When I was a little girl, I used to spend hours flipping through my mom’s art books of the painter Thomas Kincade. His paintings always featured stoned cottages set amongst the trees or luscious green gardens and flowers, the kind of things you’d see in a children’s storybook. That’s how I have always envisioned the Cotswolds prior to me visiting the picturesque destination in England. I pictured thatched roofs on romantic cottages and quaint bridges going across the river. The Cotswolds ended up being like a storybook come to life, as if I somehow magically ended up in the fairytale itself with my very own Prince Charming by my side.
There’s a reason the Cotswolds have been on my bucket list for years – the location is unlike anything this American girl has ever seen before. As someone who very much identifies as an Anglophile, this was one destination in England that I needed to see before I die since it’s one of the most iconic places outside of London. The Cotswolds is full of history, as a majority of the cottages in the villages throughout the region are over a hundred years old. What I was excited to learn was that the Cotswolds is home to plenty of royal history as well, making the idea of these villages feeling like a fairy tale feel even more romantic.
STOW ON THE WOLD
After driving in from Wales, our first stop was the village Stow-on-the-Wold. This quaint little town happens to be the highest village in all of the Cotswolds, being 800m above sea level. We fell in love the minute we arrived. We also looked for a spot for lunch since we had just driven about 2 hours from the Welsh border. We dined on burrata, chicken, and rosé wine at Old Stocks Inn before exploring more of the beautiful town of Stow-on-the-Wold. The village is filled with art shops, cheese shops, chocolate shops, and some pretty chic hotels. We stayed at Sheep on Sheep Street, which is a 4-star hotel right in the heart of the village. The modern bar and restaurant downstairs was pretty popular with the locals, something Tor and I always consider as a “seal of approval” at any destination we visit. After several nights in a row dining on multiple course menus, we decided to keep it a bit more casual this time and ordered delicious fried squid and burgers for dinner with some sinful scoops of salted caramel ice cream for dessert. We also had to indulge in some red wine, because necessities. Sadly we only got to spend one night here, but we could have happily made this spot our home base for a few days.
The next morning, we drove 10 minutes down the road for something Tor and I have enjoyed on practically every trip of ours for the last year – horse riding! Being intermediate riders, we no longer need lessons or any assistance when handling horses, which has become beneficial in being able to enjoy our surroundings more as well as go a bit faster. We did our horse riding experience with Bourton Vale, and our ride took us through Upper and Lower Slaughters in the Cotswolds. Riding a horse in a village in the Cotswolds was never on my bucket list until this trip, and now I believe it’s one of the best ways to tour through a village. Hearing the horses hooves clunk on the cobblestones underneath and riding past stone cottages and picturesque rivers made me feel more than ever that I was in a place I belong. All of my fantasies that I had of the Cotswolds were already coming true on this trip, and it had only been less than 24 hours.
About 20 minutes from Stow-on-the-Wold is probably one of the most underrated Tudor castles – Sudeley Castle. This castle quickly became a favorite of ours. Crowds were small since the castle is only open a few days a year (it’s still a residence) but were also still being enjoyed by mostly locals, who visit the castle like a national park. They also come for the afternoon tea, since who can resist tea and scones inside a former royal residence? Despite calling myself a self-proscribed “scholar” of royal Tudor knowledge, I honestly did not know much about this castle before our visit except that it was once the home of Katherine Parr, King Henry VIII’s sixth and final queen. But before she lived here, I was surprised to find out that it actually once belonged to King Richard III. His former banqueting hall sits in ruins behind the castle (thanks to Oliver Cromwell who ordered it demolished – you can still see the cannon fire in the remaining walls). After he was defeated in the Battle of Bosworth in the final battle of the Wars of the Roses by Henry VII, the castle was in possession of the new king who passed it to his uncle and then to his son Henry VIII when he became king (similar to the way Cardiff Castle was passed around). As an avid reader on Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII’s fascinating and doomed second wife, I was excited to hear that Anne Boleyn did visit the castle, although she only visited it once. It was here at Sudeley that she and Henry VIII ordered Thomas Cromwell to dissolve the monasteries in their kingdom as part of the Reformation and break with the Pope.
While Anne Boleyn only visited once, her 4th successor Katherine Parr actually lived here for a time. And while the idea of a former queen getting to call this castle home might sound romantic, her story was anything but. You know how the saying goes, right? Divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived…. Katherine Parr was the lucky woman at the end who “survived.” But did she really? Sudeley Castle seems to be mostly dedicated to this queen, who only called this castle her home for just over a year. Before Katherine became the final wife of the most famous king in England, she was married two other times. Both husbands died while married to Katherine, but after the death of her second husband, she was completely head over heels in love with Thomas Seymour (brother to Henry VIII’s third wife Jane Seymour, who died in childbirth). But Henry VIII was completely smitten with her and proposed to her before she could accept any kind of marriage proposal from Thomas. When a king proposes, especially that king, you can’t really say no. Katherine had no choice but to wed the man who got rid of 5 of his previous queens and managed to play the game for four years until the king’s death. When Henry VIII died in January 1547, Katherine didn’t grieve for long. She secretly married Thomas and moved into his home at Sudeley Castle when she was pregnant with their child, which was gifted to Thomas by the new king, his nephew. Unfortunately, a happy ending with a happy family wasn’t in the cards for poor Katherine. When she moved into Sudeley, her stepdaughter Princess Elizabeth (the future Queen Elizabeth I) moved in with her. Thomas began openly flirting with the teenager and was caught several times in her rooms, which was of course not acceptable. Katherine had no choice but to consider her own stepdaughter as a rival and banished her from Sudeley, but Thomas still followed her. Alone without her husband, Katherine went into labor at the castle and gave birth to their daughter, Mary. Sadly, Katherine died just a few days later from complications from the birth, although some like to think she died of a broken heart. She died just one year after the death of Henry VIII, never finding happiness after all.
What’s even more fascinating about Katherine Parr is the way she was buried. Her body was wrapped in seven layers of linen in a lead coffin, which was then buried under the chapel across from the castle. Over 250 years later, a group of women asked the chapel caretaker to dig underneath the ground for the coffin. They found it, but what they found inside was even more remarkable. The lead coffin and linen kept her body in tact, so when they opened the lid, they found the body of Katherine instead of dust or bones. Her skin was still clammy and white despite two and a half centuries passing by. They cut locks of her hair which are on display in the castle (FYI she was strawberry blonde), and she was reburied within the altar of the chapel. Unfortunately, the fascination of her preservation led to her coffin being opened and closed too much and thus her body began to decompose after all. Only a bit of brown dust remains of the former queen and final royal Tudor wife.
BIBURY & BARNSLEY
After we left Stow-on-the-Wold, we headed about 40 min to our next destination – Barnsley. I had been dying to stay at Barnsley House, since it’s a stunning manor house converted into a luxury hotel surrounded by breathtaking gardens. Our suite (number 16) consisted of two floors, with the bathroom taking up the second floor with a tub I wanted to steal for myself and put in my own bathroom back home. Barnsley House became our home base for the next few nights, which once again completed one of my Cotswolds fantasies. Staying at a manor house feels like it gives me a glimpse into another kind of life. While I could do this at home, there’s something extra romantic about dressing up for dinner and having wine in the parlor before being escorted to our dinner table at The Potager beside floor to ceiling windows that overlook the gardens. That’s me living out my modern day Downton Abbey fantasy. Since the chefs at Barnsley House grow their vegetables and herbs on the property, we knew we were in for a treat at dinner. It was asparagus season during our visit, and their asparagus dishes made me wish asparagus season was year round. My favorite dish was their asparagus starter that was adorned with an egg-filled mayo and freshly shaved truffle. A-MAZE-ING. We had it every night as an appetizer because it was that good. I wouldn’t even share with Tor (normally we share appetizer dishes to try as much as possible).
Just 5 minutes from Barnsley House is the charming village of Bibury. Visiting this village in the Cotswolds was like bringing my mom’s favorite Thomas Kincaide paintings to life. The famous row houses are seen best from across the river at sunset, when the sun is behind the cottages and giving them this indescribable glow. I can only imagine how breathtaking this village is in the snow (ahem Tor). In summer, recommend visiting Bibury first thing in the morning or after 5 pm when the tour buses depart.
CIRENCESTER, TETBURY, & HIGHGROVE
This was one royal destination in the Cotswolds that I was super excited about. On our last day in the Cotswolds, and after stopping for some fish and chips for lunch at The Fleece Inn in nearby Cirencester, we got to spend our afternoon in Prince Charles’ private gardens at his home at Highgrove. Unfortunately, we could not take any photos or videos during our visit (we couldn’t even bring our cell phones on the property), which is completely understandable since it is a private residence, after all. Since the royal wedding was just two days away at the time of our visit, Prince Charles wasn’t at home, but it was easy to imagine if he was. I pictured him strolling through his absolutely beautiful gardens around his home, checking flower beds and discussing gardening updates with one of his 11 gardeners. Despite Highgrove sitting on 15 acres, there are only 11 gardeners for the entire property. You can tell each one is as passionate about gardening as Prince Charles is. From different kinds of flowers, trees, and even fruits and vegetables that grow throughout the grounds, the entire property is organic. In fact, the soil at Highgrove is alkaline based, which isn’t particularly common but helps give his gardens a kind of a “boost” that regular soil can’t. The flowers are breathtakingly beautiful, especially the fields filled with stunning blue and pink flowers that our hotel Barnsley House also had in their gardens. Rumor has it that Princess Diana was more of a city girl and didn’t like escapes to Highgrove that much, but there are still traces of the royals found within the gardens. Princes William and Harry’s treehouse still sits within the trees just a stone’s throw from the house, the tree that Prince Charles planted with his grandson Prince George is one of the first things you see on the tour, and a stone memorial to the Queen Mother (whom Prince Charles was particularly close to) stands not far from the boys’ treehouse. What a childhood they must have had there. No prying eyes and tons of gardens for them to run through. As Tor and I strolled through Highgrove, I kept flashing back to my own childhood playing in my Mormor’s gardens in her backyard. Of course she didn’t have 15 acres of gardens, but I remember the smells and the sounds very vividly, and all those memories came flooding back to me especially while strolling through the vegetable garden. You cannot go inside the home, as it is still a private home used by the Prince of Wales, but our tour guide told us stories of how Prince William used to bring Kate Middleton to the pub in nearby Tetbury when they were dating, which means the Duchess of Cambridge used to visit Highgrove often as well. Our trip to Highgrove was our biggest and closest royal connection on this entire trip, which of course made me squeal (on the inside, of course). The gardens are only open a select few dates out of the entire year and can only be visited by appointment only, and of course the gardens are closed completely if Prince Charles decides to come home. Even though I love London with all of my heart, I can see why Prince Charles escapes to Highgrove in the Cotswolds whenever he can. I would.
After 4 amazing days in the Cotswolds, it was time to say goodbye. We covered a lot of ground in just 4 days but we are still aching to see more. Everyone kept telling me that we needed to come visit, and we finally made it a priority on this trip in collaboration with Visit Britain and Visit California. If you have not yet been to the Cotswolds, I highly recommend you look into a visit on your next trip to the UK. It’s almost as if it’s the real Disneyland, where the locations in the stories we have read over the years are actually real.