This week we continue our tour through the Cotswolds, generally thought to be England's prettiest area. Eighty percent of it is farmland with animals grazing on verdant hillsides a very common sight. During the medieval period, from the 13th to 15th centuries, Cotswold sheep (known as the Cotswold lion) were famous throughout Europe for high quality fleece which commanded a high price. The generated wealth enabled traders to build fine houses and wonderful churches, known as "wool churches".
The drystone walls evident in fields everywhere were built in the 18th and 19th centuries. Much skill was involved as there was no cement used. The walls 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 (known as wolds) and sleepy villages are so typically English. Local honey-coloured limestone was used for everything from floors to tiles, giving the area a beautiful uniforming architecture.
The town of Bath is known for its hot springs, Roman baths, marvellous abbey and Georgian stone crescents, surrounded by rolling Somerset countryside.
The springs and sacred Roman baths date back 7000 years when the Celtics worshipped the goddess Sulis. When the Roman legions occupied the city, the citizenry gathered around the "watering hole" to drink the natural elixir, socialise and soak in the calming mineral waters of the Great Roman Baths.
The Romans established the town as Aquae Sulis in AD44. It was already a spa with an extensive baths complex. The rain water fell up to 10,000 years ago on the nearby Mendip hills. Driven through carbon limestone cave systems by pressure, the water has reached depths of two to three kilometres.
As Roman civilisation began to decline, the population of Roman towns decreased and trade shrank. The last Roman soldiers left Britain in 407AD and what happened to Bath afterwards is not known for certain. Some people probably continued to live within the Roman walls and Bath was probably still a market for the local area. However the old, grand Roman buildings fell into disrepair and were replaced by simple wooden huts.
The Anglo-Saxons arrived in 577, after the Romans had left, and found just ruins, although amazingly, the drain they built to take water to the river is still in use today. The site was considered to be holy and in 944 a monastery was founded on the site of the present abbey.
During the 17th and 18th centuries people such as Gainsborough, Lord Nelson and Queen Victoria travelled to Bath, ensuring its aesthetic immortality. It was a place of gossiping, gambling and flirtations.
As years have passed however, sunlight and the hot water have reacted to create bacteria, resulting in algae. Chemicals cannot be added to purify the water as that would damage the Roman stonework, so the water cannot be used for bathing any longer. The good news is that the old Hot and Cross Baths have been restored and incorporated into a spa complex, so there is at least one place to sample the waters.
Edgar, the first king of United England was crowned in Bath Abbey in 973. The present abbey, which has more glass than stone, was built between 1499 and 1616, making it the country's last great medieval structure. Its most striking feature is its western façade which features angels climbing up and down stone ladders. It has 640 wall monuments. Choir stalls are carved with mythical beasts and there are memorial tablets to read.
On its southern side, steps lead to a vault containing the Heritage Vaults Museum describing the abbey's history and its links with the baths and fashionable Georgian society.
The Jane Austen Centre pays tribute to Bath's most famous resident. It offers a look of life in Regency times and explores how living in Bath influenced Jane Austen's life and writing. Many people enjoy following her footsteps and taking high tea.
Thirty minutes away is Castle Combe, which has been voted England's prettiest village. Lying in a valley, its adjacent wooded hill was fortified by Britons, Saxons and Normans. Once a thriving wool town and weaving centre with a market and shops, it is now basically one street (known as "The Street") and is lined with cottages which are hundreds of years old and home to around 300 people. There are strict rules to preserve the beauty and character of Castle Combe, a town which was built around the 14th century Market Cross, complete with old water pump. Present still here are the remains of the Butter Cross, St Andrew's Church from the 12th century and a 15th century clock tower.
Its most universally known attraction is the Upper Manor House which was used as Rex Harrison's residence in the film Dr Doolittle.
Just 20 minutes away is the 13th century village of Lacock. While not officially part of the Cotswolds, it is close enough and considered by many to be the southernmost point. It has many lime-washed, half-timbered and stone houses with gabled roofs and winding streets.
The village centre has not changed for more than 200 years and most of it belongs to the National Trust. It is well maintained and there are wonderful shops and pubs to visit. Its drawcard is Lacock Abbey. Founded in 1232 and converted into a country house around 1540, it has fine medieval cloisters, sacristy, chapter house and monastic rooms have survived largely intact.
The handsome stable courtyard has half-timbered gables, a clockhouse, brewery and bakehouse. The Victorian woodland garden has magnificent trees and gives a glorious floral display in spring. There is an 18th century summer house, Victorian rose garden, botanic garden and ha-ha a ditch typical of manor houses.
Another place of interest is the Fox Talbot Museum of Photography. William Henry Fox Talbot discovered the negative/positive photographic process in 1835, which is still used today.
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 bar.
A fun way to zip around the Cotswolds is in your own Mini Cooper S. Contact DriveAway Holidays before you leave and one will be waiting for you.