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Tuesday, March 25th 2014

Where - and what - are the Cotswolds?

Jane Bingham asks the question:  Where - and what - are the Cotswolds?

Try looking for the Cotswolds on a British road map and you won’t find any traces, but do a Google search for 'Cotswolds map' and you'll see a lozenge-shaped patch somewhere south of Birmingham and west of London. This is the Cotswold AONB (Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty) established back in the 1960s to protect a unique stretch of landscape from modern development. Covering 790 square miles of hilly landscape, it stretches from Bath in the south-west to Chipping Campden in the north-east, making it the largest area of protected landscape in Britain.


The heart of the Cotswolds lies in Gloucestershire, although the Oxfordshire Cotswolds contain such well-known places as Burford and Charlbury. To the north, some of the region's outlying hills extend into Warwickshire and Worcestershire, while its southern tip dips into Wiltshire and Somerset. Mainly rural in character, the Cotswolds are a region of hamlets, villages and market towns (such as North Leach, Cirencester and Chipping Campden). The more industrial towns of Stroud, Dursley and Chipping Norton all lie on the region's margins and the borders of the Cotswold AONB skirt Cheltenham and Bath.


Boundaries of Stone

Borders drawn on a map are all very well, but the real Cotswold boundaries are laid down in stone. Underlying the region is a band of limestone: part of a long diagonal strip that crosses England from Dorset in the west to Lincolnshire in the east, reaching its highest and widest point in the Cotswolds. This rugged band of stone takes the form of an inland cliff in the Cotswolds, highest in the north and west, where it is known as the Cotswold Edge, and gradually sloping downwards in a series of hills, or wolds, until it flattens out and joins the Thames Valley in the south east.


Cotswold stone is what makes the region special - providing the building materials for its cottages, churches, farms and manor houses, as well as the dry-stone walls that cross its hills and valleys. Varying in tone from silvery grey in the west to buttery gold in the north, the stone is easy to carve when it is first dug out of the ground, but later becomes hard and durable. Its structure is oolitic (or 'egglike') - made up of millions of prehistoric fossils - and this organic texture gives it a capacity to reflect sunlight. The apparently luminous nature of Cotswold stone is especially noticeable in the early evening, when the sun is low. Wandering round the village of Lower Slaughter at dusk, J. B. Priestley saw this effect as a kind of magic: "these walls were still faintly warm and luminous, as if they knew the trick of keeping the lost sunlight of centuries glimmering about them. This lovely trick is at the very heart of the Cotswold mystery."


An Ancient Name

So, the Cotswolds are partly defined by their stone. But what about the name? Well, that’s a bit of a mystery. The second part is simple - "wold" is an Anglo-Saxon word meaning hill,  but 'Cots' is more of a puzzle. Some say it comes from a chieftain by the name of Cod, who owned large stretches of hilly land. Others point to 'cot', the Anglo-Saxon word for a sheep's pen, and picture the region’s origins in a sheep farm in the hills. But, whatever its meaning, the name was certainly widely known in the 1100s, when merchants all over Europe were taught to recite: 'In Europe the best wool is English and in England the best wool is Cotswold'.


I like to think of those merchants landing in England and heading straight for the Cotswolds. And people in the know have been heading there ever since!


* This is one of a series of blogs, based on extracts from Jane Bingham’s book The Cotswolds: A Cultural History (published by Signal Books in the UK and by Oxford University Press in the USA). It is available from Cotswold Walks for £10 per copy and can be left at the first night’s accommodation or posted for an extra charge. 


Jane Bingham is one of the guides on our Arts and Crafts tour. Click for more information.

Posted by Andrew
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