Between Oxford and the River Severn, about a 2-hour drive west of London, the pastoral Cotswolds occupy a stretch of grassy limestone hills, deep ravines, and barren plateaus known as wolds, Old English for "God's high open land." Ancient villages with names such as Stow-on-the-Wold, Wotton-under-Edge, and Moreton-in-Marsh dot this bucolic area, most of which is in Gloucestershire, with portions in Oxfordshire, Wiltshire, and Worcestershire.
Made rich by wool from their sheep, the landowners here invested in some of the finest domestic architecture in Europe, distinctively built of honey-brown Cotswold stone. The gentry didn't neglect spiritual duties, for some of the simplest Cotswold hamlets have churches that, in style and architectural detail, seem far beyond their modest means. Because Cotswold wool was once sold all over the world and wealthy merchants used some of the money to build these churches, they are sometimes referred to as "wool churches."
You'll also see some thatched cottages in the Cotswolds. More common are Cotswold roof shingles fashioned from split slabs of stone, which required massive buttressing from medieval carpenters as a means of supporting the weight of the roof. Buildings erected since the 1700s, however, usually have slate roofs.
Mobbed by tourists, overrun Broadway, with its 16th-century stone houses and cottages, is the most popular base for touring this area, but we suggest you also head for Bibury, Painswick, or other small villages to capture the true charm of the Cotswolds. You'll find the widest range of hotels and facilities in Cheltenham, once one of England's most fashionable spas, with a wealth of Regency architecture. And families may head to Birdland, in Bourton-on-the-Water, where you can see some 1,200 birds of 361 different species.
Biking the country roads of the Cotswolds is one of the best ways to experience the quiet beauty of the area. For a self-guided tour (but with a lot of help), you can hook up with Cotswold Country Cycles (tel. 01386/438706; cotswoldcountrycycles.com), whose tours are designed to take you off the beaten track. Accommodations are arranged in advance, often at manor houses or historic homes. A typical tour price is a 3-day, 2-night adventure called "Simply Cotswolds," starting at £205 per person. A simpler option is offered by Hartwells Cycle-Hire (tel. 01451/820405; www.hartwells.supanet.com), which rents bikes for £12 a day from its base on Bourton-on-the-Water.
The Cotswolds is also one of the most famous regions of England for hiking. With such a large area in which to ramble, it's a good idea to know where you are (and aren't) welcome. The Cotswold Voluntary Wardens Service, Shire Hall, Gloucester (tel. 01451/862000; www.cotswoldsaonb.org.uk), offers free brochures highlighting trails and paths.
The Wayfarers, 174 Bellevue Ave., Newport, RI 02840 (tel. 800/249-4620; www.thewayfarers.com), sponsors about six Cotswold walks a year from May to October. The cost of a 6-day tour is £2,587 per person and includes all meals and snacks, first-class accommodations with private bathrooms along the route, and admission to attractions.
To explore on your own, you can get info from the Cheltenham Tourist Information Centre, 77 The Promenade (tel. 01242/522878; www.visitcheltenham.gov.uk). Be sure to buy a copy of the Cotswold Way map.
Offering both self-guided and guided tours, Cotswold Walking Holidays, Festival House, Jessop Avenue in Cheltenham (tel. 01242/518888; www.cotswoldwalks.com), is the leading purveyor of walking holidays in the region. Footpaths in general are well maintained, and this outfitter can show you the way to the best of them. Each night along the way you can stay in a good standard B&B in a Cotswold village with a wide range of pubs and restaurants. Route instructions and maps are provided. Your luggage will be transported from place to place each day. With B&B arranged, 3-night tours begin at £185 per person.
If you want to experience the Cotswolds in a nutshell and don't have a lot of vacation time, our favorite walk is "The Great Cotswold Ramble".
Warning to motorists: The Cotswolds in the past decades has experienced an overwhelming rise in both population and tourism. The narrow roads are sometimes impossibly overcrowded, and parking is difficult even in the smallest of villages.