With overtourism plaguing some of Britain’s prettiest places, this little corner of the Cotswolds is a breath of fresh air. Witney – sitting east of the main Cotswolds Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and just 13 miles from Oxford – sees far fewer Downton Abbey-crazed visitors than the rest of this bucolic region does. And it’s all the better for it.
“It’s one of the few towns that’s actually getting better,” according to Richard Martin, owner of Witney’s Blanket Hall. It’s still got all that glorious, golden Cotswold stone but none of the pretence of those picture-perfect villages that have been built around the tourism trade.
They still have a Blanket Hall?
Witney was the centre of Britain’s blanket trade back in the 17th century after a cohort of weavers set up a guild here, and the locals are proud of their heritage. Every single blanket made in the town and its surroundings was checked in the Blanket Hall, and while there’s no weaving in Witney today (the pesky industrial revolution put paid to that), the building is open to the public as a museum (cotswoldwoollenweavers.co.uk; free entry).
Filled with antiques and weaving-related artefacts – including the blankets that once sat in the district council’s now-decommissioned nuclear bunker – it’s a compelling place to get an understanding of the town’s history, as well as a good excuse to feast on a homemade pie in the café out back.
Anything to do besides wrap up?
Plenty. If you’ve got kids in tow, Cogges Manor Farm (cogges.org.uk; £6.50 for adults, £4.50 for children) is a good bet. Farm animals, picnic spaces and activities in the manor’s kitchen abound throughout the holidays and at weekends.
Alternatively, get out into the countryside to see some of those classic views of rolling hills dotted with sheep, and quaint villages that have barely changed over the past 100 years. Undiscovered Cotswolds (undiscoveredcotswolds.com; from £80pp) is a two-man operation offering guided tours of the lesser-visited areas, with all sorts of unusual insider information.
There’s a wonderful walking route between Witney and Burford, too, taking in Minster Lovell with its pretty ruins, tiny Swinbrook and ending in the “gateway to the Cotswolds”, Burford. A few great pubs en route make it a brilliant day hike, and there are buses back into town for those with tired feet.
I think I could crawl to the pub
Then you’re in luck – Witney is all about sporty pub crawls. Besides, it wouldn’t be the British countryside without a little quirk, so if drinking is your sport of choice, head six miles out of town to Bampton, famed as one of Downton Abbey’s main filming locations, on the late May bank holiday (May 25-27).
Each year, the village’s younger residents take to the streets for the “shirt race”, established in 1953 by John Quick, whose aim was to get residents out having fun while raising money for senior citizens in the village. Still going strong today, it sees teams of two dressed in pyjamas, each taking turns to push the other in a homemade vehicle. The teams must stop at every village pub, and every location where a pub once stood, sink a half-pint of ale (orange juice for those under-age) and move on to the next.
The event has seen everything from bathtubs to Batmobiles hurtle through the streets, and a fair few hangovers the next day. Money raised is used to offer days out for older people, all overseen by the Spajers – the Society for the Preservation of Ancient Junketing (bamptonbeam.co.uk/spajers).
Sounds mad. What if I just want a pint like a normal person?
Then Witney has pubs aplenty, but the highlight is the Wychwood Brewery (wychwood.co.uk; tours £12). Tours are held every weekend, ending in the taproom and shop, where you can get pints of Hobgoblin and all manner of interesting bottles, from beers brewed only on a full moon to a proper ginger ale. Oxbrew (oxbrewmicropub.co.uk) is the town’s micropub, serving craft beers by a brewery of the same name, as well as spirits by local distilleries.
Where can I soak up all that ale?
The Chequers Smokehouse (chequerssmokehouse.com; mains from £11) isn’t just for carnivores – vegan and vegetarian choices go well beyond mushroom burgers and mac and cheese. But the highlight is, of course, the smoked meats – all of which are locally sourced from the high street butcher and singed to perfection in a mammoth smoker out the back. The Oreo cheesecake is absolutely divine – creamy, salty and light enough not to tip you over the edge after a meat feast.
Solid, home-cooked comfort food comes in the form of jacket potatoes, sandwiches and soups at Huffkins (huffkins.com; mains from £9.95) – a bakery so popular across the Cotswolds it now has outposts in Kyoto and Tokyo.
So where can I develop this hangover I’m brewing?
Retire after a hard day’s drinking (or walking) to the Blue Boar (telegraph.co.uk/tt-the-blue-boar-hotel; B&B doubles from £80 per night), an 18th-century coaching inn turned hotel, where boutique-style rooms sit above a superb restaurant serving great pizzas cooked in an enormous Italian oven. It’s dog-friendly, too, so bring the mutt and they’ll even provide a bed. The front bar is all dark wooden beams and cosy sofas – which is ideal for sinking a Cotswold Gin with a grapefruit garnish before bed.
Alternatively, stay a short drive out of town at Minster Lovell – the 15th-century Old Swan Inn (oldswan.co.uk; B&B from £99) has rooms above the excellent pub. Next door, the Minster Mill is newly renovated with Scandi-style minimalist rooms and a spa (minstermill.co.uk; B&B rooms from £225).