Everything you may have imagined England to look like outside of London, The Cotswolds is a delightful day trip or weekend city break at any time of year. This is our 24-hour winter experience in one of the most delightful and IG-friendly parts of England.
The Cotswolds in south-central England showcases everything you think this country is supposed to look like outside of the city: charming villages, picturesque stone buildings, and many a countryside park and path to explore. Located a short drive from Oxford, the Cotswolds encompasses the rural areas of Gloucestershire, Oxfordshire, Warwickshire, Wiltshire and Worcestershire. And as its classification of Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) would infer, it’s a very photogenic destination.
On our way down to spend Christmas with the Brit’s mum, we stopped in the Cotswolds to break up the journey to East Sussex from Cheshire. My step-sister lives in Gloucestershire and we were originally meant to meet up for Christmas lunch. But she caught the flu — thankfully not the c-word — so we altered our plans and had the opportunity to spend a bit more time exploring. It’s amazing what you can experience in 24 hours.
Here’s what we got up to in the Cotswolds and some places for you to add to the list when in England.
Early lunch in Stow-on-the-Wold
You cannot go through the Cotswolds without stopping in at least one village. Why? With cute Cotswold stone cottages and buildings, these villages are absolutely everything you ever imagined England to stereotypically look like. (Think Nancy Meyers’ The Holiday.) We chose to visit Stow-on-the-Wold and it lived up to every expectation I didn’t know I had. All that was missing was some snow. (It certainly was the temperature for it.)
With a high street and alleyways full of tea rooms, pubs and local shops, Stow delighted my little ex-pat heart. Speaking of tea houses, our lunch stop was at the Old Bakery Tea Room (4 Fountain Court, Digbeth St.), an adorable, well-run establishment run by Alan and Jackie. I’m glad to have made a reservation as it was the time of year when everyone seemed to be in the mood for a festive lunch.
Top tip: Always make a booking if you can! A meal is easy enough to plan around at any time of year, and having a set time saves being told “sorry, we’re booked up.”)
The Brit had what I’m told was a very tasty jacket potato with shrimp, and my goat cheese and walnut salad was a scrumptious work of art. I especially loved the salad dressing. There’s just something about balsamic vinegar. *chef’s kiss* And all quite #GetThrifty and good value for money.
Top tip: I’ve been told that Stow — and the Cotswolds area in general — can be quite crowded in the summer, so it’s a place to either arrive early or visit in the off-season. Arrive early anyway and park in the public car park next to the Tesco lot. It will give you a chance to stretch your legs with a short, scenic walk into the village. And keep your heart rate at a normal level — navigating narrow village roads to find parking is a bit frazzling.
Afternoon strolls and cuteness overload at the Cotswold Wildlife Park
I absolutely love a zoo or aquarium and the Cotswold Wildlife Park and Gardens (Bradwell Grove, Burford) did not disappoint. Opened in 1907, the park graces the former family estate of Bradwell Grove. If I were a meerkat or lion, I’d want to live there. It’s a stunning property with acres and acres of space for the animals to roam. (Yes, in an enclosure, but this is animal conservation and also about safety. Don’t @ me on this.)
Meerkats are always a highlight for both me and the Brit — so cute. But additional standouts included the camels (my absolute favourite animal, ever), giraffes, the unexpected roar of the lion, and an anteater with some serious swag. Really, it was just nic eto see all the animals. Even the snakes and spiders.
Top tip: When you get there, grab a beverage or ice cream from the cafe and get ready to walk. Wear good, waterproof walking shoes or wellies, and set aside 2-3 hours — this place is big.
As it was winter, only about 75% of the animals were out and about. With that, I feel it’s a bit cheeky to charge the full price (£17.50 Day Ticket on-site, or £16.00 online pre-purchase) during what is considered off-season. But also I do know that it takes a lot of money to run a property and facility of this type. That small bit aside, it is a fantastic experience and well worth a visit.
Hygge vibes and morning bliss at Rectory Farm Retreat
Let me start by saying this rather bold statement: in my opinion, you have not lived life until you have drank bubbly while enjoying a soak in a wood-fired hot tub, and then woken up before dawn to experience sunrise from said hot tub while sipping a nice cup of tea. You just haven’t.
Though we generally try to book a different accommodation experience if revisiting somewhere (in this case, Oxfordshire), we chose to have a repeat stay at Rectory Farm Retreat (Airbnb) in Alvescot, near RAF Brize Norton. Our first stay in 2018 was really wonderful, and after a somewhat stressful couple of months (we had a very bad moving and letting experience), we needed some familiarity. And a soak in the aforementioned wood-fired hot tub — the feature that made us book this gem the first time, back in December 2018.
- Awesome Airbnb hosts
- Old shepherd’s hut powered by a car battery
- Bathroom and shower facilities with hot water via a gas-powered boiler
- Wood-burning fireplace which makes things very toasty and hygge
- Outdoor grill and seating areas
- Wood-burning hot tub (additional £50 for the extra wood)
- Stunning sunset and sunrise views
- Overall countryside views for as far as you want to see
- No wi-fi. Try to pretend there isn’t any mobile signal. (There is one and it’s excellent, but TRY — it’s worth it.)
- Gary Barlow lives nearby. If you don’t know who that is, carry on.
Top tip: If you stay there, pay the £50 for the extra firewood, and cover the hot tub overnight so the water is at the perfect temperature in the morning.
Since our first stay, and with the first lockdown giving lots of time, the owners made some serious upgrades to all their holiday lets (there are three overall on the property). This included paving the road up to the hut and building a covered porch so they could move the hot tub out of the elements.
A muddy but tasty stop at Diddly Squat Farm
The next morning, our visit to Diddly Squat Farm Shop was actually a 30-minute detour in the opposite direction of where we were heading (Surrey and then Seaford). But we loved Jeremy Clarkson’s Amazon farm series so much that we couldn’t not go. (If you know, you know.)
Truthfully? Without the TV series hype and association with a famous person, it would just be another countryside farm shop. It employs locals, sells local products, and people seem to flock to refill their glass bottles at the milk (branded as Cow Juice) refill machine outside the shop. The shop looked well stocked, but the long queue makes for an assembly-line experience of 5-10 minutes max inside.
Top tip: Get there early and be ready to stand in a long queue. Also, remember to check the opening days and times — it doesn’t open until 10:00 am, and only on certain days. (You can also just buy the novelty items online.)
We bought some lovely chili-flavoured oil, made from the farm’s rapeseed crops. Excellent for cooking, just an unfortunate name. (But I think it’s the same as canola oil?…)The beeswax candles were tempting, but small and overpriced.
It was zero degrees celsius, but we stuck it out to pop around the back to the shed cafe for a takeaway tea and a stellar fried egg sandwich on a brioche bun with greens, a fab chilli jam and the back bacon they kindly added on request. There’s ketchup on my plate in the above photo, but the chilli jam was so delicious, no further condiment was required.
Top tip: The parking situation is a muddy debacle, so be prepared to have some patience, or maybe park on the side of the road a little ways away. They need to stop making pricey swag for a bit and divert some Amazon funds towards the installation of parking grids like this. (If pubs without his budget can do it, so can Jezza.)
And then it was time to get back on the road
Fed and desperate to get warm again, we got back in the car for a couple hours’ drive to have lunch at the Brit’s aunty and uncle’s house in Surrey. The Cotswolds was the perfect mid-point for a journey from Cheshire down to East Sussex. I highly recommend spending at least a day or two in this pretty little bit of England.
Have you been to the Cotswolds? What was your favourite bit?
Check out more of my explorations of England here.
What makes me really happy is a walk in the English countryside.Natalie Dormer