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TRAVEL4 March 2024

Uncovering the Cotswolds

WORDS BY Anne Bartlett

For international visitors – indeed, for all visitors – the beauty of the Cotswolds lies in its winding, shady lanes; isolated creamy hamlets separated by miles of undulating beech woods and sheep-grazed fields; and don’t forget those quaint medieval towns with streets created long before the first internal combustion engine ever sparked to life!

Indeed, many of the so-named New Roads found in the region were new only to 15th century townsfolk.

But those picturesque lanes and narrow streets – the bijou towns with their honey-hued cottages and glorious churches - can pose issues for the unwary. Forewarned is very definitely forearmed.

Getting round the Cotswolds

Anne Bartlett is a specialist Cotswold tour guide. ‘Not all visitors realise how sporadic public transport can be, especially in villages,’ she says. ‘Even if people hire a car, the narrow, twisting lanes and unfamiliar street furniture – such as road roundabouts – can pose a problem. In one instance, a hotel called me to help out because American guests had hired a car but found driving in the Cotswolds just too challenging.’

Finding suitable car parks can also be a problem. While there is dedicated parking for most attractions – and often suitable parking for well-loved viewpoints and walks – towns can be tricky. Take Stow-on-the-Wold, Moreton-in-Marsh or Tetbury as prime examples: none were designed for cars, and offer limited parking.

What’s more, places such as Cheltenham have complicated one-way systems that can fool locals. ‘It isn’t difficult to get lost even within a town,’ Anne says.

Insider tip:

Use Cotswold Cloche’s Little Green Book to find a private driver. There are also – for families and friends travelling together – smaller (19-seater, for example) executive minibuses and coaches (for hire with driver) that are comfortable and convenient. What’s more, being higher up in a coach seat can often afford an even better view, over hedges and fences, of the gorgeous countryside as you travel.

Electric cars:

There are charging points, often in hotels, supermarkets and car parks (though do be careful of the latter; sometimes you have to buy a ticket while you’re plugged in; sometimes it’s free parking while charging). Some cars you hire will have a ‘Find a charger’ feature; but an app, such as Zapmap, is often the easiest way to locate your nearest point.

Money – cash or card?

It’s a very good question! If you visit the region’s absolutely excellent farmers’ markets (where you can really taste the landscape), you will almost certainly need cash. Smaller stalls and some of the farmers themselves simply aren’t geared up for card machines.

In other outlets – such as some shops, cafes and restaurants – you can’t give cash away! Since Covid, cards tend to be the only payment method available.

Yet, says Anne Bartlett, ‘If you’re staying in a village or a small town, you almost certainly won’t find a bank. Even in larger places, banks are either closing or limited in their services. I went to two banks in Stratford-upon-Avon – a huge tourism destination – trying to get a note changed into smaller denomination. Although they each had cashpoints where I could draw money out, neither had a counter, so I couldn’t break the note into anything smaller. I finally discovered a Lloyds Bank there that could help, but it took a bit of finding.’

Insider tip:

Don’t forget you can generally draw out cash from a high street post office, if you can’t find a bank. (But try not to go at busy periods, such as lunchtime, or you might have a bit of a wait.)

The Cotswolds is a very safe area, but it isn’t sensible – and you shouldn’t need – to carry large amounts of cash. Just have some ready particularly for farmers’ markets, which are fantastic places to buy fresh, locally grown and homemade food.

Credit cards are a must, but do note that many outlets won’t take American Express.

Shops:

If you’re looking to shop in independent stores, where many of the products are handmade in the area, then the Cotswolds is a dream destination.

Just be aware that many shops will close at (or even before) 5.30pm; many will be shut on a half-day a week and a Sunday.

Insider tip:

In some towns, there is late opening across the board one night a week, during high seasons.

Restaurants and cafes:

If you’re a small party, then most Cotswold hospitality venues will accept walk-ins, particularly mid-week. (Though often not for the Michelin-starred, ultra-popular venues that can require notice weeks in advance.) Otherwise, it’s a good idea to book (which can often be done online; do note, though, that when online bookings are full, you can sometimes call the restaurant and still get a reservation).

Most restaurants would like to know in advance of any dietary requirements. Smaller establishments can often cater, too, but might warn of cross-contamination. In other words, that’s fine if you want to avoid gluten or diary, for example, but not suitable for those with allergies.

Insider tip:

Pretty much all Cotswold supermarkets will offer gluten-free, diary-free and vegan products. Farmers’ markets are also a fantastic source; many now have dedicated vegan and gluten-free (often both together) stalls.

Why not use Cotswold Cloche’s Little Green Book to find a private chef for that special meal – guaranteed to be cooked just as you like it.

Walking:

There are fantastic walks to be enjoyed in the Cotswolds – the 102-mile Cotswold Way (easily tackled in stages) is just one of them. (cotswoldsaonb.org.uk – the website of the organisation that protects the region – lists them all.)

But people with mobility issues might be surprised to discover how much walking they need to do within towns and attractions they visit – even just getting from the car park.

Insider tip:

Unfortunately, there is nothing available in terms of temporary disabled parking badges for visitors to the UK. Again, use Cotswold Cloche’s Little Green Book to find a private driver who can drop off and pick up where convenient.

If you book in advance, many attractions have mobility scooters to hire for the duration of a visit (often chargeable, plus a returnable deposit).

Anne Barlett offers private, tailored tours of the Cotswolds. Visit tourandexplore.com

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