ROLLING pastures that look like they are covered by blankets of green velvet, ancient dry-stone walls hiding beneath layers of moss, quaint cottages with clouds of fireplace smoke wafting from terracotta chimney pots, and flocks of black-faced sheep grazing beside babbling brooks.
This is the Cotswolds, a place that is just as beautiful as its name.
I got to spend a few hours today exploring some of the Cotswold’s smaller settlements, hamlets with names like Minster Lovell, Bibury, Asthall Leigh, Swinbrook and Filkins.
I saw the ruins of a castle that accommodated both Henry VII and Henry VIII when they were visiting the Cotswolds on hunting expeditions, stone cottages with real thatched roof, a manor house with a wing designed by Inigo Jones, the mansion where one of Adolf Hitler’s pre-war pen pals lived, and the remains of a road built by the Romans.
These days the Cotswolds makes its money from tourism – with visitors accommodated in everything from renovated farmhouses to old manor buildings that have been turned into boutique hotels – but back in the early days this part of central England thrived on wool.
When the Romans arrived in 43AD they didn’t like the look of the local sheep, so imported a breed from Lombardy in Italy that became known as the Cotswold lion because of the fluffy layer of wool around the creature’s neck.
The Romans departed in 411AD, but the sheep stayed and it wasn’t long before the rolling hills of central England became the wool capital of Europe.
The mansions were built by the rich wool merchants, the cottages were constructed for the workers who looked after the sheep and weaved the fabric, and the gothic churches were created so everyone from the aristocracy down would have somewhere to worship.
Everything was built from Cotswold stone, the blond bedrock that sits just below the surface in this part of England and made it very hard to plant crops when the industrial revolution forced local farmers to find new ways to make money.
The stone was so admired that Sir Christopher Wren travelled to the Cotswold’s after London was destroyed by fire in 1666 to source material to rebuild the capital’s grand buildings, with that list including St Paul’s Cathedral.