There’s something quite special about jumping in the car, driving less than two hours from London, and being transported to a different world complete with meadows full of wildflowers, minimal phone signal, fairytale cottages, and a peaceful pace of life. So we programmed our SatNav for Sheep Street (yes, seriously!) and set off on our magical mystery tour to find the prettiest villages in the Cotswolds.
I’ve listed the villages in the order that we visited them so you can use this as an itinerary if you fancy going on your own adventure! It takes no time to travel between villages, with some of them only 5 minutes apart. We were only on the road for 2 hours between Burford and Castle Combe, taking in all of these gems along the way – so it’s perfectly doable over 1 or 2 days. The last village on this list is probably my favourite!
What are the prettiest villages in the Cotswolds?
Known as the gateway to the Cotswolds, this medieval town on the River Windrush has a beautiful high street lined with 17th and 18th century buildings. It’s a good place to go antique hunting and is home to the annual Burford festival.
The festival takes place in early June and has something for everyone – outdoor theatre, workshops, talks by authors, concerts, Sound of Music singalongs, and historical tours (including a pub tour – hello!). As part of the celebrations, residents opened their stunning private gardens, including Lord and Lady Heseltine whose estate contains over 3,500 different species of plants and trees, a sculpture garden and a cascading rill. I’m a bit sad to have missed the talk on photographic techniques by Clive Nichols, an incredible garden photographer who has snapped Prince Charles’ garden in Scotland and Lord Rothschild’s garden in Corfu. Hopefully he’s there next year and I have the perfect excuse to go back!We didn’t really make the most of the festival as we were on a mission to see as many villages as possible. So, after doing a couple of laps, we stumbled upon an adorable courtyard restaurant, The Little Italian Bistro, and couldn’t resist a bite to eat before jumping back in the car.
If you fancy checking out the birthplace of Daylesford Organic then head North after Burford. They’ve got delightful cottages, floristry and gardening workshops, a cookery school and, of course, an organic farm shop.
2. Stow on the Wold
Stow on the Wold is a market town situated on top of an 800ft hill, where an Iron Age fort used to be. The first weekly market was set up in 1107 by Henry I and you can still visit on the 2nd Thursday of each month. If you’re particularly keen to see a market, most towns have one more frequently – check out the schedule here.
Visit St. Edwards Church while you’re here! Built on the site of an earlier Saxon church thought to have been made out of wood, most of St Edwards Church dates back to the 11th century with some later additions up to the 15th century. The doorway is incredible and is thought to have inspired Tolkein’s design of the Doors to Durin, an entrance to Moria in The Lord of The Rings. Tolkein was known to visit the Cotswolds… What do you think?
If you happen to be in this area in late June/early July, then you’re perfectly timed to see the stunning flower fields at The Real Flower Petal Confetti Company’s farm! It’s only 40 minutes from Stow-on-the-Wold.
3. Lower Slaughter
This quaint village built on both banks of the River Eye has been inhabited for over 1000 years. Relax by the river, have afternoon tea at The Slaughters Manor House hotel, and get your fill of flowers. The name Slaughter sounds a bit ominous but comes from the old English word Slohtre, meaning muddy place (not any more!).
Step back in time at the Old Mill Museum.
4. Upper Slaughter
One mile away from Lower Slaughter and equally beautiful, Upper Slaughter is also built on the banks of the River Eye. It is known a ’Doubly Sainted Village’ meaning it didn’t lose anyone during the First or Second World Wars. Although it was subjected to an air raid, Upper Slaughter managed to emerge as one of 14 out of about 16,000 villages in England and Wales that lost no men.
5. Bourton on the Water
Regularly voted one of the prettiest villages in the Cotswolds, Bourton on the Water has plenty to enjoy – Birdland, a trout farm, model village, model railway, motor museum and perfumery. The village itself is so beautiful that we just wandered around and didn’t feel the need to visit the “tourist attractions”. The River Windrush flows through the centre of town and is lined with old, honey-coloured stone buildings. Several low stone bridges cross the river which has earned Bourton on the water the nickname of the ‘Venice of the Cotswolds’.
“The most beautiful village in England” – William Morris (1834-96)
This chocolate box village is not to be missed! The ancient village of Bibury is particularly famous for Arlington Row, a row of cottages originally built in 1380 to store wool. In the 17th century, they were converted into cottages for the weavers who supplied the nearby mill. Now this stunning street of stone cottages overlooking the water meadow and on the banks of the River Coln, is one of England’s most iconic sites and even features on the inside cover of some British passports!
Stop at The Swan Hotel for sustenance and a wander round their lovely gardens before checking out the beautiful Bibury Trout Farm – one of Britain’s oldest fisheries. You can catch your own lunch, stock up on other bits from their farm shop, then enjoy the views while you use one of their many BBQs.
Bibury was also home to the world’s first ever horse racing club, The Bibury Club, formed in 1681. Good pub quiz knowledge…
Head to Painswick to admire the ancient yew trees in the churchyard at St Mary’s Parish Church. Legend has it that the no more than 99 yew trees can grow in the churchyard, and if a 100th does grow, the Devil will pull it out! The church tower houses 14 bells rung by The Ancient Society of Painswick Youths, their bellringing society founded in 1686. The impressive tombs in the graveyard belong to wealthy wool merchants from the 18th century, when Painswick had a roaring wool trade.After that, take some time to wander the narrow streets flanked by Cotswold Stone cottages.
8. Castle Combe
Quintessentially Cotswolds and quite possibly the most magical looking village I’ve ever seen! Hollywood seem to think so too as it’s been the set of numerous films including Warhorse and Stardust. It featured as the village of Wall in Stardust with teams spending days laying turf and straw on the roads to create a more ancient atmosphere.
The main square is home to a 14th century market cross, built when the village was granted the right to hold a weekly market. It was quite a big deal back then as market charters we often granted by the monarch! There are so many touches of yesteryear here like village water pumps and stone steps for horse riders to mount and dismount – it really feels like stepping back in time.
Castle Combe is home to the beautiful Manor House Hotel. Stop in for a wander past their cosy, rose-covered cottages, and through the Italian Garden before refuelling at their restaurant.
Planning your visit to the prettiest villages in the Cotswolds
- Mid week visits will have significantly less tourists – so if bus loads of people arriving isn’t your thing, aim for a weekday.
- The most tourist-frequented areas such as Bourton-on-the-Water and Castle Combe will be less busy after 5pm on weekdays.
- Take cash – there are a few places that don’t accept cards.
- Don’t forget to stop in between villages to appreciate the ever changing scenery and stumble upon sleepy hidden hamlets with beautiful cottages.
- Don’t forget to take something warm! The weather is quite changeable – the observant ones among you may have noticed my outfit change halfway through the day!