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…
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’