Indulge in this Cotswolds weekend itinerary to enjoy one of England’s richest treats: cosy honeyed villages and sweeping stately homes, gentle landscapes to muddy your boots on and literary links to add culture to the great food and great spa treatments all rolled into one.
"The sea was wet as wet could be,
The sands were dry as dry.
You could not see a cloud, because
No cloud was in the sky:
No birds were flying overhead
-- There were no birds to fly. " Alice in Wonderland.
Perhaps you’ve heard of the Cotswolds in England, or perhaps you have not. But there’s probably no perhaps to be heard when it comes to the famous work that took flight there: Alice in Wonderland, followed by Alice Through the Looking Glass in hot, nonsensical pursuit.
These texts, written by Charles Lutwidge Dodgson under the pseudonym Lewis Carroll, travelled the world.
Whimsical landscapes, power struggles with Queens and cakes that say Eat Me and make you grow larger, these characters have captivated adults and children alike all over the world.
A bit like the Cotswolds themselves, I would say.
Most famous for their narrow lanes, honeyed stone, thatched cottages and gentle hiking paths, the Cotswolds still have plenty of surprises up their tweed-jacketed sleeves, as I discovered only this summer.
Step away from the tourist crowds with this delicious itinerary for a long weekend in the Cotswolds, featuring food, history and relaxation, even with a toddler in tow.
In other words, Alice in Wonderland brought to life.
The Cotswolds are the second largest Area of Natural Beauty (AONB) and protected landscape in England (the largest being the Lake District.)
The area stretches across five counties (Gloucestershire, Oxfordshire, Warwickshire, Wiltshire, and Worcestershire) covering nearly 800 square miles.
I’ve tweaked the timings a little so that the itinerary will work either as a romantic break in the Cotswolds for a couple or as a cultural trip with a little one.
And if you’re only at the dreaming stage of travel, that’s cool too. I’ve written more about each place so that you can bookmark it for later.
Are you ready?
Great, let’s go!
The Cotswolds are most easily experienced by car, giving you full freedom to drive those winding rural lanes.
However, parking can be difficult in some hot spots so another approach involves heading to one of the Cotswolds’ main cities and taking tours from there.
Bath, Oxford, Cirencester, Cheltenham and Gloucester all make a good base, depending on what you want to see.
For this itinerary, I’ve assumed you have your own wheels and can hit the open road whenever you’re ready.
Friday / Arrival Day
Arrive at Cowley Manor, unpack and enjoy the grounds. Dine at the hotel restaurant if you’re tired or venture out to one of the nearby eateries listed below.
You could write an entire website about where to stay in the Cotswolds (and I may do that at a later date!)
We focused on the gorgeous Cowley Manor for a number of reasons.
So many hotels claim to have spas these days, but the one at Cowley Manor truly delivers.
The C-Side offers up potions and lotions to keep beauty editors happy and from a traveller’s point of view, it also has a wonderful sense of place.
Nature through the looking glass occurs in the 17 metre indoor pool with its floor to ceiling walls of glass, while the spacious outdoor pool clearly has nature right around it.
A relaxation area, steam room, drench showers and sauna help ease aching bones and four treatment rooms rustle up facials, massages and speciality pregnancy treatments.
I tested out the Green & Spring indulgence (someone has to, right?!) while Mr Lab took Baby Lab swimming. I should have done this ages ago!
Green & Spring
Green & Spring are handmade cosmetics and toiletries made from herbs and flowers sourced from within the UK. They contain 100% natural botanical materials and, well, smell rather lovely.
From the luxurious haven of Cowley Manor, drive half an hour south to Stroud to catch their Cotswold-famous Stroud Farmers Market.
Open every Saturday from 9am to 14:00, this is a market that clings to steep streets and steps, winning awards left, right and centre.
It has an authentic farmer feel with raw meat and eggs in evidence, but also enough gentrification to not scare away townies completely.
In the spirit of Alice in Wonderland (ahem!) I made it to the cake stand and caught up with Hetty from Hetty’s Kitchen.
“It’s a really great way of supporting the local economy,” she told me, talking about the market, “as all traders have to use products sourced from around Stroud.”
So, there you go. That raspberry marshmallow brownie?
Research and helping out local farmers!
A short but scenic drive from Stroud takes you to Nailsworth, an artistic market town cuddled close into a wooded valley.
Instead of tourist tea shops, Nailsworth has been gathering the latest and greatest in Cotswold food, challenging people to shop and eat for real things, prepared in a very real way.
William’s Food Hall & Oyster Bar tackles the oft-forgotten art of fish-mongering.
It balances a bright fish counter with a snug indoor and outdoor eatery and bars of beautifully decorated chocolate on the windowsill. (Wait, was chocolate really supposed to be the main show, Ed?!)
Just along the road is a shop dedicated to sweet treats, Coco Confectionery, including Cotswold Fudge (in case you need a local connection to feel cultured about your sweet tooth) and across the road from there is the cutesy Hobbs House Bakery.
Hobbs is what I imagine the love child of Delia Smith and a bearded hipster would be. Infatuated with all things doughy, bread hangs from the ceiling as a work of art and free coffee compost sits proud in hand-labelled packaging while all ages throng in and out.
The café upstairs serves food (my first ever hot smoked mackerel) which provides fuel for either the stroll across Minchinhampton Common or a sojourn into the home décor shops nearby.
There’s no judging here.
And incidentally, Nailsworth offers visitors free parking (a feature of which it is very proud) so there’s no need to hurry, whichever option you choose.
Dinner at the Bathurst Arms
Expect the British classics here at this pink painted, low-ceilinged pub as well as wild boar terrine, whitebait and grilled woodland chicken.
Sundays in Britain often focus on a traditional Sunday roast, so make that all-important booking first and work backwards from there!
The Wheatsheaf in Northleach hits that perfect Cotswold blend of time-honoured tradition with a twist to bring it into the future.
Alongside the customary roast beef, pork crackling and Yorkshire puddings, you’ll find inventive cauliflower dishes and desserts to make it worth risking a wriggly toddler.
Think sticky date pudding with a salted caramel sauce or a dark chocolate mousse with whisky-soaked cherries.
History or Hiking?
So, with lunch sorted, my suggestion is to walk around Northleach before lunch and explore Sudeley Castle afterwards, as it’s huge and warrants plenty of time.
Or, if you’re less keen on history, switch things around and visit the castle first. Indulge over lunch and then potter around Northleach while your belly comes to terms with what’s just hit it.
Northleach also has a retro playground available for toddlers, just past the half-timbered houses and honeyed backdrop to J.K. Rowling’s Casual Vacancy.
Can we share a secret? Travel around Europe often enough and you run the risk of castle fatigue, the sister affliction of church and cathedral burnout.
Castles are intriguing and historic and important and all that but sometimes, just sometimes, they can start to blend into one.
That’s not the case with Sudeley, which is a fascinating place to spend the day.
Resplendent in golden stone, as any self-respecting building in the Cotswolds should be, Sudeley rivals the Tower of London itself in terms of the level of royal intrigue that’s gone on within its grounds.
Most famous as the home of Catherine Parr, King Henry VIII’s sixth wife (and played by Joely Richardson in the Jonathan Rhys-Meyers version of The Tudors in case that helps to jog your mind) the castle today is a peculiar mix of private home and national treasure.
The 1200 acre estate holds ten award-wining gardens, crumbling ruins, carved elephants and a fully fledged pheasantry with 16 rare and endangered species.
And a wooden fort and custom-built adventure playground to boot. Phew!
Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth I and Lady Jane Grey also visited here and Katherine Parr lies within the understatedly beautiful 15th century church.
But as a visitor, you can dip in and out of the historical displays, the gardens and even the private rooms, tailoring your trip to the time you have on hand and the direction your interests and instincts take you.
There’s also, I’m told, afternoon tea and cake…
Dinner – The Green Dragon
Another cosy pub within easy reach of Cowley Manor and straight from a fairytale version of England. Low ceilings, ivy clad and, let’s face it, sporting a very cool name.
Add in the phrase “in the hamlet of Cockleford” and you’re in word heaven!
Think creamy garlic mushrooms with steak & kidney suet pudding and you’re on the right track…
The Green Dragon, Cockleford.
One look at Westonbirt’s rainbow leaves and it’s easy to see how the Cotswolds inspired Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
One look at the trees grown from seeds that have travelled to space and it’s tempting to think that Lewis Carroll didn’t go far enough.
Westonbirt Arboretum contains over 15 000 labelled trees, including more than 2500 different types and one sponsored by good friends of mine who live in Bristol (it’s all about the local details, right guys?!)
Managed by the Forestry Commission, the Westonbirt Arboretum lives in Gloucestershire, just three miles from the pretty Cotswold market town of Tetbury.
It’s divided into three different areas to help you negotiate the 17 miles of paths and gardens which began in the 1850s when a wealthy Victorian landowner got the whole tree-ball rolling.
The Old Arboretum gives life to trees from Brazil, Japan, Chile and North America, organised into stately avenues with sweeping vistas.
Silk Wood sneaks a few exotic plants into its foliage but the main area is an ancient woodland.
And the Downs involve sprawling grassland and a snazzy Grade 1 registered status.
If, like me, you’re wondering just how interesting a group of trees can be, then I urge you to visit Westonbirt.
Mr Lab has long been a fan but this love of collected nature is a passion that’s grown on me more slowly.
But Westonbirt explores the woodland from all angles. Quite literally.
You can stroll interrupted, as if in the wild.
You can stride along the treetop canopy, climbing ladders and learning fascinating facts. Did you know that beech was once used for writing on before the development of paper? Or that Indian Cedar is used in religious temples, railway sleepers and perfumes?
Children can clamber about the stylish wooden playground and tired parents can pick themselves up with coffee.
There are workshops, guided tours, craft activities, music.
Or, sometimes perfectly, you can find yourself doing nothing at all.
The Japanese call it Shinrinyoku. In English, it’s called forest bathing.
Different to a hike, this involves wandering in the woods without your phone, without a map, without a purpose.
Just resting your back against a tree, closing your eyes and focusing on the sounds and smells of nature.
And doing your best to avoid any rabbit holes.
Or else the Alice-type adventure will begin.
Disclosure - this Cotswolds weekend itinerary was developed in partnership with Visit Britain and iAmbassador as part of the #STSBelfast project. As ever, as always, I kept the right to write what I like. Nonsensical or otherwise…