Six alternatives to the Cotswolds to explore this summer
Resist the lure of the Cotswolds this season and discover one of England’s lesser-explored green and pleasant corners instead.
The Cotswolds have graced everything from biscuit tins to the silver screen, and with those golden-stone cottages and rolling green hills, it’s easy to understand why. It’s this beauty, and the proximity to cities such as London, Birmingham and Bristol, that have made them an easy getaway for weary city-dwellers and holidaymakers alike. For many, this huge band of south-central England offers a taste of ‘classic’ country life: one of tea rooms and traipses through the countryside, pub lunches by roaring fires and rummages through antique shops. So irresistible is the pull that some have even settled for good. Property transactions in West Oxfordshire, home to the honey-coloured hotspots of Burford, Witney and Chipping Norton, have increased by almost 30% over the past five years — one of the biggest growths in demand in the country.
The Cotswolds will always have their charm, but England has no shortage of equally eye-catching escapes that make for an excellent alternative. Like the Cotswolds, many of them are Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) and are criss-crossed with walking trails and winding rivers and are steeped in history and local culture. There are castles and opulent stately homes, as well as ancient forests and villages pretty enough give anything in the Cotswolds a run for its money. If you’re seeking somewhere a little less well-trodden, these six escapes won’t disappoint — and will look just as pretty on a biscuit tin, too.
1. Stamford, Lincolnshire
If it’s the harmonious, honey-hued aesthetic of the Cotswolds you crave, then head to Stamford, a historic wool town on the River Welland. Its centre is full of buttery Georgian architecture, and its excellent pubs (try the Tobie Norris) and vibrant shopping scene all helped it clinch the title of ‘best place to live in the Midlands’ by The Times in 2021. As a base, it’s perfectly placed for day trips, too: there’s grand Burghley House, while Lincoln, known for its warren of medieval streets and enormous cathedral, is an hour away. Also on the doorstep is the UK’s smallest county, Rutland. It’s home to small, quaint towns like Uppingham and Oakham, though its drawing card is Rutland Water — a man-made lake that’s now a nature reserve, known for its submerged church and rich birdlife, including a population of breeding ospreys. Amble around the reed-fringed shoreline before settling in for a local ale at The Finch’s Arms in Hambleton, a lakeside village so pretty it could be straight from a film set.
Where to stay: The George of Stamford is right in the heart of the town, and can trace its roots back centuries. The rooms are suitably traditional yet stylish, and some come with four-posters. There’s a host of restaurants and bars, too, including the flowery Garden Room. From £270, B&B.
2. High Weald, Kent and East Sussex
There’s a certain storybook quality to the High Weald’s mix of medieval woodland, historic villages and grand manors. Author AA Milne thought so too, as it’s what inspired Hundred Acre Wood in his Winnie the Pooh stories. Modern stories aside, this is one of the country’s best-preserved ancient landscapes: the vestiges of a larger ancient forest that once covered much of the South East. The AONB’s appeal is due in no small part to its unique local architecture, too — never mind Cotswold cottages, the Weald has its own hallmark in the timber-framed Wealden hall house, with some of the best examples in photogenic villages such as Benenden and Alfriston. It’s a joy to drive through, but the Weald is threaded with excellent hiking trails, too, such as the 95-mile High Weald Landscape Trail, and the shorter 1066 Trail, which winds through a gentle green landscape to take in key sites in the Battle of Hastings, including Battle Abbey and the nearby cinque ports. But the history doesn’t stop there — the area is scattered with castles and stately homes, with highlights being Wakehurst Place, Bodiam Castle and Hever Castle, the latter the childhood home of Anne Boleyn.
Where to stay: Bold, kooky decor and period features come together in the seven rooms at the 15th-century Bell in Ticehurst, right in the heart of the old East Sussex village. Local resident Rudyard Kipling was once a patron; his stunning former home, Bateman’s, is a short drive away. From £100, room only.
3. Shropshire Hills
While the sparsely populated county flies largely under the radar when it comes to weekend breaks, it offers some of the most spectacular, underrated scenery in the Midlands. Landscapes range from dramatic, heather-blushed peaks to river gorges and gentle farmland as the Midland plains meet the Welsh hills across the border. The castle-topped market town of Ludlow is an obvious starting point when exploring, with its pretty streets full of cafes and boutiques, but it’s the landscape that beckons here, and there’s no shortage of routes to follow. Hike the length of Wenlock Edge, an 18-mile-long wooded limestone ridge, or scramble your way to the steep summit of the Stiperstones, a quartzite peak with views right out to mid-Wales. Tucked into the folds of the landscape are a treasure trove of attractive towns and villages, such as the former textile centre of Church Stretton; the pretty market town of Much Wenlock or Cardington, with its Norman church and 15th-century pub The Royal Oak, believed to be the oldest licensed pub in Shropshire.
Where to stay: Bed down beneath the beams of restored Elizabethan barns and stables at Old Downton Lodge, a five-star hideaway close to Ludlow. Rooms are spacious and packed with original features, and there’s an excellent fine dining menu served in the medieval dining room. From £185, B&B.
4. Test Valley, Hampshire and Wiltshire
Winding through a landscape of woodland, water meadows and rolling fields, the River Test and its eponymous valley make up one of the South's most underrated rural swathes. Those who come here gush over the quality and clarity of the Test, a chalk river famous for its trout fishing, and whose lush banks inspired Richard Adams’ classic, Watership Down. Wend your way along the 44-mile Test Way, which follows the river’s course from north to south, stopping in chocolate-box villages such as Longparish and Chilbolton, with their thatched cottages, and Mottisfont, where the highlight is the historic priory and gardens. Whitchurch, meanwhile, is home to the Bombay Sapphire distillery, and a gin and tonic is in order at The Mayfly, a pub on the river near the pretty town of Stockbridge. Be sure to explore the medieval city of Salisbury, too — it’s easily explored in a day and has one of the finest cathedrals in the country.
Where to stay: 17th-century Lainston House, just west of Winchester, is a classic English bolthole: 17th-century rose-brick facades, elegantly styled rooms and walled gardens brimming with blooms. New for this season is The Wellhouse restaurant, one of the few restaurants in the UK to cook all its dishes by woodfire and housed in one of the old outbuildings. From £238, B&B.
5. Howardian Hills, North Yorkshire
Perhaps the finest country house in England, Castle Howard is so magnificent that it’s worth a trip to this AONB in its own right. It’s long been the seat of part of the Howard family, who gave their name to this range of hills just south of the North York Moors National Park, but the stately home is only part of the story. The landscape here is just as easy on the eye, made of ridges and valleys, as well as acres of grassy parkland and the meandering River Derwent. The town of Helmsley is an excellent base, with its market square and stone cottages, though the stream-side cottages in Hovingham are equally picturesque. Stop by after a stomp through the hills, and enjoy the ticking-along of village life with a cream-filled Swedish semla bun from the Hovingham Bakery. Walkers are well catered-for in these parts, too, with a huge network of trails. For a real challenge, follow the Whitby Way — a 70-mile trail that calls at some of the finest sights in the county, including Rievaulx Abbey, before finishing in the seaside idyll of Whitby, with its own atmospheric ruined church.
Where to stay: Country chic is the vibe at The Pheasant Hotel near Helmsley, with 16 elegant rooms and suites spread across a cluster of stone buildings. For a romantic retreat, opt for Plum Cottage, which has its own private terrace overlooking the herb garden. From £270, B&B.
6. Dedham Vale, Essex and Suffolk
Loosely tracing the River Stour as it forms the border between Essex and Suffolk, Dedham Vale AONB has a classic, timeless beauty. Its quiet waterways and rolling fields left a notable impression on local boy John Constable, who produced several works inspired by the landscape, with The Hay Wain perhaps his best-known. The area is dubbed ‘Constable Country’ accordingly, although he isn’t the only artistic connection: Thomas Gainsborough was born in Sudbury and equine artist Alfred Munnings is celebrated at his former house in Dedham, where many of his pieces are on display. Dedham itself is a charming place to explore, with broad, sweeping streets and a mismatch of old architectural styles, though some of the most picturesque, best-preserved towns in the area are easily explored on the Suffolk Threads Trails. Linking towns such as Hadleigh, Clare and Long Melford, the walks showcase these beautiful 15th- and 16th-century wool towns, passing charming churches, market squares and half-timbered houses that stand in glorious condition today.
Where to stay: The Swan at Lavenham is a luxury retreat in one of Suffolk’s most picturesque weaving villages. A higgledy-piggledy Tudor sprawl, it’s replete with wooden beams and inglenook fireplaces, and modern British fare is served beneath a soaring timber vaulted ceiling. Don’t miss the Weavers’ House Spa, a bijou sanctuary set within the hotel. From £116, B&B.
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