Secrets of the Cotswolds
Wildflowers, overgrown mosaics and devil’s toenails – there’s more to the Cotswolds than its chocolate-box charms, says Louise Tickle
My introduction to the Cotswolds, eight years ago, certainly wasn’t all honeyed stone and rolling hills. “Turn off the M5 at junction 14,” emailed the bloke who was soon to become my boyfriend. “Drive through Cambridge – no, you’re not 250 miles off track, it’s a smaller version, not nearly as nice as the other one – then follow the signs for Dursley.”
‘Dursley’ had an oddly familiar ring. This was soon explained.
“JK Rowling apparently walked through the town when she was doing the Cotswold Way and thought it was as bad as the name sounded, so she used it for Harry Potter’s nasty aunt and uncle,” I read on. “You won’t get lost. See you in a few hours.”
Dursley, it turned out, wasn’t all that terrible. It has a CAMRA-award-winning pub, the Old Spot Inn, for starters; though its graceful, gently decaying Georgian townhouses don’t quite redeem the pedestrianised centre from some shocking planning decisions made 30-odd years ago. Set just below the western escarpment of the Cotswolds, this was the place from which I began to explore. First via footpaths leading from the edge of the town that take you deep inside dappled beech woods, where centuries old trees on vertiginous slopes must reach straight and high for the light, and later, as I made this area my home, further east and northwards.
If I’m honest, I’m not sold on the traditional chocolate-box image of the Cotswolds, all
caramel-coloured cottages and wonky windows. That’s the tourist version of an area in which I’ve now lived for six years – there’s another reality, less confected and far lovelier. Best of all, much of the Cotswolds is easily accessible – the mountains and fells of wilder parts of the UK have their drawbacks, not least if you’re toting small children about, which we soon were – and the best bits mostly cost nothing at all. Wildflowers are an unmissable delight. The Painswick Rococo Gardens are famous for snowdrops, but Cherington Lake, near the market town of Nailsworth, has swathes of this earliest, most delicate flower stretching up through woodlands that you can go and see for free.
In May, head for Clattinger Farm, just a mile or so south of Somerford Keynes in Cotswold Water Park (not, despite its name, technically in the Cotswolds), pull up on the side of the road and head for the nearby field. Once you’ve “got your eye in” – it helps to lie on your tummy so your sightline is at flower height – it’s like a magic trick. First you’re staring at a field full of boring old grass, then suddenly, from being virtually unnoticeable, masses of delicate pink and purple orchids become utterly apparent and you can’t believe you didn’t see them straightaway.
In July, head for the village of Tresham (about 10 miles south of Nailsworth along the A46) and scarlet fields of poppies saturate the view. Glowing red petals are set off by scatterings of cornflowers and oxeye daisies.
It’s a glorious setting for a picnic, so well worth a trip beforehand to the Jolly Nice café on the A419 Cirencester road to pick up a game pie or sausage roll made with locally sourced meat. It’s hard not to emerge from this former petrol station forecourt, now classy café (look out for the Airstream caravan at the side of the road that houses the kitchen) without having dropped a wad of cash on cakes, biscuits and brownies – not to mention a tub of the fabulous (and pricey) ice-cream made in the most sophisticated flavour combinations I’ve ever tasted.
Where there are wildflowers, there are butterflies. Blue ones, I always think, are the best. For a chance to see the most glamorous butterfly of all – aptly named the Adonis blue – search for a footpath just below the Bear of Rodborough Hotel.
It leads to a steep fold in the hillside, where on a sunny, ideally windless day, in late May to early June, and also mid-August to early September, the vividly blue males will emerge to mate with the duller brown – though still slightly blue-tinged – females. Glimpse one and it’ll take your breath away.
With Cirencester Amphitheatre and Chedworth Roman Villa being well worth a visit, it’s evident that Roman history soaks the Cotswolds soil, but perhaps never more tantalisingly than in Woodchester, where the second largest Roman mosaic ‘pavement’ in Europe lies buried beneath the ruins of an old graveyard. Last uncovered to public view in 1973, fears were then expressed that leaving it in the open would overwhelm Woodchester with visitors (those pesky tourists, bringing money and work to an area, can’t be having it), so the spades came back out, the sods went back in and nary a glimpse has been had since.
Atmospheric ruins are something of a feature hereabouts: tucked deep in a wooded valley on the edge of the village is the unfinished Woodchester Mansion. Built in extravagant Gothic style in the 19th century and then abandoned when the owner ran out of money, it’s now managed entirely by volunteers, and is home to several thousand greater and lesser horseshoe bats.
A pleasant walk from one of two starting points gets you there: the shorter route involves parking at the National Trust carpark near Nympsfield and an easy downhill amble. Helpfully, there’s a free minibus both to and from the carpark for any legs that aren’t up to walking, with teas, coffees and homemade cakes served through summer and into autumn.
For more ancient ruins, stride out to find some of the Stone Age ‘tumps’, also known as long barrows – mounds of earth constructed as Neolithic mass tombs. Hetty Pegler’s
Tump near Uley should be visited for its name alone, and it’s worth a hike to
Nympsfield Long Barrow on Coaley Peak to look out over the sweep of the river Severn.
If you’ve recently watched The Casual
Vacancy – it seems JK Rowling is becoming a local theme – and fancy a gentle stroll in one of the area’s historic wool towns, you’ll
“THERE’S ANOTHER REALITY, LESS CONFECTED AND FAR LOVELIER”
be able to do a bit of location spotting as you wend your way through the narrow lanes of Painswick (count the 99 magnificent yew trees in the churchyard – perfect hide-and-seek territory for kids, or grownups come to that) and Minchinhampton, where you mustn’t miss Woefuldane Organic Dairy, an artisan cheese shop that makes its produce just up the road.
Unless you’re an avid hiker or biker, it’s back in the car to head out to the estuary where it starts to widen, and you’ll fetch up in Frampton-on-Severn, where cricket is played in front of the Bell Inn on what’s thought to be the longest village green in England. Continue north-west through the village and look for Hock Cliff on the banks of the River Severn. Here, fossil enthusiasts who don’t mind getting dirty can bash away with their hammers to reveal 100 millionyear-old oysters known as devil’s toenails hidden within the compacted muddy banks of the river.
It’s always worth knowing good places to lay your head for the night. It might be imagined that there would be no reason for me to visit the local B&Bs. But butterfly odysseys and trips to tumps don’t always offset the stress caused by two small but vociferous boys, so occasionally I’ve fled the chaos for a night.
Nowhere I’ve stayed has beaten the 17th-century Ebrington Arms in the far northern reaches of the Cotswolds for style, food or welcome – I nearly kidnapped the chef (www.theebringtonarms.co.uk). At the southern end, in the village of Sherston, is Carrier’s Farm bed and breakfast, where Fiona Butterfield’s beautifully decorated and comfortable bedrooms are a perfect haven at the end of a long day exploring (www.carriersfarm.co.uk).
Dursley may not have been the most promising of initiations to the delights of the Cotswolds, but it proves that with a bit of curiosity, a map and a bit of local knowledge – provided by the bloke-who-became-theboyfriend – anywhere, really, can be a good place to start.
LEFT Clattinger Farm Nature Reserve hay meadow, speckled with daisies and pink and purple orchids TOP RIGHT Nympsfield Long Barrow prehistoric burial chamber ABOVE RIGHT The sprawling, abandoned Woodchester Mansion BELOW Spot the brilliant Adonis blue butterfly in the summer months
The former wool town of Painswick, which featured in the BBC adaptation of JK Rowling’s
The Casual Vacancy
ABOVE The 17th-century, Cotswold stone Ebrington Arms in Chipping Campden TOP Frampton-on-Severn has the largest village green in England – perfect for a game of cricket