The Cotswold Way

A wealth of new op­tions for walk­ing all 164km of the UK’S Cotswold Way mean you don’t have to be a hard­ened hiker to savour its wild views and even wilder his­tory…

Wanderlust Travel Magazine (UK) - - Contents - WORDS MARTIN SYMING­TON

A raft of new ways to stroll this Na­tional Trail puts the Cotswolds’ his­toric walk within easy reach

When the writer Lau­rie Lee walked out of his Cotswold vil­lage one mid­sum­mer morn­ing, he saw a val­ley where ‘Bees blew like cake-crumbs through the golden air, white but­ter­flies like sug­ared wafers, and when it wasn’t rain­ing a di­a­mond dust took over…’ It was this im­age of bu­colic beauty that gave me some­thing to savour on a showery morn­ing in the mar­ket town of Chip­ping Cam­p­den, as my spaniel, Inca, and I be­gan our week­long hike along the Cotswold Way.

The walk starts (or fin­ishes, de­pend­ing on your route) at a stone pil­lar out­side the town’s 17th-cen­tury Mar­ket Hall. Upon it is carved ‘Bath 100m’, with a newer plaque an­nounc­ing just above: ‘Cotswold Way – The Be­gin­ning And The End’. It’s a fit­ting sym­bol for a route that stitches to­gether age-old track­ways and me­dieval vil­lages but is still the most re­cent of Eng­land’s Na­tional Trails, hav­ing launched in 2007.

In the decade or so of its ex­is­tence, walk­ing all, or part, of this acorn-marked 164km trail, skirt­ing the steep western edge of the Cotswold es­carp­ment, has be­come a lure for walk­ers from around the world. Yet the lo­gis­tics of ar­rang­ing a week­long hike (car­ry­ing bags, book­ing, plan­ning routes) meant it had long slipped to the back of my thoughts. Even though the south­ern sec­tion passes not far from my home, I had never done more than dip in and out.

But as the route’s fame has grown, so have the num­ber of ways by which it can be walked. Sev­eral com­pa­nies now run self-guided trips (maps, stays and guide­book in­cluded), or just the op­tion of hav­ing your lug­gage for­warded between stops while you do the rest of the leg­work. I opted for the lat­ter. And with that weight lit­er­ally off my back, I was ea­ger to re­dis­cover a fa­mil­iar trail with fresh eyes – and limbs.

It’s plush up north

My first sur­prise was how dif­fer­ent the north­ern­most sec­tion is. Inca and I wove first along old pack­horse tracks con­nect­ing mon­eyed mar­ket towns which, from the Mid­dle Ages on, grew fab­u­lously wealthy on the oil of its day – wool. The man­sions and churches of the al­most com­i­cally pic­turesque ‘wool towns’ of Chip­ping Cam­p­den and Broad­way glowed a golden but­ter­scotch colour. Mean­while, a bit fur­ther along the Way, vil­lages such as Stan­ton and Stan­way com­prised cot­tages – some un­der thatch, oth­ers stone-roofed – of a honey hue so deep and rich, they might as well have been dipped in jars of the stuff.

As tweedy and ‘Range Rovery’ as this area of the north Cotswolds may be, the go­ing was also un­ex­pect­edly vig­or­ous. This is be­cause the Way sticks to the high ground wher­ever pos­si­ble, fol­low­ing the crest of the great chalk and lime­stone es­carp­ment. The vil­lages it con­nects tend to be at the bot­tom of the hills, so there is plenty of up and down. But the ef­fort was made rel­a­tively pain­less by my hav­ing to carry only a day­pack hold­ing snacks and rain gear. I had pre-booked B&BS and inns

‘Cot­tages were of a honey hue so deep and rich that they might as well have been dipped in jars of the stuff’

⊳ along the way – most were dog-friendly – and each day my lug­gage fol­lowed du­ti­fully, ar­riv­ing be­fore I even set foot through the door.

It left more time to take things in, and the Cotswold Way soon re­vealed it­self as a ram­ble through English his­tory (and pre-his­tory), though not in any chrono­log­i­cal or­der. Near Broad­way, the trail passed the Ra­pun­zel-es­que Broad­way Tower, de­signed as a folly by the great 18th-cen­tury land­scape ar­chi­tect ‘Ca­pa­bil­ity’ Brown and now turned into an eclec­tic mu­seum. Per­co­lat­ing up­wards, I climbed first through an ex­hi­bi­tion on the life of artist Wil­liam Mor­ris, who used to hol­i­day here with his Pre-raphaelite mates. On the next floor was a dis­play on the use of the tower by the Royal Ob­server Corps dur­ing the Cold War, which at least ex­plained the nu­clear bunker in the grounds – though not why it ap­peared to have been taken over by a herd of red deer.

I even­tu­ally climbed my way to the tower’s crenelated roof. From here, views over 16 coun­ties are claimed; I had to take it on trust as my 360-de­gree panorama was of swirling mist. It wouldn’t be the last time the weather foiled me, but I left in­vig­o­rated for the walk ahead.

Ris­ing from the grave

The next day I re­wound 4,500 years as the Way skirted the en­chant­ingly named Hum­ble­bee Wood to reach Be­las Knap, a 54m-long mound that lay adrift in a field like a stranded whale. Ex­ca­va­tions in the 1860s re­vealed, un­der the turf, an im­mense stone trape­zoid, which is now known as one of the largest ne­olithic burial cham­bers in Bri­tain. The site has since fallen un­der the care of English Her­itage, with three of its en­trances hav­ing been ex­posed and re­stored for vis­i­tors.

I shined a torch into the dank, empty space where one in­cur­sion found the re­mains of 31 hu­mans rest­ing not so much in peace as in pieces, their skele­tons un­ac­count­ably scat­tered around the cham­ber. Per­haps it was auto-sug­ges­tion but I sensed an eerie dis­quiet about the place and was keen to be on my way. Inca would not go any­where near.

It was not un­til I reached the sweep­ing, windswept ridge of Cleeve Com­mon that I got a sense of how lop­sided the es­carp­ment is. Gen­tle de­scents marked one side, while a steep face – the crest of which I was now fol­low­ing – fell to the other. The high­est point on the trail is the 330m-high Cleeve Hill, from where I could make out the bro­ken spine of the Malvern Hills 30km away. I watched the sky clear to the west as the sil­very Sev­ern Es­tu­ary hove into view, with the Black Moun­tains of Wales emerg­ing as a smudge on the hori­zon.

From thereon, the trail traced a steep lime­stone cliff for a few kilo­me­tres, cross­ing the most rugged ter­rain that I en­coun­tered between Chip­ping Cam­p­den and Bath. Not that this was wilder­ness. From these heights I had a grand­stand panorama of Chel­tenham’s Ge­or­gian cres­cents and Prest­bury Park race­course, where the Gold Cup is held; far be­yond was Tewkes­bury, with its great Nor­man abbey tower. I could see en­tire towns, as if from a plane above.

‘Ly­ing adrift in a field like a stranded whale, the 54m-long Be­las Knap houses one of Bri­tain’s largest ne­olithic burial cham­bers – one in­cur­sion found the re­mains of 31 hu­mans’

It was then my thoughts were in­ter­rupted: “Take care not to get conked by fly­ing balls,” warned a no-non­sense lady who lived in Chel­tenham, walk­ing her trio of lurchers on the up­land ridge. Inca had joined her charges in chasing a hare that had bolted around the con­tour of the po­et­i­cally named Cleeve Cloud Hill. I soon saw what she meant. “This area needs more golf like 18 holes in the head,” she snorted, turn­ing back as we reached the course. I re­called Mark Twain’s quip that ‘golf is a good walk spoiled’ and strode on to my next stop.

At Charl­ton Kings, the Way vir­tu­ally drops in on the su­perb Koloshi restau­rant, which at­tracts con­nois­seurs of In­dian fine din­ing from far and wide. Af­ter a hard day’s hik­ing, I faced the most dif­fi­cult de­ci­sion I’d had to make in days: whether to opt for the monk­fish poached in co­conut milk, or tan­door-grilled duck breast mar­i­nated with gin­ger, chilli and yo­ghurt? My top tip: have both.

Cider with Lau­rie

Each day held fresh sur­prises. The morn­ing be­fore, I had strolled the ghostly ru­ins of the great Hailes Abbey, which, un­til the Ref­or­ma­tion, had at­tracted pil­grims in their thou­sands on ac­count of its shrine housing a vial of Christ’s blood. This was later re­vealed by Henry VIII’S com­mis­sion­ers to be ‘honey clar­i­fied and coloured with saf­fron’.

The day ahead promised even more va­ri­ety. On Cooper’s Hill, I was shocked by the sheer­ness of the slope where the an­nual down­hill chase of a bounc­ing Dou­ble Glouces­ter cheese reg­u­larly re­sults in bro­ken limbs. And fur­ther on, the Pain­swick Ro­coco Gar­den was an as­ton­ish­ing flight of fancy with mazes to ri­val Hamp­ton Court and a bizarre Neuschwanstein-in­spired cas­tle sculpted from a beech trunk.

But by this time I was near­ing sen­sory over­load. So, from Pain­swick, I veered off the trail for half a day to make the pil­grim­age that I’d promised my­self, to nearby Slad. The vil­lage is not far from the Way, but be­ing off the of­fi­cial route has spared it the kind of at­ten­tion that would have had its most fa­mous son turn­ing in his grave. That same grave (‘Lau­rie Lee 1914–1997: He lies in the val­ley he loved’) I found in the Holy Trin­ity church­yard, and it was here that I be­gan a cir­cu­lar walk billed as the ‘Lau­rie Lee Wildlife Way’.

I passed the L-shaped Rose­bank Cot­tage, where the au­thor and poet grew up. It lay at the side of a bank so deep and green that I sus­pect that this is what he meant by liv­ing in a ‘pea-pod’, as much as be­ing cooped up with his mother and seven sib­lings. The 9.5km route me­an­dered through pas­ture and wood­land punc­tu­ated by ‘poetry posts’ dis­play­ing some of Lee’s lo­cally-in­spired verse. I re­turned to the vil­lage via Swift’s Hill, cross­ing the field where the youth­ful writer en­joyed his cidrous snogs un­der a hay wagon with Rosie Bur­dock.

Back at Slad’s The Wool­pack inn, I sat at a set­tle in the cor­ner of the wood-floored bar, iden­ti­fied as Lau­rie Lee’s reg­u­lar spot, next to a por­trait and one or two of his knick-knacks. The land­lady, Han­nah Thom­son, told me: “He’s re­mem­bered here as a real per­son, and I want to keep this pub un­changed from the days when he sat where you are now.” I nod­ded ap­prov­ingly and or­dered a bowl of mus­sels cooked in cider and a pint of Pig’s Ear ale – smooth as a silk purse.

Wrin­kles in time (& fin­gers)

Back on the es­carp­ment, the Way plunged into beech woods as it slid south. Between Durs­ley and Wot­ton-un­der-edge, I me­an­dered dap­pled copses of huge-girthed trunks and tan­gles of gnarled roots. Crows cawed in the canopy, then I would sud­denly burst out of the boscage to spell­bind­ing views. The best was from a tower-topped hill un­for­get­tably named Ni­b­ley Knoll, where I could see a great loop of the Sev­ern and two bridges span­ning Eng­land and Wales.

Bit by bit the colour of Cotswold stone light­ens as you go south, the honey tones fad­ing to the harder, grey lime­stone of the stately man­sions in Bath’s or­bit. Af­ter a lunchtime bite at the 16th-cen­tury Dog Inn at Old Sod­bury (scampi for me, a sausage for Inca), I gazed from a dis­tance at the haughty ex­te­rior of Dod­ing­ton Park, a beau­ti­ful es­tate but one sadly built us­ing the boun­ties of slav­ery from sugar plan­ta­tions in the West Indies, and now hoovered into Sir James Dyson’s fief­dom.

Af­ter cross­ing the M4 at Tor­mar­ton and pass­ing Dyrham Park – its stip­pled ex­te­rior I re­mem­bered from the 1993 film Re­mains of the Day – I was on the home straight. Here I passed the site of the bloody Civil War Bat­tle of Lans­downe, fea­tur­ing Sir Ralph Hop­ton on the Roy­al­ist side ver­sus his pal Sir Wil­liam Waller for the Par­lia­men­tar­i­ans. A memorial to Sir Bevil Grenville, leader of Hop­ton’s pike­men lies at the site; he was among hun­dreds slaugh­tered, with ‘legs and arms fly­ing all over the place’ ac­cord­ing to one re­port. How­ever, the bat­tle is re­garded by mil­i­tary his­to­ri­ans as ‘in­con­clu­sive’. A draw.

It was a last snip­pet of his­tory to pon­der on my de­scent into the city where ‘Cotswold Way – The Be­gin­ning And The End’ is in­scribed in the flag­stones out­side Bath Abbey, mir­ror­ing its coun­ter­part at Chip­ping Cam­p­den. Bath is not a Cotswold town but this does not mat­ter. It came to promi­nence and pros­per­ity not from wool, but as a re­sult of the min­eral wa­ters that bub­ble from its earth at a scald­ing 45°C.

My vale­dic­tion to the Cotswold Way was an af­ter-dark splash in the now un­abashedly 21st-cen­tury Ther­mae Bath Spa, which rubs shoul­ders with ar­chi­tec­tural pearls such as the orig­i­nal Ro­man Baths and the gra­cious Royal Crescent. I re­laxed my mus­cles in the out­door rooftop pool sur­rounded by a flood­lit city stripped to its el­e­gant Ge­or­gian bones. And as I poached, I spooled through the cen­turies that my 164km walk had spanned. Freed from hav­ing to lug a heavy bag, I’d had more time to soak up the rich sto­ries and tales of those places I’d seen. And it oc­curred, as my aches soft­ened to a dull cry, that the weight of his­tory is much more amenable than a ruck­sack.

‘I re­laxed my mus­cles in the out­door rooftop pool sur­rounded by a flood­lit city stripped to its el­e­gant Ge­or­gian bones’

Buried trea­sure The cav­erns of Be­las Knap of­fer an eerie ex­pe­ri­ence for vis­i­tors

The end in sight Rolling coun­try­side out­side Charl­ton Kings; ( right) the im­pos­ing spires of Bath Abbey mark the last few steps of the Cotswold Way

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.