Monday, April 22, 2019

England | Visiting the Cotswolds | Best Walks + Towns + Places to Eat


Next up on our England vacation was the Cotswolds.  We left Bath after a picnic breakfast at the little park on the banks of the River Avon on Saturday morning.  This was our first experience driving a car on the left side of the street, and by "our" I really mean Jimmy.  Getting out of Bath was interesting.  I kept holding my breath.  If you've never made a right hand turn from the left side of the road, sitting on the right side of the car, well, take my word for it, it's like a bad thrill ride, you want to close your eyes but you can't.  We kept saying to each other, I can't believe they just let you rent a car without teaching you what the signs mean or making you do a practice run.  The one good thing is you are forced to learn very quickly and truly, after a day or so of driving, you have the hang of it.  Jimmy is a very calm person and he enjoys driving so best find yourself one just like him as a travel companion because this is a part of the trip where you need a car.
Bath is less than 30 minutes from Castle Comb, which is one of the first Cotswold towns you come to when approaching from the south.  It would have been such an easy drive to get there, but we opted to drive about 50 minutes in the other direction to see Stonehenge. This was the one part of my routing that didn't make a lot of sense but I did it because Stonehenge was one of the things Charlie was most excited to see.  It is such an iconic English landmark and something everyone should see once if you are in the area. It was a gorgeous day so we opted to hike to the stones rather than pay to take the bus.  You park at the visitor center and there is a public footpath that leads you through a meadow up to the rocks.  I believe we were told it's about 1 km each way, but it was definitely farther than that.  I would say about a 20 minute walk there and back.  It's an easy walk though and on a beautiful day I would choose it over the bus without question.  Plus it saves you money!  You don't get quite as close to the rocks as the paying people, but you get close enough. You are no longer allowed to approach or touch the rocks no matter which group you are in.  It's a National Trust site, which means a cafe back at the visitor center and all the National Trust site cafes are excellent.  We stopped to pick up some sandwiches and snacks before heading back on the road. 

We drove the Castle Combe, another 50 minutes or so, and it was the PERFECT welcome to the Cotswolds.  We got there late afternoon, just as the light transformed all the honey stone buildings into what looked like a movie set.  It was all so incredibly beautiful it made my heart hurt.  I knew the next few days would be the highlight of our trip.  I vacationed in the Cotswolds with my whole extended family when I was just a bit younger than Charlie. I still have such happy memories of that trip, but only little hazy bits and pieces.  Apparently, my heart had not forgotten though. 

I didn't want to leave, but the pubs were booked for dinner.  A little traveling tip we learned quite quickly, you need to either make reservations for dinner or call ahead for all the pubs.  I can only imagine in the summer - advanced planning would be key.  Usually calling the same day was plenty notice for this time of year, dropping in and hoping for a table never worked.  We drove another 30 miles or so to Hampnett, the town where we stayed.  It was dark when we arrived so it took a little creativity and the assistance of a friendly neighbor to help us locate our little cottage.  Hampnett is a little hamlet of about 10 homes and a church, less than a mile from Northleach.  I wanted a place that truly felt like we were locals and to experience what life would be like in the country.  We were surrounded by a little brook, several public footpaths and meadows full of sheep.   We had dinner that evening at a pub in nearby Northleach called the Wheatsheaf Inn (click here to see photos) some of the best food we had on our trip, Jimmy and I returned a couple days later for a date night.

The next few days were spent exploring the towns around the Cotswolds.  We had picture perfect, cloudless days, with magical sunsets and mild temperatures.  It was a gift that I never expected and likely will never be able to repeat.  The fact we spent 2 weeks in England and never saw one drop of rain during the rainiest month of the year was a miracle in itself! The Cotswolds were my favorite stop in England.  It's everything that I love, the picturesque countryside, quaint old towns, idyllic cottages, and wonderful places to eat.  Our days fell into a steady rhythm of early morning hikes starting from our cottage, a late brunch, followed by an afternoon hike, a little town hopping, tea and late pub dinners.  For me, 3 days wasn't long enough, but for most, I think 3 days is the ideal amount of time to experience this part of the country in an unhurried way when combining it as part of a longer UK trip.  Our kids loved it, but were ready for more adventure when our time was through.  My favorite part of the Cotswolds are the public footpaths that connect the whole countryside.  There are many different routes, marked by signs on fences, but be warned, they aren't that easy to navigate (you will get lost) but they are worth it!  A few tips below...

The Cotswold Way (link here) has a number of circular routes and online maps and directions you can print out. 

I stopped in a bookstore in Stow on the Wold and picked up a great book: Walks for All Ages, 20 Circular Walks in the Cotswolds (here is a link) - most walks are 3-4 miles and not all are suitable for strollers.  It will specify if walks are paved or not.

Stow on the Wold is a great starting point for a number of hikes. There is another book called "Stow Walks" that I also bought but isn't available online, that details country walks around Stow.

Bibury (eat at The Swan Hotel Bibury or next door in Barnsley at the Village Pub) - there aren't shops in Bibury, just a pretty town to walk around and see the famous Arlington Row, a row of former weavers cottages dating back to the 14th century and one of the most photographed sites in the Cotswolds.  There is a large trout farm with a playground and place to eat outside.

Upper and Lower Slaughter: Park in Upper and walk a mile on the footpaths to Lower Slaughter for tea, we ate outside in the beautiful garden at the Slaughter's Country Inn.  

Chipping Campden - The most beautiful market street.  I loved Stuart House Antiques (a china and blue and white lover's heaven) and we had breakfast at the Bantam Tea Room.  Wonderful little shops and a gorgeous church.  

Cirencester, Chipping Campden, Stow-on-the-Wold, Burford

Wheatsheaf Inn in Northleach (order the chicken as an entree, order the cheese soufflé as a starter)
Daylesford Farm (set aside time to experience this place.  It's an organic farm, market, restaurant, flower shop and spa) beautifully done and such an inspiring destination.  
Tea Rooms - All of them were so good!  The best scones and clotted cream of our trip were found in the Cotswolds. Also the best cheese, milk and ice cream too!

If you are trying to prioritize where to spend your time, then I would skip Broadway and Bourton on the Water.  If you only saw these, then you would love them, but seeing them alongside the others, they weren't our favorite.  A walk to Broadway Tower is worth it though for the pretty views, especially if it's on one of the hikes you choose. We didn't get a chance to do that but we saw the tower when driving by and I wished we had time for it. 

If you asked Jimmy what the highlight of this trip was, he surely would put driving in the Cotswolds near the top of the list.  Driving in the country is about as amazing a driving experience as you could get.  It's breathtaking and for miles at a time we wouldn't see a single other car.  He had a permanent smile on his face.

The cottage we rented in Hampnett was my favorite rental of the trip.  You can see all the interior pictures here.  It's perfect for a couple or a small family of 3 or 4. 

Next we head north to York!

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