London wore us out!
Rick and I were spent after just four days exploring London, and as exhausted as we were, I wouldn’t have it any other way. I don’t choose favorites easily, but London is right at the top of my list. Taking my honey to all my old stomping grounds, and you know, Queen Elizabeth and Anne Boleyn and Henry VII’s stomping grounds, was worth the miles we put on our personal odometers.
But by the end of the visit, I was patting myself on the back for wisely booking a few days in the English countryside with the express intention of relaxing. We were ready to do some English country living… whatever that meant. We hopped a train from London’s Paddington Station and settled in with snacks from Waitrose for the two hour journey to the Cotswolds.
Check out my Cotswolds guide!
Where are the Cotswolds?
The Cotswolds are a designated Area of Natural Beauty in South Central England comprised of 800 square miles of rolling hills and stone villages. The Cotswolds AONB is the largest in England and Wales, spanning six counties and dozens of cities and villages.
We did initially consider exploring other areas of England, in case you were wondering. The Peak District has long been on my list and I would love to see the Lake District up north as well, but ultimately, it would’ve been more work to book and more expense than we wanted to commit to. All we wanted was peace and quiet, and the Cotswolds has both and has the benefit of being just a couple hours by train from central London. Plus, I had a preview of the Cotswolds on a bus tour from Bath many years ago. When I stopped in the adorable village of Lacock, filming location for both Harry Potter and Jane Austen adaptations, I knew I would come back someday.
BUT WHAT IS A COTSWOLD?! Cotswold could mean a lot of things, depending on who you ask. It might have something to do with “wold,” which means hills. It could also be derived from the Saxon word “wald,” which means forest. It might also come Cuda, a Celtic goddess. Like everything in the UK, there are layers of history it would take an anthropology degree to unravel.
Whatever the real meaning, today when people hear “Cotswolds” they automatically think of storybook villages, rolling green hills, sheep and a significantly slower pace of life than London to the south.
Getting to the Cotswolds from London
The Cotswolds are easy enough to get to via the British Rail network from London and all major cities in England. Regular rail service is available at the following:
- Paddington (London) and Cheltenham via Swindon, Kemble, Stroud, Stonehouse and Gloucester
- London Paddington and Moreton in Marsh via Kingham, Charlbury and Oxford
- Marylebone and Banbury (London)
- Cardiff and Cheltenham via Gloucester
- Birmingham and Bristol via Cheltenham, Gloucester and Dursley
There are a variety of rail cards and deals available, so depending on your travel needs, check the various sites before you book.
Cotswolds without a Car
Public transportation once you get to the Cotswolds is quite limited. This is the opposite of London, my friends, and isn’t that why we’re here? Because it’s such a large area, it’s not just one dot on the map, or one train stop. The Cotswolds cover a ton of ground, so you really have to have a game plan for just how much you want to see and do in the area before you go. Trains from Paddington Station in London access the northeastern part of the Cotswolds, including Moreton-in-Marsh and Evesham, relatively easily. If you want to venture deeper, it gets a bit more complicated. Buses are available but a challenge, so if you have limited time, it might not make sense to spend your time trying to figure out bus schedules.
We struggled to find concrete information on how to get around in the Cotswolds without a car. After our amazing but terrifying experience road tripping around Ireland, I promised Rick that never again would I make him drive on the “wrong” side of the road. As glorious as that trip was, white-knuckling our way through the Emerald Isle was not great for our in-car relationship.
Choosing just one town to set up camp in the Cotswolds is counterintuitive because there are so many picturesque little places to see. Since we decided not to rent a car, we had to choose very carefully. It had to be a spot with easy train access from London, easy access to a hotel from the train station and near a town with access to public transportation or walking distance to other towns or attractions. I spent weeks searching for the perfect location but found the information severely lacking. Even the spot we ended up booking had little information for those arriving via train.
The Cotswolds is a region very much geared toward travelers with a car, so keep that in mind when planning your trip.
The truth is, the Cotswolds’ honey-colored stone villages are best seen at your own pace with your own personal vehicle. Sure, you can choose a village as a home base and attempt to take the sporadic local bus or count on your own feet to carry you, but with just a few days, you won’t get too far. With just three nights in the Cotswolds, I think we made a good choice to pick one hotel and stay there versus renting a car and trying to see everything. But we have so much more of the Cotswolds left to see.
Unique Places to Stay in the Cotswolds
It’s true, you absolutely can visit the Cotswolds on a day trip from London, or from surrounding cities like Oxford, Gloucester, Bath or Bristol. But my goodness, you’d miss some of the best parts – sunrise and sunset! Every night, Rick and I climbed up the hill behind our hotel and watched the sun go down over Broadway and the surrounding area. It was incredible to watch the stone turn gold as far as the eye could see while church bells rang and cows mooed.
It was no easy journey finding just the right hotel though! I’m not exaggerating when I say it took months of research to decide where to stay in the Cotswolds. The fact that there are just a ridiculous number of gorgeous, stately country homes now performing as upscale hotels in this area, and I was just spoiled for choice. Based on a variety of factors including proximity to the train station, walkability to nearby towns and attractions and of course, price, we chose The Fish Hotel for our long weekend in the country.
In all that research, I bookmarked a few other places in the Cotswolds we would’ve loved to stay as well:
Broadway Hotel, Broadway
At the heart of the village of Broadway is this charming little 15h century property with just 19 rooms, all named for horses. (A nod to nearby Cheltenham racecourse.) Even the bar and brasserie are horse-themed!
Lords of the Manor Hotel, Upper Slaughter
Privately owned and near the picture perfect villages of Bourton-on-the-Water and Stow-on-the-Wold, Lords of the Manor Hotel sits on eight acres of lawns and gardens. The hotel dates back to 1649 and is known for some of the best food in the Cotswolds at its Michelin-starred restaurant.
Dormy House, Farncombe Estate
Located on the same property as The Fish where we stayed, the Dormy House is even more upscale and features a spa and several restaurants in a country house setting. Very romantic!
Barnsley House, Gloucestershire
If you’re longing to stay at an elegant country house, this one will do the trick! Near Cirencester in Gloucestershire, Barnsley House has a spa, movie theatre and just 18 rooms. The gardens are of particular note.
Ellenborough Park, Cheltenham
This property has been on my wishlist for ages but I never seem to be able to make the dates work! Ellenborough Park is a 5-star, 15th century property on 90 acres. And they make their own gin!
The Fish Hotel Review
Rick and I frequently plan vacations so we can “relax” and “do nothing.” And those of you who’ve been around us for a while know what a joke that is. Our true selves win out every time! We never sit down when we’re traveling, instead wandering and exploring until our bodies are screaming for a break. We can’t help it – we’re just wired to explore, and we find ourselves up at dawn and going all day long even when we’re supposed to be resting.
Even after running ourselves ragged with adventure activities in London for the first half of the week, we couldn’t fully switch off once we got to the Cotswolds. And that’s a bit of a shame, because The Fish hotel has 1,000 fabulous spots to pull up a cozy chair and a book by a fireplace. That sounds nice in theory, doesn’t it? Set on the sprawling Farncombe Estate, The Fish is within walking distance to sites like the Broadway Tower and the village of Broadway. (I wouldn’t say easy or close walking distance, but if you’re up for a journey, go for it.) We walked 60 miles that week and I don’t think I cracked a book, but I can’t complain. It was a brilliant trip.
Rick and I stayed in one of the smaller rooms on property in the Stables and found it smartly and neatly decorated. The decor was my favorite part. Everywhere you look is a Pinterest-worthy nook. Fireplaces, fluffy pillows, soothing neutral colors and barn-sized doors left open to the crisp air left me feeling nostalgic for the place before we’d even left. If I could’ve packed up every lamp and cozy chair, I would have. I confess we stared longingly at the luxurious treehouses and lakeside huts and made a mental note to return with a group of friends and bigger budget in the future.
The Fish was like a luxurious, Instagrammable summer camp for adults. And dogs, of course. I was very close to adopting a cute English pup during our stay because The Fish is nothing if not pet friendly. And what says “I belong in the English countryside” like a gorgeous dog and some Wellies on a muddy hillside surrounded by sheep?
And get this. Wellies are included – just pop into the well-appointed mud room to borrow some. We didn’t have any rain during our visit – I know, in England, that’s unusual – but if we had, there’s also a dog washing station.
So what do you do with no dog, no rain and no car in the Cotswolds? Eat a huge breakfast (included in the room rate) with cereal, charcuterie and cooked-to-order eggs, trek to Broadway Tower, wander down to the village of Broadway and eat a farm-to-table lunch and avoid a paddock of crazy cows on the way back. (I’m starting to think we should just avoid livestock altogether.)
When the sun goes down, there are fireplaces aplenty and blankets for snuggling under the stars. We played foosball and board games every night after dinner in the Game Room. One night after we’d run out of things to do, we booked a movie at the onsite theatre. The experience includes popcorn, candy and soda and is in the cutest little facility, but I found the price a bit steep for renting a movie. The price is around $20 USD each.
We enjoyed our time at The Fish, but we hit a few snags I wouldn’t have expected at that price point. There were a few issues with our room – the TV didn’t work, the sink didn’t drain, the air conditioner needed servicing. Dinner service in the restaurant and at the bar was inconsistent. At times, it was perfect and other times, unbelievably slow. We think they forgot our order one night because it took over an hour for two hamburgers. And apparently there used to be activities onsite; segways and ATVs and a whole field full of fun and games. None of that was available during our stay, sadly. Hiccups aside, I can’t imagine a cuter place for a romantic long weekend.
Day Trips to the Cotswolds
If you book the right hotel, you won’t need to do much but explore the grounds and whatever nearby villages there are. But say you want to see all the Cotswolds has to offer and you don’t have a lot of time to do it. Good news! There are plenty of things to do in the Cotswolds and easy tours to book to see as much as you can in a short time. I warn you though, I took a day trip like this in 2011 and the Cotswolds have been in my heart and on my mind ever since! You’ll be yearning to come back, I can almost guarantee it.
Cotswolds Tours from London, Bath or Oxford:
- Downton Abbey, Blenheim Village and Cotswolds Day Tour from London, 10 hours
- Cotswolds Private Driving Tour from London, 9 hours
- Private Cotswolds Tour from Bath, 9 hours
- Cotswolds Villages Full-Day Small-Group Tour from Oxford, 7 hours
If you’re keen to take long, meandering walks through forests and fields, to stop at historic pubs for afternoon cider and to meet precocious little English dogs along the way, the Cotswolds will be a perfect fit for you.