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Oxford & The Cotswolds

Sprinkled with gorgeous little villages, this part of the country is as close to the old-world English idyll as you’ll get. It’s a haven of rolling green-cloaked hills, rose-clad cottages, graceful stone churches, and thatched roofs. Add to this alluring mix the legendary university city of Oxford, with its majestic architecture, historic air, and lively student scene, and it’s obvious why the region is a magnet for visitors. Although the roads and most popular villages are busy in summer, it’s easy to get off the tourist trail. The golden-hued Cotswolds work their finest magic when you find your very own romantic hideaway. Buckinghamshire, Bedforshire, and Hertfordshire conceal splendid country houses, while Windsor delights with regal character. In the far west, the Forest of Dean beckons with the outdoor-adventure appeal. Much of the area is an easy day trip from London, but Oxford and the Cotswolds deserve at least several leisurely days.

POINTS OF INTEREST

OXFORD

One of the world’s most famous university cities, Oxford is a beautiful, privileged place. It is steeped in history and studded with august buildings, yet maintains the feel of a young city, thanks to its large student population. The elegant honey-toned buildings of the university’s colleges, scattered throughout the city, wrap around tranquil courtyards along narrow cobbled lanes, and, inside their grounds, a studious calm reigns. The city’s famed spires twirl into the sky above. Oxford is a wonderful place to wander: the oldest colleges date back to the 13th century, and little has changed inside the hallowed walls since. But along with the rich history, tradition, and energetic academic life, there is a busy, lively world beyond the college walls, and the city’s non-university majority far outnumber the academic elite. Just as in Cambridge, the existence of ‘town’ beside ‘gown’ makes Oxford more than simply a bookish place of learning.

THE COTSWOLDS

Rolling gracefully across six counties, the Cotswolds are a delightful tangle of gloriously golden villages, thatch-roofed cottages, evocative churches, rickety almshouses, and ancient mansions of honey-colored stone. If you’ve ever lusted after exposed beams, cream teas or cuisine crammed full of local produce, look no further. The booming medieval wool trade brought wealth to the Cotswolds, leaving behind a proliferation of exquisite buildings. In 1966, the region was declared an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB). At 790 sq miles, it’s England’s second-largest protected area after the Lake District. Though it extends from north of Chipping Campden to south of Bath, the bulk of it lies in Gloucestershire. More than 83% is farmland but, even so, around 139,000 people live within the AONB itself. These gentle yet dramatic hills are perfect for walking, cycling, and horse riding, crisscrossed by a network of long-distance tracks, most notably the 102-mile Cotswold Way.

CIRENCESTER

Charming Cirencester (siren-sester) is the most significant town in the southern Cotswolds, just 15 miles south of Cheltenham. Refreshingly unpretentious, it’s nonetheless an elegant and affluent town. It’s difficult to believe that under the Romans (who called the town Corinium), Cirencester was second only to London in terms of size and importance (though little of this period remains). The medieval wool trade brought more success, with wealthy merchants funding the building of a superb church. Today, Cirencester’s lively Monday and Friday markets and warren-like antique shops remain as important as the upmarket boutiques and fashionable delis that line its narrow streets. Beautiful Victorian architecture flanks the busy Market Sq (the heart of the town) and the surrounding streets showcase a harmonious medley of buildings from various eras.

BIBURY

Once described by William Morris as England’s most beautiful village, Bibury is the Cotswolds at its most picturesque (and popular), with a cluster of perfect riverside cottages and a tangle of narrow streets flanked by attractive stone buildings. It’s 8 miles northeast of Cirencester.

CHIPPING CAMPDEN

An absolute gem in an area full of pretty towns, Chipping Campden is a glorious reminder of Cotswolds life in medieval times. The graceful curving main street is flanked by a perfectly picturesque array of stone cottages, fine terraced houses, ancient inns, and historic homes, most made of that beautiful honey-colored Cotswolds stone. There are particularly striking thatch-roofed cottages along Westington, at the southwestern end of town. Despite its obvious allure, Chipping Campden remains relatively unspoiled by visiting crowds. It is, however, popular with walkers rambling along the Cotswold Way, which tracks 102 miles northeast from Bath to Chipping Campden. While the village’s name derives from the Old English ‘ceapen’, meaning ‘market’, ‘Chippy’s’ visible prosperity derives from its past as a successful wool town.

BROADWAY

A quintessentially English village with a smattering of antique shops, tearooms, and art galleries, Broadway has inspired writers, artists, and composers in times past with its graceful, golden-hued cottages set at the foot of a steep escarpment. Unsurprisingly, it’s one of the more popular Cotswolds spots, just 5 miles west of Chipping Campden. If the village of Snowshill, 2.5 miles south, looks familiar, that’s because it featured in hit film Bridget Jones’s Diary. A local house was used as Bridget’s parents’ home.

WINCHCOMBE

Winchcombe, 8 miles northeast of Cheltenham, is very much a working, living town, where butchers, bakers, and independent shops line the main streets. It was the capital of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Mercia and one of the major towns in the Cotswolds until the Middle Ages, as well as an important tobacco producer. Today, the remnants of this illustrious past can still be seen in Winchcombe’s dramatic stone and half-timbered buildings. Keep an eye out for the picturesque cottages on Vineyard St and Dents Tce. Winchcombe is particularly popular and ideally situated for walkers.

PAINSWICK

One of the most beautiful and unspoiled towns in the Cotswolds, hilltop Painswick sits 10 miles southwest of Cheltenham, but it sees only a trickle of visitors. You can wander the narrow winding streets and admire the picture-perfect cottages, handsome stone townhouses, and medieval inns at your own leisure. Keep an eye out for Bisley St, the original main drag, which was superseded by the now ancient-looking New St in medieval times The bucolic little village of Slad, 2 miles south of Painswick in the Slad Valley, was once the much-loved home of writer Laurie Lee, who immortalized its beauty in Cider with Rosie.

WESTERN GLOUCESTERSHIRE

West of the Cotswolds, Gloucestershire’s greatest asset is the elegant Regency town of Cheltenham, home to tree-lined terraces, upmarket boutiques, and a tempting collection of hotels and restaurants. The county capital, Gloucester, is well worth a visit for its magnificent Perpendicular Gothic cathedral. Just southwest lies Berkeley, with its historic Norman castle. Further west, the Forest of Dean is a leafy backwater perfect for walking, cycling, kayaking, and other adventure activities.

CHELTENHAM

Cheltenham, on the western edge of the Cotswolds, is the region’s major town and retains an air of gracious refinement leftover from its heyday as a spa resort in the 18th century. At the time, it rivaled Bath as the place for sick rich people to go, and today it still has many graceful Regency buildings and manicured squares. These days, however, it’s best known for its racecourse and mid-March horse races. Cheltenham’s excellent hotel and restaurant offerings make it a much more appealing base to the region than the county town of Gloucester (12 miles west), but it’s unlikely to be the highlight of your trip. Central Cheltenham extends around the grand tree-lined Promenade, at the southern end of which lies the fashionable Montpellier area.

FOREST OF DEAN

The Forest of Dean is the oldest oak forest in England and a wonderfully scenic place for outdoor adventure activities. The 42-sq-mile woodland, designated England’s first National Forest Park in 1938, was formerly a royal hunting ground and a center of iron and coal mining. Its mysterious depths supposedly inspired the forests of JRR Tolkien’s Middle Earth books, and key scenes in Harry Potter & the Deathly Hallows were filmed here.

BUCKINGHAMSHIRE, BEDFORDSHIRE & HERTFORDSHIRE

Now on the edge of London’s commuter belt, these three green-clad counties once served as rural boltholes for the city’s rich and titled, especially when the stench and grime of the industrial age were at its peak. The sweeping valleys and forested hills are still scattered with majestic stately homes and splendid gardens, many of which are open to the public. The 324-sq-mile Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB; www.visitchilterns.co.uk) extends southwest from Hitchin (Hertfordshire), through Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire, to Oxfordshire.

ST ALBANS

Under the name Verulamium, St Albans was the third-biggest city in Roman Britain. Its current name derives from Alban, a Christian Roman soldier who was martyred here in about AD 250, becoming the first English martyr. These days, it’s a bustling and prosperous market town bordering London’s northwestern fringes, with a host of crooked Tudor buildings, elegant Georgian townhouses, and a fantastic multi-era cathedral.

THE THAMES VALLEY

This prosperous part of the world, spreading west from London, acts as a country getaway for some of England’s most influential figures. Within easy reach of the capital and yet entirely different in character, its pastoral landscape features handsome villages, historic houses, and some of the top attractions in the country. Windsor Castle draws crowds to Windsor and Eton in search of royal pomp, while Henley-on-Thames is famous for its July rowing regatta. Meanwhile, the little village of Bray stakes its claim as the country’s gastronomic capital with a string of Michelin-starred restaurants.

WINDSOR & ETON

Dominated by the massive bulk of Windsor Castle, the twin Thames-side towns of Windsor and Eton have a rather surreal atmosphere, with the morning pomp and ceremony of the changing of the guards in Windsor, and the sight of schoolboys dressed in formal tailcoats wandering the streets of tiny Eton. Windsor town center is full of expensive boutiques, grand cafes, and buzzing restaurants. Eton, immediately north across the river, is far quieter, its one-street center flanked by antique shops and art galleries. Both are easily accessible as a day trip from London.

HENLEY-ON-THAMES

The attractive commuter town of Henley, 15 miles northwest of Windsor, is synonymous with the world-famous Henley Royal Regatta rowing tournament. At other times of the year, it remains a pretty riverside town that’s a delight to stroll around, particularly along the Thames, and has a couple of minor attractions.