Road Trip to Stonehenge and the Cotswolds
Think rolling green hills that stretch as far as the eye can see, charming villages filled with sandy stone ivy-covered cottages, and the narrowest streets flanked by hedges.
This is the Cotswolds.
Once we were scheduled for our week in London in September, I began to look for the perfect romantic as well as relaxing weekend getaway for my birthday. I had visions of living out my Cameron Diaz dream in the movie “The Holiday;” green trees and rolling hills, sheep in the fields, quaint stone cottages. Of course, Dan’s vision included a visit to the famous Stonehenge, which we did on our way to the Cotswolds.
You’ve seen pictures of the gorgeous Cotswolds. It's what immediately comes to mind when you think of the English countryside. The Cotswolds is a 100-mile area two hours by car northwest of London designated as England’s largest “Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.” (I’ve seen AOBN on Google Maps, but never knew what it stood for!)
The area is known for its gardens, fine food, and extensive walking paths. Dan and I spent two days meandering from the northern part of the region down to Bath.
Look no further than the bucolic Cotswolds for that perfect Fall getaway from London. There’s no shortage of cute towns to visit. Put on your Barbour and your wellies and follow along as I show you my favorites.
I will be the first to admit that I was not too excited to visit Stonehenge. I was under the impression that the magnificent pictures you see are a farce and it was nothing but a tourist trap with a large pile of rocks opposite a visitor center (I’ve also read similar things about the Great Pyramid of Giza). Nonetheless, I humored Dan and fit it into our weekend plans.
I was completely wrong and blown away by its splendor! Yes, there is a visitor center, but it’s at least a mile away from the monument. When you’re standing in front of this structure, you can’t believe that it was built during the time of the Pyramids with rudimentary tools. How was it even possible?
I suggest pre-booking the last reservation for the day. The site will be less overrun with tourists and you’ll have the place to yourself as it closes. Depending on the time of year, you may even see the sun setting. The last entrance to the monument is 6pm and the visitor center closes at 7pm. There are shuttles that take you back and forth. Don’t miss the chance to visit this wonder of the world!
Day 1: Visiting the Northern Towns
Visit Painswick, Bourton-on-the-Water, Stow-on-the-Wold, Birbury, and Barnsley. Yes, these are the real names…out of a fairy tale or Disney movie, right?
We chose to splurge on accommodations and made The Painswick our home base. The views, most comfortable bed, game room, and service can’t be beat. They even have rain gear (hello wellies!) to borrow if you’re ill prepared. Make sure to have dinner one night in the restaurant.
Take a stroll through the town and visit the town’s church, St Mary’s Painswick, and its beautiful grounds. If you’re interested in gardens, check out the Painswick Rococo Garden. If staying at the hotel, they will kindly help with walking trails for all abilities.
Our first stop was Bourton-on-the-Water. We enjoyed walking the small streets and admiring the many (at least 6!) tearooms and candy shops.
Have breakfast, lunch, or an afternoon snack at Bakery On the Water. There’s a patio out back if the weather’s nice.
Next, onto Stow-on-the-Wold, which seemed to have the most going on. We walked through the art galleries and popped into a few shops.
“Quintessential Cotswolds” is what some call Bibury.
We were there late in the day and honestly stumbled upon what we now know as the famous Arlington Row, a picturesque row of 14th c. weavers’ cottages. If you’re there during the summer, go late to avoid the crowds.
Honorable Mentions – Blockley and Barnsley
Blockley is a quieter town north of Stow. We drove through and took pictures of the amazing view.
On the way home, we drove through Barnsley. No need to stop unless you would like to visit the Wentworth Castle Gardens.
Day 2: The Southern Towns, clay shooting, and Bath
Take a morning stroll before heading out to try English Sporting (clay shooting). Then make your way south to Castle Combe before ending in Bath.
1. BRISTOL CLAY SHOOTING
Some how, Dan convinced me to try English Sporting (like clay shooting, but the targets are set up differently). I guess he had this vision of clay shooting in the English countryside. Sunday morning, he found a low key club that offered a lesson and the chance to shoot 50 clays. We had a blast and the owner/instructor couldn’t have been nicer. I beat Dan 17-14! If you’re looking to try clay shooting, Bristol Clay is your place. They offer the lessons at 1pm on Sundays.
2. CASTLE COMBE
After shooting, we drove down to Castle Combe, my favorite town. I can’t put my finger on exactly what made it so special. Maybe it was the quiet main square or the out-of-a-movie bridge over the Bybrook. Either way, Dan and I enjoyed walking the main street and soaking in the charm of this little town.
Walk into the grounds of the Parish Church. Then head down the main street to the bridge and admire the lower village.
Finally, we made our way down to Bath for a quick snack and walk around before heading to the airport. You could easily spend an afternoon or whole weekend in the town. Bath is known for its Roman-built baths from 60 AD and ultimately became a “spa town” in the 17th c. when people started claiming the water from the springs had healing properties. You can still partake in this tradition at Thermae Bath Spa.
Where to Stay and How to Get Around
Dan and I decided to splurge on a nicer hotel than our normal more budget accommodations and chose The Painswick. I wouldn't hesitate to recommend this hotel in a newly renovated manor house. The boutique hotel boasts incredible views and large rooms and bathrooms with all the right personal touches.
A car is the best mode of transportation to explore the towns. It gives you the freedom to move around at your own pace and truly enjoy the scenery. Make sure you drive a small car because the roads are narrow! Have I mentioned that before? I mean REALLY narrow as in the mirrors grazed the hedges on the side of the road at one point. Make sure to take it slow because the roads are also curvy.
If you can’t or don’t want to rent a car, there is an extensive public bus system. Check out Escape to the Cotswolds for more info. You can take a bus or train to the Cotswolds if coming from London.
TBP Insider Tips
> Map out different towns you’d like to visit before setting out for the day by starring in Google Maps (more to come on this tip!). You’ll want to group the towns closest to one another and plot out your days based on where you’re staying.
> If stopping at Stonehenge from London, make sure to factor city traffic into the mix because you don’t want to miss your entrance time. As written above, I suggest pre-booking the last reservation for the day.
> If you’re coming from outside the UK, look to fly into Bristol rather than London. It’s only 20 minutes from Bath and was a very easy airport to navigate.
> The beauty of the Cotswolds is truly the landscape, so don’t rush driving from town to town. Better to see fewer towns here and admire your surroundings.
> Most hotels have their own pub or restaurant. You won’t find a lot of eating options in the smaller towns like Bibury or Painswick. I recommend eating dinner at your hotel to avoid driving the extremely narrow streets in the dark. Plus, most of the restaurant reviews look excellent.
> The Cotwsolds is definitely a more romantic weekend, but you could also go for a girls' trip with plenty of spas from which to choose.
> Bring a raincoat, rain boots, and an umbrella!