Cotswolds: The Largest Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty in Britain, the Cotswolds Is a Quintessential Slice of Rural Southern England Spread across Several Counties, Where the Influence of the Characteristic Limestone Geology Can Be Seen in the Region's Rich Human History, Architecture and Wildlife

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I've been in the taxi just a few minutes and the driver is already warning me about the perils of local driving. 'You get deer running into the road without warning,' he says as we speed along the winding, unlit A-road on a wintry Gloucestershire night. 'Little ones called muntjacs. Friend of mine hit one, wrote his car off.' He then adds, with some relish, that the last six cars he owned had all been damaged in collisions with the local wildlife.

Thankfully, my short drive through the Cotswolds Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) is uneventful, and I arrive at my destination wondering whether I'll come across any deer--preferably not while travelling at speed--during my visit.

SET IN STONE

At 2,038 square kilometres, the Cotswolds is the UK's largest AONB. Designated in 1966 and extended to its current size in 1990, it sprawls across three English regions, with 15 local authorities having territory within its boundaries. Because of this inter-jurisdictional nature, it's one of two AONBs that are managed by an independent conservation board rather than a local authority, giving it status akin to that of a national park.

Today, more than 150,000 people live within the AONB's boundaries, two million live within a 20-minute drive, and the area receives 23 million tourists a year. Human history in the Cotswolds goes back some 6,000 years--the landscape is dotted with the remains of Neolithic long barrows and Iron Age hill forts.

Along the AONB's western rim is the region's defining feature--the Cotswold Edge, a dramatic 84-kilometre escarpment of Jurassic oolitic limestone that rises to elevations of 300 metres. To the southeast, the dip slope gently falls away to form the Cotswolds' undulating landscape of farmland, grassland and woodland.

The underlying limestone also provides the area's famous Cotswold stone. This golden rock has been quarried here since Roman times and used for building. Wherever you go in the Cotswolds, you see Cotswold stone: churches, grand country houses and even entire towns were constructed from it, giving the impression that they've emerged naturally from the ground. 'The Cotswold vernacular is everywhere,' says Mark Connelly, the AONB's land management officer, 'whether it's rubble-built or shaped stone. Grevel House [in Chipping Campden] dates back to 1380.'

The dry-stone walls that criss-cross the fields are also made from the local limestone. They became prevalent during the 18th and 19th centuries, when sheep rearing was still the main farming practice, but their use dates back to Neolithic times. 'We've got about 4,500 miles [7,200 kilometres] of dry-stone wall in the Cotswolds, and an equal amount of hedges,' says Connelly. 'Most of the field boundaries you see are 250 years old or less--there are exceptions, of course, because some of those field boundaries would have been used in the open-field and Saxon [eras], and possibly beyond that.'

VARIED HABITATS

Today, woodland makes up about ten per cent of the AONB, much of it ancient, semi-natural beech, a valuable habitat for breeding birds and rare invertebrates. The Cotswolds is also a stronghold for water voles, otters and brown hares, while horseshoe bats roost in disused stone mines.

Another threatened Cotswold habitat is unimproved limestone grassland, which covers 3,000 hectares, half of which are classed as Jurassic limestone grassland. During the 1930s, this covered 40 per cent of the AONB--that has fallen to 1.5 per cent today, but it's still more than half of Britain's total, and remains a thriving plant and invertebrate habitat. 'If you went to Painswick Beacon at the end of May or beginning of June, there would be 12 species of orchid,' Connelly says. 'In the autumn, you'll get harebell, thyme, wild marjoram. And along with that are the butterflies, such as the small, chalkhill and large blue. The Adonis blue has returned after 30 years' absence. …