Minchinhampton is one of the Cotswold's lesser-known gems. Partially surrounded by some of the most beautiful common land in England, cows and horses roam free, and wild orchids and cowslips still flourish. The undulating mounds of the common tell tales of iron-age cattle enclosures, long-ago battles, and other forgotten uses that we can only guess at.

From the vantage point of Minchinhampton Common, some of Stroud's most beautiful valleys open up before you, making you feel you have the Cotswolds at your feet.

Minchinhampton itself defies the 21st Century in the most charming of ways. Although new houses have, inevitably, extended its boundaries, it still has its old, almost unaltered streets at its heart. There's Tetbury Street, where once the town strongman impressed the people with his feats of daring; there's West End, Friday Street, and the town's High Street. You could take an inhabitant from Minchinhampton 100 years ago, put him in any of these locations, and he would recognise his old town.

In the High Street, where the Crown Inn still serves pints, the Market House stands on its tall pillars. It's seen some sights in its time. Perhaps you can still hear the echoes of the day Colonel Ricardo - who donated this old building to the town - called on the young men to volunteer for the First World War? Young Archie Kirby - the son of the verger - stood up to volunteer, his father called out, "You can't have him - he's only 17!" Nevertheless, the determined young man walked into Stroud the next day, and enlisted. And to his mother's eternal relief, he came through that terrible war unscathed.

An old Kelly's directory from the turn of the last century, tells of a town awash with successful businesses. But even today, Minchinhampton has defied the trends, by retaining many shops that would be lost in a similar-sized town. There's a bank, a dress shop, antique shops, a health shop, hairdressers, two grocers, a post office, three gourmet restaurants which double up as coffee shops, and a flourishing Thursday morning WI Market. The parish church is well attended, and there's a busy Baptist church. Both ministers work together at the primary school that is considered one of the outstanding schools of the area.

The town is proud of its past, and has an excellent local history society headed by Diana Wall. She has helped people from all over the world track down their ancestors from the town. But even she had to laugh when a Mr Minchin, from Canada, suggested he might own the town. The name actually takes it's meaning from an old word for "nuns" - William the Conqueror originally gave the town to the Abbaye aux Dames of Caen.

Holy Trinity, the lovely church at Minchinhampton's heart, was rebuilt or enlarged in the 12th Century. Its beautiful windows include a wheel-like rose with ogee motifs on the south wall of the fantastic transept, which was rebuilt early in the 14th Century.

The church resounds with names of people who have held the town dear in their hearts - the Sheppards, the Ricardos, the Woollcombe-Boyces. And you will also find some of those names cropping up in the new roads of the town - along with Grange Close, named after Harry Grange, the last gas lamp-lighter whom some of the town's older residents still fondly recall.

The famous writing Trollope family owned Greylands in the town's High Street. And Joanna Trollope was born at the Priest House, once the Rectory under her grandfather, Rex Hodson.

The Princess Royal and her then-husband, Captain Mark Phillips, chose Gatcombe Park (within walking distance from the centre) as their home, and both still live in separate parts of the estate. They hold the annual Gatcombe Park Horse Trials there in August, and the world-famous competition attracts the top eventing names and faithful followers from all over the world.

Many visitors stumble on Minchinhampton by accident, as a convenient stopping point between London and Bath. And many then stay on, or come back and revisit, when they realise that, quite by chance, they have found an absolute treasure.