Five different valleys converge at the town of Stroud in the southwest Cotswolds.
For hundreds of years the fast-flowing rivers and plentiful sheep in these valleys helped drive a lucrative textile industry.
There used to be around 150 textile mills here, producing fabrics like Stroudwater Scarlet, which was used for British Army uniforms.
Snooker table felt and the coating for Wimbledon’s tennis balls are still manufactured locally.
Although most of the mill buildings survive, the woollen trade has now departed and communities of artists have taken its place.
One renowned resident from the art world was the modern sculptor Lynn Chadwick, whose estate at Lypiatt Park can be visited on Heritage Open Days.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Stroud:
1. Cotswolds and the Stroud Valleys
Stroud is on the southwest cusp of the Cotswolds Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
The bucolic countryside in this region is as English as it gets, with rambling grassy hills and valleys sprinkled with houses built from the golden underlying limestone.
Around Stroud you can strike out into the Five Valleys – Cam, Slad, Painswick, Chalford and Nailsworth – on walks and bike rides, where you’ll encounter former mills and lovable villages that sprouted during the Industrial Revolution.
Chalford is a delight, with its labyrinth of steep lanes and townhouses built by rich clothiers in the 18th and 19th centuries.
2. Stratford Park
A refined Victorian landscape park, Stratford Park is a Green Flag winner in 56 acres on the north side of the town.
Up to 1935 this was a private estate, and the 17th-century mansion at its heart is now the first-rate Museum in the Park.
Below the mansion the park has a lake and miniature railway, while the collection of mature trees is one of the best in the region and features monkey puzzles, a cedar of Lebanon, Indian bean trees and western red cedars.
There are more than 800 trees in all, many planted when the parkland was laid out in the late 1890s.
As well as a well-appointed children’s area, the park has a public leisure centre with a 100-station gym, tennis courts and indoor and outdoor pools.
3. Museum in the Park
The beautiful 17th-century wool merchant’s house in Stratford Park has hosted Stroud’s town museum since 2001. With a modern extension and a neighbouring purpose-built art gallery, the museum has been planned to pique the interest of all-comers.
More than 4,000 objects are displayed, including dinosaur bones, a 17th-century doll, a Stroudwater scarlet uniform and some of the first lawnmowers ever manufactured.
Some other exciting pieces are a local inn sign from the 1700s, a Bronze Age bracelet, a Medieval axe head, a rare Baughan motorcycle from 1929, a 6th-century Saxon brooch and an 18th-century blunderbuss.
Standouts in the painting collection are landscapes depicting the Five Valleys and their mills in the Georgian and Victorian period.
4. Historical Trail
Information boards have been set up around Stroud’s historic centre, labelling buildings and recording some fascinating events that took place on these streets.
Easily downloaded, the trail is no more than a mile, so won’t take long, but has lots of riveting snippets.
A good starting point is St Laurence’s Churchyard.
In 1807 this was the scene of the Delmont Duel, the last duel to take place on British soil.
Fought by two army lieutenants, the duel resulted in the death of Joseph Francis Delmont, while the victor John Sargeaunt spent the rest of his life in exile in America.
The Old Town Hall (1570) and the neighbouring Shambles Market outdoor form a pretty scene in the oldest part of town.
Selling household items, fresh produce, cheese, specialty foods and collectibles, the market is in business in Fridays and Saturdays, 08:00 – 16:00.
5. Woodchester Park
Five miles southwest of Stroud is a sumptuous National Trust estate in the parkland of an unfinished Victorian mansion.
Woodchester Park was landscaped in a picturesque valley in the 18th and 19th century, and has acres of woodland to navigate, as well as ponds and little remnants from the estate like an ice house, cottages, gatehouse and boathouse.
There’s a 3.5-mile circular walk via the cute lakeside boathouse, while in the woods children can negotiate the play trail, equipped with stepping logs, wobble beams, climbing frames, balance bridges and rope swings.
6. Woodchester Mansion
The mansion at Woodchester Park (1870) demands closer inspection.
This Gothic Revival building was ordered by the ship-owner William Leigh and was constructed over 12 years until the workmen downed tools when Leigh died.
The building looks complete from the outside and is even decorated with gargoyles, but inside is missing floors, plaster and fittings.
After Leigh passed away his family abandoned the project, as the Gothic Revival design wasn’t to their taste, and the mansion’s position deep in the valley was expected to lead to problems with damp.
Close by are the remains of the stables that belonged to the house Leigh demolished to make way for his new home.
7. Stroud Farmers’ Market
Every Saturday from 09:00 to 14:00 the Cornhill Market Place and its intersecting streets are the setting for one of the UK’s top farmers’ markets.
Since it was launched the market has featured in national newspapers and won the FARMA Best Farmer’s Market in the UK award in 2013. Shop here for regional cheese, free range poultry, high-quality crafts, preserves, tea, artisan soaps, Cotswold wine, cakes, charcuterie, great vegetarian and vegan food, Isle of Wight garlic, craft beer and much more than we could ever list here.
Many of the stalls are occupied by producers in the Stroud area so you’ll be happy to know you’re supporting local businesses.
8. Stroudwater Navigation
Stroud is linked to the River Severn by an eight-mile canal completed in 1759. The waterway served the local woollen industry, shipping coal to mills and carrying cloth out to markets.
When it was completed it formed part of a system that connected Bristol by water to London.
The canal was lucrative even after the advent of railways and was only abandoned just after the Second World War.
A restoration of the waterway is currently underway, but the canal-front textile mills and houses, and much of the infrastructure along the way has been regenerated.
The Royal Geographical Society has laid out a three-mile walk on the towpath between Stroud and Stonehouse, with a guide you can download on your phone.
Even on this short route you’ll see lots of bridges, mills, warehouses and locks.
9. Subscription Rooms
A cultivated Neoclassical monument on George Street, the Subscription Rooms is a performing arts venue built from Cotswold stone in 1833. Here you can get in touch with the Five Valleys’ arts scene at concerts, plays and dance performances in the 450-seater Ballroom.
There’s also a busy schedule of concerts by well-known touring rock, pop and folk acts, along with classical ensembles and soloists.
In September there’s the annual Stroud Theatre festival, and on any given day there’s sure to be an art or photography exhibition at the George Room.
Stroud’s tourist information centre is also at the Subscription Rooms, and you’ll be interested to know that that Beatles performed at this venue in 1962.
10. Cloth Mills of the Five Valleys
The Five Valleys have a rich cloth-making heritage going back centuries, even before the arrival of Huguenot artisans fleeing persecution from France.
Initially powered by the streams running through the valleys, there were 150 mills when the trade was at its peak in the 19th century.
Wool was always in plentiful supply thanks to the herds of sheep grazing on the sides of the valleys.
Although there are repurposed mills throughout the valleys, only two out of 150 mills continue to make cloth.
Lodgemore Mills and Cam Mill outside Dursley have roots extending back to the Middle Ages.
Together they produce the coating for the tennis balls used at Wimbledon, as well as the green felt for snooker tables.
The Stroudwater Textile Trust site posts details of open days and tours at sites like the stunning St Mary’s Mill, which has a 19th-century waterwheel and Stanley Mill, where carding machines and spinning mules are still in place.
11. Coaley Peak
A favoured rest stop on the long-distance Cotswold Way National Trail, Coaley Peak is a scenic lookout 15 minutes by car from Stroud.
In these 12 acres of former farmland, now wildflower meadows, there are magnificent vistas over the Severn Vale.
You can bring a blanket and picnic and pass an hour or two idling over the views surrounded by wildflowers.
The exposed setting makes for wonderful kite-flying, while you could also use this pastoral scene as the first step on walk on the Cotswold Way or into the neighbouring National Trust (Frocester Hill) and Woodland Trust sites.
12. St Mary’s Church, Painswick
There was a church close by in Painswick before the Norman Conquest in the 11th century.
Nothing remains of this building, but St Mary’s Church merits a peek as it has a big spectrum of architecture spanning 500 years up to the middle of the 19th century.
The oldest stonework is in the chapel on the north side of the nave, dating to 1377. The nave and tower are from the end of the 15th century, while the Perpendicular chancel was completed in the middle of the 16th century.
Go in for a good look at the baptismal font, carved in 1661 and replacing one lost during the Civil War.
Outside, the churchyard is atmospheric for its clipped yews and solemn chest tombs sculpted by local masons.
The oldest is for the yeoman, William Loveday who died in 1623.
13. Miserden Garden
Looking over the Golden Valley, Miserden is an 850-acre estate around a gorgeous old house dating to the 1620s.
The garden, first planted at the same time, is open to the public and is set off by the surrounding Cotswold hills.
Edwin Lutyens, the foremost landscape architect of the early 20th century, designed the fabulous topiary yew walk, along with the mixed borders of herbaceous plants, roses, clematis and shrubs full of colour until winter.
There’s a holdover from the 17th century in the form of venerable mulberry tree, while the little stream, fountain and stone summerhouse are comparatively recent arrivals built to celebrate the new millennium.
14. Lypiatt Park
The 20th-century sculptor Lynn Chadwick lived at this Medieval and Tudor house less than ten minutes from the centre of Stroud.
Chadwick’s work is in the collections of the Musée National d’Art Moderne, the Tate and New York’s MoMA. What makes Lypiatt Park so special is the Lynn Chadwick Sculpture Park, which boasts 32 of his works in hilly parkland.
Unfortunately neither the house nor the grounds are open to the public, but you can visit on Heritage Open Days (subject to prior booking), normally around September each year to marvel at the Sculpture Park.
15. Select Festival
Stroud puts on a major textile-based arts festival every spring, from the end of April to the start of June.
Scheduled throughout these weeks are talks, exhibitions, workshops and master classes for visual and applied arts.
These are held at venues all around the town, like the Subscription Rooms and the Museum in the Park.
In 2018 there was an outdoor sculpture exhibition in Miserden Village, a tapestry art exhibition at the Museum in the Park and a busy collectables and antiques fair at Lansdown Hall.
On two weekends during the festival you can check out the Select Trail, when more than 70 artists, designers and crafters around Stroud and the Five Valleys open their studios to the public and put on self-curated exhibitions of their own work.