Home to both the Forest of Dean and much of the Cotswold Hills, Gloucestershire boasts one of the finest concentrations of Early Neolithic monuments in Britain. Later in prehistory, its hills became home to a number of defensive Iron Age hillforts, while after the Roman invasion, the area saw the growth of two major new towns, Corinium (Cirencester) and Glevum (Gloucester). After the collapse of the Roman administration, indigenous groups reasserted their dominance, although Anglo-Saxon groups subsequently came to power in the early middle ages. Like much of England, Gloucestershire has its share of high and late medieval castles and churches, as well as early modern country houses. In the 19th century, the iron ores under the Forest of Dean led to an expansion of industrial development and the arrival of the railways, which have become an indelible part of this county’s heritage.
In the Early Neolithic, the people living in Britain embraced a tradition of burying selected members of their dead in oval or rectangular tumuli, known to us as ‘long barrows’. Some of these were ‘chambered’, having stone chambers encased within the earth mounds. The long barrow at Avening was an example of this, but was destroyed in 1806, when a local vicar saved the stone chambers and moved them into his garden. Eight skeletons had rested in one chamber, and three in another. Now on private land, they are sometimes accessible.
In the Iron Age, the oppidum of Bagendon was the capital of the Dobunni tribe. An area measuring 80 hectares, it is surrounded by several banks and dykes, although these may have been too small to be defensive. Around 70 CE, the settlement shifted to the newly founded Corinium Dobunnorum, now known as Cirencester. Excavations in the 1950s and 1980s have revealed more about the site’s development, including the presence of imported luxury goods from the Roman Empire and a mint which struck coins bearing the name of Dobunni kings.
Constructed in the Neolithic, around 3000 BC, this particular chambered long barrow is typical of the kind of barrows found along the River Severn. In fact Belas Knap is considered the best of this kind. The barrow seems to be remarkably well preserved, but it was restored following excavations in the 1860s and again in the late 1920s. Belas Knap Long Barrow is typical of a type of long barrow referred to as the “Cotswold-Severn group”. These barrows are trapezoid in shape and are scattered along the River Severn. The impressive entrance is in fact a dummy entrance. The two entrances to the burial chambers are situated on the sides of the barrow. When the entrances were covered over with earth, they would have been invisible. The reason why dummy entrances were built is not understood. The remains of 31 individuals were found in the various chambers, including some interments made during the Bronze Age. Off the B4632, south of Winchcombe (signed). The Cotswold Way National Trail passes by Belas Knap. [Website]
One of the best-preserved hillforts in the Cotswolds, the Brackenbury Ditches dates from the Iron Age and was probably constructed about 650 BCE. Located on a spur, it would have commanded impressive views across the Vale of Berkeley, although now a forest partly obscures this view. The D-shaped fort is bivallate, with two lines of ramparts surrounding much of its perimeter to guard against attackers. Some Bronze Age material also derives from the site, suggesting a longer period of inhabitation. Woodland now covers the entire area, which is ideal for keen walkers.
The highest point on the Cotswolds, Cleeve Hill reaches a peak of about 300 metres above sea level. Atop this position stands Cleeve Camp, a hillfort dating from the Iron Age. About half of the hillfort is now lost due to quarrying which took place from the Middle Ages onward. To the north of the fortification are several smaller settlements that also date from later prehistory; the most visually obvious is known as the Ring. The hill, which also houses the Belas Knap Barrow, is a designated Site of Special Scientific Interest.
At the watershed of the River Twyer, Painswick Stream, and Wash Brook valleys stands Kimsbury Hill Fort, also known as Painswick Beacon. One of the various Iron Age fortifications dotted around the Cotswolds Hills, it probably served a largely defensive function. A roughly triangular area covering nearly 9 hectares, on its western and southern sides it features three ramparts, making this a multivallate hillfort. Royalist armies likely occupied the site during the English Civil War. Extensive quarrying has damaged the interior, some of which is now a golf course.
Little Sodbury Hillfort, also known as Sodbury Camp, is a multivallate structure encompassing a little over 9 hectares of land. A causewayed entrance is situated on the eastern side of the site, and the inner rampart stands at over two metres in height. In-depth archaeological investigation has yet to take place, meaning that the chronology of the site is still a mystery, although it likely dates from the Iron Age. The land on which the hillfort stands is now private property, although two footpaths allow public access to the site.
An oval barrow that is about 30 metres from east to west and 25 metres north to south. The internal chambers were exposed when the mound was ploughed over and the roof slabs removed. Originally the barrow was surrounded by a drystone kerb, but this is now covered. Nympsfield Long Barrow has been excavated a number of times. First in 1862, again in 1937 and more recently in 1974. Neolithic pottery and the remains from at least 13 individuals were found, human skeletons, including a skeleton of a child that was enclosed in a stone cist. During the excavations, pottery from the later Neolithic was found in the earth material blocking the entrance – indicating the chambered tomb was sealed up before the end of the Neolithic. Off the B4066 near Nympsfield in the Coaley Hill Picnic Area, which is also a popular viewing point on the Cotswold escarpment over the Severn Valley. The Cotswold Way National Trail passes by the long barrow. [Website]
Inside Standish Wood can be found Randwick Long Barrow, one of various such tumuli erected in this region during the Early Neolithic period. Measuring 55 metres in length and 4 metres in height, it is one of the larger long barrows still extant. Excavations carried out in 1883 revealed pottery and several inhumation burials; some of the finds are in Gloucester Museum. Indicating later site use, excavators also found pottery and a horseshoe from the Romano-British period. The adjacent area has experienced quarrying, some of which has damaged the barrow itself.
On Shenberrow Hill, the third highest point in Gloucestershire, stands one of the hillforts built along the Cotswold Hills during later prehistory. Evidence suggests that there was Bronze Age inhabitation of this site prior to the later establishment of the hillfort in the Iron Age. Covering only 2.5 acres, it is one of the smaller hillforts in this region. Roughly D-shaped, it is a bivallate fort, with twin defences around its perimeter. A farm was built on the site in the late 18th or 19th centuries, while archaeologists undertook excavations in the 1930s.
One of the various hillforts built along prominent points of the Cotswold Hills, Uley Bury Camp was built circa 400 BCE, during the Iron Age. Encompassing 13 hectares of land, the hillfort has bivallate ramparts. Next to the fort, but no longer visible, is Uley Temple, which was used as a cultic site from the later prehistoric through the Roman period, when it was devoted to Mercury. An early medieval baptistery or cell was later erected atop it. Part of the fort is a designated Site of Special Scientific Interest.
Uley Long Barrow, often known by its evocative local name of Hetty Pegler’s Tump, was one of the Early Neolithic burial sites erected in the Cotswolds landscape. Between 15 and 20 skeletons were interned in the site. Evidence also indicates that the chamber was broken into during the Romano-British period. Excavation took place in the 1850s, after which the tumulus underwent reconstruction in the latter 19th and early 20th centuries, resulting in its present appearance. The visually impressive barrow is 37 metres long and 3 metres wide.
Another of the Cotswold-Severn long barrow group scattered across this area of southwestern Britain, Windmill Tump is 61 metres long and a little over 21 metres wide. It has a false entrance at the forecourt with lateral chambers at the sides, making its design similar to that at Belas Knap. Excavations of the barrow took place in the 1860s and again in the 1930s, revealing that Early Neolithic people had deposited the remains of at least ten adults and three children, as well as faunal material. Owned by English Heritage.
The Roman Villa at Chedworth is thought to be one of the largest of its kind in Britain, and one of the richest in the 4th century AD. During your visit you can see a number of well preserved, features of a typical Roman villa; these include a latrine, bath houses, a dining room that has magnificent mosaic floors, as well as a nymphaeum – a shrine sited at a natural spring. On a wet day you might even encounter some large snails, these are the very descendants of those introduced by the Romans for food. [Website]
On the outskirts of Cirencester – a town established in the Romano-British period as Corinium Dobunnorum – stands one of the largest amphitheatres in Britain. At maximum capacity, it could have held 8000 people, there to watch animals and gladiators fight and be killed. It was fortified in the 5th century, a period of great turbulence. In the Middle Ages, the amphitheatre was converted into a rabbit warren and may also have been used for bull-bating. Excavation has since taken place, revealing more about the building’s construction. The site is freely accessible.
Gloucester was once the Roman town of Glevum, and like many of its contemporaries a stone wall once encircled it. Today, little of this remains, but one part can be found at the Eastgate Chamber in Eastgate Street. Here, a glass panel allows passers-by to look down under the city’s contemporary ground-level and see not just Roman masonry but also additions made in the medieval and early modern periods. Tours to enter the Eastgate Chamber and get closer to Gloucester’s past are also available, although require advanced booking.
Set on the steep slopes of Birdlip Hill, Great Witcombe Roman Villa is unusual for Roman country residences of this period in that it was built on four terraces, and the walls were buttressed to stabilize them. Based on coins found during excavations, it is thought to have been built in the 3rd century AD, and occupied until the 5th. Reports from when the villa was discovered suggest that certain aspects of the villa were well preserved: the walls were said to be nearly 2 metres high, some with plaster still intact; the bath house noted as being the most complete known; and a number of mosaic floors were recorded. But, the weather and poor conservation techniques applied have all but destroyed this villa. [Website]
When the Roman Army conquered Britain, one of its strategies to secure dominance was through religious syncretism with the indigenous population. This included adopting British deities as their own, something that is evident at Lydney Park. Here, a stone temple built in the late 4th century was devoted to the indigenous god Nodens. The archaeologist Mortimer Wheeler oversaw excavation of the site in the 1930s. The temple now sits within the Lydney Park Estate, an extended garden which is open to visitors in the spring and on selected days elsewhere during the year.
Now enclosed in woodland, the Spoonley Wood Roman villa underwent excavation in 1882. Excavators revealed several mosaic floors before they were removed and taken to Spoonley Castle. Replicas were put down in their place, some of which are still visible under protective huts. Alongside the villa itself is evidence of a barn or granary. Other finds from the excavation included various coins and a marble statue of Bacchus now on display at the British Museum. One of the rare chances to see a Roman villa in a forest environment.
In the Middle Ages, Ashleworth was home to an Augustinian manor. Ashleworth Church has a nave dating from around the early 12th century, several decades before being granted to the Augustinian abbey at Bristol. The church chancel is 13th century in origin while other elements of the building date from later centuries in the medieval period. The nearby tithe barn originates in the late 15th or early 16th century and housed grain that the monks extracted from local villagers. The National Trust own the barn, which is open on select days.
Berkeley Castle began life as a motte-and-bailey erected shortly after the Norman Conquest of 1066. The Berkeley family later took control and rebuilt the castle in the 12th century, while further expansion took place in the 14th. In 1327, King Edward II was imprisoned there and it was in the castle that he was murdered. In the English Civil War, it served as a royalist garrison till parliamentarians captured it. A Grade I listed building, the castle is under private ownership although is open to the public.
In the centre of Beverston village stands the ruins of Beverston Castle, also known as Tetbury Castle. Maurice de Gaunt established the building in the 1220s, when it was laid out to a pentagonal plan. Additional fortifications and a gatehouse were added in the 14th century. During the English Civil War, parliamentarian forces twice attacked the castle, heavily damaging it. Situated on private property and surrounded by a garden, it is only occasionally open to the public but always partly visible from the adjacent road.
Gloucester Cathedral stands on land which has experienced Christian worship since at least the late 7th century. The present building started life in the 11th century and became a cathedral in the 16th century when John Wakeman became its first bishop. The central part of the structure is Norman, although many of the additions put in during the later middle ages are in the Gothic style. The building includes the canopied shrine of King Edward II, who was murdered in Gloucestershire in 1327. The Neo-Gothic architect George Gilbert Scott oversaw 19th century restoration.
A Cistercian abbey that was founded in 1246 by the Earl of Cornwall, and only ever inhabited by a small number of monks. The abbey was surrendered by the monks on Christmas Eve of 1539 and subsequently sold by the crown following the Dissolution of the monasteries. Some of the arches that made up the cloisters and the foundations of the church make for an interesting set of ruins. Of particular note on site is the clever Cistercian drain which still works after 750 years. The nearby Hailes church still has some well preserved Medieval paintings. [Website]
In the later middle ages, abbeys and monastic settlements were a major player in the English landscape. In Gloucestershire, one of the most prominent was Kingswood Abbey, home to a Cistercian community who had settled there in the 12th century. In the 15th century a new gatehouse was built, with various architectural decorations reflecting Christian themes including the Annunciation and the Crucifixion. The abbey was destroyed amid King Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries, but the gatehouse survived. English Heritage now manage the site; the exterior is always open.
One of the most complete surviving Anglo-Saxon churches in England, Odda’s Chapel was established by the eponymous local nobleman in the 1050s. Odda designed it as a chantry where priests would pray for his deceased brother. Among the visible Anglo-Saxon features are the chapel’s alternating long and short quoins, windows, and the north door of the nave. Following King Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries, the chapel became a farmhouse, with the nave becoming a kitchen. Owned by English Heritage, the Grade I-listed chapel is free to visit.
The late medieval manor house of Sudeley Castle dates from the 15th century. Ralph Boteler, the Treasurer of England, was largely responsible for its construction, although the Duke of Gloucester oversaw various extensions and alterations before he became King Richard III. Subsequent Tudor monarchs retained ownership before it passed out of royal hands. Also present at the site are a 15th century chapel, the 15th century walls of a barn, and nine different gardens. A Grade I listed building, Sudeley Castle remains privately owned although is open to visitors.
In much of the high and later middle ages there were constant tensions between the Kingdom of England and the various Welsh territories, ultimately leading to the English conquest of the latter. In the early 12th century, St Briavels Castle was built to defend this borderland. In 1292, King Edward I added a twin-towered gatehouse to the castle; under his rule, it was used as a factory producing crossbow bolts. After the conquest of Wales, it became a debtor’s prison. Owned by English Heritage, the exterior of the site is freely accessible.
One of the largest Anglo-Saxon churches to survive, St Mary’s stands on a site that had a minster by at least the early 9th century. Parts of the present building – including the nave and side chapels – date from this century, while the west tower represents a 10th century extension. The church contains several examples of Anglo-Saxon sculpture and an ornately carved, potentially 9th century, font. St Mary’s is in walking distance of Odda’s Chapel, another site of medieval interest. It remains an active site of Christian worship.
St Mary’s Church in Kempley probably started life in the early 12th century, when one of the most powerful men in England, Baron Hugh de Lacy, likely ordered its construction. He commissioned a series of wall-paintings which (remarkably) survive today, representing the most complete set of Romanesque frescos extant in northern Europe. The church tower dates from the 13th century, while the timber roof is the oldest of any building in England. Owned by English Heritage but managed by a local charity, St Mary’s is freely open during the lighter months.
Population growth in the 12th and 13th centuries led many English peasants to begin cultivating land that had previously been left bare, including various steep, hilly areas. Such ploughing resulted in lynchet strips, which in many places have been lost to later ploughing and development. One of the best-preserved examples, however, is at Wotton Hill, north-west of the market town of Wotton-under-Edge. Here, the steps between the lynchets can reach over two metres. The post-medieval abandonment of the site has meant that the original medieval appearance remains visible.
The village of Bibury has become a popular visitor’s attraction thanks to its quaint rural architecture, which helps to cement its reputation as a quintessential Cotswolds village. The 19th century designer William Morris referred to it as “the most beautiful village in England”. In the heart of the settlement is Arlington Row, a series of 17th century weavers’ cottages adjacent to the Rack Isle water meadow, which is an important site for wildlife. The National Trust owns these, and runs one as a holiday let. Arrive early to avoid the tourist rush!
The country house at Dyrham Park stands on the site of an earlier building. The present construction owes its creation to the wealthy politician William Blathwayt, and it was built in stages over the 17th century, gradually replacing all parts of the original Tudor building. The interior showcases Dutch decorative arts, including paintings by various Old Masters. The parkland around the house covers 270 acres and is home to a herd of fallow deer. The National Trust own the site and in the 2010s embarked on a major conservation project.
While the Franciscan friary at Greyfriars began in the 13th century, in the early 16th century the Berkeley family paid for it to be rebuilt in the fashionable Perpendicular Gothic style. In 1539, Greyfriars succumbed to King Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries, after which it entered secular control. During the English Civil War, the parliamentarians’ Siege of Gloucester left the building in ruins. In the 19th century several buildings were added on the site, adjacent to the romantic ruins. English Heritage own Greyfriars, which is freely accessible.
The garden at Hidcote is a masterpiece of the Arts and Crafts style. It owes its creation to the horticulturist Lawrence Johnston, whose mother had bought the property in 1907. Fields then surrounded the house, and Johnston set about converting these into gardens, at one point employing twenty full-time gardeners to maintain it. In designing the garden as a series of ‘rooms’, Johnston was influenced by Alfred Parsons and Gertrude Jekyll. During travels to various parts of the world he collected seeds for the garden. The National Trust have owned Hidcote since 1948.
Built in the 16th century from the remains of a Norman hall, the manor house at Horton Court owes its foundation to William Knight, a prominent clergyman who was tasked with securing the annulment of Henry’s VIII’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon. The Renaissance innovations of southern Europe inspired his design, which includes rare early ambulatory in the garden. The National Trust have owned the Grade I-listed Horton Court since 1949; it is currently undergoing a major conservation project, after which it should be open to the public.
The only surviving 17th century deer course and grandstand in England, Lodge Park was built by John ‘Crump’ Dutton, whose family had owned the Sherborne Estate since 1551. The building and its garden underwent a remodelling in the 1720s. In the early 19th century it experienced an even more dramatic transformation as its owner converted it from a grandstand into a house. The National Trust have owned the Grade I-listed building and parkland since 1982 and have overseen significant renovation. It is now open to the public.
In the heart of the small market town of Chipping Campden stands the Market Hall. Baptist Hicks, a wealthy philanthropist, financed the construction of the Market Hall in 1627 to provide shelter for traders peddling their wares. Like many buildings in the Cotswolds, it is made from ashlar with a roof of Cotswold stone. Amid fears that it was be to be deconstructed and shipped to the United States, in the 1940s local people raised the funds to purchase it, after which they donated it the National Trust to ensure its preservation.
The country house of Newark Park started life in the mid-16th century as a Tudor hunting lodge, built in part out of material from the recently demolished Kingswood Abbey. As the house passed through the ownership of different families during the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, it underwent architectural alteration The National Trust have owned the Grade I listed house since 1946 and initially rented it out as a care home before opening it to the public. Atop the Cotswold escarpment, it offers impressive views over the Ozleworth Valley.
Over Bridge is a single-arch stone crossing that spans the width of the River Severn. There had been a bridge in that location since at least the 11th century, but the Tudor-era version was in a structurally unsound state by the early 19th century. Between 1825 and 1830 the Over Bridge was created as its replacement; the engineer Thomas Telford had designed it. The site remained in active use until the 1960s, when a steel bridge was built nearby. English Heritage now own the site, which is free to visit.
The 16th century manor house at Snowshill Manor was formerly the property of Winchcombe Abbey before entering non-ecclesiastical hands after the dissolution of the monasteries. Its locally sourced stone gives it the typical Cotswolds feel. In the 20th century the manor was home to the wealthy architect Charles Paget Wade, who amassed an eclectic collection of over 22,000 objects. Among the artefacts include a wide range of toys and Samurai swords. He bequeathed this collection, and the house itself, to the National Trust, who continue to manage both.
A natural cave system in the Forest of Dean, Clearwell Caves is a designated Site of Special Scientific Interest. It is now home to a museum devoted to the caves’ long mining history, an industry which played an important role in the forest economy. The extraction of iron ore from the cave system took place from the Iron Age through to the 20th century, when it began to shift purpose into being a visitor’s attraction. Today, some mining continues to take place, although this time for ochres used in artists’ pigments.
Founded in 1988, the Coleford Great Western Railway Museum devotes itself to the history of the railways in the Forest of Dean from the early 19th century until the 1970s. Its location is itself part of that history, having once served as one of the Great Western Railway company’s 19th century goods sheds. The museum has a range of different trains on display as well as a wider range of memorabilia. To entertain children (and adults!), It also has a working miniature railway. Ideal for those interested in industrial heritage.
In the fourth century AD two groups of Roman mosaicists based in the present day Cirencester area made mosaic floors for many of the wealthy villa owners in the Cotswolds. Many of these can now be seen in the impressive displays of the Corinium Museum. As Roman Cirencester was the second largest town in Britain, the museum has one of the largest and finest collections of antiquities and mosaics in the country. [Website]
Fans of motorcars should check out the Cotswold Motoring Museum, established in 1978 by a private South African collector to house his growing personal collection. Located in the idyllic Bourton-on-the-Water, the museum occupies a Grade II listed 18th century traditionally Cotswolds building. As well as housing motorcars from different decades of the 20th century, the museum also boasts displays of related artefacts, including motorbikes, caravans, toy cars, and other thematically related memorabilia. Various temporary displays throughout the year supplement the museum’s permanent collection. [Website]
The steam-powered train is one of the most iconic images of 19th century Britain and although they are no longer widely used, such trains are preserved in the country’s various heritage railways. The Dean Forest Railway is one such example, covering part of the line once used by the Severn and Wye line. Running between Lydney and Parkend, the railway covers four and a half miles, largely through woodland and countryside. There are five stops along the way, allowing visitors to hop off and explore the local area. [Website]
Opened in 1983, the Dean Heritage Centre devotes itself to telling the story of the Forest of Dean. Its collection includes over 20,000 objects, with notable exhibits including a number of 18th century clocks made by Voyce of Mitcheldean and an operational 1830s beam engine. The museum covers five acres of land, with a millpond and waterwheel, a Grade II listed mill building, and a reconstructed foresters’ cottage, to help bring the past to life. Located in the forest itself, the centre also has several woodland trails to explore. [Website]
The Museum of Gloucester showcases the history of the town, from its development in the Romano-British period onward. Much of the museum is geared towards engaging children, including an exhibit on dinosaurs. The smaller Gloucester Life Museum focuses on the social history of the area, featuring displays on craft practices and domestic life. It can be found spread across two of the city’s oldest buildings, a Tudor merchant’s house and a 17th century town house. Although the two museums are separate, a single admission fee covers entry to both.
Tewkesbury Museum has been open since 1962 and occupies a listed 17th century building which underwent restoration in the 19th. The museum’s collection ranges from Romano-British material to items dating from the Second World War. Noteworthy displays include material that was associated with the Antarctic explorer Raymond Priestley, who had been born in Tewkesbury, and a full diorama of the 1471 Battle of Tewksbury, one of the defining clashes in the War of the Roses. It also hosts an archive of images and material for historians and other researchers to consult. [Website]
The Wilson in Cheltenham is a museum and art gallery opened in 1899, albeit with an early 21st century extension. The museum includes a range of archaeological artefacts and historical material relating to the history of the town. Other items have broader significance; the museum’s collection of Arts and Crafts material – which includes furniture, textiles, and jewellery – is considered to be of national importance. The museum is named for the Cheltenham-born Antarctic explorer Edward Wilson and houses a display devoted to him. Various temporary exhibits and events take place throughout the year. [Website]
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