Stanton, but smaller (and less commercial) than Burford or Cheltenham. My only complaint was that our room didn’t have a shower, only a large clawfoot tub (located in the center of the room) with handheld shower arm. They do of course have rooms with showers, so if that’s an issue for you just be careful when choosing your room. We did love the onsite restaurant (a Michelin guide restaurant), their garden and spa were lovely, and our room had a nice view over the town center. Go!
Don’t be fooled by its name. While Stanton doesn’t have the nursery rhyme name appeal like the other nearby villages, it may be my favorite. If I had unlimited funds and I was looking for a place to live in the Cotswolds, I’d look first at Stanton. Although tiny, and without a main street of shops or restaurants, it’s the kind of peaceful place where you’d go write a novel. The town would be perfect inspiration for a children’s book or fantasy tale. There is one “must do ” attraction in Stanton, and that’s the Mount Inn (Go!Go!). When I get around to doing a list of my favorite pubs in Europe, the Mount Inn will definitely be on it. It’s a wonderfully atmospheric pub and quality restaurant on top of a hill overlooking Stanton’s one main street, with a huge fireplace complete with anvil, low-hanging wood beams, a lovely terrace, and of course the finest local ales on cask. It’s magical. It’s my happy place. One last tip: Don’t drive and park at the Mount Inn. Instead, park off the main road when you get to Stanton and then slowly meander up the hill until you get there. Then, grab a beer, sit outside on a picnic table, and look back over the view.
Ellenborough Park – Go!Go!
For our second stay in the Cotswolds, we wanted to stay in one of the many wonderful manor hotels spread throughout the area. We chose the Ellenbourough Park Hotel (Go!Go!) for a number of reasons. First and foremost, just look at it! If you want a luxury manor experience, it doesn’t get much better. We also read that they had an excellent tea service in a fittingly ornate tea room, which was another experience we sought. The tea room did not disappoint. Finally, there was a highly rated pub nearby, a great restaurant on site, and the location was great for re-visiting our favorite villages: Stanton, Broadway, and Stow-on-the-Wold. If you want a peaceful, quiet, relaxing stay in a traditional, luxurious Cotswolds manor, while remaining a short drive from all the best the Cotswolds offers, you’ll love your stay at the Ellenborough Park.
Snowshill – Go!
Snowshill is another of the smaller Cotswold villages but also one of the most photographed. When I first starting doing research on the Cotswolds I kept coming across the picture of the Snowshill Arms and it just seemed like the exactly the kind of pub I’d love. And I did. We were told it is pronounced “schnosill” vs “snows-hill” – not that I care, but “schnosill” is fun to say, especially in a British accent. We didn’t stay long in Snowshill, but we were glad we stopped for the photo and a small Ale.
Burford – Go!
On our drive from London Heathrow to our hotel, we stopped for lunch in Burford. It’s an easy stop, right off the A40 Hwy, and Burford is a larger town with numerous shopping and dining options. It’s High Street has a mix of both the prevailing limestone Cotswold architecture as well as timbered houses that give it a more uniquely medieval vibe. If you like architecture, High Street in Burford is a perfect stop on your drive into the Cotswolds for a short walk and a nice lunch. We chose The Royal Oak (Go!) for our lunch stop, and we would highly recommend it. It’s about a block off of High Street, has a great pub atmosphere, and gets consistently excellent reviews on every review site. I loved my chicken pot pie, and Shea’s fish and chips were among the best we had on the trip. It may have been coincidence, or that I just happened to pick one I liked, but the cask Pale Ale I had there was also simply sensational – one of the more memorable drinks I had on the trip.
On another note, during our first visit, which was in November I think, the unfortunately named rapeseed plants were in full bloom. While we didn’t get much in the way of blue skies, the fields of yellow were beautiful.
Finally, while you really have to rent a car in order to “village-hop” around the Cotswolds (although I don’t know if Uber is there now), be prepared for driving fast on narrow roads on the wrong side of the road and on the wrong side of the car! It’s a bit harrowing, but it’s one of those travel adventures you’ll look back on with a smile (as long as you buy the insurance package with your rental car). One final tip: be careful what setting Google Maps or your GPS is on. If it’s on “shortest route” setting, it will likely take you down back roads and even through people’s homesteads on dirt trails.