Car-freeAdventures in the Cotswoldswith Great Western Railway
The railway rolls from the dreaming spires of Oxford through the green wolds and treacle-coloured villages of England’s largest Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Sheep watch from the grassy hills, roses cascade over cottage doorways and time stands still on the ancient village greens. Winding paths and warm pubs beckon walkers while picturesque towns and cities offer unbeatable rainy-day attractions: independent shops and cafes, imaginative museums, and centuries-old cathedrals. Great Western Railway runs from London, through Oxford and the Cotswolds to Worcester and beyond. Here are just a few of the things you can see along the way.
1. First stop: Oxford
Less than an hour from London Paddington along the Great Western Railway, the museums and colleges of Oxford are just a few miles from the edge of the Cotswolds Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) with buildings made from a similar golden limestone.
- Oxford is a city with plenty to see and do. About ten minutes’ stroll from the station you will find the neoclassical Ashmolean, a world-class museum and art gallery, whose varied collection includes Pre-Raphaelite paintings, Egyptian sarcophagi, Guy Fawkes’ lantern and a masterpiece of gold, enamel and rock crystal made for Alfred the Great.
- For a simple circuit around some of Oxford’s main sights, continue past the Ashmolean to turn right and left into Broad Street. At the end, beyond the Sheldonian Theatre with its row or bearded stone heads, you can walk under Oxford’s bridge of sighs and follow winding New College Lane and Queen’s Lane. At the end turn right along the High Street, back towards the station. Don’t miss St Mary’s church, where you can climb the tower for great views, the iconic domed Radcliffe Camera building in the cobbled square behind it and the nearby Covered Market. For more adventures around Oxford, see our car-free guide.
- There’s so much to see, all of it steeped in centuries of history, that you might prefer to take a guided tour. Book a sightseeing bus trip and save money on climbing Carfax Tower or book an official walking tour with Experience Oxfordshire, who also have useful information about places to stay. If you’re interested in Oxford Film Locations, you could pick up my book of self-guided walks from the Ashmolean shop and other stores.
- One place that has appeared many times on screen, in everything from Harry Potter to James Bond, is magnificent Blenheim Palace. Simply follow Good Journey’s directions, take the bus to Blenheim and get 30% off entry when you show your bus ticket. This is one of many ways to save money on a car-free visit to the Cotswolds. You can buy a PlusBus ticket to get around the city or a Cotswold Discoverer Pass for both train and bus travel across a wider area.
2. The Cotswold Line
Through the Cotswolds AONB and on towards the Malvern Hills, the Cotswold Line from Oxford to Worcester and beyond is one of England’s great Scenic Railways. There is some lovely countryside passing the window and interesting things to look out for along the way.
- As the train leaves Oxford, look to your left to see a huge grassy expanse called Port Meadow. Ponies have grazed here, and on neighbouring Wolvercote Common for centuries. The meadow is rich in wildlife – it usually floods in winter and waterbirds flock to it in huge numbers – and in history with Bronze and Iron Age remains in the form of banks and ditches. It’s sometimes called “Oxford’s oldest monument”.
- A few minutes later, look out for the spire of Church Hanborough to the left, as you arrive at Hanborough Station. There’s a lovely stone-built manor house near the railway with dovecots and the River Evenlode, a tributary of the Thames, winding nearby.
- The railway will follow the Evenlode Valley for the next half an hour (see 5 below for a walk that explores this lovely valley). Soon after Hanborough, you officially enter the Cotswolds AONB with its gently-rolling chalk hills, small patches of ancient woodland and pretty thatched villages.
- Look left again as Charlbury station is announced to see part of the Cotswold estate of Cornbury Park, home each summer to the four-day Wilderness Festival. Here some elegant old bridges cross the Evenlode and sheep graze beside the water.
- You can spot grey herons and white egrets standing in the fields near the river and fork-tailed red kites wheeling overhead. And notice where some fields have a distinctive ridge and furrow pattern from centuries of medieval ploughing.
With carpets of early spring snowdrops and daffodils in a beautiful tree-lined valley, Batsford Arboretum is a Cotswold idyll. In autumn, the maples turn scarlet, the leaves on the sweetgum tree shade from amber through purple and the whole arboretum becomes a sea of colour. It’s a level (if sometimes muddy) mile or so straight along footpaths from the honey-walled town of Moreton in Marsh, half an hour by train from Oxford.
- Moreton-in-Marsh makes a great base for exploring the Cotswolds with lots of welcoming pubs and cafes on the doorstep and regular bus 810 to pretty towns and villages like Bourton-on-the-Water and Stow-on-the-Wold. Less frequent buses 1 / 1A / 2 / 2A wind through some honeypot villages like Broadway and Chipping Campden (see 6 below) to reach Stratford-upon-Avon.
- The Bell Inn on Moreton’s historic High Street, two minutes’ walk from the station, inspired the Prancing Pony in JRR Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings. A path from the back gate across the fields leads to Batsford arboretum.
- To see more of the Cotswolds car-free, take a tour with Go Cotswolds. From choc-box-pretty villages like Bibury to commanding views from Dover’s Hill, this regular minibus tour takes in the famous sights and some off-the-beaten-track ones too. The minibus can collect you from Moreton-in-Marsh station and drop you back there at the end after seeing the Cotswolds in a Day.