* The name comes from a 12th century Anglo-Saxon chieftain named Cod. He owned a vast expanse of ‘wold’ or upland country. Hence this was Cod’s wold and eventually became Cotswolds
* The popular TV series Downton Abbey, a historical period drama set in the early 20th century, was largely filmed in Swinbrook, a village in Cotswolds
* The teeming town square of Stow-on-the-Wold, hemmed in with honey-coloured buildings, tiny tea rooms and bookshops, belies the bloody chapter of history etched in the annals of this town. In the early spring of 1646, this market square would provide the setting for the last battle of the English Civil War in which King Charles I’s army was defeated by Parliamentarians
* We drove north-east for about half an hour and looped back into Oxfordshire for our final destination — Great Tew, arguably the most beautiful village of England
My first brush with Cotswolds was thanks to a lost bus driver. On a moody pre-Covid-19 May morning, on the way from Victoria Coach station to Stratford-upon-Avon, our bus had to take a detour due to a road blockade on the highway. And the driver, incredible as it may sound, lost his way. Between frantic phone calls to the London bus office asking for directions and a number of switchbacks over what seemed like the same route, the bus sauntered by villages with names popping straight out of books by Agatha Christie. Or Enid Blyton. The bus hesitatingly passed by them. And I got fleeting glimpses of the village streets, gently curving into the quaint interiors of the hamlets, flanked on either side by an uninterrupted sweep of stone-built homes, evidently dating back to a few centuries.
I arrived exactly one hour later than planned in Stratford-upon-Avon, and had to give Mary Arden’s farmhouse a miss. In between hopping on and off the tourist coach taking us through the market town made famous by England’s greatest writer, I was making some changes in plans. Which saw me on a late afternoon train from Stratford to Oxford. The university town would be my base to explore Cotswolds the next day.
“The name comes from a 12th century Anglo-Saxon chieftain named Cod. He owned a vast expanse of ‘wold’ or upland country in this region. Hence this was Cod’s wold and eventually became Cotswolds,” said Ian, the guide. He led us in the small group tour into the interiors of Cotswolds that is spread across five English counties (Wiltshire, Gloucestershire, Oxfordshire, Warwickshire and Worcestershire). We started early in the morning from Oxford and drove through a couple of villages in Oxfordshire before reaching Northern Cotswolds in Gloucestershire — the most picturesque part of Cotswolds.
The first stop was Minster Lovell, an unremittingly pretty village. We walked by honey-coloured buildings overlooking gardens brimming with summer blooms. A couple of vintage cars passed by, with cheery faces on the wheels. It was a Sunday and an unusually clear summer morning. At the northern edge of the tiny village, it was a short uphill climb surrounded by woodland, a river gurgling its way through it. “This is river Windrush, and it has journeyed through history,” Ian announced dramatically and pointed to the crumbled ruins of an ancient manor house, standing quietly beside the gushing waters of the river.
As we went through the entrance and marvelled at the impressive remnant of the original vaulted ceiling and an ancient dovecote, Ian delved into the chequered past of the manor house of Lovell family (from which the village derives its name). It is a chilling history of the times of the Wars of the Roses in the 15th century. The Lord of the manor got embroiled into it and lost his life in a secret vault — probably a hiding place where he may have starved to death — inside this house. His skeleton was found nearly three centuries later. “And that makes this lovely hamlet one of the most haunted villages in England, with ghostly wails in the night around the manor house,” Ian enlightened us as our group took a hasty step back to the car.
Our next destination was Swinbrook, a short drive of 10 minutes from Minster Lovell. An idyllic village, a pretty church, a cricket pitch with a wooden pavilion and an ochre-hued stone pub beside an arched bridge across River Windrush that trickled by. The popular TV series Downton Abbey, a historical period drama set in the early 20th century, was largely filmed in Swinbrook.
Burford, dubbed the ‘gateway of Cotswolds’ is barely 10 minutes from Swinbrook, but could be a world away from it. The long high street set upon a hillside and flanked with antique shops and funky cafés characterises the medieval market town that was the hub of the booming wool trade for more than half a millennium. The 12th-century town church is the oldest building in Burford and in the moody, dimly lit interiors, the graffiti and carvings made by prisoners (it was a temporary prison in the mid-17th century) still survive. When we stepped into the sunlit churchyard, Ian showed us the age-worn tombstones with a curious rolled design. “These were bale tombs of the wool merchants of the era, unique to this part of the world,” he said.
The medieval town of Stow-on-the-Wold was our next stop. The teeming town square, hemmed in with honey-coloured buildings, tiny tea rooms and bookshops, belies the bloody chapter of history etched in the annals of this town. In the early spring of 1646, this market square would provide the setting for the last battle of the English Civil War in which King Charles I’s army was defeated by Parliamentarians. We wandered through the narrow streets, took a quick tour of the town church — an architectural wonder with a tree-framed doorway and stained-glass windows — before planting ourselves on the wooden stools of Porch House. With its rippled flagstone floors, low-beamed, skewed ceilings and yellowing frames on the walls, the traditional British pub whips up oodles of quirky character. And I almost choked over my tankard of ale when Ian, sitting on the next stool, quietly informed me that an inn on this site has been operative since AD 947, which makes the Porch House the oldest pub in England.
Out of Stow-on-the-Wold and once more we were on the windy country roads, rolling green meadows stretching out on both sides. Shortly, we arrived at Lower Slaughter. A small stream slices its way through the heart of this picture-perfect village. We walked its quiet left bank, marvelling at the 16th- and 17th-century limestone homes with mullioned windows and gabled roofs. At the end of the village, the redbrick water mill dates from the 19th century, now housing a museum, a gift shop and a café. But nothing in this charming Gloucestershire hamlet seemed remotely grisly, and I was expecting a gruesome tale of horror from the sound of its name! Ian explained that the name of the village actually comes off the archaic word “slough” that meant a swamp!
We drove north-east for about half an hour and looped back into Oxfordshire for our final destination — Great Tew, arguably the most beautiful village of England. We disembarked from the car and immediately knew why. Perched on a ridge, the village overlooks a beautiful wooded valley with clusters of dark red ironstone cottages fronted by rose gardens. The easy grace of the horses ambling and tottering on the swathes of green completed the picture. “This is not quite on the tourist radar because the narrow, winding streets are off limits to the large tour buses,” Ian said. The delightful driveway and the natural park were designed in 1808 by eminent botanist John Louden and have remained unchanged till date.
The mellow afternoon sun glanced off the green Cotswolds ridges, as we headed back towards Oxford. I had to catch a 6.35 pm train from there to London, but had just enough time to find a quaint tea room and indulge in traditional Cotswolds afternoon tea, served with scones and clotted cream.
Sugato Mukherjee is a Kolkata-based writer and photographer