By Hank Schrader, USMA ’71, Europe Destination & Europe River Cruise Expert
If there ever was a real fairy-tale part of England, the Cotswolds would get my vote. This 25 by 90 mile part of Gloucestershire once was rich due the wool industry—in medieval times, wool was a huge industry, and it is said the best wool in Europe came from the Cotswolds. The area prospered until the Industrial Revolution and a preference for cotton caused the wool industry to collapse. So, like many great places in Europe, when the money dried up, these once prosperous areas fell into a time warp of neglect. The result for us today is a glimpse of the past of thatched roof homes, limestone villages designed to market wool and a peaceful countryside that has great walking paths over rolling hills.
So, let’s explore some of the best of this area, Chipping Campden, and Blenheim Palace and consider a visit to Stratford-upon-Avon and Warwick. As almost always in our blogs, all the pictures are ours–Anne Schrader took most, but occasionally I take a few.
Chipping Campden is our favorite town in the Cotswolds. It really looks like a village lost in a time warp. The highlight for me are the incredible thatched roofs of some of the homes. This town was home to the most wealthy wool merchants of the Cotswolds. It has an impressive high street (high streets were the wide streets so livestock and wagons and pack horses full of shorn wool fleece could be brought to market). Some historians say this is best high street in all of England.
The street is lined with yellow limestone buildings—a distinctive stone called aptly Cotswold stone—it is the only stone allowed on this street to preserve the character of Chipping Campden. This high street does not have house numbers—folks who live here just knew the name of the house or establishment they were looking to visit.
As a wool market and distribution center, it is no surprise it has a really interesting and distinctive Market Hall.
It was built in 1627. Signs in the market’s area provide a good explanation of the construction techniques used to build this hall.
Just off to the south of the western part of High Street, are the thatched homes. Here are 2 of our photos:
While there are other neat sights in the town, a unique aspect of Chipping Campden is that it serves as the end of the 102 mile Cotswolds Way—a hiking trail that starts in Bath and winds up in this small town of less than 6000.
A visit to the Cotswolds is a chance to relax, slow down, or maybe take a hike. Here are some pictures of the Cotswolds House, our favorite place to stay in Chipping Campden.
To learn more about Chipping Campden, here is the link to our website:
Blenheim Palace, the ancestral home of the Dukes of Marlborough, who are better known by their actual names—the Churchills; is a place that is a must see for me when visiting the Cotswolds. This palace has huge significant for the English—its function, as described in the pamphlet I purchased during our visit, “was to be monument, castle, citadel and private house—in that order.” To my mind, it delivers!
So, a little history is in order to understand why Blenheim Place was built. In 1704, English forces under the command of John Churchill, the first Duke of Marlborough, decisively defeated the French and Bavarians at Blenheim on the Danube River in Bavaria, Germany during the War of Spanish Succession. This victory stopped Louis XIV’s (he is better known as the Sun King) quest to rule all of Europe. As a reward for this historic victory, the English Queen, Queen Anne, granted to the Duke land to build a monument and palace home. The final result (despite many funding issues and political problems that lasted over 30+ years) is Blenheim Palace, a present day World Heritage Site.
Once you have your entrance tickets, there is a 45 minute tour of the palace that leaves every 10 minutes, but you could wander on your own and talk with the docents positioned in each room. There is also a multimedia presentation called The Untold Story that takes 45 minutes. And if you still have not had enough of this grand place, there is a 30 minute guided walk through the private apartments, if available, since the 12th duke still resides at Blenheim.
Another great feature are the extensive gardens. Among the grounds are the Water Terraces, the Italian Garden, the Secret Garden, the Arboretum, the Rose Garden and the Grand Cascade. However, most folks find the bridges that cross the man-made lake in the approach to the palace are the most stunning views on the estate.
Sadly our visit didn’t include a visit to the gardens since we visited in March and were on a tight schedule, so we definitely need to return with more time during our next visit to the Cotswolds.
Since this is Winston Churchill’s birthplace, there are interesting displays about his childhood, including his birth room and a Churchill Exhibition. I really liked both—it gave me a little more insight to the man voted the “Greatest Briton of All Time” in a BBC Television survey.
When we visited, you were not allowed to take pictures inside, but now on the official palace website, its says pictures are allowed. These rooms are so stunning, I would recommend you take some photos inside the palace.
If the author William Shakespeare holds interest for you, his home town of Stratford-upon-Avon is a must for you. Among the sights are a Shakespeare museum/home complex (this is a multimedia exhibit that explains Shakespeare’s life) and then you get to explore his small home, Nash’s House and the cottage of his wife, Anne Hathaway in nearby Shottery (which I found to be the most interesting of all these sites—it was a look at a 1570’s, 12 room thatched cottage). Here are some photos:
To be clear, if you want to see a Shakespeare play, it is best to spend a night here and take in a performance by the Royal Shakespeare Company. Check out their website (www.rsc.org.uk) for play information.
I also liked the Avon Riverfront with the swans and canal boats.
Warwick is about 18 miles from Chipping Campden (about a 30 minute drive), so it is an easy day trip. The key site is Warwick Castle, which many consider the best medieval castle in England.
Although touristy, this massive place is really quite interesting. It starts with the moat entrance and leads to huge courtyard.
There is a good collection of royal residences inside these fortified walls, towers and ramparts. The most important are the Great Hall and 5 lavish staterooms and a chapel. You could also pay extra to visit the Castle Dungeon (we didn’t) and other events or shows. The grounds are well-kept and add to the splendor of this castle.
Here are some other photos from our visit:
My Final Thoughts
The Cotswolds are an often overlooked part of England. But, for me it is a true gem. You will seldom find a more peaceful and relaxing place in all of Europe. So, how would I spend 3 days in this region? 1 day devoted to just Chipping Campden. ½ day at Blenheim, maybe more and maybe combined with Warwick. A day to Stafford-upon-Avon (great for Shakespeare buffs, but if you are that into his works, relocate and stay for a play), or maybe better yet, a walk on the Cotswold Way and another day relaxing in Chipping Campden.
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HANK is a certified Western European Destination Specialist (DS) who has been traveling to Europe for 45 years. He is also an Accredited Cruise Counselor (ACC), conferred by the Cruise Line International Association (CLIA). This recognized expert in cruise and leisure travel is a retired Army Officer, and taught World Geography for 8 years. He is a `71 graduate of West Point and has earned 2 master’s degrees. His other Certifications:
- AmaWaterways River Cruise Specialist
- Viking River Cruise Specialist
- Scenic River Cruise Specialist
- Emerald Waterways Specialist
- Avalon Waterways Specialist
- Brit Agent