Although one of Oxfordshire’s most alluring destinations is its capital, the City of Dreaming Spires is just the tip of its appeal. Yes, the honey-stoned buildings of Christ Church and Trinity College ooze grandeur, but there’s another pull towards this characterful county. Sitting merrily in the Cotswolds, you’ll find sprinklings of ivy-clad cottages, churches and abbeys with a notable history and some of the finest British food around. Grab your car keys, start your engine, and roar into the Cotswolds to marvel at these prettily perfect destinations yourself…
A historic market town, Bampton lies south of the Cotswolds and makes an ideal base for rest and relaxation. Filled with 17th and 18th-century houses and cottages, the town’s roots actually stem further back than that – all the way to the Norman Conquest, where it was one of Britain’s largest settlements. Nowadays, you’ll find inns-turned-classic pubs for post-hiking beers, and art exhibitions hosted at West Ox Arts Gallery in the Town Hall. For the eagle-eyed, you might recognise Bampton from the popular series Downton Abbey, where many of the outside locations were filmed, including St. Mary’s Church and the local library – so wear your Sunday best and attend a service or two in the style of the Crawleys.
For nature walks straight from fairy-tale books and a racy history reaching back to the Middle Ages, this tiny hamlet is well worth a visit. The Cistercian Abbey, founded in 1147, was the backdrop of many succession plots, riots, deceptions and intrigue for centuries, while a calmer image of this picturesque village can be found with lazy walks through the forest at Foxholes Nature Reserve. This tranquil, sloping woodland has year-round colour and an abundance of wildlife, but it’s best to visit in spring, when a blanket of bluebells hugs the ground.
If curiosity is getting the better of your tastebuds, then picture-perfect Kingham is your next stop. A honey-stoned mirage sitting in the Cotswolds, here you’ll find some spectacular award-winning dining. First up is The Kingham Plough, a charming pub serving two AA Rosette-awarded fare. Unpretentious and unassuming, savour hearty dishes such as gin-cured salmon or Tamworth pork loin. Next up on your list should be The Wild Rabbit, and not just for the food. Set on the Daylesford estate, the inn has gone back to basics with its décor and its ethos. Rustic-chic vibes permeate the dining room, as exposed brick walls and firm leather armchairs set the scene for a tempting menu of Cornish bream, Wootton Estate venison and pumpkin pie soufflé. Wash down the three AA Rosette-awarded cuisine with something from the carefully curated wine list.
Picture-perfect Cotswold villages don’t get much better than Shilton. Another Downton Abbey filming location, the stone cottages and medieval church certainly hark back to simpler times, and you’d be forgiven for embracing the quiet calm. Amble gently along the attractive brook and follow the Shilton History Trail, making sure to stop off at the 18th-century humpbacked bridge for good measure. After, you might want to put your feet up at The Shilton Rose & Crown, a 17th-century stone inn-turned-pub, where log fires roar in colder months and flowers blossom in the garden through the summer.
Set your sights a little bigger than the villages with a trip to Witney, arguably Oxford’s most famous market town in the Cotswolds. A town that made its mark on the map with trading wool, the bustling atmosphere won’t fail to impress. Buildings from the 17th and 18th centuries retain their charm, while annual events draw a more contemporary crowd. You’ll feel a part of the community at the annual Witney Carnival and the Witney Feast, a tradition stemming from the times of King Henry III.
Three hundred years of history await in one of Britain’s most beloved palaces. Break away from village-hopping for a visit packed with all the grandeur of the University of Oxford, all the regalness of Buckingham, and all the nature of the Cotswolds in one fell swoop. Inside, interiors matching Versailles pop out, as oil portraits with gilded frames and Rococo stencilling transport you back to the times of Jane Austen and Thomas Hardy. Outside, wander dreamily around the Formal Gardens, skirt around the Queen Pool and try to spot the sites used for films, such as Spectre and Disney’s Cinderella.