Stow-on-the-Wold in the Cotswolds has always been a destination for travelers visiting the Cotswolds. It is said that at one point, each of the buildings surrounding Stow-on-the-Wold’s Market Square was either an inn or restaurant.
This legacy continues today in the town with multiple inns, cafes, restaurants, and shops catering to locals and tourists alike. This guide to Stow-on-the-Wold in the Cotswolds examines the fascinating history of Stow-on-the-Wold as well as things to do in Stow-on-the-Wold and places to eat and stay.
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History of Stow-on-the-Wold
Why is it called Stow-on-the-Wold?
Stow-on-the-Wold was originally known as Edwardstow, after the town’s patron, Saint Edward. When Henry II granted the town a charter in 1107, he changed the name to Stow-on-the-Wold. Stow comes from the Old English word of the same spelling meaning place or locality. Wold comes from the Old English wald meaning forest. The name originally applied to high forest land but the meaning likely shifted to mean “open high ground” as the forested areas were cleared for settlement.
At 790 feet above sea level, Stow-on-the-Wold is the highest town in the Cotswolds, really embracing the “wold” part of its name. In fact, an 18th-century rhyme even describes the cold wind and cooler weather that resulted from the town’s higher altitude:
Stowe-on-the-Wold, Where the wind blows cold.
Where horses young and old are sold, Where farmers come to spend their gold.
Where men are fools and women are bold and many a wicked tale is told.
High on the freezing Cotswold.
The origins of Stow-on-the-Wold
Like many Cotswold villages, humans have settled in what is now Stow-on-the-Wold since the Bronze Age. Archaeologists have discovered the remnants of Bronze Age fort fortifications on top of a hill northeast of Stow-on-the-Wold known as Stow Camp. The shape, size, and location of the monument suggest it would have continued into what is now Stow-on-the-Wold. Learn more about the Bronze Age Stow Camp from Historic England.
The Romans destroyed Stow Camp when they were building their new highway, Fosse Way. Coming from the Latin word fossa, meaning ditch, this highway links Exeter to Lincoln. When you drive into Stow-on-the-Wold, you’ll likely drive on the modern version of this ancient Roman road. Today, just as in the past, the town sits at the junction of six major roads, including Fosse Way, making it an important town for trade and travel.
In 1107, Henry II granted Stow-on-the-Wold a charter. From that year until around 1900, Stow hosted a market every Thursday in its large Market Square. This 800-year tradition is somewhat carried on in the monthly farmers market that occurs in the town on the second Thursday of every month.
In 1330, Edward III granted the town permission to hold an annual 7-day fair each August in its Market Square. Thanks to its strategic location, Stow Fair became the largest in the country, attracting people from neighboring villages and abroad.
During the time of the booming Cotswolds wool industry, Stow Fair saw the sale and trade of thousands of sheep. In fact, writer Defoe recorded that as many as 20,000 sheep were sold on a single day during the height of the Cotswold wool industry. The alleyways (or tures) around the Market Square were constructed purposefully to be narrow and winding to herd sheep into the Square.
In 1476, Edward IV changed Stow Fair into two 5-day fairs in May and October. Located in Market Square, both fairs occurred the weeks of May 12, the feast day of Saints Philip and James, and October 24, the feast day of Saint Edward the Confessor.
After the decline of the wool trade, people began to trade horses. Today, this tradition continues around the same dates of the 15th-century Stow Fair in May and October as the Gypsy Horse Fair, held in a large field closer to the village of Maugersbury.
Massacre in Stow-on-the-Wold
In 1646, Stow-on-the-Wold was the site of a bloody massacre during the last battle of the English Civil War, the Battle of Stow-on-the-Wold. A Royalist army under the command of Sir Jacob Astley marched through the region in an attempt to meet up with King Charles in Oxford. Parliamentary forces stopped their advance and forced over 1,000 Royalists to Stow-on-the-Wold where they were slaughtered or imprisoned in St. Edward’s Church. The street leading from the Market Square became Digbeth Street, meaning “Duck’s Bath” because there was so much blood running through the street that ducks could bathe in it.
Things to do in Stow-on-the-Wold
St. Edward’s Church
While a church on this site existed as early as 986 AD, and possibly as early as 708 AD, the current building dates to the 13th, 14th, and 15th centuries. Perhaps most famous is the arched north door, framed by two ancient yew trees, that is said to have inspired JRR Tolkien’s Doors of Durin in Lord of the Rings. Learn more about St. Edward’s Church.
While Tolkien did visit the Cotswolds several times, there’s no concrete evidence to suggest this beautiful doorway is the real inspiration to the Doors of Durin in his series. However, the door framed by the ancient yew trees does look as if it will transport you to another realm should you open it. Learn more about what places in the Cotswolds inspired Tolkien.
The Porch House (Royalist Hotel)
Situated on Digbeth Street, this building is supposedly the oldest inn in England, with parts of the building dating back as far as 947 AD. The medieval fireplace in the lounge even has “witch’s marks,” carvings meant to ward off spells.
Aethelmaer, Duke of Cornwall, ordered the construction of the original Saxon timber-framed building in 947 AD on land belonging to Evesham Abbey. It originally served as a hospice to shelter lepers. Because the building belonged to an abbey, records of it were lost in 1537 during the abbey’s dissolution, so it is unclear what purpose(s) the building served after its time as a hospice and until the 16th century when a stone house incorporating the original Saxon stone building was built. The building has since served as a private home, various inns, and also as two private homes. It was converted into a hotel in 1970.
Interestingly, a former resident of the building found a shoe dating to the early 1600s in a hidden cupboard above a fireplace—shoes at the time were put in chimneys to ward off evil spirits. In addition, people have discovered several passages in the cellar, probably used for storage. One leads in the direction of Maugersbury and another leads toward St. Edward’s Church.
The Market Square
The large Market Square, situated at the heart of Stow-on-the-Wold, testifies to its historical importance as a large market town. Today, it is encircled by townhomes, independent shops, teahouses, cafes, inns, and antique shops. Be sure to spot the medieval market cross and the historic village stocks.
Shopping in Stow-on-the-Wold
Stow-on-the-Wold is filled with independent shops. While we didn’t have any spare money when we visited, we enjoyed window shopping around Market Square. For further shopping, head to Church Street. Stow-on-the-Wold is a major antique hub in southern England and many of the antique shops are on this street.
The Kings Arms
This 500-year-old former coaching inn hosted King Charles I just before the Battle of Naseby in 1645. It has also seen the likes of James Corden and the hosts of Top Gear. The Kings Arms was used as a filming location in the BBC adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s “Mayor of Casterbridge.”
Where to eat in Stow-on-the-Wold
As one of the larger towns in the Cotswolds, there’s no shortage of places to eat in Stow-on-the-Wold. Whether you’re just popping through the town to visit the iconic St. Edward’s Church or spending your weekend relaxing in the Cotswolds, you’ll have plenty to choose from when it comes to delicious food to eat.
Pubs and restaurants include:
- The King’s Arms
- The Porch House
- The Bell at Stow
- The Old Stocks Inn
- Queens Head Inn
- The Hive
- The Old Butchers
Tearooms and coffee shops include:
- Lucy’s Tearoom
- New England Coffee House
- The Old Bakery Tea Room
- Le Patissier Anglais
Getting to Stow-on-the-Wold
Stow-on-the-Wold is centrally located in the Cotswolds, making it the perfect place in which to base yourself for a weekend in the Cotswolds. It is about four miles from the nearest railway station in Moreton-in-Marsh and five miles from Kingham railway station. Both stations are on the Cotswold line from Hereford to London Paddington, making it one of the Cotswold villages more easily accessible without a car.
At a crossroads of major roads in the Cotswolds, Stow-on-the-Wold is also very easy to reach by car. It is four miles from Bourton-on-the-Water and three miles from Lower Slaughter.
Limited parking is available in the town, but I suggest parking in the free visitor parking by the Tesco on Fosse Way, about a 5-minute walk from the Market Square, especially if you visit Stow-on-the-Wold during the busier months.
Where to stay in Stow-on-the-Wold
As one of the larger Cotswold towns and one with a history of hospitality, you’ll find plenty of places to stay in Stow-on-the-Wold. We opted to stay at Wyck Hill House Hotel, a lovely hotel about a 6-minute drive from Stow-on-the-Wold. If you’d like to base yourself in Stow-on-the-Wold, I recommend staying in either The Porch House or The Kings Arms.