The Cotswolds is generally thought to be England's prettiest area. Eighty percent of it is farmland with animals grazing on the verdant hillsides a very common sight. During the medieval 13th to 15th centuries, Cotswold sheep (known as the Cotswold lion) were famous throughout Europe for their high-quality fleece which commanded a high price. The generated wealth enabled traders to build fine houses and wonderful churches, known as "wool churches".
Drystone walls evident in fields everywhere were built in the 18th and 19th centuries. Much skill was involved as there was no cement and they are part of an important historical landscape and a major conservation feature. They are still used to contain sheep and cattle.
The Cotswolds has many famous cities, towns and villages loved by locals and international visitors who numbered 38 million in 2004. Gentle hillsides (wolds) and sleepy villages are so typically English. Local honey-coloured limestone was used for everything from stone floors to tiles giving the area a beautiful uniform architecture.
Stow-on-the-Wold on the Roman Fosse Way dates to the 11th century. Stow is the old English word for meeting or holy place. On top of a 245-metre hill it is the highest of the Cotswold towns and approached uphill from all directions.
Its large and impressive Market Square, surrounded by houses, shops and built in local stone, has been the focus of town life for many centuries. It is also known for its antiques, with more tempting pieces than you can poke a stick at.
The Toy Museum in the town centre is well worth a visit. Its three rooms hold superb displays of teddy bears and dolls, toys from Victorian times, trains, games and books. Also on show are textiles, lace, porcelain, pottery and other collectables.
The villages of Upper Slaughter and Lower Slaughter were named from the old English for wet land. They are only 1½ kilometres apart and connected by a stream crossed by two small bridges. The original water wheel is still there. Once dominated by a Norman castle, all that can be seen now are the remains of the Motte and Bailey.
The beautiful gabled Manor House dominates Upper Slaughter. Now a hotel, it is one of the area's finest buildings. The oldest part dates from the 15th century and its front is Elizabethan.
Bourton-on-the-Water is around two kilometres from Stow-on-the-Wold and straddles the river Windrush with its series of elegant low bridges beside neat tree-shaded greens and tidy stone banks. Standing back from the river are traditional Cotswolds buildings, many of which are now tourist shops for the day-trippers and visitors.
Bourton-on-the-Water has been described as the 'Little Venice' of the Cotswolds and is one of the most popular tourist spots in the region with many shops, cafés and attractions.
Birdland is a zoo just for birds. It has a remarkable collection of penguins, some from the South Atlantic. A miniature village, which has been created using authentic building materials and a model railway exhibition, are interesting to visit.
Bourton is well known for its perfumery. The Cotswold Perfumery has been blending perfumes for more than 30 years in a charming 18th century stone building with oak beams, crooked floors and a crackling log fire in winter. The shop on the riverfront was purchased for just £6000 and the decision was made to always use quality materials in the perfumery and to never use animal ingredients or test on animals, well before animal welfare became an issue.
What was just a hobby for owner John Stephen is now a thriving business providing some of the world's most famous perfume houses. In fact it is one of only three manufacturers and retailers of perfume in Europe. Everything is done by hand by a small and dedicated team, and a tour of the perfumery is well worthwhile.
As well as delightful fragrances they sell talcum powder, soaps, pretty bottles and atomisers, jewellery, watches, wax stencils and unusual paper. They have supplied perfume to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.
A short drive takes you to Winchcombe, an ancient town in a beautiful valley. In Saxon times it was the most important town in the Cotswolds region, a part of the kingdom of Mercia. Its name means 'valley with a bend' and the town still has a street curving gracefully along the combe. Its three main streets are full of the character of bygone times, and there are inns, restaurants and tea rooms providing refreshments.
Sudeley Castle is the main attraction of the area. It is steeped in tradition and royal connections. The home of Lord and Lady Ashcroft, the manor once belonged to King Ethelred the Unready. Katherine Parr lived and died there. A lovely chapel in the grounds that bears her name is where she is buried. Henry VIII, Elizabeth I and Charles I have all stayed at Sudeley Castle, but its history goes much deeper than just who stayed there.
After soaking up so much beauty and history, The Grapevine in Stow-on-the-Wold is a most pleasant place to stay in cleverly blended urban sophistication and rural charm. The award-winning hotel is in a 17th century stone building with dark wooden beams and comfortable furnishings. There are just 22 individually furnished bedrooms, two restaurants and a bar.
A fun way to zip around the Cotswolds is in your own Mini Cooper S. Contact Europcar before you leave and have a car of your choice waiting for you.