The secret to the perfect countryside escape in the Cotswolds


With its honey-stone villages and manor houses, its rolling landscape of sheep-nibbled hills and its handsome churches, the Cotswolds is heart-tuggingly beautiful. Who wouldn’t want to visit for a short break – or a long one, for that matter? The 800 or so square miles that make up the region are criss-crossed with footpaths and bisected by dry stone walls, about 4,000 miles of them, adding architectural embellishment to the natural artistry here. There’s a wealth to explore, from Roman remains at Chedworth to contemporary craft in Cirencester – and a cornucopia of great country houses to visit as well.

But you couldn’t possibly take in the entire region over a couple of days. So home in on an appealing part. To the north are the delights of exquisite Chipping Campden and the glorious gardens of Hidcote and Kiftsgate. To the east is historic Burford, lined with fabulous old coaching inns. To the west is Laurie Lee’s Slad Valley and pretty, creative little Painswick. Further to the south east is Tetbury, royally connected and oddly off-radar to major tourism for its charms. And wherever you go you’ll find immensely pleasing, if often pricey, places to stay, from boutique and country house hotels to characterful pubs and elegant b&bs.

For further inspiration for the perfect break in the Cotswolds, see our guide to the region’s best hotelsrestaurantspubs, afternoon teasshopping and things to do.

The perfect weekend break in the Cotswolds

Serene countryside, palaces and family days out

Perfect pastoral England is wrapped up in the gentle hills of the Cotswolds. Sure, there are vibrant festivals and towns exuding verve, but most visitors come for the quiet and the profoundly pretty outlook. Especially in the north of the region. It offers some of the most acclaimed accommodation and contains many of the must-see sights (several within very easy distance of each other), making it a superb weekend retreat. 

Base yourself in serene countryside down rural back roads ‒ our two top suggestions are tucked away yet fairly quickly accessible and also convey an appealing sense of being in a different time dimension. For luxury, dreamy views and antiques, check into the pleasingly rambling Lords of Manor at Upper Slaughter four miles southwest of Stow-on-the-Wold; it’s a classic country house hotel with impeccable service, exquisite food and a fabulous garden. Or opt to stay for less outlay ‒ and bags of atmosphere ‒ in a time-honoured inn on an idyllic village green; the Kings Head at Bledington, just over four miles southeast of Stow-on-the-Wold, has armfuls of pub awards and offers excellent brasserie fare and 12 stylish rooms (smallish in the historic part of the property, more generous in a newer wing).

Blenheim Palace is a great family day out

Credit: Andreas von Einsiedel/Andreas von Einsiedel

Both venues are well-placed for taking in that most magnificent of British sights, Blenheim Palace ‒ complete with wondrous grounds devised by Capability Brown. Make sure you explore further north, too: head to handsome Chipping Campden, beautiful Broadway and two of the region’s finest gardens, at Hidcote Manor and Kiftsgate Court – they are just a mile apart, the former more formal, the latter family-run and something of a hidden treasure. Striking alternatives include flamboyant Sezincote House and Gardens, an exotic combination of Cotswold country mansion and Indian Moghul palace, Jacobean Chastleton House and Batsford Arboretum, developed by Algernon Bertram Freeman-Mitford, grandfather to the famous Mitford sisters.

The perfect one-week holiday in the Cotswolds

Picturesque villages, poetic walks and royal gardens

Expand your trip and move southwards; adding a few more days to your break means that you’ll have scope to enjoy two of the region’s most famously picturesque villages: Burford, with a glorious high street lined by ancient coaching inns, and Bibury with a bewitchingly quaint row of weavers’ cottages (William Morris was so delighted by them when he visited in the latter 19th century that he declared Bibury the most beautiful village in England). However, you’ll want to time your visit to avoid the throngs that invariably descend at both places. So stay nearby and come to explore after hours; by 5pm the crowds will have departed. That will leave you much of the day to go walking in the area – along the Windrush and Coln valleys – and to explore some of the many attractions of nearby Cirencester, from astonishingly fine Roman mosaics at the Corinium Museum to contemporary crafts made at New Brewery Arts.

Laurie Lee country is a pastoral landscape of rounded hills and patchwork fields

Credit: Copyright – Stephen Dorey/Stephen Dorey

For tucked-away charm and reasonable rates, base yourself at the New Inn at Coln St Aldwyns, nine miles southwest of Burford and about three miles southeast of Bibury. Dating from the 16th century, this rustic-stylish pub has a traditional bar, a restaurant featuring gourmet burgers and small plates and 14 good-looking bedrooms. Or book into a gem of a manor house hotel offering the last word in comfort and elegance: Barnsley House in Barnsley three miles west of Bibury, is an arcadian, adults-only retreat with a fabulous, and famous, garden. 

Round off your week’s break in the Cotswolds with a stay further south, in the Tetbury vicinity. Wander this handsome market town, browsing antique stores and taking in picture-pretty Chipping Steps lane and Tetbury’s splendid 17th-century market house set on pillars. Just out of town, visit Highgrove Gardens, created by King Charles (booking in advance is essential) and explore Westonbirt Arboretum, home to about 15,000 trees including rare acers. Perhaps best of all, take in Laurie Lee country; the wonderful Slad Valley is celebrated in the author’s best-known book ‘Cider with Rosie’ and there’s a five-mile walking trail here, dotted with posts inscribed with some of his poetry. 

Highgrove, Prince Charles’s estate, has some of the most glorious gardens in the Cotswolds

Among the choice of accommodation is beautifully devised Calcot & Spa, about four miles west of Tetbury. Set in 220-acre grounds, this haven of a hotel has outstanding facilities for families as well as serene space for those on an adults’ trip. Or for a less costly yet appealingly dapper option, book into The Close townhouse hotel in Tetbury, with 20 mellow bedrooms, good brasserie food and a gorgeous walled garden.

Where to stay

Best for families

Slaughters Country Inn has generous outdoor space and an impressive choice of family-friendly rooms; Ellenborough Park offers 17 family bedrooms and suites and a wonderfully imaginative range of facilities; with its ample grounds, interconnecting rooms and suites with sofabeds, Minster Mill is a haven for those with children.

Find more of the best family-friendly hotels in the Cotswolds in our guide.

Best for romantics

Thyme is an epicurean retreat in a world of its own – complete with beautiful rooms and a serene spa; at the Lyon Arms in Broadway book a bedroom in the fabulously historic main building; Buckland Manor offers utter peace, along with old stone fireplaces, mullion windows and a sublime setting.

Find more of the best romantic hotels in the Cotswolds in our guide.

The Close combines a great sense of style with good value

Best for foodies

The seven-course tasting menu at Whatley Manor’s intimate Dining Room is a Michelin-starred delight; at Dormy House hotel opt for informal sophistication at The Back Garden restaurant or head to the chef’s table at gourmet MO; The Painswick has a treat of a restaurant offering deft flavour combinations – think tangy rhubarb with lightly cured mackerel. 

What to bring home

Godsell’s artisan cheese made by a farming family in the village of Leonard Stanley – the Holy Smoked single Gloucester is especially good.

Soaps by College Green (available at Stroud Farmers’ Market) – aromatic and handmade in the Stroud valley using natural ingredients, from rosemary and mint to lemongrass, ginger and oat.

When to go

Every season has intrinsic appeal. Crowd-free winters are ideal for bracing walks, fire-side pub sessions – and lower hotel prices. Come in spring to see lambs and wild daffodils. Visit in summer (inevitably with many others) for magical light, particularly in the long evenings. Or make an autumn excursion for a quieter atmosphere and wonderful leaf colour, especially at the two great arboreta, Westonbirt and Batsford.

Consider your travel times to avoid hitting queues and crowds in the Cotswolds

Credit: ©2018 Andrea Pistolesi/Andrea Pistolesi

Know before you go

Essential information

Don’t ask about Jeremy Clarkson, Rebekah Brooks, Kate Moss, Alex James, Jilly Cooper and others from a long list of the great, the good and the notorious who call the Cotswolds home (or second home). Locals are largely uncharmed by celeb culture.

Enjoy the affluence of the Cotswolds – the well-kept towns and villages, the carefully conserved countryside. But be aware that the cost of living is especially high: it is a challenge to find comfortable hotel accommodation at less than £90 a night for a double room.

Author bio

Harriet O’Brien’s work has taken her from Amsterdam to Amritsar, Belgium to Burma and of course numerous destinations in Britain. She lives in the Cotswolds – which she says ‘ranks in my top five most beautiful places in the world’.

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