The Cotswolds covers an area of approximately 100 miles from Chipping Campden in the north to Bath in the south, and about 25 miles from Oxford in the east to Cheltenham in the west.
The region is covered in oolitic limestone, called Cotswold stone, which varies from honey colored in the north, to golden in the central areas, and cream or white in the south.
The stone is mined from local quarries (some still in operation) and used in building the distinctive cottages and churches, and walls, made without mortar or cement, that crisscross the area. Full of rolling hills and open spaces, The Cotswolds was designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) in 1966.
The Cotswolds has been on my radar for a few years and as soon as I decided to visit relatives in London, I started looking for tours to the area. I opted for a walking tour so that, like a delicious meal, I could move slowly and savor the experience.
Unfortunately, after one too many glasses of wine at my cousin’s birthday party the night before, my enthusiasm lost the battle to exhaustion. Although I woke up on time, I felt tired and instead of pushing myself, I relaxed.
Later, as my energy and reasoning returned, I started to regret not forcing myself to go. I knew I’d kick myself when I returned to New York so I pulled out my iPad and began another search.
I looked for tours of no more than 15 people that offered pickup from a railway station. Several fit the bill. I was about to book one I thought I’d like when I saw Secret Cottage‘s 6-hour guided tour of “hidden villages that are inaccessible to public transport.” I was sold.
In addition, according to Secret Cottage’s website, Becky, the owner, would invite us in for a peek at her cottage offer traditional English cream tea and pastries, as well as lunch.
I was excited (did a little Happy Dance), relieved and justified that I didn’t push myself to do the walking tour. The Secret Cottage tour would definitely be better – I knew it!
A few days later, I was on the 7:50 a.m. train from Paddington Station for the 90-minute ride to Moreton-in-Marsh (such a descriptive name, isn’t it?) in the Northern Cotswolds where Becky’s driver would pick me up at 10:15.
Two Mercedes SUVs pulled into the station’s parking lot at 10:15 sharp. Once the drivers sorted out who was waiting for the tour, we split into two groups of seven and got into the cars.
As Robin, our driver, eased out of the parking lot, he explained that the name Cotswolds comes from the Old English words, Cots (sheep, sheep pen) and Wold (hill). He also gave us a brief history of wool and its impact on the area.
A Wooly History of The Cotswolds
England, in the Middle Ages, was famous for its wool and the best fleece came from the Cotswolds, from the local Cotswold sheep. By the 15th century, wool was the country’s main industry.
England was so wrapped up in wool that the Lord Chancellor of the House of Lords sat on a woolsack, a chair made of wool.
During Charles II’s reign, the Burial in Wool Act of 1667 and 1678 directed that all bodies (except those who died from the Plague) had to be buried in wool; the coffins lined with the material. Anyone who violated the Act had to pay a fine. This Act stayed in effect until 1814!
The demand for wool created great wealth for The Cotswolds area merchants built lavish homes and fine churches. Many of these churches (called wool churches) were so large they dwarfed the villages in which they were located.
By the 1700-1800s, however, competition from wool production in other parts of the world caused a decline in the English wool industry and without a diversified economy, the country and The Cotswolds suffered. The decline had another effect: that of preserving much of The Cotswolds architecture that now makes it special.
Though wool is no longer its primary product, you can still see sheep grazing in the fields, as well as acres of barley, wheat, corn and rapeseed.
Chastleton Village, Chastleton House
As we drove from Moreton-in-Marsh to Chastleton Village, which has about 30 homes and 75 residents, Robin explained that villages have about 100 people, towns about 1,000, and a city has a cathedral.
Villages typically had a large house for the landowner, smaller cottages for the workers as well as a church, a shop and a school. The cottages traditionally had a room with a fireplace and kitchen on the main floor, living quarters on the upper floor that were accessible by a ladder.
Though it wasn’t open yet, we stopped to have a look at Chastleton House, which was built between 1607 and 1612 for Walter Jones. The house stayed in the family until 1991, when the National Trust acquired it. Seen from the main gate, it is quite impressive.
Robin led us round the back of Chastleton House, which was protected by a wall however, I was able to climb up and snap a photo. The best view was of the Topiary Garden.
A church, St. Mary’s, which dates to the 12th century, is located near the house.
Across the street, there’s a dovecot or dovecote, basically a large birdhouse for pigeons and doves where workers collect the droppings to use as fertilizer. The size of the dovecote is usually a pretty good indicator of the wealth of the owner.
One famous resident of Chastleton House was Robert Catesby, the leader of the famous Gunpowder Plot, the failed 1605 assassination plot against King James I.
In 1866, croquet rules were standardized at Chastleton House. It was also one of the locations for the 2015 BBC series, Wolf Hall.
Chastleton House is open Wednesday to Sunday, 12:30 – 3 from March to October, 12:30 – 4 from April to September.
In Part II, we’ll go on a tour of Upper Oddington, Adlestrop, Great Tew, and Upper and Lower Slaughter. Hope you stay tuned.
Linking up this week with Travel Photo Thursday hosted by Nancie at Budget Travelers Sandbox, Jan at Budget Travel Talk, Ruth at Tanama Tales, and Rachel at Rachel’s Ruminations. Be sure to head over and check out more travel photos from around the world.