The Cotswold Villages: Inventors of Quaint
By Rick Steves
The Cotswold Hills, a 25-by-90-mile chunk of Gloucestershire, are a sightseeing treat: crisscrossed with hedgerows, raisined with storybook villages, and sprinkled with sheep.
As with many fairy-tale regions of Europe, the present-day beauty of the Cotswolds was the result of an economic disaster. Wool was a huge industry in medieval England, and the Cotswold sheep grew the best wool. Wool money built fiine towns and houses. Local "wool" churches are called "cathedrals" for their scale and wealth. A typical prayer etched into their stained glass reads, "I thank my God and ever shall, it is the sheep hath paid for all."
With the rise of cotton and the Industrial Revolution, the woolen industry collapsed. Ba-a-a-ad news. The wealthy Cotswold towns fell into a depressed time warp; the homes of impoverished nobility became gracefully dilapidated. Today visitors enjoy a harmonious blend of man and nature — the most pristine of English countrysides decorated with time-passed villages, rich wool churches, tell-me-a-story stone fences, and kissing gates you wouldn't want to experience alone. Appreciated by throngs of 21st-century romantics, the Cotswolds are enjoying new prosperity.
The area is provincial. Chatty locals, while ever so polite, commonly rescue themselves from a gossipy tangent by saying, "It's all very...ummm...yyya." Rich people open their gardens to support their favorite charities, while the less couth enjoy "badger baiting" (a gambling cousin of cockfighting where a badger, with its teeth and claws taken out, is mangled by dogs).
The north Cotswolds are best. Two of the region's coziest towns, Chipping Campden and Stow-on-the-Wold, are eight and four miles respectively from Moreton-in-Marsh, the only Cotswold town with a train station. Any of these — Chipping Campden, Stow, or Moreton — would make a fine home base for your exploration of the thatch-happiest of Cotswold villages and walks.
Chipping Campden is a working market town, home of some proudly thatched roofs and the richest Cotswold wool merchants. Both the great British historian Trevelyan and I call Chipping Campden's High Street the finest in England.
Walk the full length of High Street (like most market towns, wide enough for plenty of sheep business on market days). On one end, you'll find impressively thatched homes (out Sheep Street, past the public WC and ugly gas station, and right on Westington Street). Walking north on High Street, you'll pass the Market Hall (1627), the wavy roof of the first great wool mansion, a fine and free memorial garden, and, finally, the town's famous 15th-century Perpendicular Gothic "wool" church.
Stow-on-the-Wold has become a crowded tourist town, but most visitors are day-trippers, so even summer nights are lazy and quiet. The town has no real sights other than itself, some good pubs, cutesy shops, and art galleries draped seductively around a big town square. The tourist office sells a handy walking tour brochure called Town Trail and the free Cotswold Events guide. A visit to Stow is not complete until you've locked your partner in the stocks on the green.
Moreton-in-Marsh, an easy home base for those without a car, is a Stow or Chipping Campden without the touristy sugar. Rather than gift and antique stores, you'll find streets lined with real shops: ironmongers selling cottage nameplates and carpet shops strewn with the remarkable patterns that decorate B&B floors. A shin-kickin' traditional market of 260 stalls fills High Street each Tuesday, as it has for the last 400 years. There Cotswolds has an economy aside from tourism, and you'll feel it in Moreton.
Stanway, Stanton, and Snowshill, between Stow and Chipping Campden, are my nominations for the cutest Cotswold villages. Like marshmallows in hot chocolate, they nestle side by side-awaiting your arrival.
Stanway, while not much of a village, is notable for its manor house. The Earl of Wemyss, whose family tree charts relatives back to 1202, opens his melancholy home and grounds to visitors on a limited basis. He recently restored "the tallest fountain in Britain" on the grounds — 300 feet tall, gravity-powered, and quite impressive.
The 14th-century Tithe Barn predates the manor and was originally where monks — in the days before money — would accept one-tenth of whatever the peasants produced. Peek inside: This is a great hall for village hoedowns. While the Tithe Barn is no longer used to greet motley peasants with their feudal "rents," the earl still collects rents from his vast landholdings and hosts community fêtes in his barn.
Stepping into the obviously very lived-in palace, you're free to wander around pretty much as you like, but keep in mind that a family does live here. The earl is often roaming about as well. The place feels like a time warp. Ask the ticket taker (inside) to demonstrate the spinning rent-collection table. In the great hall, marvel at the one-piece oak shuffleboard table and the 1780 Chippendale exercise chair (half an hour of bouncing on this was considered good for the liver).
The manor dogs have their own cutely painted "family tree," but the Earl of Wemyss admits that his current dog, C.J., is "all character and no breeding." The place has a story to tell. And so do the docents stationed in each room — modern-day peasants who, even without family trees, probably have relatives going back just as far in this village. Really. Talk to these people. Probe. Learn what you can about this side of England.
From Stanway to Stanton: These towns are separated by a row of oak trees and grazing land, with parallel waves echoing the furrows plowed by medieval farmers. Centuries ago, farmers were allotted long strips of land called "furlongs." The idea was to dole out good and bad land equitably. (One square furlong equals an acre.) Over centuries of plowing these, furrows were formed. Let someone else drive, so you can hang out the window under a canopy of oaks as you pass stone walls and sheep. Leaving Stanway on the road to Stanton, the first building you'll see (on the left, just outside Stanway) is a thatched cricket pavilion overlooking the village cricket green. Dating only from 1930, it's raised up (as medieval buildings were) on rodent-resistant staddle stones. Stanton's just ahead; follow the signs.
Stanton's pristine Cotswold charm cheers visitors up its main street. The Church of St. Michael betrays a pagan past. It's safe to assume any church dedicated to St. Michael (the archangel who fought the devil) sits upon a sacred pagan site. Stanton is actually at the intersection of two ley lines (geographic lines along which many prehistoric sights are found). You'll see St. Michael's well-worn figure (with a sundial) above the door as you enter. Inside, above the capitals in the nave, find the pagan symbols for the sun and the moon. While the church probably dates back to the ninth century, today's building is mostly 15th century, with 13th-century transepts. On the north transept, medieval frescoes show faintly through the 17th-century whitewash. (Once upon a time, medieval frescoes were considered too "papist.") Imagine the church interior colorfully decorated throughout. Original medieval glass is behind the altar. The list of rectors (left side wall) goes back to 1269. Finger the grooves in the back pews, worn away by sheepdog leashes. A man's sheepdog accompanied him everywhere.
Snowshill, (SNOWS-hill) another nearly edible little bundle of cuteness, has a photogenic triangular square with a fine pub at its base. The Snowshill Manor is a dark and mysterious old palace filled with the lifetime collection of Charles Paget Wade. It's one big, musty celebration of craftsmanship, from finely carved spinning wheels to frightening samurai armor to tiny elaborate figurines carved by prisoners from the bones of meat served at dinner. Taking seriously his family motto, "Let Nothing Perish," Wade dedicated his life and fortune to preserving things finely crafted. The house (whose management made me promise not to promote it as an eccentric collector's pile of curiosities) really shows off Mr. Wade's ability to recognize and acquire fine examples of craftsmanship. It's all very...mmm...yyya. The manor overlooks the town square, but, ridiculously, it has no direct access from the town square — it aims to stoke business for the overpriced manor shop 300 yards away
The Cotswolds are walking country. The English love their walks and vigorously defend their age-old right to free passage. Once a year the Rambling Society organizes a "Mass Trespass," when each of the country's 50,000 miles of public footpaths is walked. By assuring each path is used at least once a year, they stop landlords from putting up fences. Any paths found blocked are unceremoniously unblocked.
After a well-planned visit, you'll remember everything about the Cotswolds as quaint: the walks, churches, pubs, B&Bs, thatched roofs, gates, tourist offices, and even the sheep.