A Short History of the Cotswolds
The Cotswolds of today is an outcome of history. Because it managed to mostly stave off the plague of overdevelopment, this region is a veritable time-line of the ages. Today the buildings are redeveloped for modern use while maintaining their original form and appeal.
- Former fabric mills have been preserved to house offices, residential lofts and restaurants.
- Workshops have been modernized and display the latest gadgets in the wavy-glass windows of yesteryear.
- Characteristic coaching inns still offer respite and hospitality in the form of a pub (short for public house), retaining the low doorways, heavy wooden beams and heavily-trod flooring.
- A great many buildings are officially listed as historic and protected from serious alteration.
- Fresh, organic produce is still sold in the historic market spaces.
- The newer outskirts were built at a respectful distance from the old town centers.
In short, the Cotswolds' appeal is built on the framework of its history.
The Industrial Revolution was aided by the construction of canals to transport raw materials and finished goods throughout England and Europe, but they soon became obsolete with the arrival of the railroad in the mid 1800s. Many of those same canals have been restored and can be enjoyed, either on foot following the miles of walking trails that skirt them, or aboard a canal boat that lazily plies the placid streams. The cloth industry grew strong during this period and many of the mills remain, but serve instead as offices and residences.
The chocolate-box towns with their distinctive stolid churches and street plans came into being in the medieval period. This was the height of the English Gothic age, also called "Perpendicular." The wool trade grew in prominence and prosperity, reaching its peak in the 14th to the 16th centuries. Skilled tradesmen were needed for all the work required in that industry, and the population numbers and structure of the towns grew. Wealth was being accumulated and with it beautiful estates, pretty cottages, and imposing churches were constructed. The local quarries, rich in amber-hued limestone, provided the ideal building material and endowed the Cotswolds with a unique, distinguishing feature.
Before the wool-related wealth, the Cotswold hills were already well-inhabited and well-cultivated. The fertile fields drew farmers and sheepherders. When the Saxons arrived in 577 AD they handily used the foundations of abandoned Roman edifices to build up their own dwellings and public buildings.
The remains that the Saxons found had been deserted after a 400-year occupation by the Romans. In typical fashion they constructed hundreds of miles of roads, lavish villas, public bath complexes and Forums for religious and political use. The Fosse Way, which traveled for 400 kilometers, is still a major route. The Romans were the first to perform large-scale quarrying of the Cotswolds Limestone, and their well-built structures enriched the area with archeological relics, such as the amphitheater and city walls in Cirencester, which was the Roman capital of the area. The splendid city of Bath boasts many impressive ruins. It was the Romans who introduced sheep to the area.
The fact that the Romans came and conquered meant that there was something worth invading. Celtic tribes had been centered around Cirencester during the Iron Age, from 500 BC until around 50 BC. Vestiges of their presence are evidenced in burial mounds. Some of these chambered tombs bore entrances of dry stone construction, the first such evidence of what would later become a characteristic of the Cotswolds: the building of dry stone enclosure walls. Hilltop fortresses and iron weapons demonstrate they were engaged in warfare but were also heavily agricultural.
Dating much further back were the Neolithic peoples who occupied the Cotswolds in 2500 BC. They erected enigmatic stone circles, mysterious megaliths precisely arranged, not unlike those of Stonehenge. Examples can be seen at sites like Avebury and the Rollright Stones.
With thousands of years of history encapsulated in a small area, a few days of meandering the Cotswolds can easily be a journey through time with each town offering a glimpse into another era. Read more about the British History Timeline.
The Cotswolds were mentioned by Shakespeare in his play "Richard II". The passage below is translated, but in the original "Cotswold" is "Cottshold". Read the original on Gutenberg.org.
Believe me, noble lord,
I am a stranger here in Gloucestershire:
These high wild hills and rough uneven ways
Draws out our miles, and makes them wearisome,
And yet your fair discourse hath been as sugar,
Making the hard way sweet and delectable.
But I bethink me what a weary way
From Ravenspurgh to Cotswold will be found
In Ross and Willoughby, wanting your company,
Which, I protest, hath very much beguiled
The tediousness and process of my travel
- Shakespeare (1564 - 1616), Richard II, Act II, Scene III -