Unusual things to do in the Cotswolds

Collection of curiosities at Snowshill Manor in the Cotswolds

Home to pretty villages and lovely countryside, the Cotswolds is a magnet for tourists – both British and international. There are so many things to do in the Cotswolds – farm visits, motor museums, a good selection of National Trust properties and enough gastropubs to last you a lifetime. But is it possible to visit this area of English loveliness – particularly in 2021, the year of the staycation – and find unusual things to do in the Cotswolds which might attract fewer visitors? Well, I’ve done a bit of research for you (and for me) and this is the result.

I’ve put together a collection of unusual and unique things to do in the Cotswolds. Obviously these places aren’t a complete secret but if you’ve been to the region before and you fancy going somewhere a bit different to the usual Cotswolds attractions, I hope you find some inspiration in this selection. And if you have any suggestions of off the beaten track places to visit in the Cotswolds, please do get in touch.

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Go rock climbing in the Cotswolds

Climbing wall in the Cotswolds
The 15 metre outdoor tower at Far Peak

The Cotswolds isn’t known for its crags but fear not, there’s an excellent climbing wall just outside the pretty village of Northleach. Far Peak has a large outdoor climbing tower, a smmaler indoor climbing area, plus indoor bouldering and a caving area. There are short introductory sessions for children and adults along with the option of “clip and climb” sessions. There’s a fun ropes assault course in the woodland and a decent café too. And if you fancy extending your stay, there’s a campsite and glamping.

Find out more about Far Peak Climbing here.

Step into the shoes of a hoarder at Snowshill Manor

Seats next to fireplace at Snowshill Manor in the Cotswolds
Snowshill Manor

Imagine having enough money to hoard every little (and big) knick-knack which took your fancy. Well, that’s exactly what Charles Wade did. And he stored it all at Tudor Snowshill Manor. In fact, so huge was his collection of souvenirs, curiosities, and ornaments that he ended up living in the far more modest former bake house next door. This is a brilliant place for kids as well as adults – from Samurai swords to bicycles, everyone will find something to ignite their imagination.

Snowshill Manor is run by the National Trust and is situated in attractive gardens with lovely views over typical rolling Cotswold countryside. In spring there are lambs to coo over and plenty of flowers to admire, while autumn sees the apple harvest – there’s a multitude of varieties available to buy.

Wander through the Rococo Gardens at Painswick

Rococo Gardens in the Cotswolds
The Rococo Gardens

Recommended by Katie from You Me Under the Palm Tree

The Rococo Gardens is such a unique experience in the Cotswolds. Nestled away in the lesser-known village of Painswick sits the only remaining Rococo garden in the whole of England. Rococo describes a period of art and design that was popular in the 1700s. It can be defined as elaborate ornaments, pastel colours and asymmetry. 

The wealthy decorated their gardens in the Rococo style until it became out of fashion. Like many others, these gardens was left for ruin. Today the gardens have been restored to their full beauty and unique style. With a stunning maze, forest walk, bountiful vegetable patches and unique architecture, there is so much to experience here. Pack a picnic and come here for a cup of coffee and lunch.

In the spring, expect to see bluebells across the forest floor. In winter, you will see plenty of snowdrops. In summer, there’s a breath-taking display of flowers and fruits and vegetables.

When planning your visit here, there is a designated car park and a cute cafe with great coffee and snacks. They also sell lavender products from local lavender fields, making it an excellent gift for someone or yourself. If you have the time, it is undoubtedly worthwhile exploring the village of Painswick itself. It has a beautiful church and many cute cottages and pubs. 

Find out more about the Rococo Gardens here

Pack the kids off to Gifford’s Circus

If you’ve not been to a circus show since you were a child, a lot has changed – in a good way. But plenty has stayed the same – there are still clowns, acrobats, musicians and dancers. And Gifford’s Circus – which tours the Cotswolds each summer, along with a few other places in London and the south west – sounds like a pretty good bet for revisiting this quintessential childhood pastime.

If you enjoyed the Greatest Showman, have a read of Gifford’s backstory – the circus was set up in 2000 by Nell Gifford, who dreamed of entertaining audiences on local village greens. She travelled the world first as a circus performer and then went in search of fellow entertainers to join her troop. Horses are a central feature of the shows and in 2021 there’ll be a particularly magical theme with fairies, trolls and pixies all making an appearance. Sadly, Nell Gifford passed away in 2019 from cancer but her style and creativity remain very much alive.

Find out more about Gifford’s Circus

Enjoy some lesser known walks in the Cotswolds

Haresfield Beacon and Randwick Woods in the Cotswolds
Haresfield Beacon and Randwick Woods

Recommended by Richard from RJ on Tour

There are lots of lesser known walks to enjoy with the family in The Cotswolds. Although it is a hilly area in general, there are some options for flat, easy walking.

There are a few lovely commons above Stroud, namely Minchinhampton and Rodborough Common. These are great places for views, nature spotting and there is a fort to walk around in Rodborough. As this is common land, you will often see cows grazing. Also, Rodborough Common is home to the Winstones Icecream Parlour, which has been here since 1925. The ice cream is a real treat and comes in many flavours.

For a flat walk you can follow the Thames & Severn Canal towards Brimscombe. This path is bustling with wildlife and has a lovely viaduct on the route.

One of the lesser known areas for views is Haresfield Beacon and Randwick Woods which share a car park. From the beacon you can see the Severn Estuary and even as far as the Severn Bridge. The beacon is a great place to spot birds of prey circling above. Randwick woods are lovely to explore and have a mini adventure. Many visitors build dens in the woods and have a picnic here.

If you have read the Laurie Lee book, Cider With Rosie, then the Slad valley will appeal. This is a lovely place for walking with sublime views and it is where the book was set.

This a great place to get outside and enjoy one of many walks in the Cotswolds.

Rollright Stones

Not quite in the same league as Stonehenge but free of the thousands of visitors – the Rollright Stones are definitely worth a visit if you’re in the area. This atmospheric collection of three Neolithic and Bronze Age stone monuments is just north of Chipping Norton.

Each of the three areas dates from a different period – together ranging across nearly 2,000 years. There is a stone circle – The King’s Men; a standing stone – The King Stone; and a burial chamber – The Whispering Knights. The Whispering Knights is believed to be the oldest of the group dating back to around 3,500 BC.

Find out more about the Rollright Stones

Try wild swimming in the Cotswolds

Ruins of Minster Lovell with river flowing past and trees in background
Minster Lovell ruins

Recommended by Paul from Anywhere we Roam

Minster Lovell is one of the most charming villages in the Cotswolds, however, in a veiled location beyond the town cricket pitch, a romantic expanse of river sets the scene for one of the most unusual things to do in the Cotswolds.

Set on the banks of the River Windrush, the ruins of a 15th-century manor house remain in decaying glory on a grassy, tree-lined section of the river. It’s a beautifully atmospheric scene, perfect for a relaxing picnic or some mesmerising photographic opportunities. The real joy of the location, however, is a small reed-fringed weir pool about 5 minutes’ walk upstream from the ruins.

Being only waist height, it’s the perfect location for a mid-summer paddle for adults and children.  While you can’t swim very far, the pool is perfectly positioned to take in the scene of the lovely Cotswolds ruins. There are few places in the area where you can enjoy the honey-hued charm of the Cotswolds while enjoying a refreshing wild swim.

To get even further off-grid, there are more picnic spots further downstream which offer an even more rural idyll to unwind, relax, and enjoy the beautiful English countryside.

Minster Lovell is a one hour and 30-minute drive from London. The nearest major town in the area is Burford which is around 15 minutes away by car. There is limited parking in the village so arrive early if possible.

Go foraging in the Cotswolds

arm outstretched with hand holding plant
Foraging in the Cotswolds

Recommended by Larch from the Silver Nomad

Foraging has become more and more popular over recent years as people get back to nature. But how do you start? Just outside Stroud in the Cotswolds, the Burleigh Court hotel arranges a monthly foraging course.

Set in the pathways and fields around Minchinhampton, the course is the perfect introduction to foraging. The course is led by Martin Bailey from Go Foraging and has a maximum of ten people.

The day starts with an introduction and safety talk covering seasonality, allergies, pollutants and best practice around foraging. Martin then leads the group up the lane towards Minchinhampton Common. Along the way Martin stops to point out wild garlic, three-cornered leeks, wild roses and nettles, all edible in their own ways.

On the Common there are more finds. Wild plantains – no relation to the Caribbean vegetable – whose seed heads can be used to make a non-mushroom mushroom tasting soup. The purple flowers of wild thyme which give off a lemony taste and can enhance a salad. Jack by the Hedge, which has a mildly garlic taste with a hint of mustard.

The course is not just about finding food to eat, but hints and tips about cooking, pickling and drying the finds as well as enjoying the beautiful views of Minchinhampton.

The foraging course is rounded off with a foraged lunch hosted at the Burleigh Court. The chef and Martin go out first thing to find the foraged ingredients. While the course is taking place, the chef is preparing lunch.

A morning’s foraging with lunch is the ideal way to spend a day in the Cotswolds learning about nature’s abundance.

Pay your respects at the Ships’ Graveyard

Why are there so many abandoned ships so far up the River Severn? Despite the spooky name, Purton Ships’ Graveyard or Purton Hulks as it’s also known, was created to reinforce the riverbank and prevent it eroding into the neighbouring canal. Ships and boats were deliberately beached in this area over several decades following a riverbank collapse in 1909.

Today, many of the vessels have filled with silt and have disappeared from sight, but several grass-covered boats remain, creating an eerie effect – particularly when the weather is less than perfect.

This is a great place for a walk – as well as the mighty Severn and the Gloucester and Sharpness Canal, the Slimbridge Wetland Centre is also close by. I’ve heard good things about the pubs in the area too.

Find out more about Purton’s Ships’ Graveyard

Visit the Cotswolds Falconry Centre

Recommended by Chris from England Explore Blog

Experience the ancient art of falconry at the Cotswolds Falconry Centre: in medieval time falconry – training birds of prey to hunt – was a major pastime. The Cotswolds Falconry Centre lets you experience the skill of the art, and to view magnificent birds of prey in action.

The Centre is situated in the village of Batsford, near the Cotswold town of Moreton-on-Marsh. It’s part of the Batsford Arboretum, a 56-acre series of gardens with trees and shrubs from around the world, which is worth a visit.

However the falconry is the main attraction, especially if you have kids to entertain. The Centre has 150 birds of prey – Eagles, Hawks, Owls, Falcons, Vultures, Kites and more – which you can see either in the breeding aviary or, even better, in one of the many falconry displays.

These displays are held several times a day and show off the birds’ hunting prowess and the falconer’s art. Up close the birds are both beautiful, and also rather fearsome, and perhaps a little scary for younger children. Older kids will love them though, especially as they can have a go at flying the birds in many of the displays.

So, if you’re staying in the area, this is a lovely family day trip off the beaten track in the Cotswolds. (One tip: there’s a very pleasant 45 minute stroll from Moreton-In-Marsh to Batsford which we recommend if the weather’s fine.)

Find out more about the Falconry Centre

Watch Tudors have lunch at Mary Arden’s Farm

Family playing at Mary Arden's Farm near Stratford
Mary Arden’s Farm

Head to the brilliant Mary Arden’s Farm near Stratford upon Avon for a 16th century feast. Unfortunately, you won’t be able to eat with the Tudors but you can chat whilst they have their lunch – beware they’re quite an impertinent bunch who encourage a bit of audience participation.

Mary Arden’s Farm is a living museum recreating life in Tudor England. The farm is where William Shakespeare’s mother – Mary – grew up. As well as engaging with the Tudor folk, visitors can learn about various crafts and farming methods from the period. There’s a chance to watch a bird of prey display and on the café menu are some dishes based on Tudor recipes (I can report that they are tasty!).

Find out more about Mary Arden’s Farm

Slow down in Castle Combe and enjoy a luxury picnic

Rural scenery near Castle Combe
Castle Combe scenery

Recommended by Hannah from Get Lost Travel Blog

If you’re in the South Cotswolds, a trip to Castle Combe dubbed ‘the prettiest village in England’ is not to be missed. The village is a firm favourite with tourists as it has remained pretty much unchanged since the 1600s. One thing you will notice when you visit the village is the distinct lack of telegraph poles, streetlights, and TV aerials. It really is like stepping back in time.

Castle Combe really captures a slower pace of life and what better way to enjoy the scenic village and surrounding countryside than with a picnic? But if you want to make your experience extra special, make sure you book your picnic from The Little Picnic Shop.

The Little Picnic Shop creates a unique experience with their takeaway afternoon tea service. When you book afternoon tea from The Little Picnic Shop, you will be handed your order in a box, along with instructions for a scenic circular walk so you can soak up the Cotswolds countryside. If you want to, you can also hire a picnic hamper and blanket to take on the walk with you. Simply enjoy a stroll, find the perfect spot, and set up your picnic!

You can enjoy a generous afternoon tea which includes sandwiches, cakes, scones, and more, all lovingly handmade to order. There are also variations available to cover dietary restrictions and preferences, including a vegan option. The gentle walk will take approximately 90 minutes to complete and finishes back in the centre of the village.

Hang out at the best play area in the Cotswolds

Not particularly unusual but rather special I think, is the play area at Broadway. If you’re looking for a cheap afternoon with your kids in the Cotswolds, the play area at Broadway is perfect. Not only does it have a really wide range of play equipment for all ages, it also has some pretty spectacular views of the surrounding Cotswold countryside. Our kids love it there – even in the pouring rain!

For refreshments, we like going to 32 Broadway which has excellent coffee and cakes as well as burgers and pizzas.

Where to stay in the Cotswolds

We’ve stayed at a couple of great places in the Cotswolds. Most recently we enjoyed a brilliant two night stay at the Unicorn in Stow on the Wold. Formerly a hotel, the Unicorn is now a collection of luxury apartments. The apartments are well equipped and the rooms are huge.

The Unicorn is right in the centre of Stow so you’re close to plenty of great pubs and cafes. We like the Old Stocks for Sunday lunch, the Sheep does good pizza and the Talbot is good for a pint.

If you’re looking for an unusual places to stay in the Cotswolds, Far Peak Camping and glamping is a great option to consider – this is where the climbing wall is. As well as a good quality campsite, there are luxury glamping domes plus tipis and a shepherd’s hut.

And if you’re after a luxury stay in the Cotswolds, friends of mine really rate Lower Mill Estate – a collection of luxury self catering properties with access to indoor and outdoor pools, wild swimming and plenty to keep kids entertained. And it’s all located on a nature reserve.

Unusual places to stay in the Cotswolds
Lower Mill Estate

*****

Have you been to any unusual places in the Cotswolds? Let me know in the comments below.

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