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England’s Cotswold Villages: The Epitome of Quaint (6:02)

England

We explore the Cotswolds, a region of gentle hills and villages, stopping in Chipping Campden, Stanton, churches, and market halls — reminiscent of the time when the Cotswolds were wealthy from the wool trade, before cotton caught on.

Complete Video Script

The Cotswold Hills are dotted with enchanting villages and bucolic farmland. And it’s all laced together by wonderful trails. This is the quintessential English countryside — and it’s walking country.

The Cotswolds are best appreciated on foot, and that’s how we’ll tour the area. The region’s made to order for tenderfeet. You’ll encounter time-passed villages, delightful vistas, and poetic moments. You’ll discover hidden stone bridges, cut across fancy front yards, and enjoy close encounters with lots of sheep.

The English love their walks, and defend their age-old right to free passage. And they organize to assure that landowners respect this law, too. Any paths found blocked are unceremoniously unblocked. While landlords have plenty of fences, they provide plenty of gates as well.

You’ll encounter all sorts of gates on these hikes. This one’s called a “kissing gate” — it works better with two.

Lower Slaughter is a classic example of a Cotswold village, with a babbling brook, charming gardens, and a working water mill. Just above the mill, a delightful café overlooks the millpond.

As with many fairy-tale regions in Europe, the present-day beauty of the Cotswolds was the result of an economic disaster. Wool was a huge industry in medieval England, and Cotswold sheep grew the very best. According to a 12th-century saying, “In Europe the best wool is English. And, in England, the best wool is Cotswold.”

It’s a story of boom and bust, and then boom again. Because of its wool, the region prospered. Wealthy wool merchants built fine homes of the honey-colored local limestone. Thankful to God for the riches their sheep brought, they built oversized churches nicknamed “wool cathedrals.” But with the rise of cotton and the Industrial Revolution, the region’s wool industry collapsed. The fine Cotswold towns fell into a depressed time warp, becoming sleeping beauties.

Because of that, the region has a rustic charm. And that’s the basis of today’s new prosperity. Its residents are catering to lots of tourists, and the Cotswolds have become a popular escape for Londoners — people who can afford thatched mansions like these.

In England, “Main Street” is called “the high street” — and in Cotswold market towns [the] high street was built wide — designed to handle thousands of sheep on market days.

The handsome market town of Chipping Campden has a High Street that’s changed little over the centuries. Everything you see was made of the same finely worked Cotswold stone — the only stone allowed today. Roofs still use the traditional stone shingles. To make the weight easier to bear, smaller and lighter slabs are higher up.

A 17th-century market hall — with its original stonework from top to bottom intact — marks the town center. Hikers admire the surviving medieval workmanship. You can imagine centuries of wheelings and dealings that took place under these very rafters.

Continuing our walk, we come to the quaint village of Stanton. Travel writers tend to overuse the word “quaint.” I save it for here in the Cotswolds. A strict building code keeps towns looking what many locals call “overly quaint.”

Village churches welcome walkers to pop in and enjoy a thoughtful break. This church probably sits upon an ancient pagan site. How do we know? It’s dedicated to St. Michael. And Michael — the archangel who fought the devil — still guards the door.

Inside, you get a sense that this church has comforted this community in good times and bad. Pre-Christian symbols decorate the columns — perhaps leftover from those pagan days. And the list of rectors goes way back — without a break — to the year 1269.

This church was built with wool money. In fact, they say generations of sheepdog leashes actually wore these grooves. I guess a shepherd took his dog everywhere — even to church.

While not quite in a noble mansion, we’re sleeping plenty comfortably just down the road [at the Stow Lodge Hotel] in the village of Stow-on-the-Wold. Stow mixes medieval charm with a workaday reality. A selection of traditional pubs, cute shops, and inviting cafés ring its busy square.

For centuries the square hosted a huge wool market. The historic Market Cross stood tall, reminding all Christian merchants to “trade fairly under the sight of God.” And stocks like these were handy when a scoundrel deserved a little public ridicule. People came from as far away as Italy to buy the prized Cotswold wool fleeces.

You can imagine, with 20,000 sheep sold on a single day, it was a thriving scene. The sheep would be paraded into the market down narrow “fleece alleys” like this — they were built really narrow ’cause it forced the sheep to go single file, so they could count them as they entered the market.

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