Nestled in the heart of Gloucestershire in central England sits a tiny market town perched upon a hill. Stow-on-the-Wold is a quaint, civil parish located at the confluence of the Cotswolds’ main roads––a veritable blink-and-you’ll-miss-it vantage point that has become a popular tourist area, as well as a charming home, steeped in history and activity, to roughly 2,000 citizens.
History of Stow-on-the-Wold
Due to its naturally hilly landscape and high elevation point, Stow-on-the-Wold is said to have originally served as a defensive fort during the Iron Age –– a claim bolstered by the countless burial mounds scattered throughout the region.
Like many early settlements, location and access were vital points of interest and, given the town’s proximity to crossroads serving many routes, Stow-on-the-Wold was established by settlers hoping to take advantage of passing trade. In fact, to this day, the town operates as a market town, attracting vendors and shoppers alike from across southern England.
Originally, Stow-on-the-Wold was called Edwardstow, likely named for the town’s patron saint, Edward the Martyr, who was King of the English from 975 until his murder in 978.
By the 12th century, Stow-on-the-Wold had firmly established itself as a centre for urban development, as well as a profitable market town –– even receiving designation from King Henry I, including permission to operate its own weekly market.
Additionally, a charter was created not long after (Stow-on-the-Wold, like many market towns at the time, was controlled by abbots from the local abbey) granting the townspeople the right to hold their market every Thursday in the town square. This gave Stow-on-the-Wold significant status over other Cotswold towns. To solidify the charter, a market cross was erected as a designation to the locals that they could ply their business in a safe environment –– a distinction that would continue for over 800 years.
It wasn’t until 1476 when the local abbot petitioned for another charter in order to create two fairs, the first in May and the second in October. The charters were granted for May 12th, the feast of Saints Philip and James, and October 24th, the feast of St. Edward the Confessor. Interestingly enough, these dates are still used today and are also based around the date of the famed Gypsy Horse Fair.
The Battle of Stow-on-the-Wold
In Stow-on-the-Wold, there are ample sights to see for history buffs. One of the most significant battles fought during the First English Civil War occurred locally quite by accident, between the Parliamentarians and the Royalists.
One of the commanders of the Royalist faction, Sir Jacob Astley, took charge of his 3,000+ strong forces and led them from the West Midlands towards Oxford, but were ultimately intercepted at Stow-on-the-Wold during the early hours of March 21, 1646, by the opposing Parliamentarian Colonel Thomas Morgan.
Fighting erupted in the streets and, eventually, the Royalists surrendered, marking the last major battle of the First Civil War. Today, a viewpoint marker is situated close to the top of the hill, adjacent to the footpath to nearby Donnington.
For those visiting Stow-on-the-Wold from afar and planning on staying for a week or long weekend, there are plenty of local attractions to keep you busy for the duration of your stay. Despite its old-world charm and scenic, rural landscapes, Stow-on-the-Wold offers contemporary dining, shopping and attractions for visitors of all ages and interests.
For starters, check yourself into any of the fine lodgings available within the town’s central area –– country cottages to stately inns.
This charming, family-owned hotel overlooks the historic Stow-on-the-Wold market square and features picturesque gardens full of vibrant colours and fragrances throughout the spring and summer months.
Stylishly decorated in contemporary Cotswold country style, this quaint hotel features seven bedrooms, many with a rewarding view out across Market Square. Given the building’s age (500+ years old), access to some of the rooms is not suitable for those who are less mobile.
Offering superior Cotswold accommodation via 13 elegant rooms in a wonderfully restored Georgian town house, the Stag at Stow hotel is another perfect option. Each bedroom is individually decorated and features its own bathroom and/or shower room. The Lodge House has larger suites for families or those looking for a little more space.
For such a small market town, there are plenty of dining options for visitors to Stow: for small to large appetites and budgets.
Inside the charming boutique Sheep Stow Hotel, this laid-back restaurant with its open atmosphere offers fantastic bistro fare, including their famous pizzas. In the evening, pull up a stool at the full-length curved bar or pick a charming table on the garden terrace before indulging in one of many flavourful dishes.
One of the most popular restaurants in the Cotswolds since 2005, The Old Butchers features casual dining in an inviting atmosphere, plus an extensive menu that caters to all tastes. From gourmet burgers and soups to delicious seafood plates –– there is something for everyone.
For those looking to relax in a more traditional town pub, you needn’t look any further than the Queen’s Head in the market square in Stow. Serving up comfortable pub cuisine, this famed hangout offers pints and chips at reasonable prices. And it’s dog friendly!
Another must-see attraction in Stow is St Edward’s Church, named for the town’s patron saint, featuring traditional architecture and an other-worldly, tree-framed entrance that has to be seen to be believed. Said to have provide the inspiration for the gates to Moria in J R R Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings.
Nearby Cotswold Farm Park is a quick drive from town and features a children’s play park, petting zoo, conservation area and horse rides. Additional accommodation and dining options are available on-site.
For those looking to take in some cultural splendour, one of the greatest spaces in the UK is only a stone’s throw away from Stow town centre. Founded in 1980, Fosse Gallery has regularly featured some of the most important contemporary British art, presenting work by artists of international standing.
Often described as one of the most important UK art galleries, it remains in its original Cotswold location in the centre of Stow-on-the Wold, owned and operated by its friendly and knowledgeable staff.
Take a stroll through the gallery halls before heading out to nearby Lucy’s Tearoom for delicious, home made, locally sourced food ––including breakfast, lunch, traditional afternoon tea and seasonal, plant-based fare.
The Gypsy Horse Fair at Stow-on-the-Wold
Now commonly referred to as The Stow Horse Fair, this celebrated event has been held in Stow-on-the-Wold biannually, in May and October, for hundreds of years and is arguably its biggest draw. Each year, tourists and traveller people from all across the country, have gathered in the town, ever since 1476.
Due to the town’s historically unique location at the crossroads of multiple trackways, Stow-on-the-Wold developed a heavy capacity for trade during the late Middle Ages. As travellers made their way from across Wales, the Midlands, the Thames Valley and beyond, they would typically pass through the central Cotswold region to sell their wares in exchange for goods.
Unlike other towns, Stow-on-the-Wold was able to provide accommodation, including stabling and food, and the early Stow-on-the-Wold settlers, skilled in saddlery, spinning and harness-making, provided their services to those in need. Hundreds of years later, the Stow Horse Fair is a tradition like no other in the area. Horses are still shown, traded and sold in large numbers, but not before a display of riding shows and performances for locals and visitors alike.
One of the most well-known and scenic of all the Cotswold towns, Stow-on-the-Wold is, first and foremost, a market town. The first known weekly market occurred in 1107, at the behest of King Henry I who decreed that all proceeds be given to Evesham Abbey.
Ever since, local artisans, including butchers, bakers, candlestick makers(?) –– plus countless other craftspeople and vendors have gathered in the town square every second and last Thursday of the month from May – September, and every second Thursday from October – April to sell their traditional and not-so-traditional wares. This open-air market, featuring dozens of booths, truly represents the best in local food, produce and crafts, and is a significant draw from visitors far and wide.
Despite operating in rain or shine, market dates often change so visit the area’s official site for the most accurate updates.
If you happen to find yourself in Stow on a day when the market is not running, you can still visit the many local shops throughout town for unique goods and one-of-a-kind crafts. For example, one of the most popular home furnishings businesses in the Cotswolds area, Cotswold Company, has its flagship location in Stow.
Getting to Stow-on-the-Wold
Stow is centrally located in the heart of the Cotswold region. Situated just off of the A429 (turn off at High Street to enter the town centre), it can also be reached from the local westbound A436. If travelling from London, take the A41 or M40 or from Oxford, the A44. Those travelling south from Birmingham, take the M5 to Cheltenham.