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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:

The Lido

It might not sound too appealing at the moment, but The Lido is an excellent outdoor swimming pool in Chipping Norton which, during the summer months, is a fantastic place to visit. The pool is only open between April and September, during which time you'll absolutely need to bok in advance via the website if you want a spot. But to be honest, we actually think the best time to visit The Lido is during the slightly colder months such as April or September. If you've never tried a cold plunge before, you're missing out! Learn more here -  chippylido.co.uk

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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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Cotswold Motoring and Toy Museum 

Less than 10 miles away from Burford you'll find the Cotswold Motoring and Toy Museum, where you can enjoy a captivating journey through automotive history and vintage toy collections. This museum offers an extensive array of classic cars, motorcycles, and cherished toys, including some models that you'll recognise, such as the classic Brum car from the iconic tv show. The museum is only a short distance from Burford and we think it's well worth the visit. Learn more here - cotswoldmotoringmuseum.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, especially for antiques enthusiasts. 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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Shopping & Eating

Despite being a small town, Burford is full of interesting places to shop and eat. You'll find a number of interesting independent shops, especially for clothes shopping. Favourites include Woodcock Cavendish, Fenella, and Slate. The old fashioned sweet shop is a joy to visit, and gift shops like Three French Hens and Country House are both excellent if you're looking for a locally made souvenir to take home. The Angel at Burford is a great gastro pub serving up some of the best fish and chips you'll find anywhere in the area.

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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 2023:

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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Fairford

Sat on the south east edge of the Cotswolds, Fairford is a small but charming town. It's a perfect base for exploring the tranquility of the surrounding Cotswold countryside, but there are also a few things of note to see in Fairford itself.

If you're planning to visit Fairford in 2023, here are some of the top things to see and do in the town:

St Mary's Church

There are lots of beautiful churches in the Cotswolds, and we think St Mary's in Fairford is up there as one of our favourites. This Grade I listed building dates from the 15th century and remains in remarkable condition. The outside of the church reminds us of a crown, and is an example of the late Perpendicular style of architecture. But it's well worth looking inside this church too as the design features are stunning, especially the 28 medieval stained glass windows. The windows date from the 15th century and are arranged symmetrically which is supposed to look like a picture book. Learn more here - stmaryschurchfairford.org.uk

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Walk along the River Coln

Fairford lies on the banks of the River Coln, and the river is lovely to walk along, especially on a sunny day. If you're lucky, you might spot a wide range of wildlife, including kingfishers, swans, little grebe, and brown trout. You might even spot a water voles if you're very lucky. Keep an eye out for The Town Bridge which carries the A417 over the Coln, as this bridge is said to date from the 13th century. There is a popular 4 mile walk which follows the Coln and which is the route that most people follow, learn more about that route here - ratedtrips.com

The Town Bridge

See the town crier

On the 1st Wednesday of every month, the Fairford Town Crier “cries” in the Market Place, so if you can plan your visit to Fairford so that you'll be in town on a Wednesday then we highly recommend it. There are very few towns which still carry on a tradition like this, so it's a really special thing to see. Another bonus of being in Fairford on a Wednesday is that you'll get to visit the traditional market which is typically held on Wednesdays in town.

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STEAM - Museum of the Great Western Railway

If you're in Fairford, you're only 15 miles away from the excellent STEAM Museum. Based in a restored railway building in the former GWR Swindon railway works, this museum provides a fascinating insight into the history of the history of the Great Western Railway and the people who helped to run and build it. As well as impressive trains and other machinery to look at, there are lots of interesting interactive exhibitions which are fun for all ages. You could easily spend several hours exploring the museum as there is so much to see. It's also very reasonably priced at well under £10 for an adult ticket.

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Cycling to STEAM - Museum of the Great Western Railway

A great way to reach the museum from Fairford is to cycle, as there are several cycling routes that you can follow and it shouldn't take much more than an hour. Popular routes include:

  • via the B4019 - it's a mostly flat route which takes you past Highworth and Stanton Fitzwarren, see the route on Google Maps here.
  • via the A361 - this is a little less direct but still works out to about 17 miles, this is also a nice route to follow if you want to visit a few lovely villages on the way including Lechlade-On-Thames and Inglesham, see the route on Google Maps here.

 

Ledbury

This picturesque market town is based right in the heart of the Cotswolds, and is well known for its charming black and white timbered buildings. The town is steeped in history, with many of the timber-framed buildings dating back hundreds of years.

If you're planning to visit Ledbury in 2023, here are some of the top things to do in the town:

See Ledbury Market House

Standing on 16 pillars in the heart of town, Ledbury's superb Market House is probably the best example of its kind in England and is very special to see. Built in the early 17th century, this Grade 1 listed building was originally used for the storage of grain, wool, and hops. The charter market is held beneath the building on Tuesdays and Saturdays, and it's totally free to visit. This is a special and fascinating piece of construction which is well worth a look.

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Visit the beautiful church

This lovely church has been described by some as the premier parish church of Herefordshire. Dating back to the 12th century, the site of the church was originally Saxon and was mentioned in the Doomsday Book. As you walk up Church Lane you'll see the church's spire rising skywards, which dominates the Ledbury skyline. Known as St Michael's and All Angels by some, this Grade I listed is popular among both locals and tourists. If you visit, please be respectful as you wander around the church. Learn more here - ledburyparishchurch.org.uk

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See Church Lane

The charming Church Lane is a very picturesque area of Ledbury. With cobbles underfoot and flanked by overhanging medieval buildings, the lane provides an atmospheric experience that makes you feel like you've stepped into a time machine. The Prince Of Wales pub along the lane is lovely to visit for a pint if you have the time. You walk up this lane to the parish church.

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Visit the Painted Room

Right at the end of Church Lane in no1 Church Street you'll find The Painted Room, a mysterious space dating from the 16th Century. When this building was being renovated in the 80s, the workmen found paint and plaster under the walls and had to stop work as they realised how special this art was. English Heritage dated it to the Elizabethan era, and it's considered to be among the best examples of art from this era. You can now visit this building for free, where a guide will explain to you the significance of the art.

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Visit Butcher Row House Museum

If you're looking to learn more about the history of the town, this small museum in Church Lane is well worth a visit. Inside the museum you'll find a number of interesting objects from Ledbury's, including some quirky items such as the bath shaped like a boot. You'll also find reproduction helmets and breastplates as worn in the Battle of Ledbury Perhaps the most interesting thing about this museum is that it was moved from the high street to its current location, which is also explained via exhibits in the museum. It's open on Tuesdays to Saturdays between 10am and 4pm, learn more here - ledburycivicsociety.org

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Visit The Master's House

This Grade II listed building was originally built as the home for the Master of St Katherine’s Hospital, and is part of the St Katherine’s Hospital complex, which is generally considered to be one of the most important surviving medieval hospital sites in the UK. The building has since been restored and renovated as a public library and cultural center. Even if you're not interested in visiting the library, we think the building itself is well worth visiting, as it has been remarkably well restored. Learn more here - themastershouseledbury.org

Eastnor Castle

A couple of miles away from Ledbury you'll find Eastnor Castle, a stunning 19th-century mock castle situated in the foothills of the Malvern Hills near Ledbury. It has a rich history and is open to the public during the summer months. Visitors can explore the state rooms, admire the castle's art and furniture collections, stroll through the gardens, and enjoy various outdoor activities such as archery and treasure hunts. The castle also hosts weddings, corporate events, and other private functions. Learn more here - eastnorcastle.com

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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.

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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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Staying in Shakespeare Country

You're spoilt for choice when it comes to nice accommodation in Shakespeare Country - of course there are plenty of chain hotels which are perfectly fine, but we'd recommend staying in an independent hotel if possible. You'll find lots of converted Jacobean hotels and B&BS which are wonderful. TripAdvisor is often the best place to head to, here are some useful links for the area:

https://www.tripadvisor.co.uk/Hotels-g186400-Warwick_Warwickshire_England-Hotels.html

https://www.tripadvisor.co.uk/Hotels-g186398-Kenilworth_Warwickshire_England-Hotels.html

https://www.tripadvisor.co.uk/Hotels-g186399-Stratford_upon_Avon_Warwickshire_England-Hotels.html

https://www.tripadvisor.co.uk/Hotels-g187063-Leamington_Spa_Warwickshire_England-Hotels.html

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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Chipping Norton

Chipping Norton is a market town and civil parish in the Cotswold Hills which is well worth a visit during your time in this area - the name of the town literally means '’market north town’. Here are some of the top things to do during your time in 'Chippy':

The Lido

It might not sound too appealing at the moment, but The Lido is an excellent outdoor swimming pool in Chipping Norton which, during the summer months, is a fantastic place to visit. The pool is only open between April and September, during which time you'll absolutely need to bok in advance via the website if you want a spot. But to be honest, we actually think the best time to visit The Lido is during the slightly colder months such as April or September. If you've never tried a cold plunge before, you're missing out! Learn more here -  chippylido.co.uk

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Walk to the Rollright Stones

Visiting a pile of stones might not sound like a must-do activity during your time in Chipping Norton, but it's the story attached to the Rollright Stones that make them worth seeing. Located near the village of Long Compton around 3 miles from Chipping Norton, the walk follows a footpath known as 'Shakespeare's Way' which takes you across beautiful open countryside and farm fields right to the stones. The Rollright Stones date from the Neolithic and Bronze Age, and are one of the most famous stone circles in Britain. The stones each served a purpose - there is a stone circle (The King's Men,) a standing stone (The King Stone,) and a burial chamber (The Whispering knights). There is quite a spiritual and eerie feeling when you visit this site, possibly because it feels strange to stand near something which dates from 3000BC. Even if you're not particularly interested in the stones themselves, the walk is very pleasant and the views are superb. Overall, we highly recommend a visit, learn more here - rollrightstones.co.uk

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Heythrop Zoological Gardens

This private zoo has the largest private collection of exotic animals in the United Kingdom and is an absolute must-visit for anyone wanting to get up close and personal with some amazing animals. One thing to be aware of is that this location isn't open to the public like a normal zoo - instead, you'll need to make an appointment for either an Animal Encounters or an Exclusive Zoo Visit (apart from on Open Days). This is because many of the animals here are actually being trained for use in movies and tv shows. One of the best experiences you can book is walking with a wolf, which is both a magical and surreal experience. Because Heythrop Zoological Gardens isn't open to the public, you really do feel like you're getting a uniquely intimate encounter with the animals here. We highly recommend booking a visit, learn more here - heythropzoologicalgardens.org

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Fairytale Farm

If you're looking for a great place to take kids during your time in Chippy, Fairytale Farm is a great place to head to. Here you'll find an excellent adventure playground, as well as plenty of other things to see and do like interacting with small animals and even meeting a Sea Witch! The staff here are really friendly and enthusiastic, plus kids will love petting piglets, rabbits and chickens. If you visit at certain times of the year such as Halloween and Christmas you'll find plenty of themed activities to get involved in too. Overall, it's a great day out. Learn more here - fairytalefarm.co.uk

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Chipping Norton Museum

This small museum on the high street is a great place to visit if you want to learn more about the local area and history of Chipping Norton. Currently situated in the hall above the Co-op, it's small but packed with information items like Prehistoric and Roman Artefacts, farming equipment, and more. We found the most interesting part of the museum to be the section on the Chipping Norton Baseball Club -former all England Champions! Learn more here - chippingnortonmuseum.co.uk

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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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Finn is the editor of You Well and has been writing about travel, health, and more for over 10 years.

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