The Cotswolds, just 90 miles west of London, is an area of outstanding English rural beauty with a quieter and more genteel way of life. It’s the perfect antidote to the hustle and bustle of the hectic capital, which is why it’s not surprising people from the city often retreat here to unwind. With picturesque, ancient villages that could be straight out of a Victorian period drama and buildings that have been around longer than the U.S. has been in existence, this area is a natural draw for visitors from all over the world.
Mention “English pub,” and the image that is often conjured up is one of stone walls, low, wooden-beamed ceilings, a roaring fire with a border collie stretched out contentedly in front of it, and small, cramped tables on a flagstone floor. It’s warm and you’re enveloped with the hubbub of conversation from locals standing at the bar. The smell of hearty, home-made cooking wafts through the bar, and there are no blaring television screens to dull your senses.
Whilst there is a pub on almost every corner in England, not all live up to our rosy imagery. But they do exist, and it’s worth seeking them out. Here, in no particular order, are five of the best you should visit when exploring the Cotswolds.
1. The Old Spotted Cow, Marston Meysey, Wiltshire
Great For: Al-Fresco Dining, Ambience, Dog Lovers
Marston Meysey is a tiny village with a population of only a few hundred. It dates back to the 13th century, though the pub itself is somewhat younger at only 180 years old or so. The Old Spotted Cow is located off the main road on the outskirts of the village, overlooking open fields. There is plenty of parking space. A large garden with many picnic tables makes for an enjoyable evening meal (and drink) outdoors in the summer, watching the sunset with birdsong as the only sound.
The Old Spotted Cow has exposed Cotswold stone walls, low wooden beams, roaring fires, and an interesting mix of more formal (things don’t get very formal here) restaurant-type dining tables and a comfortable sofa in front of the fire. There is a small, horseshoe-shaped bar with a wide selection of local beers. The bar is a congregating place for the locals. Food is served at lunchtime and in the evening (try the traditional roast beef and the Yorkshire pudding) using only locally grown ingredients.
Many pubs are very dog friendly now. Here you will find a water bowl for dogs at the pub entrance and free doggy treats in a jar on the bar. This is a locals’ pub; entering is like stepping into someone’s warm, welcoming, cozy home. You may enter a stranger, but you will leave as a friend. As one local put it, “This used to be the pub in the village, now it is the village pub.”
2. The Bull Hotel, Fairford, Gloucestershire
Great For: Ambience, History, Location
Fairford has been on the map as a market town since the 12th century and is a popular tourist spot, with the picturesque River Coln running past classic Cotswold stone cottages. Fairford is probably best known for annually hosting the world's largest military air show, the Royal International Air Tattoo, which attracts up to 150,000 visitors over three days. If you want to enjoy The Bull Hotel without the competition of 50,000 others waiting to be served, you might want to avoid the third weekend in July.
The Bull Hotel is centrally located right in the Market Square and teeming with history. Dating back to the 15th century, originally as a monk’s chanting house, it became an important coaching inn during the 18th and 19th centuries. Today, the Bull is a hotchpotch of different rooms on different levels which only adds to the quaintness of the place. Exposed Cotswold stone walls, crooked wooden beams, wooden floors, and open fireplaces welcome the visitor. Heavy, old, framed paintings hang on the walls. Sit at a wooden table in the bar area, enjoy a more intimate private nook, or laze on a sofa in front of a roaring fire or a bay window -- the Bull offers all possibilities. It felt more like someone’s home than a pub. Don’t expect to find signs for restrooms or toilets here, only “loos.”
The menu has everything from the traditional English breakfast and English Roast dinner to classic pub fare and everything in between. Try the Ploughman’s and the deliciously sinful sticky toffee pudding.
3. The Swan Hotel, Bibury, Gloucestershire
Great For: Food, Garden, Location
Home to one of the most visited and photographed spots in the Cotswolds, the ancient and picturesque Arlington Row in Bibury dates back to the 14th century, when the buildings were used as a monastic wool store. They were converted to cottages two centuries later. A beautiful village with the River Coln meandering through it, Bibury gets very popular in the summer, and parking can be difficult.
The Swan Hotel commands the best location in the village -- right on the main road overlooking the River Coln with views to Arlington Row in the distance and just steps away from an old mill and active trout farm. It is the perfect place to get a bite to eat. This old coaching inn has a very comfortable bar with comfy armchairs, an open log fire and delicate, and ambient lighting. While it doesn’t have that intimate, stone-floor, very-low-wooden-beams-that-you-can-crack-your-head-on ambiance, it definitely offers an oasis of tranquility from the bustle just steps away outside. And with an eclectic selection of beers and cider, it’s a good place to chill out.
Their up-scale restaurant (The Swan Brasserie) is a more formal but beautifully spacious and airy room with a great menu. Remember to look down and admire the colorful mosaic floor.
The Swan has a small outdoor patio and, just across the street and right on the river, its own manicured, private garden where hotel patrons can sit, enjoy a drink, and watch the ducks drift by. Visit on Boxing Day (December 26th) and you can watch the annual duck race. Yes, really.
4. The Wild Rabbit, Kingham, Oxfordshire
Great For: Al-Fresco Dining, Food, Location
The charming village of Kingham was once selected as “England's Favorite Village,” and it remains a firm favorite for both walkers and cyclists. Its two village pubs (The Kingham Plough as well as The Wild Rabbit) are both well known for their great food offerings.
An imposing three-story Cotswold building, The Wild Rabbit is directly on the road (Church Street) and has very limited parking behind the pub, so most folk park on the road. This gastro-pub successfully combines a traditional bar area with exposed Cotswold stone, an open, raised fireplace, a mix of wooden tables and chairs, and a soft armchair or two with a large, more formal restaurant area behind the bar.
A two-way fireplace offers a peek from the bar to the “snug” -- a cozy, welcoming room off the bar where, according to one local, “you can read your paper in peace.” There is a large terrace in front of the pub with many tables and wicker chairs for al fresco dining in the summer.
Dining is a must here. Not the cheapest location, perhaps, but the wide selection of home-made food (from smaller plates like a ploughman’s lunch to a steak main dish) is high quality and very tasty.
5. The Inn At Fossebridge, Fossebridge, Gloucestershire
Great For: Ambience, Gardens, History
Only seven miles from the old Roman town of Cirencester, this 300-year-old former coaching inn is located on the Fosse Way on the banks of the River Coln. It sits within four acres of beautiful gardens complete with its own lake. There is ample parking space.
With its flagstone floors, stone walls and arches, wooden beams and wagon wheels and lanterns hanging on the wall, you are immediately drawn into a cocoon of warmth and back to another age. Don’t worry about leaning against the wall -- it’s been there since 1637 and isn’t going anywhere. Although wooden tables, chairs, and pews help to provide the perfect olde-worlde atmosphere, simple modern additions (cushions on chairs and accent lighting) make this a wonderfully comfortable and cozy pub.
The menu is extensive and offers everything from hearty, traditional English pub grub to full-size, main-course ribeye steaks. Local ales with names like “Wicked Lady” and “Greedy Goose” make this a must-visit spot on everyone’s itinerary no matter the time of year. In winter, this is an excellent place to end a hike and relax with mulled wine by a roaring fire; in summer, bask outside in the warm sunshine, local ale in hand, as the river gently babbles just a few feet away. In this sleepy hamlet, The Inn at Fossebridge is (and has been for centuries) the quintessentially English roadside pub.
Since a number of these pubs are centuries old, stone floors and wooden steps will not be perfectly even, so you need to take extra care. Doors and windows will look as though they are crooked. That may be because you have enjoyed the local brews a little too much, or it could be they are older than your granny and have shrunk over the years. You will have to decide.