Local visitor attractions in the Cotswolds

As part of our Green Traveller's Guide to the Cotswolds, Harriet O'Brien picks out a selection of gardens, museums, heritage sites and parklands in this glorious Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty in the west of England.

Enjoy the glories of an authentic, 18th-century garden; ponder the mysteries of a striking group of standing stones; marvel at the house where William Morris lived and worked; take the children on a farm tractor safari. From museums and heritage to parkland and animals, there’s a host of things to see and do indoors as well as outside in the Cotswolds AONB.

Here - working with the Cotswolds Conservation Board - we’ve put together a selection to appeal across a range of ages – and weather variations too. Our pick of top attractions has been made with a close eye to intrinsic commitment to nature, the environment, local community and conservation. One of the criteria used to select businesses was to choose members of the green travel grading organisation Green Tourism or the 'Our Land' initiative in which businesses described how they sustain their environment, support their community, and share their knowledge of the local landscape.

Combe Mill

What a fascinating time capsule of engineering heritage. Combe Mill is the old saw mill for Blenheim Palace - and a living museum par excellence. A working Victorian steam and water mill, it was constructed in the early 1850s. From the old waterwheel to a blacksmith’s forge and a host of model steam-powered vehicles, there’s a wealth to take in here. What’s more it is almost entirely operated by unpaid volunteers and their knowledge and enthusiasm add an extra zing to proceedings. Open from April until the end of September. combemill.org

Cotswold Woollen Weavers

In a complex of attractive old barns on the fringes of the pretty village of Filkins you’ll find a wonderfully eccentric celebration of Cotswold craft. Most importantly of wool, with a fabulously rambling shop of woollen wear and fascinating rooms of old looms that have become museum sections. You’ll also find a stone workshop here, with a mason and carver at work most days. Founder of Cotswold Woollen Weavers Richard Martin calls the enterprise ‘an explorium’ for in addition it offers bike hire, a café and a cottage to rent, sleeping four. Martin has also newly opened a similar wool venture in the old Blanket Hall at Witney, reinvigorating a landmark building and restoring a huge sense of pride in Witney’s wool heritage. cotswoldwoollenweavers.co.uk

Gloucestershire Warwickshire Railway

A great charmer for children and adults alike, this heritage railway is run by volunteers who operate hooting tooting steam and diesel locomotives on a standard gauge track between Toddington and Cheltenham Race Course. It has been the painstaking work of an avid preservation group who brought part of the old Great Western Railway’s Stratford-Cheltenham route back to life in 1984. Now there are more plans afoot. The GWR has such enthusiastic following that an extension to Broadway has been planned and has received the funding (public shares scheme) for the cost of repairing 5 bridges to help reach Broadway but the rest of the funding is still to be found, so do pop by and support them. Toot Toot! gwsr.com

The Old Prison Northleach

Visit this austerely handsome building to learn about the region - from dinosaurs to Cotswold Lion sheep (specially bred for their thick fleeces), and from Neolithic monuments to churches and conservation work. You can also take in an old prison cell and explore a fascinating collection of farm carts and carriages. The property was constructed as a gaol in 1792 and subsequently became a police office and a small law court before being converted into a museum and office space in the 1970s. Today it houses the centre of the Cotswold Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty complete with the absorbing Rural Life museum, displays about the area and the lively Cotswold Lion Cafe. Closed Mondays. escapetothecotswolds.org.uk

Kelmscott Manor

Artist, poet, textile designer, socialist visionary and more, William Morris was an all-round Victorian hero and founder of the Arts & Crafts Movement. His legacy continues not only through his designs but also through an ongoing appreciation of meticulous craftsmanship. In 1871 he acquired the very splendid manor house at Kelmscott village near Lechlade, and it became a place of enormous beauty and creativity. What visitors see here today are furnishings of the original yeoman farmers as well as Morris’s own designs and exquisite works by his wife Jane and daughter May. In addition, there’s an artist in residence, working in outhouses, and there are vibrant temporary exhibitions. Visitors can also wander the glorious grounds. Open April-October, Wednesdays and Saturdays. kelmscottmanor.org.uk

Woodchester Mansion

This Gothic-Revival country house in rural reaches near Stonehouse is a maternity ward – for bats. Endangered Greater and Lesser Horseshoe bats have been raising their young here since the 1950s, and seminal studies have been made of these rare creatures. But quite apart from the wildlife roosting in parts, this is a great place to come for intrigue and spectacular appeal. Started in about 1855, the mansion was never finished, so visitors get a fascinating insight into Victorian building techniques, particularly inside the house where floors are missing enabling you to look up several storeys and appreciate the function of flying buttresses (as well as the flying batresses). The house is located in Woodchester Park, owned separately by the National Trust and offering especially fine walks. Mansion open 11.00am-5.00pm, April-October – closed Mondays, except Bank Holidays. Please be aware using satnav to reach the park, it frequently directs you to the wrong end of the park – and there’s no access through from the A46. woodchestermansion.org.uk

Cotswolds Distillery

Ambitious - certainly. Enterprising - absolutely. Cotswolds Distillery near Shipston-on-Stour officially opened in 2014 and is the passion and innovation of former hedge fund manager Dan Szor. A native New Yorker, he escaped life as a banker in London and moved to Cotswolds with his family where, neatly combining his love of the region with his appreciation of single malt whisky, he has set up a distillery making whisky from local barley and gin with a Cotswold botanicals twist. Tours of the distillery (built in traditional Cotswold stone and set in lovely grounds) usually run daily at 1pm – and need to be booked in advance. There’s also a shop open daily. cotswoldsdistillery.com

Whichford Pottery

Jim Keeling started making traditional flowerpots in 1976 - and hasn’t stopped since. The pots are made from local Warwickshire clay using hand-thrown techniques. From Monday to Thursday the pottery section of his workshop in picturesque Whichford is full of action and you’ll probably see him here, along with some of his 25 co-workers who will be pulling clay wonders up from a wheel and producing all manner of terracotta shapes and sizes. This is very much a family business (Keeling’s brother Adam makes pots here, too, and his daughter Maia runs the Straw Kitchen café on site) and they pride themselves on their craftsmanship and on supporting other local businesses. whichfordpottery.com

Batsford Arboretum

From elegant acers and flowering cherries to magnificent oaks and bamboos, the 56 acres of Batsford Arboretum, near Moreton-in-Marsh, contain one of the country’s largest and most significant private collections of trees and shrubs. Batsford house and park date back to at least the 17th century and the grounds were developed into their current form in the 1890s by the incumbent Algernon Bertram Freeman-Mitford, grandfather of the talented, wacky Mitford sisters. Today Batsford is run with particularly careful consideration for the environment: harvesting rainwater and recycling takes place wherever possible. Grounds open all year (Batsford House is not open to the public). batsarb.co.uk

Rollright Stones

An intriguing little complex of standing stones on the Oxfordshire/Warwickshire border near Chipping Norton, the Rollright Stones are a group of three Neolithic and Bronze Age monuments. The five upright stones of a great burial chamber are said to be leaning together conspiratorially and consequently known as the Whispering Knights, c.3500 BC. The main site, known as the King’s Men, c.2500 BC, is a circle of about 77 well weathered stones set in a clearing. Across the road is a single tall stone, the so-called King Stone, c.1,500 BC, probably a memorial to a Bronze Age cemetery. Folklore says the King, his knights and army were all turned to stone when they came across a witch and were no longer within site of Long Compton, the village down the hill. The stones are said to be uncountable (tradfitionally if you count them all and come to the same total 3 times you can have a wish) A newly designated "Dark Skies Discovery Sight", the Stones should be reached via the well-signed permissive paths from the D'Arcy Dalton Way as there is only a very limited car park and (please note) no on-site facilities; the nearest loos, tearoom and shop is 1 mile east at Wyatts. Open all year. By the main stone circle there’s an honesty box for the £1 entrance fee. rollrightstones.co.uk

Cotswold Farm Park

Head west of Stow-on-the-Wold to this bucolic world of shaggy Highland cattle, strange-horned goats, donkeys, ponies and more where you can watch milking demonstrations (of cows or goats), bottle feed lambs (in the spring), stroke rabbits and take tractor safari rides around the 1,600-acre farm. And there’s a very serious side, too. Managed by popular TV Presenter Adam Henson, Cotswold Park Farm is a centre of conservation for rare breeds – and a special area where visitors can learn more about biodiversity and the local environment opened here in 2013. Open February–December. cotswoldfarmpark.co.uk


For information on characterful places to stay, local food and drink, and nearby outdoor activities, see our Green Traveller's Guide to the Cotswolds


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