The Cotswolds Villages & Gardens Tour

The Cotswolds Villages & Gardens Tour

The market town of Stratford Upon Avon with its historic timber-framed buildings and theatres will forever be associated with England's greatest writer, William Shakespeare. Combine a visit to this charming town with a rewarding and scenic journey through the famous Cotswold region with its bucolic landscapes and attractive honey-coloured stone villages. Take a tour away from the busier roads to the quiet endearing back lanes to unspoilt hamlets and alluring villages.

Coming from the North or South the exit off the M40 motorway is Junction 15 in Warwickshire where road signs direct you the short distance to the town of Stratford Upon Avon itself. Birthplace of William Shakespeare in 1564, many of the buildings he would have known in his lifetime still stand today including the house where he was born, his wife's childhood home, the school and church.

Upon arrival at Stratford you will find the large Leisure Centre parking area coming up on the left, you can head in there straight away or drive around the town first. If you choose the latter then continue past the parking area towards the statue of William Shakespeare known as the Gower Memorial, at Shakespeare's feet stand four characters from his plays, Prince Hal, representing history, Lady Macbeth representing tragedy, Hamlet representing philosophy and Falstaff representing comedy. As you turn right at the statue the road coming in on the left crosses the River Avon on Clopton Bridge, built in 1499 and already over 60 years old when Shakespeare was born.

After crossing the canal bridge take the first turning left along Waterside past the theatres. This road is sometimes closed for craft fairs and street markets, but if its accessible then it will take you past the Royal Shakespeare Theatre to the church where Shakespeare was both baptised and buried. Holy Trinity Church dates back to 1216 and is open for visits to Shakespeare's grave alongside those of his immediate family.

If you loop around and drive down Chapel Street and on to the High Street you will pass a delightful collection of timber framed buildings including almshouses, the Garrick Inn pub, Harvard House and the Grammar School where Shakespeare was almost certainly educated. Drive back down Bridge Street to the parking area at the Leisure Centre which is the closest parking for camper vans to the town centre and to the Birthplace House and Museum in Henley Street. Alternatively this tour around the town can easily be done on foot.

There are two short drives out of Stratford to Wilmcote to see Shakespeare's mother's farm, Mary Arden's House or the beautiful thatched building in Shottery, Anne Hathaway's cottage, the childhood home of the Bard's wife. Follow the brown tourist signs from Stratford town centre to visit these.

When leaving Stratford head southward and cross the ancient Clopton Bridge, head on the A3400 for a short distance then branch off on the B4632 towards Long Marston and Mickleton to journey to the beautiful Cotswold Hills. In fact the name Cotswolds means the hills with sheep enclosures, Wold meaning high wooded ground and Cot meaning a walled area for keeping sheep. The high stoney ground was unsuitable for growing crops but the nutrients provided by the limestone in the grass made for excellent pasture and in turn gave the area a great reputation for grazing sheep and the high quality wool. The prosperity of the wool trade here can be seen through the grand merchants houses with elegant "Wool" churches that sit alongside weavers cottages and market halls.

Just on the border of the clay soils of Warwickshire and before the climb up into the Cotswold Hills is the village of Mickleton where it seems every conceivable design of English cottage presents itself. Look out for timber framed houses, thatched roofs, Georgian-style brick townhouses with sash windows straight out of a Jane Austen novel, and just making their first appearance, the honey coloured limestone cottages that will be commonplace once the Cotswolds have been reached.

To do this, leave Mickleton and take the B4081 to Chipping Campden, climbing up to a delightful linear market town with its long main street featuring the 15th century Wool church of St James at one end and the old market hall, built in 1627, at the other. Try and grab a parking space at either side of the street if one becomes available as the main parking area by the old Town Hall is often full.

The open market hall at Chipping Campden was used for the buying and selling of woollens, cheese, milk and eggs. Livestock, mainly sheep, would have been sold out in the main street. The name of the town reveals the role it played as a trading place, the word Chipping derives from Ceapen, an old word for market. Before you leave, look up to the roof of the market hall from within, you can see how the Cotswold stone is hooked on to wooden slats by an oak peg. The traditional way of roof making in this region.

You are now driving through the county of Gloucestershire and a short drive from Chipping Campden is Broad Campden, a beautiful smaller sister village which enjoys a much quieter atmosphere away from tourists and shoppers, pretty gardens full of flowers, clipped hedgerows and thatched roofs are a feature of this place, then just after the village take a right turn up to Blockley, used in the filming of the TV series "Father Brown" before arriving at the A44, turning right towards Broadway.

Arriving at the crest of Fish Hill you begin a sharp descent off the Cotswold limestone plateau dropping almost a thousand feet down into charming Broadway. The parking area is at the southernmost edge of the village, not far from the recently reopened railway station that now takes vacationers and rail fans on steam train journeys to Cheltenham and back. From here one can take a walk up to Broadway Tower after strolling around the village. It is possible to drive up to the Tower and adjacent country park but the walk is very rewarding, if a little strenuous as it is all uphill. You will be reaching the highest point in the Cotswolds with tremendous views across to the Malvern Hills and, on a clear day, over to the mountains of Wales.

Broadway Tower was designed by the eminent architect James Wyatt in 1798 for the Sixth Earl of Coventry and towards the end of the 19th century it was often used by the Arts and Crafts revivalists and members of the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, William Morris, Edward Burne-Jones and Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

From Broadway head along Snowshill Road to the pretty hillside village of Snowshill which many will recognise from the Bridget Jones films. You can circle around the village here and then continue to the B4077 taking a left turn to the town of Stow-on-the-Wold.

Stow-on-the-Wold, as the name suggests, is on the wold, the top of the hill, and is the highest town in the region. The large market square has houses tightly packed in to fend off the cold north winds. Parking on the large square is possible but if not then a drive down Digbeth Street to the edge of town where the main car park might have to be the alternative.

Being a larger town there is an excellent choice of pubs and tea rooms. The old village stocks are still there but no longer used to fasten in the feet of troublemakers as a punishment. The church of St Edward's has one of the most photographed doors in England. The North door (not the main door from the south) has two ancient Yew trees growing either side and an old lantern above the wooden door itself. Very Tolkien-esque, some say the writer even came here and was inspired by what he saw, using something similar to it in The Lord of the Rings.

Take the B4068 from Stow to Lower Swell, a small village that takes its name from the source of the River Windrush, immediately as one is about to leave the village turn left, then head to the delightful twin villages of Upper and Lower Slaughter. It is possible to do a short walk between the two places along a footpath known as the Warden's Way or you can use the road and drive. The name Slaughter derives from "slough" meaning a marsh, although in an ironic way Upper Slaughter is one of a handful of communities in England that can claim to be a Thankful Village having lost none of its young men in either of the World Wars!

Both villages lie on the little River Eye and are as attractive as each other, although visitors seem to favour Lower Slaughter as it has a beautiful old mill with a gift shop. A short drive from here will bring you to Bourton-on-the-Water which really does get quite busy at times. To really appreciate this town its worth coming early or late in the day. It has plenty of tourist shops, a model village, motor museum, aviary, perfumery, maze and a collection of food outlets from pizza to fish and chips. Its main attraction is the River Windrush which is channelled straight through the town as a mill race for the old mill (now the motor museum). It is criss-crossed by a collection of stone bridges, the earliest built in 1654, the most recent for the Coronation in 1953, and it gives Bourton its nickname as the Venice of the Cotswolds. It is really better to appreciate this after the crowds have gone!

Head out of Bourton-on-the-Water the way you came in but instead of returning to the Slaughters turn left on the A429 towards Northleach. You are now on a two thousand year old Roman Road built, possibly, as a first border by the Romans between land they had conquered and land they had yet to conquer. Fosse is from the Latin for ditch so this was possibly once a ditched fortified military road and boundary. The Romans occupied what is now England from 43AD to the year 410 and heavily populated the Cotswolds, even introducing the sheep to the area.

Driving past Northleach after a few more minutes the road dips sharply down into the valley of the River Coln at Fossebridge. Take a left turn, signposted Bibury, just before you go down the hill. If you miss that turn take the one at the foot of the hill, it goes the same way. You will now be driving along the Coln Valley following one of the most beautiful backroads in the Cotswolds. From picture postcard villages to rolling wooded landscapes the little single track lane takes you via Coln St Dennis, Coln Rogers, Winson and Ablington along the banks of the infant river Coln, past dry-stone walls and galloping horses to Bibury. There are a few twists and turns but the road is wide enough for a camper van, just keep an eye out for the little wooden road signs to point the way to each village.

Bibury is a very popular stopping point and you will be very lucky to find a parking spot here during popular times. If you do get the chance to park up for a while then take a short stroll around Rack Isle, a water meadow on the River Coln. At the far end is Arlington Row, often featured on the front cover of Cotswold guidebooks and calendars. It's a former 14th century barn converted in the 17th century to weavers cottages, a charming and ramshackle collection of buildings, the row of cottages prove quite a draw to photographers, both amateur and professional.

From Bibury take the B4425 towards Barnsley and Cirencester, rejoining the A429 Fosse Way again just before you enter Cirencester itself. Make sure you divert through the centre of the town and viewing the magnificent Wool church of St John. This is far better than taking the charmless and bland ring road with industrial estates and drive-through fast food outlets. Cirencester is the largest Cotswold town and has a requirement to cater for a variety of needs whatever they may be.

Having said that, it was also the second largest Roman town in England, known as Corinium Dobunnorum with a population of up to 15,000 inhabitants. Its amphitheatre will be passed on your left as you exit the town. Built in the second century, don't expect to see something like the Colliseum in Rome, just some earthworks, but at one time it did hold up to 8,000 people.

Leaving the A429 and turning left onto the A433 to Tetbury you will pass a boggy wet field on your right which is the source of the River Thames, at 215 miles the longest river in England. Tetbury has a large Market House dating from 1655 which stands right by the main route through the town. Sightings of Prince Charles doing a bit of shopping is not unusual in Tetbury because just a few miles further on is Highgrove House, purchased by the Duchy of Cornwall in 1980 and now home to Charles and Camilla. The high walls and security fencing can be seen on the right as you head onwards to the A46 and ultimately down to the city of Bath.

The last section of the A46 on the way into Bath has spectacular views of the southern Cotswolds and the city itself nestles in the landscape rather unobtrusively. It was once an important Roman resort known as Aqua Sulis, providing the only hot springs in the country. At a constant temperature of 46C/118F it attracted both Romans and also the wealthy playboys of 18th century England who came to take the waters to ease rheumatic pains and stiffness of the joints. It was these latter visitors that built the elegant squares, crescents, circuses and terraces in the Classical style out of the local limestone, giving Bath a sense of delightful uniformity and elegant beauty that other places don't seem to uphold as prominently.