Print this page
Wednesday, 01 January 2020

Travels to England's Cotswolds: An Architectural Tour

Written by Emily and Russ Firlik
Rate this item
(6 votes)


There is More to the Cotswolds than Rolling Hills and Grazing Sheep: 5,000 Years of History and Architecture in the Cotswolds of England

Many years ago we lived in Oxfordshire, England, and our daughter was born in a little village near Oxford. This year we revisited our old stamping grounds in and around Oxfordshire, as well as the rest of the Cotswolds region in England.

The Cotswolds have a very Beatrix Potter feel - No, they are not located in the lakes region, and you will not find Jemima, Peter, or Squirrel Nutkin. However, you will find hedgerows, Ha Ha’s, stiles and thorps that are reminiscent of her region. Pastoral villages with names like Burford, Chipping Norton, Morton on the Marsh and Great Rissington dot this storybook land.

1   1 5

Buried among the warm golden-honey bedrock of Jurassic limestone are those massive areas of rolling hills, and sheep grazing in the meadows. It is the home of the most unspoilt historic and famous towns and villages in England. We discovered five thousand years of historical and architectural treasures within this fascinating central region that runs southwest to northeast through six counties.

1   12 1

The Cotswolds are a vast 800 square miles that include the counties of Oxfordshire, Gloucester, Somerset, Warwickshire, Worcestershire, and the corners of Wiltshire. This 25 mile wide and 102 mile long area makes up this beautiful area.

Our first task was to hire a small vehicle, and take our time to learn to drive on the left side of the road. After a week of driving on single lanes and “B” roads, the driving experience became less of a chore and more of an adventure. For the remaining three months we drove over 4,500 miles and visited over 60 villages, towns, hamlets and cities. Churches, buildings, ancient ruins and barns from 4300 BCE to 1920 were recorded and photographed.

We learned about the architectural styles of each period and the characteristics of each one. We were overjoyed to find more than one example of each period, and in most cases we found several examples.

Some of the finest traditional barns are located in the Cotswolds. The tithe barn in Middle Littleton is particularly well preserved, and dates to the 13th century. We found more Romanesque - Norman churches and structures than any other period. More Perpendicular Gothic churches than Early English or Decorated. More Tudor sites than Elizabethan; more Jacobean than Stuart; more Georgian than Palladian; more Victorian than Regency or Edwardian.

1   20 1 

Romanesque - NORMAN 1066- 1190 - Charlbury village and St. Mary the Virgin Church 

We explored so much of the area that is just waiting to be discovered. Hopefully, this article will be an incentive for slow-travelers, baby boomers, and anyone who might have a curious sense of history and a keen interest in the beauty of the architectural periods. All of these inspirations are smack in the Cotswolds region.

1   24 1

What follows is a more detailed explanation of the architecture of each period with some of the major sites noted. We have also tried to identify major noticeable features of each period.

Many of the initial dates of these churches, buildings and barns have been altered, added on to, and transitioned to the next period of architectural tastes. However, we tried to stay as close as possible to the initial date of the churches, buildings and barns (though the dates are somewhat flexible).

We found some contradictions in the many resources we used with respect to dates of sites in question. When there were obvious date conflict (only a few) between book or article authors, we made personal inquiries from the local museums and tourist boards; they proved to be very helpful in authorizing dates.

Our search began with the oldest, the Neolithic, around 4,300 - 2,000 BCE. There are only a few ruins from this period in the Cotswolds. The Roll Right Stones (2,500 BCE) the Notgrove Long Barrow (3,500 BCE) and Belas Knap Long Barrow (4,300 BCE) are the ancestral burial sites we located and photographed. Further research assisted in a deeper understanding these ancient sites.

1   17 1

Kings Men Stones - 2500 BCE

1   29 1 

Roll Right Stones - 2500 BCE 

Moving from the oldest Neolithic period, to the Anglo-Roman settlements from the first through the fifth centuries ACE. Today, the most famous and most visited Roman site in South West England are the Roman Baths, in Bath, constructed around 70 ACE. Two other Roman ruins were located at Northleach Roman Villa (180-350 ACE) and Chedworth Roman Villa. The English National Trust does a wonderful job in posting bits of history and sometimes reproductions of what these historical sites might have looked like during that ancient period.

1   3 4

Roman baths 70 AD

1   14 1 

Chedworth Roman Villa 180-350

These two periods, the Neolithic and Anglo-Roman periods, were the easiest to locate and that is why we choose to find them at the very beginning of our journey. The next, roughly sixteen periods, is where our extensive research and, maturing-driving skills, really took hold in our pursuit to explore the treasures of the Cotswolds.

Although these findings are written in ascending order (oldest to newest), we did not accomplish our results in this particular order. They were placed in order for easier reading.

The Anglo-Saxon Period from 600 - 1,066 ACE. During this period the system of construction came from two sources: (1) The Greek column and beam system, and (2) Arch and the vault. An important technical innovation was the use of concrete, which made Roman architecture massive and heavy. Since the Cotswolds were one of the provinces further from Rome, the buildings were smaller and less grand than those buildings in Rome.

Examples of this period included the Saxon church of St. George in village of Coln Rogers and St. Nicholas and All Angels Church in Winson, which used stone and timber. Their doorways were narrow and without moldings. The windows in Saxon times were narrow with stonework around the windows. These churches’ windows were either semicircular or triangular, typical of this period. These old churches prey to your senses: the smell of old stone and timber, the sight of 800 year old stone as they were, touching the detailed stone carvings, and the sound of silence that resonates within these old Saxon churches.

1   23 1

SAXON - 600- 1066 - Village of Cole Rogers - St. George Church

1   11 1 

SAXON ; 600-1066 - Village of Winson at St. Nicholas and All Angles Church

The period from 1,066 to 1,190, or Anglo-Norman architecture was superior to the Anglo-Saxon and visibly more decorative. This period was the transition to Gothic style. The Norman church of St. Peter in Cassington and St. Mary the Virgin Church at Charlbury showed the beginning of the highly ornamented stone carvings, capitals highly decorated with carved figures or foliage, moldings to the width of the door openings, and heavy recessed western entryways. It was the first time seeing a groin vault - cross ribs making an “X” shape within each bay. 

 1   32

ROMANESQUE - NORMAN : 1066-1190 - Cassington village - St. Peters Church

Gothic architecture, 1,190 to 1,485, dominated for the next 300 years. Gothic architecture in England is divided into three distinct periods: (1). Early English -1,190. To 1,290; (2). Decorative - 1,290 - 1,375; and, (3). Perpendicular - 1,375 - 1,485. The obvious Early English characteristics found in St. Mary church in Witney and in Asthall’s St. Nicholas church, included pointed arches which made it possible for the construction of rectangular rib vaults (which doubles the amount of support for the high rib vaults).

Other characteristics observed in these churches included our first sighting of flying buttresses, which brought down the weight allowing for the larger windows, pointed arches in the doorways, taller windows with tracery, an essential feature of this Gothic period. The tracery is stonework that supports the large glass windows. Some of the capitals were nicely preserved showing either foliage or animals sitting upon plain cylindrical columns. A first time sighting of a triforium or attic, above the aisle vault, and the replacement of the wooden roofs of the Norman period to new Gothic stone vault. These 13th century churches emphasized vertical, highly rule bound aesthetic, soaring, clean and crisp lines.

1   8 2 

GOTHIC: 1190 - 1485 - Early English 1190 -1290 example Chadlington’s St. Nicholas Church

In Bloxham and Taynton, we found the best examples of the Gothic Decorated Period (1,290-1,375) in the Cotswolds. There were key indicators of this period at St. Mary’s church and St. John the Baptist. This is the time in which Gothic style reached its maturity in England. The arches were equilateral and symmetrical. The windows were enlarged and divided by mullions and tracery much more dedicated. What surprised us was the new effects of light and shade, a celebrity of the variety of windows in these churches. This was the first time we saw stained glass, tile work and playful themes on the capitals. Whereas the columns in the Early English period were plain and cylindrical, these Decorated columns, or pillars, had clustered shafts, and the capitals were circular with foliage in natural form. St. Mary’s church had curvilinear windows with the “ogee” or “S” curves - Brilliant!

1   28 1 

GOTHIC: 1190 - 1185 - Decorated - 1290 -1375 - the village of  Taynton: Church of St. Mary

The Perpendicular style 1,350–1,485, was a marked contrast to the Decorated. Curves were replaced with straight lines with repetitive, sober masculine lines. This Perpendicular style was the last phase of Gothic, a kind of national Medieval style of squareness: windows more uniform, wider and more expansive, mullioned windows, centered arches and wide arcades and a variety of vaulting types were best illustrated in three magnificent church structures found in Adderbury, Minster Lovell and Burford. The most outstanding features discovered were the stone carved patterns of foliage and flowers on the capitals, and the smaller rectangular doorway framing, and brilliantly detailed carvings.

1   16 1 


The Tudor style - 1,485-1,558, was one of the most exciting and interesting period for us as it was the tentative introduction of Renaissance architecture in England. The four-centered Tudor arch is a defining feature and the remarkable oriel or bay window is a centerpiece of this period. Tudor style was the final development of Medieval architecture in England. Most everyone recognizes the lavish half-timbered building in Stratford upon Avon. Technically, Stratford upon Avon is not in the designated region of the Cotswolds. We located several Tudor buildings in and around Oxfordshire: The Upton House in Banbury, Broughton Castle, the Rousham House and the Tolsey Museum In Burford. Their common characteristics included oak timbers and dormer windows. Interiors had open fireplaces, wooden staircases and richly wood-paneled walls with molded plasterwork to decorate the ceilings, cornices and walls. The Tudor style seemed to retain its hold on English tastes.

1   5 3 


Renaissance England- 1,558-1,702. Three historical phases and dates mark this Renaissance period in England: Elizabethan - 1,558 - 1,603, corresponding to the reign of Queen Elizabeth, and what historians depict as the golden age of English history; Second phase, The Jacobean, named after King James I; and the final phase, the Stuart, heavenly influenced by German and Flemish Baroque. This particular journey entailed endless driving on single lane roads and “B” roads, or second-class or minor roads connecting villages or town streets. However, the topography and landscapes during these drives were amazing: passing pretty villages and sheep grazing on rolling hills.

As we move further from the Gothic (1,190-1,485) churches we discover Renaissance buildings and Manor Houses such as Sherborne House, Kelmscott Manor and Westonbirt House in Tetbury in the Western Cotswolds. The common characteristics among these structures were the influences of Italian Renaissance and Dutch. External features such as curved gables, open courtyards, and chimney stacks clustered in groups of 2 or 3 reflect Italian Renaissance influence. Windows were generally made up of a multitude of small rectangular panes separated by thin mullions. The internal features included decorative ribbon-like strapwork, colored marble, and the most ostentatious main entrances.

1   25 1 


The most difficult findings that represented the Renaissance’s second phase was the Jacobean. We located The Dial House in Burton-on-the-Water, Wroxton Abbey, Bibury Court, The Chastleton House in Chastleton, and finally the house number 20, in our favorite village of Woodstock. General characteristics included the remains of the Elizabethan design, more use of columns and pilasters, flat roofs, open parapets (barriers which are an extension of the wall at the edge of the roof guards), Classical elements in a free and fanciful manner.

1   13 1 


If we thought locating the second phase of Renaissance style was difficult, now we approach the third phase called Stuart -1,625-1,702. Although there are fewer examples of Stuart era examples in the Cotswolds, we enjoyed spending time in Chipping Norton to view the Almshouses -1,640, the fascinating village of Bibury, and a tasty pub lunch at the Stuart dated Swan Inn. We returned to Woodstock to view houses #’s16-20, on Market Street. Additional characteristics of this period included rows of identical windows, symmetrical facades, tall chimneys, beautiful brickwork, classical proportions, and the use of vernacular building materials that are local to the area.

1   2 4


The Renaissance period ended with the Stuart style, and the beginning of a brand new style of architecture emerged, that being the English Baroque - 1,695 - 1,725. Of course, the most recognized example of English Baroque style is Blenheim Palace in Woodstock. The Methodist Chapel Church in Burford and St. Peter’s church in Filkins are very representative of the Baroque style in the Cotswolds. Baroque in England utilized bold masses of curved shapes, clustered chimneys, strong lines with symmetrical wings on the sides and rich colors of the local materials - mainly brick and stone. However, English Baroque had a conservative appearance giving a weaker sense of movement and less dynamic compared to other European Baroque constructions. The decorative style appeals to the senses in a way no other style could match.

1   10 1 


Broadway, the Broadway Tower, the Dover’s House in Chipping Campden, the Town Hall in Woodstock, and the 30 terraced houses laid out in the Royal Crescent, and the three curved crescents of The Circus in Bath represented the next architectural phase: Georgian - 1,702 - 1,837. Characteristics we observed that represented the Georgian style included the use of brick disguised with stucco, ashlar blocks stone, balconies, ornamentation in a classical tradition, and a balanced style marked by symmetry and proportions based on classical architecture of Greece and Rome.

1   22 1 


The Palladian phase of Cotswold architecture: 1,720 - 1,760, was based on the philosophy of design based on the writings and work of Andreas Palladio, an Italian architect of the 16th century. His goal was to try to recreate the style and proportions of the buildings of Ancient Rome. This phase did not last long in England, but the Palladian examples in the Cotswolds were excellent: Barrington Park, the Harrington House in Bourton-on-the-Water and the Fairford House for example. What characterizes English Palladian architecture? Refined elegance, understated decorative elements, attention to the architectural elements of Ancient Rome, and the use of classical orders. Probably the most attractive style we witnessed during our journey.

1   31 


Another architectural- historical phase that only lasted 20 odd years, was the Regency: 1,810-1,837. In many respects it is a natural continuation of the previous Georgian style. This period experienced a great surge of interest in classical Greece. Windows are tall and thin, balconies have extremely fine ironwork, proportions are simple with classical lines, brick covered with stucco or painted plaster, fluted Greek columns, refined elegance, and finally, row houses or terrace houses. Exemplary examples of the Regency style were found in the well known city of Cheltenham, including the Terrace House, Pottsville Pump Room and Holstein Museum.

1   19 1 


Victorian:  Queen Victoria - 1,837- 1,901 and Edwardian 1,901 - 1,910 - King Edward VII. To differentiate between the two compatible styles is rather difficult. We were told as a rough rule of thumb that the Edwardian housing tends to be slightly squatter than Victorian, but other features are often similar; however, this bit of advice really did not help us. Finding locations that represented ether Victorian and Edwardian style was not easy, but with assistance from the director of the Chipping Norton Museum, we were able to locate several in and about the Cotswolds: Chipping Norton's Town Hall and Bliss Mill, Lower Slaughter's Village Hall, Great Barrington's Beaufort Hunt. In addition, Asthall Manor, the Batsford House in Batsford, and the Cheltenham Town Hall.

Most of these characteristics were found in all these buildings in the Cotswolds: patterned bricks with alternating headers, houses with terraces and gardens in the front and rear (no cars so no garages needed). Unlike the smaller 6 by 6 panel Georgian windows, Victorian windows were larger with three sided bay windows, stained glass in both windows and doors, floor tiles in natural colors, fireplaces in every room, pouches, a first time invention. The Edwardian chimneys of the Batsford House were sloped down directly above the fireplace. The interior ceilings were very high with a decorative frieze. Finally, Edwardian houses tend to be tall and thin and found, as we experienced, along winding lanes and cul-de-sacs. Sign postings of villages and hamlets were only “suggestions” in terms of where the actual village or hamlet were located which made driving much more of a joy-ride.

1   7 2


1   27 1 


This brings us to the Arts and Crafts Movement from 1,880 - 1,920’s. English reformer, poet, painter and designer, William Morris, founded a firm of interior decorators and manufacturers dedicated to recapturing the spirit and quality of medieval craftsmanship. Due to Morris’ efforts, he widened the appeal of the Arts and Crafts Movement to a new generation. This movement was not without controversy. The progressives claimed that the movement was trying to turn back the clock, and the Arts and Crafts movement could not be taken as practical in the industrialized society. Fortunately, this period produced many examples in the Cotswolds.

The features included: building with natural materials, wood, stone and brick, porches with stone porch supports, low-pitched gabled roofs with wide eaves, exposed beams, open floor plans, built-in-furniture and light fixtures, and fireplaces that were the symbol of family in the Arts and Crafts movement. Other characteristics were hipped or gabled dormers, wood shingling, and upper roofs extending to cover open porches. Fortunately, there were many, many fine examples of Arts and Crafts structures in the Cotswolds. These locations were in Rodmarton Manor, the Village Hall in Sapperton, the Corn Barn Museum in Chipping Campden, the Tudor Hall in Owlpen, Painswick Lodge, the Holcomb’s House and Gyle Almshouses in Painswick.

1   15 1 

ARTS AND CRAFTS - 1880 -1902 - Rodmarton Village and Rodmarton Manor House

Finally, William Morris’s manor house retreat in the Cotswold village of Kelmscott, is not of the Arts and Craft variety, but is a stunning 16th century manor house, and is on the National Heritage List for England.


One final “Thank You” to the many people in the six counties of the Cotswolds for their assistance, guidance and patience. We could not have accomplished this joyful journey without the help of the collective “towns’ libraries, tourist centers, museum directors, and in many instances, local history and architecture experts who were most willing to assist us. Thank you also to the Cotswolds Official Tourist Information Site, the Oxfordshire Heritage Guide, Cotswolds District Council, Cotswolds Visitor Guide, and the British National Trust.

1   21 1

©Emily and Russ Firlik
Emily and Russ Firlik are retired educators. They continue to be active learners as “ slow travelers.” Instead of just passing through, they make the time to uncover the treasures that are in abundance throughout this world.


Last modified on Thursday, 02 January 2020