England's Cotswolds

England’s Cotswolds

The Cotswolds are like stepping back into a time capsule.   These unusually named villages, had their glory days when sheep and the wool they produced, made this area wealthy through the woolen mills and those who ran them and contributed to the building of local cathedrals in many of these busy market towns.  Cotswold comes from the Saxon phrase meaning hills of sheeps coats. With the onset of the Industrial Revolution and the rise of cotton over wool, these villages faded in importance and wealth & pretty much stayed untouched, to be rediscovered in a new era.  Some of these time capsule little villages show up today in some period piece dramas on PBS.

We stretched the actual confines of the Cotswolds a bit to include Bath in the West,  Stratford upon Avon in the North and Oxford in the East.  We figured, what the Hey; our tour, we can make some inclusions if we wish.

Our flight arrived at Heathrow Airport and we loaded our bikes and ourselves onto a bus to Oxford.  This is where our actual cycling begins and ends on this tour.  This fascinating University town with it’s many historic colleges, is well worth at tour, in itself.  Some of the colleges are closed to visitors; but, many allow you to stroll the campus and explore some of the buildings.  As you check out the library of one, you can imagine Louis Carol as he may have had an early inkling of an outline for Alice in Wonderland.

Stage One: Oxford to Stow-on-the-Wold  51,0 km

We leave Oxford and follow the A44 through Woodstock and Blenheim palace.  Much of this is along this busy highway; but, it is direct and we have a nice cycle path. We’ll stop in Woodstock on our way back to Oxford at the end of this tour.  It’s mostly level as we then head to Charlbury and then we have some rolling hills to Ascott under Wychwood, Shipton under Wychwood, Idbury and Bledington.  We are truly in the English countryside after Carlbury and we enjoy the narrow roads and paths that are nearly car free. Much of the route is part of the documented Oxfordshire cycle path system  The final push into Stow-on-the-Wold is a climb.

We checked into a charming little B and B and headed to the Tourist Office.  Armed with a walking tour, we made our way down narrow passageways and to the main square.  I just couldn’t resist a photo op of one of us in the stocks.
This town was the junction of 8 roads and had been a marketing center for the important wool producing region.  We ended with a stop at St Edward’s Church, which was used as a prison for 1000 detainees in the 1600’s.
The rains came in the evening and we settled into a friendly pub for a welcome drink and simple dinner.

Stage Two:  Stow in the Wold to Stratford-upon-Avon  41,9 km

Next morning, after our traditional English breakfast, we are ready for stage two.  The rain has ended for now.  We start with a climb up and out of Stow.  There are no real climbs today, just some rolling hills and small climbs.  We get to experience the ambiance of the small villages we encounter along the way; many of which are built with the creamy golden color stones that are prominent to this region.  Many of the roads are narrow; but, the Oxfordshire cycle guides have these as well as walking paths.  As we leave Long Marsten, we watch for the Stratford Rail Trail.  This is one of the disused lines that has become an all purpose path.  Here, one may encounter, cyclists, walkers, horseback riders, dogs, sheep or bunnies.  This particular path, although rough, takes us to the edge of Stratford.  This is truly a mecca for Shakespere enthusiasts.  This was Shakespeare’s birthplace and the historic sites in town and just outside are maintained by the Shakespeare Trust.
You can catch a performance at the Theater, or wander the well signposted town and take in the sights of half timbered buildings, thatch roof cottages or canal boats making their way through the locks.

Stage Three:  Stratford-upon-Avon to Broadway  35,2

The first part of today’s ride is through the Avon River valley with it’s rolling hills.  There are a few challenging hills later in the ride.  Again, we have many small roads as well as a few perfectly straight old Roman roads.  We made a stop at the Hidcote Manor and Gardens.  For those who enjoy roaming through the manicured English gardens and admiring a well preserved thatch roof manor house, this is a must.  This was a nice break and offered many photo ops.
After Hidcote, we made a stop in Chipping Campton  to admire the stone buildings and the interesting open market building on the square.  The church and many of the buildings are build with the classic warm golden stones.  Several Cotswold towns begin with “Chipping” which means Market.  This is a typical market town. Then we climbed the ridge for our final part of the ride to Broadway.  The main street is Wide, hence “Broad Way”.  This road was widened to cover two streams and the town itself was a coach stop back in the day.
We had picked a lovely old coach house to stay and it was completely decked out in antiques.  The town itself has many Antique shops as well as a fine Teddy Bear Museum.  Next morning we had a wonderful English Breakfast in the breakfast room and felt like we could have been in a Dickens novel.

Stage Four: Broadway to Bourton-on-the-Water  31,8 km  

We leave Broadway and climb to Broadway Hill.  Here there is a tower to climb by foot for an even better view over 12 counties, on a clear day.  Then it is on past Snowshill and Snowsill manor for even more lovely views.
There are rolling hills and then we head down to the Windrush Valley, as we pass fields of grazing sheep.  We pass through both Upper and Lower slaughter.  Lower Slaughter is one of the most beautiful little villages and well worth a quick stop and a few photos.  From here, it is on to Burton on the Water.  They call this the Venice of the Cottswolds….. not quite the same.
It dates to the Bronze age and it does have a lovely setting on the Windrush River and boasts some very fun museums, including one that replicates the town in miniature.

Stage Five:  Bourton-on-the-Water to Stonehill Farm, Charleton  49,8 km

More rolling hills today with a few climbs.  It’s a mix of minor roads and paths as well as more straight Roman roads.  We found that Northleach made for a nice stop.  We followed the Coln River and paused at Bibery, with it’s well preserved cottages.
This is often used for period pieces.  You may catch a glimpse in some PBS historic piece.  Then we are off to Cirenchester, which was the second largest town in Roman Britain, dating to around AD50.
In a field on the outskirts of Cirenchester is the only remnant of a Roman ampatheater.  All that remains is an indentation. The last part of the ride takes us to Stonehill farm.  This is a working farm that also functions as a B and B. As the temperature was coolish, we were warmly welcomed with hot chocolate and cookies and a comfortable cottage room.  Later we made our way down the road to the local Pub for a simple, but filling Pub meal and some welcome beer and local ambiance.

Stage Six: Stonehill Farm to Bath  43,9 km

Today is a long day, so we made an early start.  We head toward Malmsbury and stop to admire the remains of the Abbey. You have to love the story of the “flying monk” who in 1005, strapped on wings and covered about 600 feet on his flying descent from the Abbey tower and surviving, with some broken bones.  Then we rolled on through a series of tiny villages: Foxlley, Norton, Holvington, Griddleton and then making our descent to Castle Combe.  This is one of the most lovely villages in the Cotswolds.  It’s been the set of many a film.
We rested our bikes in the very center of this village at the covered market cross and strolled around, taking in the atmosphere of this captivating little place.  After a lunch break and an ice cream cone, we were fortified to head out of town.  There is a bit of a climb here and another few small villages before we reached Hunters Hall and nearly missed a deceptive turn onto what looked like someone’s small dirt driveway.  The sign had been knocked down and we really had some trouble finding this.  Once on it, there were no signs, so we simply hoped we were on the right track.  It was reassuring to see other cyclists and finally we knew this was the easy back way into Bath.  We found ourselves on the ridge of suburbs on the Bath approach and lastly on the A Road into the city itself.  This was pretty bike friendly for an A road.  We were happy to have an extra day here, as there was much to see.  The Romans discovered and harnessed the 120 degree springs and the Roman baths are well worth a visit.  These fell into disrepair over the years and were discovered again in Victorian times and became popular once again.
We found that the guided group walking tour was so entertaining and educational, we highly recommend it.  Who know that a man named Crapper, invented the toilet and how these used to hang off the buildings.  The Avon Tow Path is beside the river and you may see fisherman catching eels.

British Rail: Bath to Moreton-in-Marsh 

Our shortest ride of the tour; from our B and B to the Rail staton in Bath and from the Moreton station to our B and B.  Moreton is the Rail hub of the Cotswolds and we carefully had picked a schedule time that had the fewest changes….. one.  This made it pretty simple.  Also we made sure we picked a scheduled route that had a bike car.  After our traditional English breakfast, we headed to the Rail station and soon were on our way to Moreton.  We arrived on market day and the town was alive with activity.  Market days are always fun.  This town was a major junction for coaches and then trains and several of the old coach houses still function,

Stage Seven: Moreton-in-Marsh to Burford  48,0 km

Today we are again on small roads; but, with brief stints on the busy A roads.  Thankfully these were brief.  More rolling hills again today.  More tiny villages with strange names.  We stopped at the Rollright Stone monuments.  Although not nearly as grand as Stonehenge, these are easily accesable.  Thought to have been constructed around 1700BC,  the seventy stones form a 100 foot circle known as the King’s Men.  Nearby is a single stone; the King; surrounded by five stones; the Whispering Knights.
These relics, as Stonehenge, are subject to much folklore.  From here we passed through quaint Tainten and as we got closer to Burford, the traffic increased.  Burford is on a hill and just across the Windrush River.  it too was a coach stop and many stone and half timbered buildings remain.  We stayed in one of the old Coach house inns that had it’s origins by Papal order in 1397.  It’s gone through a lot over the years.

Stage Eight: Burford to Woodstock  24,8 km

Today is a short ride with multiple crossings, back and forth over the Windrush River.  Initially we are riding on a ridge and doing our very best not to get lost as we ride through multiple tiny towns.  The last section from Stonesfield to Woodstock on a busy road.  Woodstock itself is a pretty little town; full of antique shops.  It’s real draw is it’s proximity to Blenham palace and extensive grounds.  The estate was originally built by Henry I in the 12th century as a hunting retreat. This was where Winston Churchill grew up.  We checked into our B and B and after a refreshment, we headed off to visit Blenham.  There is a tour of the palace or you can roam the expansive grounds, ride the small gauge railway around part of the grounds, visit the butterfly house or just roam.



Stage Nine: Woodstock to Oxford  12,7 km

Familiar territory here.  We are basically retracing our route of the first day’s ride.  We were anxious to get back to Oxford and do some exploring, before we headed back home.
Expect plenty of tourists, cyclists and students for the 35 colleges.
Part of the charm is the classic buildings.
Don’t forget to look up and see the array of gargoyles. The oldest college dates to 1249.  For a view from on high, you can climb the Carfax Tower.  Wander the paths to the river and watch the boats and do your own punting on the river.  All in all a wonderful time.  Then we made our way return to Heathrow Airport via bus and our return flight home.