From the gracious university town of Oxford through the quintessentially English Cotswold villages to Shakespearean Stratford and the grand fortress of Warwick Castle, this itinerary covers famous attractions and idyllic countryside nooks and crannies. The Cotswolds is a region of one sleepy village after another clad in the local soft-gray limestone or creamy-golden ironstone, where mellow stone walls, manor houses, and churches cluster along riverbanks, perch on steep-sided hills, or scatter independently in a pocket of a pretty valley. In Shakespeare’s day this was sheep country and the center of England’s wool industry. By the mid-1800s the area had fallen into decline, its wool trade usurped by Australia and New Zealand. Thus the area slept, by-passed by the factories and cities of the Industrial Revolution. Now tourists flock to the Cotswolds and yet the region remains remarkably unspoilt: in fact, it appears to thrive on the attention.

Recommended Pacing: Spend a night in Oxford or in nearby Woodstock. Follow this with two nights in a countryside hotel as a base for exploring the beautiful Cotswold villages (consider going into Stratford one night to see a play).

Oxford is a beautiful university town graced by spacious lawns, pretty parks, lacy spires, honey-colored Cotswold stones, romantic pathways, and two picturesque rivers-the Cherwell and the Thames. Follow signs for the city center, park in any of the well-signposted, multi-story car parks, and foray on foot to explore. You may want to make your first stop the Oxford Information Centre 15-16 Broad Street, to obtain a map. Walking tours of the town start from here. Much of the sightseeing in this the oldest university town centers on its colleges whose open times depend on whether the students are “up” (there) or “down” (not there). Particularly worth visiting are Christ Church College with its superb quad and tower designed by Christopher Wren to hold the bell Great Tom; Magdalen College, the most beautiful college, with its huge gardens making you feel as if you are in the countryside; and Merton College, whose chapel contains 13th- to 14th-century glass. Apart from the colleges, visit St. Mary’s Church where you can climb the spire for a marvelous view of the city; the Radcliffe Camera and adjacent Ashmolean Museum with its remarkable collection of paintings, tapestries, and sculptures; the riverside Botanical Gardens opposite Magdalen College; Blackwell’s, the most famous of Oxford’s many bookstores; and The Bear, on Alfred Street, a tiny old pub dating from 1242. Punts can be rented on the River Cherwell beside Magdalen Bridge.

Leaving Oxford, take the A44 (Stratford-upon-Avon) to Woodstock, one of England’s prettiest country towns. On the outskirts of Woodstock are the famous gates of Blenheim Palace, www.blenheimpalace.comSir John Vanbrugh’s masterpiece, which was built for John Churchill, the 1st Duke of Marlborough. The construction of the house was a gift from Queen Anne to the Duke after his victory over the French and Bavarians at Blenheim in 1704. However, before its completion, Queen Anne’s gratitude had waned and the Marlborough family had to pay to have the house finished. The gardens and parklike grounds were landscaped by Capability Brown. Sir Winston Churchill, the grandson of the 7th Duke, was born here on November 30, 1874, and associations with him have accentuated the historical interest of the palace. (Winston Churchill, his wife, father, Lord Randolph Churchill, and mother, Jenny Jerome, the beautiful daughter of an American newspaper owner, are buried in St. Martin’s churchyard in Bladon, 2 miles away.) You drive through the grounds to the house, park on the grass, and either tour the sumptuous rooms with a group or wander independently. A narrow-gauge railway takes you through the park to the butterfly farm and plant center. In contrast to the immense palace and spacious grounds are the compact streets of the little town of Woodstock with its coaching inns and interesting shops.

Retrace your steps for a short distance on the A44 in the direction of Oxford and take the A4095 for 7 miles to the mellow-stone town of Witney where blankets have been made for over a thousand years and which still preserves its Cotswold market-town atmosphere. The 18th-century Blanket Hall was used for weighing blankets and has an unusual one-handed clock.

Minster Lovell is a few miles to the west along the B4047: to reach the old part of the village, follow the brown signs for Minster Lovell Hall. Park at the end of the lane and walk through the churchyard to see the ruined home of the Lovell family in a field by the river’s edge. Leave the village by the road to the side of the prettiest building in the village, The Swan, following signs through Astall Leigh and Astall to the A40, which you take in the direction of Cheltenham for a short distance to Burford.

Follow Tourist Information signs down the hill into the lovely old-world Cotswold town of Burford. The broad High Street sweeps down the hillside, bordered by numerous antique and gift shops, to the bridge spanning the River Windrush. Branching off are delightful, narrow residential streets with flower-filled cottage gardens. In the days when the horse-drawn coach was the main form of transport, Burford was a way station. The coaches are long gone but the lovely inns remain: two with the most atmosphere are Lamb Inn & The Bay Tree.

Explore Burford and leave town following the road over the River Windrush. Go left at the mini-roundabout, directing yourself down country lanes to Taynton with its adorable thatched and golden-stone cottages and on up the valley to Great Barrington and Little Barrington, a village of quaint cottages. Turn right along the A40 towards Cheltenham and first right to Windrush where you pick up signs for the drive down country lanes through Sherbourne to Bourton-on-the-Water. (When you come to the A429 turn right and then right into Bourton-on-the-Water.)

Bourton-on-the-Water is a lovely village with a number of riverside greens and low bridges spanning the River Windrush. Go early in the morning, just before sunset, or in the winter to avoid the crowds that overrun this peaceful (albeit somewhat over-commercialized) spot.

Leave Bourton-on-the-Water by going down the main street and turning right for a very short distance on the A429 (in the direction of Cheltenham) to a left-hand turn that directs you down country lanes to the more peaceful side of the Cotswolds. This is typified by the outstandingly lovely villages of Lower and Upper Slaughter with their honey-colored stone cottages beside peaceful streams-just the names on the signposts are enough to lure you down their lanes. From Upper Slaughter follow signs for Stow-on-the-Wold down country lanes through “the Swells,” Lower and Upper Swell, further picturesque examples of villages with whimsical names.

Stow-on-the-Wold, its market square lined by mellow, old, gray-stone buildings, was one of the most prosperous wool towns in England. Most of the 17th-century buildings around the square now house interesting shops. Two of Stow’s main thoroughfares-Sheep Street and Shepherds Way-are reminders that selling sheep was once the town’s main livelihood. Cromwell converted the 12th-century church into a prison and used it to hold 1,000 Royalists captive after a Civil War battle in 1646.

Nearby Moreton in Marsh‘s broad main street, once part of the Roman road known as the Fosse Way, is lined with interesting shops. At the crossroads take the A44 towards Evesham to Bourton-on-the-Hill, an appropriately named village whose houses climb a steep hillside. At the top of the hill turn right for Blockley and follow signs for the village center until you pick up signs for Broad Campden and Chipping Campden, its High Street lined with gabled cottages and shops topped by steep tile roofs.

Leave Chipping Campden in the direction of Evesham (a small side road off the High Street that takes you past chocolate-box cottages to the A44, which you cross for the short drive through lavender-lined lanes past Snowshill Lavender to Snowshill and Snowshill Manor (NT), a Tudor manor packed with collections of musical instruments, clocks, toys, and bicycles, and surrounded by lovely cottage gardens. tel: 01386-852410

Just down the lane, flowers dress the picutesque weathered-stone houses of Broadway, a town that is often described as the perfection of Cotswold beauty. The Lygon Arms is as famous as the town, a magnificent 14th- to 16th-century hostelry well worth a peek into its bar and lounges.

Turn right up the main street and first left on the B4632 (signposted Stratford), through peaceful Willersey, where ducks sail serenely on the village mere, and Weston-sub-Edge, to the outskirts of Mickleton where you turn right for Hidcote Manor Gardens (NT), one of the most delightful gardens in England. Created early this century by Major Lawrence Johnston, it is a series of individual gardens each bounded by sculpted hedges and linked by paths and terraces. Each “mini-garden” focuses on a specific theme or flower. There are stunning displays of old roses and in summer the perennials are a blaze of color. tel: 01386-438333 Next door, another outstanding garden, Kiftsgate Court, has exquisite displays of roses.

Leaving Hidcote, the 9-mile drive to Stratford-upon-Avon down country lanes is well-signposted. As you enter the town look for signposts directing you Anne Hathaway’s Cottage. Anne married William Shakespeare in 1582, but until then she lived in a darling thatched cottage at Shottery, a small village just a stone’s throw from Stratford-upon-Avon. You see paintings and photographs of this picture-book cottage all over the world.

Stratford-upon-Avon is the birthplace of the greatest poet in the English language, William Shakespeare. Stratford-upon-Avon is always impossibly crowded with visitors-if crowds are not to your liking, give it a miss. William Shakespeare was born in 1564 in a half-timbered house on Henley Street (Shakespeare’s Birthplace, now a museum), educated at the King’s New Grammar School and, in 1597, six years before his death, retired to New Place, one of the finest and largest houses in Stratford. Simply engraved stones in front of the altar of the Holy Trinity Church mark the burial spot of Shakespeare and some other members of his family. It is a fairly large town, with beautifully renovated timbered buildings and lovely shops. The town’s glory, however, is brought expertly to the stage at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre and at its associate theatre, The Other Place.

Leave Stratford on the A46 for Warwick. Warwick Castle is a magnificent 14th-century fortress of formidable towers and turrets. The fortress dominates a choice spot on the riverbank and its striking structure is beautifully preserved. Climb the towers, explore the armory and torture chamber below, then visit the Manor House. As you walk through the house you see what it was like to attend a house party given by the Earl and Countess of Warwick in 1898. The house has retained its period furniture and Madame Tussaud’s has populated the rooms with wax figures from the past. Here a servant pours water into a bath for a guest while downstairs visitors listen to a recital being given by Dame Clara Butt. The gardens are decorated by arrogant, strutting peacocks.

Wander into Warwick with its mixture of Georgian and old timber-framed houses. At the town’s west gate stands the Leycester Hospital, for 400 years an almshouse for crippled soldiers. In the Beauchamp Chapel lies the tomb of Elizabeth I’s favorite, the Earl of Leicester.

From Warwick fast motorways will connect you to all parts of Britain.


* (NT) means that the property listed is under the care of the National Trust.

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