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Unless you’ve been asleep over the last few years, it’s likely you have noticed the “Downton Abbey” phenomenon. The British television series recently began its fourth season on PBS, and its popularity on this side of the Atlantic has been nothing short of astonishing. Now, an increasing number of Americans want a taste of the real thing.
Though the romance and manners portrayed in the series are long gone, the beauty of the landscape remains. The English countryside is still a wondrous mix of manicured fields and verdant hills, ancient stone churches and wooded lanes, quaint villages and thatch-roofed houses. For many, the best place to experience this romantic setting is the Cotswolds.
Located about 90 miles northwest of London, the Cotswolds comprises an area bordered by Oxford to the east and Cheltenham to the west. The area has long attracted travelers with its rolling green hills and charming villages built from the honey-colored limestone that bears the region’s name. The name itself is thought to be a combination of two Old English words: “wolds,” meaning gentle hills, and “cots,” or sheep enclosures. Sheep still rule in the Cotswolds, and the wealth they brought the region can be seen in the many fine houses and churches built by Cotswold wool merchants.
On a recent visit, I based myself in Cheltenham at the western edge of the Cotswolds, a perfect location for exploring the area. With an eye on finding an authentic English country manor house experience, I stayed at Ellenborough Park in Cheltenham near the world-renowned Cheltenham Racecourse.
Built in the early 1500s as a country manor house, Ellenborough Park has seen many changes over the centuries. In the last few years, it has been lovingly restored to reclaim much of its original charm.
Whether strolling leafy lanes or sipping wine on the banks of the Severn, visitors to this region will encounter elegance and romance at every turn. Head out in any direction and they will find towns such as Bishop’s Cleeve, Chipping Campden and Hidcote Bartrim, as well as picturesque woodlands such as Stancombe Wood, Piper’s Wood, Willis’s Coppice and Cascombe Grove. In 2011, Copse Hill Road in Lower Slaughter was voted the “most romantic street in England,” according to a poll taken through Google.
Fifteen or so miles south of Cheltenham is the town of Cirencester, often considered the “Capital of the Cotswolds.” Cirencester dates back to Roman times, and the Corinium Museum here is home to one of the largest collections of Romano-British antiquities anywhere. The site’s historic streets, however, are an attraction in themselves.
For a more medieval taste of the Cotswolds, travelers can visit Tewkesbury, about 10 miles north of Cheltenham. Seated at the junction of the Severn and Avon rivers, the town is famous for its Norman Abbey, which dates back to the 12th century. But Tewkesbury’s riverbanks and alleyways are equally appealing for a good old-fashioned stroll.