Natural Instinct: A Slow Travel Guide to the Cotswolds, England

The Hidcote Manor Garden is a popular stop on the Cotswolds Garden Route
The Hidcote Manor Garden is a popular stop on the Cotswolds Garden Route | © The National Trust Photolibrary / Alamy Stock Photo
Photo of Doug ONeill
14 September 2021

This gentle landscape of sloping hills lays on hiking trails, glorious gardens and organic farms, with spa-starring hotels to rest up in at the end of the day.

After frenetic London, the Cotswolds instils in visitors the desire to slow down, relax and reconnect with nature – or with themselves. Spread across five counties, the Cotswolds makes up one of England’s green and pleasant Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, marked by ivy-clad cottages and centuries-old villages with church steeples piercing bucolic landscapes, laced with hiking trails passing by pubs and palaces. Here’s how to dial back the pace in the Cotswolds.

Foxholes Nature Reserve

Natural Feature, Park, Forest
Bluebells (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) and Beech trees (Fagus silvatica) in springtime woodland, Foxholes Nature Reserve, Oxfordshire, UK. May 2015.
© Nature Picture Library / Alamy Stock Photo

The ancient Foxholes woodland along the River Evenlode will immerse you in a tranquil setting of blue bells in spring and foxgloves in autumn. The abundant honeysuckle feeds 23 species of butterflies, and the woodland is also home to nuthatches, treecreepers and seven species of bats, including the seldom-seen Bechstein’s bat. The ideal way to explore the ancient nature reserve is to follow the 11km (7mi) circular Wild Walk, starting in Shipton-under-Wychwood.

Hidcote Manor Garden

Hidcote Manor Garden in Cotswolds area, England, UK
© Chun Ju Wu / Alamy Stock Photo
The Cotswolds Garden Route is not linear, so it’s a good idea to plan which blossom-filled havens you’d like to visit before setting out. Hugely popular is the Hidcote Manor Garden, in the village of Hidcote Bartrim, near Chipping Campden. Hidcote is one of the most highly regarded Arts and Crafts gardens, known for its linked “rooms” of hedges, shrubs, rare trees and herbaceous borders. Walk the glossy green grounds and breathe in the calm.

Dormy House

Farncombe Estate, The Fish, Dormy House, Hook, restaurant, hotel
Courtesy of Dormy House
Spa-starring stay Dormy House entices guests with its log fires, haute cuisine and elegant rooms – in addition, of course, to its wellness offering, which features a state-of-the-art flotation tank filled with 500kg (1,100lb) of Epsom salts and 1,000 litres (265 gallons) of water, where you can defy gravity, float away, relax your muscles and rid yourself of tension. For post-treatment sustenance, sit down to a healthy lunch on the sunny terrace of the Greenhouse spa cafe.

Cleeve Hill and the Cotswold Way

Hiking Trail
Limestone outcrop and countryside at Cleeve Hill on the Cotswold Edge, Gloucestershire, UK. May 2015.
© Nature Picture Library / Alamy Stock Photo

If you were to walk the entire 164km (102mi) Cotswold Way route from Chipping Campden to the Roman city of Bath, you’d reward yourself with a very long soak in the Somerset city’s natural thermal baths upon arrival. But you don’t have to hike the entire trail. One popular stretch runs from Cleeve Hill to Dowdeswell. At 317m (1,040ft), Cleeve Hill is the highest point along the trail and on a clear day you can see all the way to Cheltenham and beyond to Wales.

Chedworth Woods

Sheep grazing the valley of the River Coln in front of Chedworth Woods near the Cotswold village of Yanworth, Gloucestershire
© Cotswolds Photo Library / Alamy Stock Photo

In the heart of the Cotswolds, Chedworth Woods sits between the villages of Chedworth and Withington on the south side of the River Coln. It’s home to huge beech, oak and hazel trees – perfect for forest bathing. That’s where author and nature guide Ian Banyard takes participants for mindfulness walks to relax, unwind and discover the benefits of bathing in sylvan sounds, also known as forest therapy or shinrin-yoku – its Japanese name.

Lucknam Park Spa Estate

Lucknam Park
Courtesy of Lucknam Park Hotel and Spa / Expedia
Horses have been part of Lucknam Park for over 300 years – and there’s plenty of room for them on the 500-acre (200ha) estate, where you’ll also find the restored Palladium mansion reimagined as a leading spa hotel. Just as the well-appointed rooms provide comfort, so too do the 30 horses, which guests work with during therapeutic sessions in which humans connect not only with the four-legged animals, but with themselves.

Laburnum Walk at Barnsley House

Laburnum (Golden Chain) trees and purple alliums in bloom
© Greg Vaughn / Alamy Stock Photo
Barnsley House is regarded today as one of the finer country-house hotels in the Cotswolds, but before that incarnation, it was the home of the grande dame of British horticulture, legendary landscape gardener, Rosemary Verey, whose love of all things floral led her to create what’s known in leafy circles as “the famous laburnum walk in the Cotswolds.” The floral archways get rave reviews – as do the spa treatments, some of which are conducted in the privacy of the garden terrace.

Daylesford Farm

Cafe, Farm Shop, British
Daylesford Organic Farmshop near Kingham, Gloucestershire, UK.
© Flo Smith / Alamy Stock Photo

You know you’re in farm country when your restaurant of choice is called the Trough, which is the main dining room at this award-winning organic farm by Carole Bamford, where all ingredients are produced by organic farmers. It’s an ideal midday stop if you’re hiking or cycling: kick off your boots (or cleats) and enjoy a feed of freshly caught fish, grass-pastured beef or risotto made with Daylesford’s Greek-style cheese. You can load up on goodies in the Daylesford Farm Shop to take home, too.

Cotswold Water Park

Late summer sunrise on one of the lakes at Cotswold Water Park
© Anna Stowe Landscapes UK / Alamy Stock Photo
The Cotswold Water Park, which straddles the Wiltshire-Gloucestershire border, is the largest marl lake system in the country with 180 lakes spread over 25,000 acres (10,000ha). You’ll have your pick of birdwatching, cycling and hiking, but most people come for the watersports – including kayaking, wakeboarding, canoeing, swimming, sailing, water skiing and windsurfing. There’s also a forest school where kids can learn survival skills and plenty of picnic spots for soaking up the scenery.

Westonbirt Arboretum

Botanical Garden, Forest
Japanese Maple
© June Morrissey / Alamy Stock Photo
This 600-acre (250ha) national treasure trove of trees (15,000 at last count) includes 2,500 different species from around the world. You won’t just be looking at them from the ground up. Tree-lovers can get a more elevated view on the Tree Top Walkway – a 300m (985ft) walkway through the tree canopy, 13m (42ft) off the ground.

Looking for somewhere to stay? Discover the best pet-friendly hotels in the Cotswolds, which are bookable on Culture Trip.

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