The Cotswolds are now Disneyland for the middle class – here’s where to go instead
Laurie Lee moved to the Cotswolds in 1917 and remembered it thus: “I was set down from the carrier’s cart at the age of three; and there with a sense of bewilderment and terror my life in the village began.”
Swap carrier cart for Hybrid SUV, and you have the experience of many a West London child, repotted during the pandemic. Where else would they run to? For many, the rest of the British countryside has disappeared, in a puff of fresh, faintly manure-scented air. All that remains is 800 square miles of Gloucestershire, Oxfordshire, Wiltshire, Warwickshire and Worcestershire. The Cotswolds. And thus, according to the Office for National Statistics, the average house price in the area rose by 15 per cent in the year to March. That’s the equivalent of £171 a day. Enough, in fact, to snag you one of this seasons’ key rural-rah accessories from Barbour’s collab with Alexa Chung.
Nor has this collective amnesia only infected the second-home set. The day trippers among us have shunted blindly and brainlessly up the A44 too, in long lemming-like tailbacks. Bourton-on-the-Water (a place so self-reflectively cute it has a shrine to its own itsy-bitsy-ness in the form of a model village) recently had to employ the services of marshalls to “promote good behaviour” after being besieged by bovine tourists.
All of which makes me wonder whether the Cotswolds are really all that. They’re miles from any beach. They have no great mountains or vast lakes. Are they really all they’re cracked up to be?
In one sense, yes. They’re immodestly, shamelessly gorgeous. Rolling hills, ancient woodlands, gentle streams… home to some of Britain’s most rarely spotted wildlife as well as its most commonly papped celebrities. They weren’t named England’s largest Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty for nothing. And it’s not just nature. There are all those little honeypot villages, with their twisting lanes, church towers and cottages built from that limestone that literally glows, as if the homes have been on the same expensive juice cleanse as their new owners.
William Morris (arbiter of upper-middle-class taste since 1860-something) declared Bibury to be “the most beautiful village in England”. Today, the Cotswolds has hard data to support this. Its architecture actually is demonstrably prettier than anywhere else’s. In 2016 Savills, the estate agents, sifted through all the listed buildings in England, and calculated that the highest concentration lies in the Riversmeet ward of the Cotswolds, where there are 25 listed buildings per hundred residents. The runner up? Ampney-Coln, also in the Cotswolds.
The area also wins on the two other key British measures of calibre: it has the UK’s highest tally of National Trust sites and its richest concentration of antique shops outside of London. Basically, the Cotswolds are a comfort blanket of by-gone Britishness. And everyone wants a corner of it. “Bourton is not a theme park, it does not open and close nor is there an entry fee – it is a vibrant village, home to some 4,000 residents,” pleads the official website. And yet… 10,000 grockles crowd into its streets every day in August – more than an average day at Thorpe Park.
Across the Cotswolds as a whole, 60 per cent of visitors plump for four- or five-star accommodation. They spend the biggest wad of their cash (£127m a year) on food and drink, the second on shopping (£83m a year). And with those working there priced out of living there, it does begin to sound a lot like Disneyland, doesn’t it?
Who's to blame?
You could blame Raymond Blanc who, in 1984, opened his luxury hotel and restaurant Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons in Great Milton, drawing in the area’s first stars (of the Michelin as well as stage-and-screen variety). Since then, both have spread like luxuriant ivy. But perhaps the real culprit is the A417. In the late Nineties, the road linking the M4 and M5 was overhauled. Suddenly, the path for work-shy travel writers (mea culpa) became temptingly smoothed. Unlike the Quantocks, the Lakes or Cairngorms, the Cotswolds sit in the sweet spot of the South. For those in Birmingham, Cardiff or London they’re the Goldilocks of weekend breaks: not too close, and not too far.
And thus wheels of countless Chelsea trackers were set in motion. The Camerons arrived in 2001. The following year, Lady Daylesford opened the organic farm shop that one recent Tripadvisor review labelled “the most expensive garden centre on earth”. Even Jeremy Clarkson swallowed hard when asked to fork out £85 for the ingredients of his ploughmans.
Speaking of which, in 2008 Jezza bought a farm in Chadlington, calling it Diddly Squat in a droll commentary on the income made by farmers who still insisted on fleecing sheep instead of tourists. But 2015 was the real watershed in the Cotswolds metamorphosis into Spitting Image caricature of the countryside.
This was the year when Soho Farmhouse opened and the Camerons spent New Year’s Eve at an “old school disco” thrown by floppy-haired-Britpop-himbo turned cheese-churning-bore Alex James. There followed a period best glossed over, principally composed of shepherds huts, supermodels, spa hotels, six-course tasting menus and one especially surreal episode in which a pensioner was subjected to a pile-on for parking his yellow car outside his own house, thereby ruining people’s idyllic Instagram posts of Arlington Row, Britain’s most photographed row of cottages.
Then, the apotheosis. Last year, Boris Johnson and Carrie threw their wedding party at Daylesford House, a stone’s throw from Chipping Norton and pad of the garden centre proprietors who had been sending weekly hampers (ready meals for two, £50 a pop) to Downing Street during lockdown. Guests relaxed on hay bales, then ate and drank round barrels. And, look, I’m sure it was divine. I’ll just leave the following here, without comment, for comparison. In the 18th century, Marie Antoinette had a folly farm where she would play dress up when she got bored of palace life (according to one story – possibly apocryphal but persistent – the goats were washed and dressed in ribbons before she milked them).
Still, you know what? So what if the Cotswolds is now a sort of Disneyland? They’re doing the rest of the British countryside a public service for which we should all be profoundly grateful, absorbing all the Range Rovers and stagecoach rubberneckers. So let them eat cake. Or perhaps these days, a Cotswold cheese and wine hamper (£110, RRP).
Six AONBs to rival the Cotswolds
The Meon Valley, Hampshire
This Hampshire haven of rolling hills and clear chalk streams is replete with pretty flint-, timber- and wisteria-decked villages. Take Hambledon, whose ancient club earned it the moniker of the “cradle of cricket” and where chi chi shopping opportunities await at the village’s vineyard and winery.
Where to stay: Langrish House, a small, family-run stately home in the middle of the South Downs National Park.
The Wye Valley, Herefordshire
Considered the birthplace of British tourism, the Wye is awash in romantic riverside walks, lush flood meadows and steep wooded hills that have been immortalised by artists like Turner, and poets including Wordsworth and Coleridge. “If you have never navigated the Wye, you have seen nothing,” wrote Rev. William Gilpin, the original travel writer, back in 1782.
Where to stay: Bridge House, a Georgian B&B on the riverbank near Ross.
High Weald, Kent and East Sussex
Literally the stuff of storybooks, the High Wealds have rolling hills, babbling brooks, historic houses and ancient woodland (including the actual 100 Acre Wood). Take a trip on the Bluebell Railway, visit Sissinghurst Castle, and don’t forget to play pooh sticks.
Where to stay: The Bell in Ticehurst, a 16th-century inn once frequented by Rudyard Kipling.
Howardian Hills, North Yorkshire
Nestled between the North York Moors National Park, the Yorkshire Wolds and the Vale of York, these rolling hills are dotted with scenic villages, classic parkland landscapes and Iron Age earthworks. It’s so striking that much of Brideshead Revisited was shot here. It was named after the Howard family, who still own much of the land and whose magnificent 18th-century home must not be missed.
Where to stay: The Star Inn, a Michelin-starred restaurant-with-rooms with chocolate-box, thatched-pub looks.
Cranborne Chase, southern England
Straddling Dorset, Hampshire and Wiltshire, this large AONB was named after the hunts that once took place there. Now it’s one of just 17 Dark Sky Reserves across the world, in recognition of its light-pollution-free conditions for stargazing. In daylight, think gently rolling chalk downs, woodlands home to ancient trees and clear chalk streams. Then there’s Cranborne itself – arguably the most beautiful village in Dorset.
Where to stay: 10 Castle Street, a fine Queen Anne house, with a magnificent garden and nine bedrooms, at the end of a drive in the pretty village of Cranborne.
Dedham Vale, Essex and Suffolk
This pretty stretch of wide river, water meadows and church towers under big East Anglian skies is genuinely picture perfect: it’s known as Constable Country, but Gainsborough was also drawn to paint it. Half-timbered, wonky windowed houses abound in the prettiest villages like Stoke-by-Nayland. Hire a rowing boat from Dedham Boathouse and drift along the river Stour.
Where to stay: The Sun Inn is a cosy, 15th-century pub with rooms. Low beams, a log-burner, and Suffolk ales on tap. Plus decent, seasonal and local grub.