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Gems of the Cotswolds – guide for visiting some of the best villages, towns and cities in this area

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The Cotswolds is an enormous area – at almost 800 square miles in size and encompassing 5 different counties, it's no surprise that there are some hidden gems to be found. We've written about the Cotswold Way previously, but we wanted to highlight a few of our favourite villages and towns to visit in this area, let's get into it:

Burford

On the River Windrush, you'll find Burford, a town which is often referred to as the 'gateway' to the Cotswolds. It's definitely one of the most picturesque towns in England, but there is a lot more to do here than just admire the beauty of the place. Here are some of our favourite things to see and do in the town:

Asthall Manor Garden

This Jacobean manor house sits at the edge o the lovely Windrush valley and makes for a great day out. The house itself is still privately owned and only parts of it can be rented for events, but it is the gardens which you're really visiting for - they're fantastic. Lily ponds, roses, meandering paths and more make the gardens a lovely area to explore or just to wander around aimlessly. Learn more and plan your visit here - asthallmanor.com

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Tolsey Museum

Set within a Grade II* listed Tudor style building, Tolsey Museum is worth visiting just for the building alone, a 16th century building known only as The Tolsey. But venture inside and you'll find a lovely little local museum, packed with interesting history and artefacts relating to the town of Burford. Highlights include paintings and photographs of the town from the medieval age, plus you can book the very good Self Guided Walking Tour of Burford at the museum. Learn more here - burfordtolsey.org

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Church of St John the Baptist 

Often just referred to as 'Burford Church', this is an impressive building which is on the high street in the town. Voted by Simon Jenkins as one of the best 100 Churches in England, the Church of St John the Baptist is an excellent place to spend a few hours, firstly exploring the interior of the building and checking out the amazing stained glass windows, and then wandering through the graveyard towards the river. It's free to visit and everyone in there is very friendly, the only thing to watch out for is that it can often be closed without explanation. Learn more here - burfordchurch.org

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Cotswold Wildlife Park and Gardens

Only a couple miles south of the town you'll find Cotswold Wildlife Park and Gardens, an exciting and enjoyable place to spend a day. With more than 260 different animals to see within an area of more than 160 acres, you could easily spend many hours here and it's a great place to take kids. Learn more here - cotswoldwildlifepark.co.uk

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Burford Antiques Centre

We wouldn't typically recommend a shop such as an antiques centre in a guide like this, but the antiques centre in Burford is a really excellent place to visit. Based across 2 floors, this building is large and consequently has space for some very big and eccentric items that you won't find in many other places. If you're into furniture and looking for a nice piece to take home with you, definitely head here. You'll find the centre at Burford roundabout on the A40, learn more here - burfordantiquecentre.co.uk

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Banbury

Banbury is a historic market town on the River Cherwell in Oxfordshire which despite being quite small is very lively. Here are our favourite things to see and do in Banbury for 2022:

Broughton Castle

Although technically a manor house, the breathtaking setting of Broughton Castle is worthy of any royalty. Built in the early 14th century, the house is best known as the home of Lord and Lady Saye & Sele. What makes Broughton Castle particularly impressive is the setting - this is a moated fortified country house, meaning it is literally surrounded by a moat, an aspect of the grounds which is particularly stunning on a sunny day. Guided tours are available and the café on-site is surprisingly good. Learn more and plan your visit here - broughtoncastle.com
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Upton House and Gardens

Managed by The National Trust, this country mansion is very impressive and a must-visit for anyone interested in art and architecture. Once the family home of Walter Samuel, the building is full of interesting artefacts and items from throughout history which are expertly explained by the team of passionate volunteers who work here. The gardens are impressive with a "mirror" lake at the bottom and a stunningly creative layout. Learn more here - nationaltrust.org.uk
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Sulgrave Manor & Garden

This might not look like much but trust us when we say there is some fascinating history attached to this building. As the home of George Washington’s English ancestors, Sulgrave Manor holds an important place in history. Now a museum (which is very good), the house is a fascinating insight into the 'special relationship' between the UK and the USA. It's packed with interesting items and although small, is a great way to spend a few hours. The garden is also small but is very well kept and lovely for a stroll. Learn more here - sulgravemanor.org.uk
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Fir Tree Falconry

If your idea of a good day out is getting up close and personal with a variety of impressive and beautiful birds of prey, then a trip to Fir Tree Falconry is a must-do. So often these types of attractions can be supremely underwhelming, but Fir Tree Falconry is a rare case where your expectations are likely to be exceeded. The facilities are very well maintained and all of the staff are very informative and friendly, plus the experience really is hands-on - you'll have the chance. to fly and feed birds.  We think this is a great place to visit during your time in Banbury, learn more here - firtreefalconry.co.uk
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Fine Lady Statue

In the heart of the town (at the end of High Street) you'll find the Fine Lady Statue, a very impressive statue which was built to compliment the popular rhyme which references Banbury. Built in 2005, the rhyme in question refers to a 'fine lady' and goes:

“Ride a cockhorse to Banbury Cross
To see a Fine Lady upon a white horse
With rings on her fingers and bells on her toes She shall have music wherever she goes.”

Nobody knows the identity of this fine lady, but the statue represents her nonetheless. Her hand positions also have a meaning according to the sculptors - the raised left arm represents the creative side of the brain and the right arm holding the reins shows motor control. Very interesting and great for a photo.
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People's Park

This is a nice little park in the town which is ideal for an evening stroll either before or after a meal. People's Park is very well-kept and has a number of lovely flower beds to admire. If you're looking for a bit more than a stroll then there is a play area which includes tennis courts and an aviary which is well worth a look. Learn more here - banbury.gov.uk

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Stow-on-the-Wold

Stow-on-the-Wold (often just referred to as 'Stow') is the highest of the Cotswold towns as it stands on the 800ft tall Stow Hill. It was once an important trading centre and a visit to The Market Square will help you to realise the town’s former importance. There is plenty to see and do in Stow-On-The-Wold, here are some of our favourites:

St. Edward's Church (and Tolkien Door)

This church was built somwhere between the 11th and 15th centuries, and is named after the town’s patron saint Edward. It's a Grade I listed building and is well known for its stained glass windows and very charming churchyard. However, if you're visiting St. Edward’s Church’s then there is one feature you absolutely must check out, and that is the tree-framed doorway on the north side. Said to be the door which inspired Tolkien to create the ‘Doors of Durin’ into Moria, this door is more than 300 years old and has 2 large Yew trees on either side. We'll never know for sure if Tolkien used this as inspiration for the Lord Of The Rings, but he was known to visit Stow and the similarity is uncanny.

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Fosse Gallery/Tara Antiques

Fosse Gallery and Tara Antiques are so close to each other that they had to have a shared section. The gallery is often described as one of the most important art galleries in the UK and features a mix of work from some of the biggest names in art. If you can visit during one of the summer exhibitions then we'd highly recommend it, they're always impressive. Tara Antiques is an impressive antiques store across a number of floors. It's in a Grade 2 listed building which is impressive in its own right, but the selection of items there is also impressive - everything from trinkets to larger, weirder items. Learn more about Fosse Gallery here - fossegallery.com

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Visit The Porch House, Britain's oldest inn

A few inns throughout Britain claim to be the oldest in the country, but The Porch House probably has the best case for taking the title. The building is Grade II-listed and parts of the inn date back to the year 947, making it more than 1000 years old. Although much of it has been modernised as you'd expect, the inn still retains a lot of charm and definitely feels its age. The food here is great but if you're staying in town then the rooms here are really special - exposed beams and vintage furniture can be found in just about all of the rooms. Definitely worth a look, learn more here - porch-house.co.uk

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Historic Village Stocks

These bits of wood might not look like much, but they're actually one of the most popular landmarks in Stow-on-the-Wold. Once used to punish people for petty crimes, the exact age of these stocks is unknown but it is estimated that they're from the late 17th century/early 18th century. if you didn't know the history of these stocks then you probably wouldn't think much of them, but luckily there is a small information board which gives the background information. Definitely a great place to take a photo, plus there is an inn across the grass from the stocks named after them ('The Old Stocks Inn') which is a great place to grab a pint.

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Stroll around the Market Square

You'll find a number of shops, pubs and other places to explore from the Market Square and we could have given them all their own section, but we feel like the Market Square is best experienced all at once. It is believed that the town was founded in the 11th century, and the market square reflects that age - the buildings are old and the layout includes random alleyways which take you around the town. You've got good free parking options here so it's ideal for exploring and you could easily spend a few hours walking around.

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 Shakespeare Country

'Shakespeare Country' is the name often given to the area which includes Warwick, Kenilworth, Royal Leamington Spa, and Stratford-upon-Avon, the birthplace of Shakespeare. There is plenty to do in these places, but you won't be surprised to learn that many of the attractions relate to the Bard. We wanted to highlight some of our favourites, let's get into the list:

Warwick Castle

Originally built by William the Conqueror in the early 11th century, Warwick Castle is a building steeped in fascinating history. But this castle is anything but rundown, and still welcomes lots of visitors every year who come to participate in and watch jousting performances, the UK’s largest birds of prey show, and more. This is an excellent place to visit and is especially good with kids, learn more here -  warwick-castle.com

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Kenilworth Castle & Elizabethan Garden

Described as one of the finest surviving examples of a semi-royal palace in England from the middle ages, Kenilworth Castle is an impressive place to visit. You'll notice that much of this medieval fortress is ruinous, and that's because it was the target of an almost six-month-long siege in the 13th century, thought to be the longest siege in Medieval English history. It still looks great though and there is still plenty of reason to visit, not just to see the castle but also the amazing gardens. Created by Robert Dudley, Earl of Leiceste in the 16th century, it was known as one of the wonders of Elizabethan England after it was built. This is a great day out, you can learn more here - english-heritage.org.uk

Hall's Croft

This Jacobean building was the home of Shakespeare's daughter Susanne and her husband John Hall. Originally built in the early 17th century, the building itself is very impressive but it is the tranquil walled garden which most people are really taken by. The garden is home to fragrant medicinal herbs, which John Hall would have used in the remedies he made in his line of work as a physician. This is a great place to visit to learn more about Shakespeares family, book your visit here - shakespeare.org.uk

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Stratford-upon-Avon

Stratford Upon Avon is definitely one of the most popular locations in the Cotswolds, and it isn't hard to see why - there is plenty to do here. Let's look at some of the best things to do in and around the town:

Anne Hathaway's Cottage & Gardens

If you're visiting the birthplace of Shakespeare during your time in Stratford Upon Avon then you should absolutely take the time to visit the childhood home of his wife Anne Hathaway, which is only a 20-minute walk away. This impressive farmhouse has 12 rooms and was built more than 500 years ago. Visitors can explore the lovely gardens which include a sculpture trail inspired by Shakespeare’s plays, as well as a giant willow sculpture which is great for photos. Learn more here - shakespeare.org.uk

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Shakespeare’s Birthplace

This 16th-century house situated on Henley Street in Stratford-upon-Avon is quite unassuming, but holds a very important place in the history of England (and the world, frankly). William Shakespeare was born here in 1564 and spent his childhood years living here, and now you can visit the house for yourself. Simply walking around the house and surrounding area is fascinating, but the experience is much more than that - through a fascinating collection of items and artefacts, you learn the story of Shakespeare and the environment which shaped his creativity and genius. Booking is essential, learn more here - shakespeare.org.uk

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Lacock

Lacock is a small village, but there are a few things here which are really worth your time. Here are some of our favourites:

Lacock Abbey (and  Fox Talbot Museum)

Built in the early 13th century, Lacock Abbey is a country house which was originally founded as a nunnery. Famous for once being the home of Henry Fox Talbot, there is now a museum at the site which is fascinating to visit. In fact, one of the earliest surviving photographic camera negatives was made here by Talbot in 1835. This Grade I listed building is now owned and managed by The National Trust, and is an excellent place to visit. Plan your visit and learn more here - nationaltrust.org.uk

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St Cyriac's Church

If you're an architecture geek then St Cyriac's Church is well worth a look - it has some very interesting features. Originally built in the 14th century, this church might be small but there is plenty to explore, all of which is wonderfully outlined via helpful information boards. It was once home to the Lacock Cup, one of the most significant pieces of 15th-century English silver, which is now in the British Museum. The church definitely has a lot more going on outside than it does inside, but it is still worth having a look around inside at the lovely stained glass windows. Learn more here - corshamandlacockchurches.org.uk

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World War I Memorial

It will only take a short while to stop and appreciate this memorial, but we still recommend you do it. Not only is it quite powerful to see all of the names inscribed, it's also beautifully designed. It is quite large and almost looks a little out of place compared to the rest of the village, but that says quite a lot about how much this meant to the locals. You'll find it on West Street.

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CoCo Chemistry

Once you've had your fill of history and culture, it's time to get your fill of chocolate! Coco Chemistry is an artisan chocolatier which is definitely one to visit. for any chocolate addicts.

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Accommodation

If you're visiting the Cotswolds for a few days, you'll need some great places to stay! Luckily you're spoilt for choice, here are our favourite options:

The Wychwood Inn Cotswolds accommodation, restaurant, and bar

The Wychwood Inn is an award-winning, family-run Cotswold restaurant, hotel and pub located in the picturesque village of Shipton-under-Wychwood, Oxfordshire.

Around the central bar are four dining areas; two ambient, traditional pub rooms on either side: the quieter main restaurant room with an atmospheric murmur and a private, closed dining room seating twelve.

Take a relaxing drink outdoors in our cushioned garden furniture, at our barrel tables or under our heated gazebo, with easy access to the convenient garden bar.

You can also dine outside, sitting wherever you want in good weather. Choose from our main menus or the garden kitchen menu that serves pizza and jacket potatoes. Book your stay here - thewychwoodinn.com

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Cotswold Farm Park

If you're looking for something outdoorsy but not too rough and ready then glamping at Cotswold Farm Park is a great option. They've got lodges and pods which are great for families. Book your stay here - cotswoldfarmpark.co.uk

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