The Cotswold Hills rise gently west from the broad, green meadows of the upper Thames to crest in a dramatic escarpment above the Severn valley and Evesham Vale. Rural England at its most mellow, the landscape draws a unique warmth and richness from the famous stone beauty of its buildings.
Jurassic limestone gives the Cotswolds their distinctive character, and an underlying unity in its use as a building material throughout the area. The limestone lies in a sloping plateau with a steep scarp slope in the west drained by short streams in deep cut wooded valleys, and a gentle dip slope which forms the headwaters of the Thames. This gentle slope has a maze of lanes connecting picturesque streamside villages built predominantly from local stone.
The Cotswolds are nationally important for their rare limestone grassland habitat and for ancient beechwoods with rich flora. Important grasslands such as Cleeve Hill have survived due to their status as ancient common and a National Nature Reserve protects the finest ancient beech complex. Some Cotswolds plants are so rare that they have specific legal protection under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981.
Traditionally a landscape formed by sheep grazing, this is now prosperous mixed and arable farming country. The AONB excludes urban areas but includes market towns such as Chipping Campden. Now only the third largest employer, agriculture is outranked by tourism and services. Of the working residents (population about 120,000), 73 per cent commute beyond the AONB to Cheltenham, Bath, Gloucester, Cirencester and elsewhere. There is still active mineral extraction in the AONB.
Motorways together with a central location, make the Cotswolds accessible to a huge urban visitor area including Bristol, London and the West Midlands. The AONB, with ‘honey pot’ villages such as Bourton-on-the-Water, Bibury and Castle Combe, is a national and international tourist destination as well as an important local recreation area.
The Cotswold Way National Trail, which runs between Bath and Chipping Campden, and a number of other walking routes extend across the AONB.