The Cotswolds consists of a number of small towns, each uniquely charming and Hobbit-like cute. We had visited the area many decades ago during our first foray into England. This time we’re actually traveling to South Wales, but the Cotswolds are in the way. Darn! Guess we’ll have to stop at the fringes (where we haven’t visited) and look around. That’s the nice part about traveling as we do: planning is optional, adventure happens!
First, some perspective. During the Middle Ages, thanks to a breed of sheep known as the Cotswold Lion, the Cotswolds became prosperous from the wool trade with Europe. A saying from the 1100’s – “In Europe, the best wool is English. In England, the best wool is Cotswold.” Wool money built fine houses and towns from locally quarried, golden-colored Cotswold limestone. Then the cotton gin was invented, the wool industry collapsed, and the Cotswolds’ economy tanked. There was no money to upgrade the houses, locking them into wonderful time-passed charm in pristine English countryside.
We’ll start with Stow-on-the-Wold, population about 2,000. The name means “meeting place on the uplands”. Stow is situated on a high (800 foot) hill, the highest point in the Cotswolds. It was the site of an Iron Age fort and later a Roman garrison town. Seven major roads cross here, one of them being the famous Roman Fosse Way that went pretty much the length of England (see post “The City of Lincoln“). The current town was founded by Norman lords wanting to take advantage of trade on the converging roads. In 1107 it hosted an international fair for its wool, but the town struggled financially; trade with those passing through was unpredictable. To remedy this problem, in 1330 King Edward II set up an annual 7-day market in Stow’s town square (shown below), which
Edward IV replaced with two 5-day fairs in 1476. Stow became established as a major place to trade, and as the huge annual fairs grew in fame and importance, the town grew more prosperous. At one 19th century fair 20,000 sheep changed hands. As the wool trade declined, people began to trade in horses, a practice that continues today. Here’s a ditty about Stow (and its exposed spot on the hilltop):
“Stowe-on-the-Wold, Where the wind blows cold. Where horses young and old are sold, Where farmers come to spend their gold. Where men are fools and women are bold and many a wicked tale is told. High on the freezing Cotswold.”
The large market square shown earlier attests to this town’s former importance. That cross in the square, shown above and below, is more than 500 years old; it’s a market cross, used throughout England to designate the monarch-bestowed right to hold a regular fair – and to remind the Christian merchants to “trade fairly under the sight of God”. At
the other end of the market square is an original town stock where public ridicule was used as punishment. The surrounding shops and inns are all built of local Cotswold stone. Although this market square goes back many centuries, it’s still the focus of town life. We love that physical connection with the distant past, so typical of Europe.
Like so much of the Cotswolds, the town buildings have a lot of character. We’re staying at this lovely hotel that’s loaded with old English charm. It faces the town square and was built in the 1700’s for a local family, but for most of the 1800’s it was the rectory of the nearby St. Edward’s church. We’re here at Christmas time, which adds to the charm of the place, but in the pictures of the buildings below you should imagine how beautiful they would be with the vines and greenery in bloom.
Nearby is St. Edward’s church, shown below, built in Norman times (the 1000’s). It exhibits a mixture of architectural styles due to additions and renovations lasting into the 1400’s – the tower was added in 1447. I love that entrance to the church in the lower
right picture, closely guarded by those venerable yew trees! Don’t you expect Hobbits to come skipping out? Many think this door was the inspiration for Tolkien’s door into Moria (the west entrance to the great dwarf city). The door to St. Edwards church is shown again, below, along with illustrations for the movie.
The windows in this church are impressive. Most of them date from the 1300’s and 1400’s, but there are also some from the 1800’s. Alas, I don’t know which is what –
the pictures above look too good for medieval, but it’s possible. The last window is clearly from the 1800’s. On a more recent historical note, the funeral of the Who’s bass player, John Entwistle, took place at this church in 2002.
We decided to stay longer in Stow, but had to move to new lodgings (that’s the occasional downside to traveling without plans). We chose the Porch House, which dates back to the middle 900’s! It’s very interesting and quirky – eg, the door to our room opened to steps going down(!). Don’t come home tipsy! The sink was in the bedroom (it wouldn’t fit in the bathroom). Old wood beams were everywhere. Pictures shown below.
Don’t you love the way the English name their towns? How about San-Francisco-on-the-Bay? Detroit-on-the-Ropes? Ohhhh, I’m bad.
Bourton-on-the-Water is called “the Venice of the Cotswolds” due to its petite canals and low bridges. It often has more visitors than residents during peak tourist season, but luckily Christmas is not that season. The buildings of the city are not the oldest in the Cotswolds, mostly dating from just the 1600’s. We’ll start with a tea room break – one of England’s wonderful customs, tea and crumpets with clotted cream. It is sooooooo good!
So let’s see some of this “Venice clone”. As you can see below, it’s far from being Venice! Still, it’s an attractive place.
The town itself has quite a few typical Cotswolds-gorgeous houses.
Broadway, population 2,500, takes its name from its wide grass-fringed main street. It’s unusually wide (for England!) because two small streams used to run on each side of the original dirt road, and people built their houses behind the streams (now the streams run underground in pipes). The road is lined with red chestnut trees and honey-colored Cotswold limestone buildings and is referred to as the “Jewel of the Cotswolds”. We don’t take such hype seriously – remember “Venice of the Cotswolds”? In this case, however, the hype might be right. We think the city is gorgeous, primarily due to the incredible old vines that cling to the cute houses. This is Christmas time, with little blooming; we can only imagine how beautiful this city would be in spring!
First a little history before showing off the pretty houses. Broadway was a thriving village in the 1000’s. It prospered in the wool trade and by the 1600’s had became a busy stagecoach stop. However, the introduction of the railroad eliminated stagecoach travel and Broadway became a backwater – but also a haven of peace and tranquillity that was attractive to artists and writers during the Arts and Crafts movement in the late 1800’s. Broadway became home to quite a number of luminaries, among them Edward Elgar, John Singer Sargent, Vaughan Williams, J. M. Barrie (creator of Peter Pan) and William Morris (leader in the Arts & Crafts movement). Today Broadway is still a center for arts and antiques.
So off to the pretty houses! Like Bourton-on-the-Water, a lot of them are from the 1600’s, including the historic Lygon Arms Hotel shown below. In 1651 Oliver Cromwell spent the
night here, the next day defeating the invading King Charles I of Scotland (post Stirling Castle) at the Battle of Worcester. King Charles had used the building earlier to rally his royalist supporters. The hotel is spectacular, inside and out.
The houses below are adorned with serious vines that add considerable charm.
There are lots of houses with charm of their own.
Some close-ups. Isn’t it a cute town?
This is England, so of course there are hedges everywhere in every shape.
Finally, we visited St. Michael & All Angels church. Built in 1840, it’s relatively new. We decided to visit it because the original 12th century Broadway parish church that we really
wanted to see (St. Eadburgha) is a 35 minute walk away (before Broadway became a major stagecoach stop, the center of Broadway stood in a different place). The church does have some nice stained glass windows.
Henry James stayed in this town, and remarked “Broadway and much of the land about are in short the perfection of the old English rural tradition”. So I’ll end with a picture of a Broadway street going into the surrounding countryside, and a quick picture of that countryside.
The Cotswolds are indeed a pretty place, dotted with quaint towns surrounded by green rolling hills that are populated with happy munching sheep. Hope you enjoyed seeing the few towns that we visited.
Next post: South Wales, and St. David’s Cathedral
I ‘ve always wanted to visit the Cotswolds so thanks for the wonderful virtual tour
You’re welcome! It really is a charming place.