The Cotswolds was designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) in 1966 in recognition of its rich, diverse and high quality landscape. It is the largest of 38 AONBs in England and Wales, and the second largest protected landscape in England after the Lake District National Park. Covering 790 sq miles, the Cotswolds stretches from the City of Bath and Wiltshire in the south through Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire to Warwickshire and Worcestershire in the north.
Its central feature are the Cotswolds Hills which rise gently from the broad, green meadows of the upper Thames to crest in a dramatic escarpment above the Severn Valley and Evesham Vale. Rural England at its most mellow, the landscape draws a unique warmth and richness from the famous stone beauty of its buildings.
Jurassic limestone gives the Cotswolds their distinctive character, and an underlying unity in its use as a building material throughout the area. The limestone lies in a sloping plateau with a steep scarp slope in the west drained by short streams in deep cut wooded valleys, and a gentle dip slope which forms the headwaters of the Thames. This gentle slope has a maze of lanes connecting picturesque streamside villages built predominantly from local stone.
The Cotswolds are nationally important for their rare limestone grassland habitat and for ancient beechwoods with rich flora. Important grasslands such as Cleeve Hill have survived due to their status as ancient common and a National Nature Reserve protects the finest ancient beech complex. Some Cotswolds plants are so rare that they have specific legal protection under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. Five European Special Areas of Conservation, 3 National Nature Reserves and over 80 Sites of Special Scientific Interest testify to the great variety of wildlife and habitats found in the Cotswolds AONB.