About 200 million years ago, the Cotswolds were under a warm sea. The continents had begun their long journeys away from Pangea and crocodiles began their aquatic life. Though dominated by dinosaurs of cinematic proportion, the Jurassic period is in fact named for the Jura Mountains in the Alps. It was there that another, altogether more nonchalant product of the period was first identified – namely, limestone.
Started by a single ‘seed’, fossil-rich oolitic limestone forms as water currents roll an initiating speck along the sea bed, collecting a layer of calcite as it goes. After a process so gradual as to be the yardstick against which all other gradual things measure their gradualness, vast oceans of rock take shape. Take countless billion sugar-sized grains, marinate for millennia and you’re left with one of the proudest, most beguiling materials available to our species.
The Cotswolds sit atop this pre-historic legacy, as though a lush green velvet shawl has been draped across the hunched shoulders of a rocky frame. Cleaved from the ground and its antediluvian origin, it is this material that gives the area its ineffable quality. The sheer abundance of stone is the reason for its ubiquity and the mesmeric uniformity of the structures it now forms. So quietly proud and seemingly preordained are the villages of the Cotswolds, that it’s hard to imagine that it all began with the discreet amalgamation of infinitesimal morsels.
Cotswold stone has a markedly different appearance depending on where it was quarried. In the north and northeast, the stone has a yellowy honey hue whilst stone from the south takes on a greyer tone; a chromatic scale bookmarked as easily by buildings and villages as by geological insight. The creamy-gold stone from Taynton was used to fashion Oxford’s colleges, Blenheim Palace, Windsor Castle and Eton College whereas Bath, 50 miles to the south west, is constructed from greyish-white Corsham stone. What all flavours have in common is their propensity to weather beautifully. The almost predestined charm of villages like Bibury derives, in part, from a concurrent natural entrenchment into the landscape.
Aside from its enduring beauty, Cotswold stone is also easy to work with – it’s a so-called ‘free stone’ in that it can be cut and shaped in any way without splitting or shattering. To make things like roof tiles, people would leave huge slabs of wet limestone out in the fields in winter so that the frost would split them naturally. Its softness, however, makes it vulnerable to damage – in polluted areas, acid rain is a particular enemy. The particular methods involved with roofing a house of Cotswold stone, and the even more fastidious demands of the dry-stone wall, derive from this susceptibility.
The Cotswolds is an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty that contains more listed buildings than any other part of the country. A walk through Stow-on-the-Wold, Bourton-on-the-Water or Naunton is like stepping into a fantasy novel or a film set. There’s an archaic surreality to it all as well as a sense that it simply couldn’t be any other way; that there was a plan all along. Next time you drink in such a view, try to imagine it all underwater and tip your hat to the microscopic oolites, without which none of it would be possible.