Last week I took a friend on a favorite drive through the Cotswolds. It's a journey I've taken lots of visitors on, as it takes in several picturesque spots in the most picturesque part of southern England. The Cotswolds, which defy a geographical explanation, are an area of quaint English villages characterized by the use of Cotswolds stone--ranging from buttery yellow in the south to deep gold in the northern Costwolds. The gentle hills are dotted with sheep, while the low points are bisected with swift rivers and streams, a gathering place for swans and herons.
This particular journey begins at Chedworth Roman Villa and carries on across the A429 to Bibury, by way of single track roads. If you're one of those people who avoid single track roads, just stop reading right now. There is simply no way to properly appreciate the Cotswolds if you're afraid of single-track roads. There's never much traffic, and the few farm trucks and cars you encounter will pull over in a convenient spot when they see you coming, unless you've pulled over first. Generally, the car closest to a wide spot will do the pulling over—be sure to wave your thanks as you pass.
Single-track roads have no names, but road signs are posted at every intersection naming the villages (hamlets, really) that lie in each direction. Since these roads wind through the Cotswolds (and all of rural England) like a thin thread in a patchwork quilt, you'll come across many such intersections. On a map (which I highly recommend over a GPS navigation system), the roads will be gray instead of colorful like a major road. That's why I refer to them as "gray roads" and my motto is: Always take the gray roads. Unless, of course, you're in a hurry.
But "hurry" takes on a different meaning when villages and churches and inns in the Cotswolds have been around hundreds of years. You won't see much modern architecture in the Cotswolds. The building style is pretty much stuck in the medieval period, when wool financed the churches that were often built directly on smaller Saxon churches. On my journey, I make sure to stop at the Church of St Andrew in Coln Rogers. (Coln is the name of the nearby river, whose meandering way I roughly follow on this particular route.)
The small Saxon church contains a simple nave and chancel, with a baptismal font in the rear. The graveyard is full of moss covered stones, many of them unreadable. Inside the entrance porch, you might find a few jars of marmalade for sale via the trust system, or some produce from someone's garden. Just imagine, churches that were once funded by the lucrative wool trade now subsist on a few squash!
I like to stop a few more times before I reach the bustling village of Bibury. When the road crosses the river, I almost always spot a heron downstream, posing for a photo. This time, we spotted a whole flock of herons, wading by the swollen river.
Another favorite spot for a picture taking is in the village of Ablington, where the River Coln and a thick stream join before flowing through Bibury. I've decided the luckiest people in the world live in this very spot, with the pretty river flowing by their back garden.
And finally, Bibury, where sustenence can be arranged at the Inn there. But don't just admire the village from the windows of the inn. I've explored pretty much every inch of Bibury during my many visits—it's not very big, just a few dozen cottages and a lovely church.
Follow the river, past Arlington Row (a favorite spot for photographers) and around the curve and down a lane to the church yard of St Mary's. Roses are planted in strict rows, but if you walk past the roses and look on the west side of the church, you'll see the Saxon grave stone imbedded in the wall. This interlocking circle pattern is repeated inside the church, etched in the new (since I was there last) glass entrance and the alter cloth (which, we were told on a previous visit, had been stolen).
This time when we arrived, we were greeted eagerly by the vicar, who thought we were with the wedding party that was expected. But instead of blowing us off when he learned we were only tourists with American accents, he answered our questions about the church, pointed out the "new" parts (built in the 1500s) as well as the original Saxon structure.
If you began your journey at the Roman Villa in Chedworth, you'll find that it's around 5:30 now, and time to head back toward Oxford (about 20 minutes from Bibury, via red and green roads, i.e. B and A roads) and London (by way of the blue road—the motorway). From 4th century Roman Chedworth to the Saxon and medieval villages of Gloustershire, to the modern motorways surrounding London—all in one colorful day.
More photos here.
Driving route: From London, take the M40 to junction 8. Continue on the A40 around Oxford's ring road and keep going as you enter the Cotswolds somewhere west of Oxford. At the A429 turn south (left) and at the signpost for the Roman Villa, turn right. Continue to follow the signs until you reach the National Trust property.
From there, make your way back to the A429. Find a turn for Fossebridge and head toward Fossebridge, then Coln St Denis, Coln Rogers, Ablington, and then Bibury. From Bibury, take the B4425 out of town toward the A40 and then turn right to Oxford. From there the way will be clearly signposted to London.