It has almost become a cliché for Irish people to bemoan the fact that but for the bad weather that we constantly experience here, we would probably never set foot outside our own country — such is the beauty that can be found in our little piece of rain-sodden paradise. Whilst I am one of the people who partially subscribe to that theory, the fact is that there are simply some things that our neighbours across the water have always done better than us and which deserve both our acknowledgement and our appreciation and some of them are the fairy-tale villages that can be found in an area of the Midlands known as the Cotswolds.
If you’re looking for a quintessential piece of traditional England in all its rural finery then you should do yourself a favour and explore these stunning small country towns, villages and hamlets which all share one thing in common, their use of a local yellow limestone that gives them their impossibly beautiful architectural ‘look’. Whether we like to admit it or not, we share quite a lot in common with our English cousins and a recent visit to the Cotswolds revealed that we haven’t cornered the market in either hospitality or friendliness as everywhere we went we were treated with unfailing warmth, smiles and a curiosity as to why we had decided to visit their little piece of rural bliss. Whereas the typical British high street has been dumbed down over the past 30 or 40 years by the increasing homogenisation by national brands so that they all now look the same and sell the same stuff, the small towns and villages of the Cotswolds revel in their up-market, individualistic boutique shops that sell local handcrafts, stylish soft furnishings and a bewildering array of bric-a-brac and antiques.
Covering approximately 2,000 square kilometres, the Cotswolds cover large swathes of Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire and spans or borders four other counties in south-central England and ranges from just south of Bath right up to a few miles from the stunning market town of Stratford-Upon-Avon in the north — birthplace of a certain playwright known as William Shakespeare. It follows a line east of the M5 motorway and borders both Cheltenham and the more or less unofficial capital of the Cotswolds, Cirencester. It is the second largest protected landscape in the UK (second only to the Lake District. Despite covering an area of some 504,000 acres, the overall population of the Cotswolds is just 84,000. Any tour of the Cotswolds starts in the picturesque town of Chipping Camden, notable for being the home of the Arts & Crafts movement, founded by William Morris at the turn of the 19th century.
A proper tour of the Cotswolds needs two days if you want to take in all the major points of interest including places like Stow-on-the-Wold, Lower Slaughter, Bibury, Ashton-under-Hill, Naunton and Tetbury. Villages like Bibury are especially worth a detour as they have featured in so many period dramas over the years and you can literally imagine what life must have been like during the 18th century, so well have they been preserved. Stow-on-Wold is another pretty market town that boasts some good restaurants and shopping and is also home to a very fine antique dealers called Baggott Antiques. The almost identical twin hamlets of Upper and Lower Slaughter must be included in any itinerary of the area — not least for the fine Manor House located there which is the perfect retreat for an overnight if the budget isn’t too miserly.
Hard to believe that this magical region of perfectly maintained houses, manors and churches still retains most of the charm of a bygone age and is a fine testimony to the locals who clearly appreciate their important heritage and the National Trust who help them preserve it all with integrity. This is surely living history at its best.