The ‘Heart of England’ is not only a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) filled by incredibly picturesque honey-coloured limestone villages and towns and stately homes set amidst gentle hills – it’s also a much-underrated destination for family holidays and breaks and one of the best places in the UK for a staycation, with plenty of low-key days out suited to young and old.
Although many Londoners have bought second homes or retired here, and although some places can have a bit of a twee ‘chocolate box’ feel and the nickname ‘Poshtershire’ often seems very apt, the Cotswolds lacks huge attractions and theme-parks – visitors come for the farms and other outdoor attractions, the historic gardens, the antiques, books and arts and crafts shops, and the welcoming pubs and inns.
Things to do with kids in The Cotswolds
Discover the National Arboretum at Westonbirt near Tetbury. One of the world’s most spectacular tree gardens, it’s great for relaxing family walks year-round but also boasts a lively program of child-friendly events, including the annual Festival of the Tree (August), with giant-tree carving, kids’ activities, crafts and the like, wonderful Christmas events including an illuminated woodland trail, and regular workshops.
Head for the marvellous Slimbridge Wetland Centre west of Stroud, where, against the spectacular backdrop of the Severn Estuary, you can get up-close and personal with swans, ducks, flamingos, geese and other wetland life by Land Rover ride or canoe-safari. Younger visitors can also feed geese by hand, experience nature first-hand in the pond zone, splash themselves silly in the Welly Boot Land wet play area, and bounce around in the Pond Zone soft-play area.
Seek out more animal encounters at the longstanding Cotswold Farm Park, a rare breeds conservation site near Bourton-on-the-Water, offering horse rides, a wildlife walk, a touch barn and the opportunity to bottle-feed lambs and goats, a play barn, an adventure playground, a maze, seasonal demonstrations and more.
At Bourton-on-the-Water itself, show kids the town’s one-ninth scale replica, the Model Village complete with a miniature River Windrush, then head for the Birdland Park & Gardens, home to more than 500 birds from around the world (don’t miss the penguin cam or the Marshmouth nature walk).
Track down Cattle Country Adventure Park at Berkeley for yet more animal interaction, a wildflower garden, bison-handling pens, mini-tractor rides, a boating lake, an agility course and various other attractions. Its mini-castle is based on nearby Berkeley Castle, where you’ll find a tropical butterfly house plus oodles of family activities and events, including storytelling, archery demonstrations and historical puppet shows.
Check out the more exotic mammals, reptiles, birds and invertebrates from around the world residing at the Cotswold Wildlife Park & Gardens just south of Burford, or the birds of prey at the Cotswold Falconry Centre near Moreton-in-Marsh.
Tour the Cotswolds’ ‘capital’ Cirencester, the second-largest Roman settlement in Britain after London – a history you can learn all about at the award-winning Corinium Museum with its hands-on displays and regular workshops and activities. There’s also a Roman amphitheatre in town. In summer, cool off at the Cirencester Open-air Swimming Pool, filled with heated spring water and equipped with a tuck shop.
Head on to Chedworth Roman Villa near Cheltenham. These ample remains of what was once one of the country’s largest villas including mosaics, bathhouses and a latrine are best-visited with kids during one of the costumed interpretations or living-history events featuring gladiators and Roman soldiers; there are also school-holiday trails, quizzes and mosaic-making sessions.
Have a day out at Sudeley Castle, a stately home with wonderful gardens, interesting historical exhibitions, medieval ruins and a great adventure playground. Those here on family holidays and breaks can also stay in the grounds, in cottages or apartments.
Ride the Gloucestershire & Warwickshire Railway through spectacular Cotswold scenery between Toddington and Cheltenham Racecourse. The heritage railway has both steam and diesel trains and runs a busy program of events including Thomas the Tank Engine days and Santa Specials.
Discover the Cotswold Water Park, the largest in Great Britain, with more than 150 lakes in old gravel quarries, 150km+ of pathways, bridlepaths and cycling trails, fishing and watersports galore, and lots of family-oriented events (plus a wide choice of family-friendly places to eat and several places to stay, from hotels/inn to self-catering cottages; see below).
Walk some or all of the c.160km Cotswold Way, which offers gorgeous views over the Cotswold edge the entire way. The website has guides to walks starting at just 4km and details of accommodation and luggage transfer services.
Cottages in the Cotswolds
The Cotswolds is strong on local produce, best experienced at the frequent farmers' markets and many organic producers, bakeries and other small independent food stops. Particularly worth looking out are the Double and Single Gloucester cheeses, Old Spot Pork, local organic game and venison, soft fruits in season, and Winstones ice cream. The Cheltenham Food & Drink Festival each June attracts star chefs, restaurateurs and cookery writers and stalls selling a huge range of regional produce.
You'll have no problem finding child-friendly places in which to eat on family holidays in the Cotswolds, whether pubs and cafés or restaurants. But don’t forget to enjoy a picnic or two in idyllic local spots such as Cleeve, Crickley Hill, Painswick Beacon, Robinswood, Rodborough and Selsley Common.
Autumn in the Cotswolds
When to go to The Cotswolds
The Cotswolds are a year-round destination that may be better-appreciated on family holidays or breaks outside the height of summer, when some villages and attractions reach tourist saturation point – although if you’re coming for the walking and for other outdoors activities/venues, you’ll be subject to the whims and vagaries of the British weather. Christmas can be a lovely time to visit, with many of the upper-end hotels (see above) offering tempting family packages.
In July, the two-day Cotswold Show and Country Fair offers family fun and entertainments including Victorian fairground rides, arena events, crafts stalls and a food village, while the Tewkesbury Medieval Festival, Europe’s biggest free medieval event, reenacts the Battle of Tewkesbury during the War of the Roses with a cast of about 2,000 knights, archers and men-at-arms, as well as offering a market, jousting, a street procession and even a ‘living history camp’ where you and your kids can live in the style of the Middle Ages for the entire weekend.
For more on happenings in the region, see the online Cotswolds Events Calendar. In summer, look out for the small-scale and whimsical touring Giffords Circus.
You can spend an arm and a leg in the Cotswolds if you choose to take the luxury route, or you can take a bargain ‘staycation’ here if you go for a simple self-catering option. Or create family holidays or breaks that mix the two – spend a week or so self-catering, then allow yourselves a night or two’s splurge in a family-friendly plush hotel.
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