Cotswolds, a little history and geology

cotswolds history

Cotswolds is a word that conjures up a vision of honey coloured stone, pretty villages and a cultivated upland landscape. Indeed most of the Cotswold region is well preserved, and that is what we see today. But why does the countryside look the way it does today?

"Cotswolds" is derived from the word for the stone sheep shelters or "cots" (we still use the word in dovecote), plus the word "wold" for the rolling hills. That tells us about a time in the past when sheep were the mainstay of the economy.

Geologically they were created from a large block of oolitic limestone tilting up at its western end to form today's escarpment, with a gentle slope tilting to the east. Although the sharp  western edge is very prominent if you drive along it today, the hills just just fade away to the east with no definite boundary. It is the eastern portion that has mellowed in time to the rolling landscape of today.


The limestone has been quarried to build the houses, cottages, stone field walls. The lovely stone has travelled further afield, to build St Paul's in London, Melbourne Cathedral in Australia, and many of the Oxford colleges.

Historically the land has been farmed for thousands of years. Flint arrowheads from the hunter gatherers of 6000 years ago have been found. Stone and bronze age forts pepper the area, the work of Neolithic man around 3500 BC. Many of the local museums display such finds. It was Neolithic man that first started clearing the forests that then covered the whole area.

The Romans left their mark on the area. Two of their roads, the Fosse Way and the Ermine Way, are still major routes today. By the end of Roman occupation of Britain, Cirencester was the second largest city in Britain. The remains of two Roman villas can be visited in the area. Such villas were maintained for a short period after the Romans left Britain, but by the end of the 5th century, Cirencester and most of the villas were deserted..

Then the Saxons moved in during the 7th century, and today most of the place names are Saxon in origin.. The whole area was already rich from wool and grain farming by the time the Normans invaded. By Doomsday in 1086, most of the land was under cultivation. Any remaining woodland disappeared, with the open field system of farming reaching its height in the 14th century, After this time, there was a decline in arable farming in favour of wool alone. It was of course wool which brought the area prosperity that you can still see in the "wool churches"


In the 16th century there was an upsurge in the use of local stone for building by yeoman farmers and country gentry. The present landscape was set by the Enclosure Acts from 1700 to 1840 when at least 120,000 acres of open land were enclosed by act of parliament, with the familiar drystone walls dividing off newly enclosed land for sheep. The Enclosure Acts were private acts of parliament which enabled the landowner to fence open land. Enclosure in turn caused two major changes to the area. Firstly the landscape looked entirely different as there were no longer large open spaces. Secondly intensive sheep farming required fewer labourers, so villages tended to depopulate as farm workers went off to the towns to seek work. Since then the landscape has remained much the same until today.

Wool was worked in mills powered by water, which was plentiful in the area! When steam power came along, there was no coal to power steam mills, so the new steam mills were built closer to the coal fields, and the weaving of wool gradually died out here. The area was left as a rural backwater, industry did not move in as it was not economic to do so, hence the countryside was preserved. And in an increasingly "green" world today, it would appear that it is safe from further development now.

Changes that occur now are more difficult to see. Being close to London, being very rural and beautiful, and so they are where many Londoners chose to buy a second home. This demand forces up property prices, the houses become only used at weekends, and village shops and schools close and the characters of the villages change

Armed with this brief history of the area and its geology, you can see it on the ground as you drive around the area

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Cotswolds - history and geology of the area