Article © 1999 Darlene Arden. First published in The Boston Herald, September 1999.

Picture Perfect
England's Cotswolds seems to leap
from the pages of a children's storybook.

Sudeley Castle near Winchcombe photo Neville Newnham

It's hard to imagine a more captivating place than the Cotswolds.

A "cot" is a sheep enclosure, and "wolds" means rolling hillsides, so it's not hard to see how this place got its name. Even today the rolling hillsides of this charming, picturesque region of Gloucestershire, England, are dotted with sheep.

Driving through the area, one can't help but expect Wonderland's Alice or Winnie the Pooh to emerge. There's something surreal about the terrain, as if one were traveling through the illustrations of a children's book and not through a real place. The landscape rolls out in rich shades of green, meeting a bright blue sky with fluffy white clouds. In summer, brightly colored flowers sparkle on the landscape and decorate adorable cottages. This couldn't possibly be real. But it is.

The Eye stream and Mill at Lower Slaughter
photo Neville Newnham

The area is filled with delightful towns and villages, 729 square miles of beautiful scenery. And there are some thatched-roof houses still in existence, although mesh covers the thatch to prevent the homes from catching fire should something go awry. Most roofs, however, are made of slate, and most walls are made of dry stone.

The The Devils Chimney overlooking Cheltenham
photo Neville Newnham

The region's charm extends beyond the scenery to its residents.

There are so many places to visit that it would be worthwhile to spend several days in the area, exploring one or two villages or towns each day.

Broadway is a major tourist center with some wonderful shops, including that of Gordon Russell, the famed furniture maker. Shops for books, woolens and antiques abound, and there's even a Teddy Bear Museum. The Lygon Arms rises in the middle of Broadway; the inn was on the coach road and has been a focal point for centuries. The 65-foot Broadway Tower stands in the distance, built for the Earl of Coventry in 1799. The tower has served as a country retreat for pre-Raphaelite artists, including William Morris. It currently houses exhibitions.

Chipping Campden, which has been described as the Jewel of the Cotswolds, is one hour's drive from Oxford. You will find many picturesque thatch- and stone-roofed houses on the outskirts, and there are Cotswold stone buildings in the town itself. Points of interest include the Woolstaplers Hall, which was built in 1340 and served as a wool exchange where merchants came from London and as far away as Florence. The Market Hall was built to shelter the produce market in 1627.

Bourton-on-the-Water is known as the Venice of the Cotswolds. The River Windrush runs through the middle of the village and can be crossed by small bridges. During summer, families lounge along the banks and enjoy the weather. The village is full of little shops, and though the locals think the town is downscale, it's still a fun place to explore. And a little downscale can be a relief when the exchange rate is $1.60 to one British pound.

If antiques or art galleries are your passion, head for Stow-on-the-Wold. Its name dates to the 11th century and means "the holy place on the hill." This ancient Cotswold wool town is crammed with little shops and situated 900 feet above sea level --- if it weren't for the buildings, the wind would be close to unbearable. On a cooler day, be sure to bring a sweater or jacket because Stow-on-the-Wold seems determined to live up to its old saying, "Where the wind blows cold and the cooks can't roast their dinners."

The last important battle of the civil war ended in this village's square in March 1646. This village holds two fairs each year, on May 12 and Oct. 24. The charter authorizing those two dates came from Edward IV in 1476.

Narrow alleyways are a reminder of the days when it was necessary to herd animals through confined areas to get them to market. And the Market Cross stands as a symbol to remind medieval traders to deal honestly and fairly. In each village, the church is usually the centerpiece. The one in Stow-on-the-Wold was built between the 11th and 15th centuries. Step into the church to see the painting of the Crucifixion in the South Aisle. It was painted by Gaspar de Craeyer, a contemporary of Rubens and Van Dyck.

During your travels in the Cotswolds, you'll see beef cattle as well as the ubiquitous sheep. Crops include rape for rape seed oil and and linseed for linseed oil. Hedgerows mark land boundaries. And you'll see some homes where the shrubs have been trimmed into topiary. Houses are not cheap in the Cotswolds; they can sell for 225,000 to 300,000 pounds Sterling --- that's $360,000 to $480,000.

But for the visitor, the Cotswolds are a place of exquisite charm, an escape from the real world, a reminder that fairy tales can come true.