The Cotswolds: Exploring English Nature
9 days with Natural Habitat Adventures Rating:
Day 1: Oxford, United Kingdom—City Tour / Minster Lovell
Our Cotswolds sojourn begins this afternoon in Oxford with a guided tour of England's most famous university town. Admire the architecture of the 15th-century Bodleian Library and Christ Church, the largest of Oxford’s colleges, founded by King Henry VIII in 1546, with its famous bell tower designed by Sir Christopher Wren. Leaving Oxford, we head west into the heart of the Cotswolds. This bucolic region, whose name comes from the Old English "cot" for sheep enclosure and "wold," meaning hill—“sheep enclosures among rolling hills”—spans 800 square miles and is protected as Britain’s largest Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Arrive at Minster Lovell, where a welcome dinner awaits at our inn next to a historic mill. This perfectly preserved village of stone cottages with classic thatched roofs enjoys a romantic setting on the River Windrush.
Day 2: Windrush Valley Walk / Private Garden Tour
The Windrush Valley is one of the prettiest walking destinations in the Cotswolds. An easy path leads along the meandering flow of the river through the postcard-perfect hamlets of Swinbrook and Asthall. In contrast to the Cotswolds' more heavily touristed towns, these are unspoiled villages that evoke the England of the imagination. Swinbrook is quintessentially Cotswolds with its stone walls, medieval church, cricket pitch with wooden pavilion, and an old stone pub next to the bridge spanning the tranquil river—the perfect spot to stop for a pint. The scenery is as bucolic as it gets, with the trail edging the trout-filled stream and passing pastures filled with grazing sheep enclosed by dry stone walls. Expect abundant wildflowers in spring, a rich palette of warm colors in autumn, and varied bird sightings along the way. This afternoon, join esteemed garden historian Marion Mako who introduces us to some favorite garden properties, a behind-the-scenes look that typical visitors don't get. If time permits, wander around medieval Burford, whose high street filled with tiny shops, tea rooms and pubs rolls down a steep hill toward the River Windrush. Return to Minster Lovell for a second night.
Day 3: Chedworth Villa / Private Tour of Highgrove / Malmesbury
Travel this morning to Cirencester, known as Corinium in Roman times and bested only by Londinium (London) in terms of importance when Britain was part of the Roman Empire. A specialist-guided tour of Chedworth Villa reveals some of the best-preserved Roman antiquities in Britain. The site is preserved in the style of a Victorian archeological dig, and we'll see impressive Roman mosaics, bathhouse rooms, remnants of the steam heating system, and the Nymphaeum, still fed by water that filters through ancient Cotswold limestone. The hidden valley where Chedworth is located offers glorious rural vistas, with fields hemmed by stands of poplar, chestnut, rowan and whitebeam. The valley is home to herds of the sheep that made the Cotswolds wealthy in the Middle Ages, and numerous wildlife species inhabit the hedgerows. Raptor sightings are common, and we find scores of pheasants in season. Walk to Chedworth village and The Seven Tuns pub for lunch, then visit the Cotswolds Discovery Center, the interpretive headquarters for the Cotswolds Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Here, we learn more about this unique protected landscape and the conservation efforts to sustain both its natural features and traditional rural lifestyle.
This afternoon, take a private tour of Highgrove House and Gardens, the country residence of HRH the Prince of Wales, who is an ardent supporter of wildlife conservation and rural landscapes in Britain. Such was his love for the landscape, history and people of the Cotswolds that Prince Charles chose to make this 1796 manor house his personal home. The gardens, 35 years in the making, reflect great diversity, from the genteel environs of the Sundial Garden to the unstructured beauty of the Wildflower Meadow. Later, browse the market town of Tetbury, famous for its antique shops, before continuing to Whatley Manor outside Malmesbury to spend two nights.
Day 4: Slad Valley Walk / Private Tour of Woodchester Estate
A morning walk through the Slad Valley reveals an idyllic vale untouched by development, with four small nature reserves to explore. We look for deer, foxes, badgers and hedgehogs, but the real attraction is the sublime rural scenery. This region was once the heart of England's wool industry in the Middle Ages, which generated so much wealth for the Cotswolds. Our walk ends in the village of Slad at the famous Woolpack Pub, Laurie Lee’s local. Lee, a novelist and poet, is the Cotswolds' most famous author, raised in this tiny town that remains largely untouched by tourism. Following narrow country roads across common land, we reach Coaley Peak, with views across the Cotswolds and into Wales. "Common land" was originally owned by the lord of the manor who allowed local people to graze their livestock and gather wood. Today it is managed by the National Trust as a resource for hikers, mountain bikers and dog walkers. The land is registered as a Site of Special Scientific Interest on account of the resident wildlife, including the Adonis blue butterfly, and various rare flowers including 13 species of orchid. Many archeological sites are present as well, including Iron Age settlements, a Neolithic long barrow burial site, and evidence of Roman activity.
Arriving at the private Woodchester Estate, once a Tudor deer hunting ground, we tour the Victorian mansion before a picnic lunch by the 200-year-old boathouse. On a nature walk with a National Trust ranger, look for muntjac and roe deer, plus kingfisher, herons, and mandarin and tufted ducks around the lakes. Learn about important conservation efforts as the National Trust, which manages Woodchester, continues to restore the parklands to the original hardwood forest and pasture. We'll watch roosting greater horseshoe bats on the monitors at the mansion and try our hand at using bat detectors outside at dusk. In addition to long-running research on these endangered bats, the badger population is also monitored here by the British government.
Day 5: Village Walks / Private Tour of Sudeley Castle & Gardens
Explore a collection of classic Cotswold villages this morning including Stanton, one of the most charming. Many of its cottages were built in the mid-1500s, and the church dates to the 9th century. Neighboring Stanway has a Jacobean manor house with a gravity-fed fountain that reaches heights of nearly 300 feet. This afternoon, encounter a thousand years of English history at Sudeley Castle. On a private tour with the castle archivist, follow in the footsteps of royalty as we learn about the castle's richly layered past. With the head gardener, explore highlights of its magnificent grounds, home to 16 rare and endangered pheasant species that are part of a breeding and conservation program at Sudeley. The grand Tudor estate occupies 1,200 acres protected for the natural beauty of the landscape, including 10 acclaimed gardens. The Four Queens Garden references the four female monarchs who visited the castle over the centuries. Among its many royal associations, Sudeley was visited multiple times by Henry VIII, and his last wife, Catherine Parr, is buried on the grounds. The castle has also hosted Queen Elizabeth I, King Charles I and King George III, who famously fell down a flight of stairs here. It was during his reign that America gained independence from the Crown. The castle was badly damaged during the English Civil War and fell into neglect but was eventually restored in the 19th century by wealthy industrialists whose heirs remain in residence today. Our visit is capped with a private dinner at the castle—needless to say, an event not available on a standard visit. Continue to the tiny village of Upper Slaughter for three nights at Lords of the Manor, a luxury country house hotel dating to 1649.
Day 6: Greystones Farm Nature Reserve / Private Tour of Hidcote Gardens
Awaken this morning in one of the Cotswolds' most enchanting settings. The villages of Upper and Lower Slaughter have names that derive from the Saxon word slothre or sloh, meaning "slough" or "marshy place," rather than any grisly heritage. Connected by a peaceful mile walk along the River Eye, the villages look straight out of a fairytale with their tiny cottages, steepled churches, stone walls, trailing roses, and picturesque old mill. Later this morning, tour Greystones Farm Nature Reserve to learn about sustainable agricultural practices. This small working farm has been designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest for its floodplain wildflower meadows and the River Eye that flows through the property, creating habitat for otters, water voles and other wildlife. The milk from the farm's grass-fed cows is made into Single Gloucester cheese, allowing the farm to turn a profit while benefiting local wildlife.
Continue to Hidcote, a National Trust property regarded as one of the finest gardens in England. To make the most of the natural light and avoid crowds, we have a private tour in the late afternoon and remain for an evening meal when the property closes to the general public. With access to the resident archivist and garden experts, enjoy drinks and dinner in this splendid setting, with a presentation on the gardens' history and their designer, Lawrence Johnstone, who sourced plants for the gardens from around the world and donated the site to the National Trust in 1948—making it the first of many significant British gardens the Trust would acquire.
Day 7: Exploring Rural Heritage in the Cotswolds
Today is devoted to learning about the traditional rural skills that have helped shape the landscape of the Cotswolds over the centuries. More than 80% of these rolling hills are agricultural land, and the original wealth of the region came through the wool industry. Nature here has been managed and conserved by the farming community, which continues its commitment to careful stewardship and sustainability today. We'll spend time with a farming family to learn about their contemporary way of life informed by an ancient heritage. Among the practices for which Cotswold farmers are known, we may watch sheep dogs at work, learn how the famous dry stone walls are made, and enjoy a classic cream tea.
Day 8: Transfer to London Heathrow Airport / Depart
An early morning transfer is included to London's Heathrow Airport, about a 90-minute drive. If you choose to remain in the region for further exploration on your own, consider a visit to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Blenheim Palace, the Roman city of Bath, and Shakespeare's childhood home of Stratford-upon-Avon—all are nearby.
Please Note: While all activities listed on our itinerary will be included, some may take place on days or times that are different from what is shown, depending on local schedules.
All This Included
Sometimes, nature travel is more refined than rugged. That's the case with our rural sojourn in the Cotswold Hills—it's filled with wild discoveries, yet decidedly genteel. On walks through ancient beech forest and rolling meadows, along hedgerows and trout-filled streams, delve into a landscape that offers an idyllic vision of traditional England. Our focus is on native habitats, wildlife and conservation in Britain's largest designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Explore hidden byways and unspoiled villages most visitors miss, enhanced with private tours of exquisite gardens, picnic lunches, and pints at local pubs still frequented by farmers and vicars whose roots go back centuries. We don't omit highlights on a grander scale, however—enjoy private presentations and exclusive access at Sudeley Castle, Hidcote Gardens, and Highgrove House and Gardens, the royal estate of the Prince of Wales. In spring, lavish floral displays burst into color, while autumn displays a tapestry of russet, gold and scarlet. In the evenings, Britain's finest country house hotels provide a luxurious retreat, as renowned for their sustainable farm-to-table fare as for their historic architecture and bucolic settings.
Minster Lovell, Oxfordshire: Minster Mill
Malmesbury, Wiltshire: Whatley Manor
Upper Slaughter, Gloucestershire: Lords of the Manor
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