Escape the tourist trail at the beautiful Greystones nature reserve
Bourton-on-the-water is a honeypot for tourists who seek out its Venice-like bridges, tranquil river, model village, bird zoo and revere it as the perfect postcard image of a quintessential Cotswold village.
As this month’s issue comes out, footballers are about to don their boots for their annual kick around in the River Windrush - a rather eccentric tradition for the August Bank Holiday Monday.
But today, I find myself in perhaps the most peaceful and timeless part of Bourton. And it is glorious. It is where one can almost taste and smell the village’s history first hand, when man first lived and worked here 6,000 years ago and life was somewhat different.
It is Bourton-on-the-water’s latest ‘attraction’, but unlike a stop-off point on a tourist coach trip, this special place requires time, encourages the unhurried and is geared for primary school children (and mature learners) to discover and experience history in a tangible and exciting way.
When Greystones was bought by Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust in 2001, it consisted of derelict farm buildings, farmland, meadows and rivers. Thanks to more than £750,000, National Lottery funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund, Grundon Waste Management, other supporters and dozens of volunteers, it is now a pioneering wildlife visitor centre, officially opened in July by Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust president Ellie Harrison, well known as a presenter of BBC’S Countryfile.
“The next chapter of the Greystones story has now begun. In it, everybody has the opportunity to immerse in nature and walk in the footsteps of our ancestors on this incredible ancient site,” she said at the opening.
My visit follows shortly after the launch and I find it both moving and enlightening. I take my sixteen year old and mum along to share the experience, and it is an experience. It’s a place where modernisation meets another time and ghosts of the past almost hover over the 66 hectares allowing us to get a snapshot of what was. HISTORY
We are met by Lenka Cmelakova, Greystones Visitor Centre manager, who is the perfect host and clearly passionate about this place. We quickly capture her enthusiasm and engage with all Greystones has to offer. After I milk a pretend cow and pose on a
tractor, we enter the Discovery Barn to watch an informative film, presented by Ellie, which gives us a better understanding of this unique location. People have gathered, lived and worked here for more than 6,000 years, and it is thought that it may well be one of the first places in the Cotswolds to be inhabited. During the Iron Age, about 2,500 years ago, it was particularly important when it became a regional trading centre. Emily and I take part in the interactive wildlife quiz, study the tactile model of the Greystones site and marvel over the exciting archaeological finds on display including a coin, dating back 2,065 years.
I take the opportunity to dress up as an authentic Iron Age woman, complete with a traditional head brooch, based on one found on the site. Archaeologists uncovered evidence of roundhouses at Greystones dating back to 300BC which inspired Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust and a team of volunteers to build a replica one. Lenka takes us to see this amazing thatched roof creation which is made from oak, hazel and ash, wattle (woven sticks) and daub (soil and cow dung).
My 11-year-old twins have been studying this period at primary school. I helped them make a model Iron Age settlement but there is nothing like seeing a life-size replica roundhouse to fully appreciate that era. It is huge and impressive and provides a fabulous opportunity for 6-11 year olds to step back in time. Education and events assistant Cat Parker-standley tells us it has been exciting to see how the school pupils respond.
“We are really pleased to be working with so many local children who can enjoy our education events such as The Iron Age experience day, which gives them a chance to use wattle and daub, light a fire, cook a bread roll and become archaeologists – experiences which all link with the national curriculum. It brings it alive for them,” says Cat.
It’s amazing to think that people have met, lived and farmed continuously at Greystones for 6,000 years. Evidence of a ‘causewayed enclosure,’ (one of only seven found in Gloucestershire) dating back 6,000 years was revealed during geophysical surveys and it is the location of one of Europe’s earliest known. Greystones has Scheduled Ancient Moment status for its Neolithic and Iron Age remains, which means the site is protected for future generations.
A signposted Time-travel Trail guides visitors through this history and provides fascinating facts about what has been found here, including three Iron Age skeletons.
Lenka takes us along part of this on our way to the River Eye. Along the way she points out the just-visible Iron Age ramparts and also tells us how the site was known as as ‘Sulmonnes Burg,’ – a place where a farmer kept his cattle during the Anglo-saxon period 1,300 years ago, a name that was to become Salmonsbury. WILDLIFE
Greystones is home to Salmonsbury Meadows, a Site of Special Scientific
‘We are really pleased to be working with so many local children who can enjoy our education events such as The Iron Age experience day’
Interest (SSSI) because of its traditional hay meadows and rare wildflowers. Visitors can discover this part of Greystones by following the sign-posted Wildlife Walk, which celebrates the beautiful wildflowers growing in the river meadows, water voles, otters, badgers, bats (eight species have been found here), barn owls, Southern Marsh orchids, Barberry shrubs and a wide range of birds and insects. As we walk, beautiful damselflies dance at our feet, there is a peace in the air and the natural, unspoilt surroundings just lifts the soul. Children can enjoy pond dipping and exploring creepy crawlies at will.
Outside the education room where school groups can take part in activities, volunteer Sarah Durrant works her wonders on the wildlife garden which she has created. Open on selected days and when certain activities are being run, it features different habitats including woodland, a vegetable garden, meadow and bog garden.
“The aim is to provide a garden that demonstrates wildlife features that people can take away to put in their own garden, but the secondary aim of helping members of the community engage with wildlife through gardening,” explains Sarah, a professional gardener who is also a horticultural therapy practitioner. COWS Next door is Greystones’ café, open Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays and Bank Holiday Mondays from 10am until 4pm, serving drinks, snacks and a selection of Afternoon Teas. It is here where visitors can buy Greystones Single Gloucester cheese made from the milk produced from Simon Weaver’s herd, which graze the pasture at Greystones. Not far from the model cow, where I tried my hand at milking, is the real deal. As we watch, one of Simon’s cows is brought into the farmyard with her newly born calf at her side. Lenka takes us to see what’s called the Freedom Milker, an amazing modern machine which milks the cows robotically as they need it. The cows are trained to use the machine themselves, and when they need milking they make their way to the milker, stand in place, before the machinery attaches pumps to the cow’s udders and collects the milk. It is fascinating to watch and adds to the Greystones’ experience.
“What I love is the combination of everything. We have the wildlife, the history and the dairy farm,” says Lenka.
Having experienced the Greystones’ magic myself, I have to agree with her. This truly is a special place where time seems to stand still and one can really imagine fellow humans living and working here 6,000 years ago.
‘The cows are trained to use the machine themselves, when they need milking’
Emily on stepping stones across the River Eye
Volunteer Sarah Durrant, a professional gardener, attends the wildlife garden
Greystones Iron Age roundhouseWilbert Smith, Ellie Harrison and Roger Mortlock ABOVE: ABOVE LEFT:
Mother and child at Greystones Farm
The Freedom Milker