The Cotswolds & Thames Valley

If there’s one feature of the Cotswold landscape that sums up its special flavour, it’s the oolitic limestone that is the area’s primary building material. This unique stone can be seen in everything from drystone walls (whose total length in the region is said to equal or exceed that of the Great Wall of China) to snug cottages and manor houses. Even roof tiles are fashioned from the stone, contributing to a harmonious ensemble despite the different ages of the buildings.

The treasures of this region are found in its larger cities, such as Cheltenham and Gloucester, as well as the tiny, unknown villages that still hold on to their secrets. Get off the beaten track and discover some of their mysteries; from treasure-troves of antiques shops, to traditional English pubs, unspoilt historic churches, and of course, hillsides dotted with the famous, golden long-fleeced ‘Cotswold Lions’ – the sheep that made this region rich throughout the Middle Ages.

Gloucester

Beautiful Gloucester Cathedral stands on the ancient foundations of an abbey dedicated to St Peter. The atmospheric cloisters were used to film many of the corridor scenes in the Harry Potter films. The Whispering Gallery is unmissable, featuring the spectacular 14th-century stained glass Great East Window. Venture to the top of the cathedral to take in the views of the surrounding city and meadows.

Evidence of Gloucester’s growth throughout the centuries is best witnessed in the historic Westgate Quarter. Here you will find the cathedral, the House of the Tailor of Gloucester (the inspiration for Beatrix Potter’s famous book), beautiful shops, cafes, pubs, courtyards and restaurants. The city’s historic docks, once the centre of life and trade, have been transformed into a trendy urban space. A stroll along the waterfront precinct will take you through shops, communal squares and walkways, public art and splendid displays of maritime history.

If the Westgate Quarter doesn’t satisfy your shopping appetite, the Gloucester Quays Designer Outlet offers a great range of retail fashion.

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Cheltenham

Abundant in historic buildings and still exuding the air of opulence, elegance and charm it gained as an 18th-century spa resort, Cheltenham’s sophisticated streets continue to attract a well-heeled crowd of locals and visitors seeking a vibrant city atmosphere within the peaceful realm of the Cotswolds’ countryside.

Cheltenham owes its original fame to its mineral springs. When George III and Queen Charlotte visited in 1788 and gave the town the royal stamp of approval, it became a popular place to indulge in idleness and enjoyment. As the only place in England to have purely natural alkaline waters, the springs became the favoured spot for wealthy military men to recuperatewhen they returned from India with various tropical ailments.

Today the town’s reputation rests not so much in its odorous waters, as in its beautifully maintained heritage architecture. Said to be the most complete Regency town in England, many of the period’s great showpieces can be found here, including Lansdown Crescent, Pittville Spa and the Rotunda Building at the top of Montpellier Walk.

Oxford

The heart and soul of the city is obviously the spectacular university that has been here since 1167. Alumni of this prestigious institution include 48 Nobel Prize winners, 25 British prime ministers (including former Prime Minister Tony Blair), and 28 foreign presidents (including former US President Bill Clinton), along with poets, authors and artists, such as Percy Bysshe Shelley, Oscar Wilde, and WH Auden.

The campus is a sprawl of 38 individual (and highly competitive) colleges, each with its own distinct identity, and most of the college chapels and dining halls open their doors to visitors at various times. One of the university’s grandest colleges is Christ Church College. Harry Potter fans will recognise the Great Hall – it was the model for the hall at Hogwarts.

Take the time to explore the magnificent architecture that makes up this heritage city, such as Sir Christopher Wren’s English Gothic masterpiece: the Sheldonian Theatre, the Bodleian Library, Radcliffe Camera, Carfax Tower, and of course, the dozens of cosy pubs lining the charming city streets.

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Reading

Reading’s biggest modern claim to fame is that it’s ranked one of the UK’s top 10 retail destinations. With two grand shopping centres, there’s no shortage of outlets for anyone looking to drop a penny or two on the latest fashions. The Oracle is the place to go if you’re looking for high-end clothing, and also offers a fantastic mix of global eateries to fuel your expedition. Broad Street Mall offers a huge range of options, from bargain basement shops to shoe stores, restaurants, hairdressers, beauticians, cafes, as well as a TK Maxx designer label outlet.

The charming Forbury Gardens, known as the city’s ‘floral heart’, encompass the ruins of Reading Abbey, which was once one of England’s greatest pilgrimage centres, as well as one of the richest religious houses in the land. Founded by King Henry 1 in 1121, the abbey is also his burial place, and once held over 230 relics, including the hand of St James, found during demolition work in 1786.

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Windsor & Eton

Windsor Castle is, of course, the town’s dominant drawcard. William the Conqueror began work on the castle in the 11th century, and Edward III modified and extended it in the mid-1300s. One of Edward’s largest contributions was the enormous and distinctive Round Tower. Most of England’s kings and queens have demonstrated their undying attachment to the castle, the only royal residence in continuous use by the Royal Family since the Middle Ages.

To see the castle come alive, check out the Changing of the Guard, which takes place daily at 11am from April through to July, and on alternate days at 11am from August through to March. When the Queen is in town, the guard and a regimental band parade through town to the castle gate; when she’s away, a drum-and-fife band takes over.

Some observers may find it symbolic that almost opposite Windsor Castle – which embodies the continuity of the royal tradition – stands Eton, a school that for centuries has educated many future leaders of the country.

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The Infinity Experience

Limestone Walls
The limestone walls that weave their way over the Cotswolds are said to be as extensive as the Great Wall of China.