With a bit more time than in previous years – I retired just a couple of weeks before – I had the chance of a longer stage. It was no coincidence that the previous stage had ended in Bath; I’d always planned to include the Cotswold Way, as it heads through glorious scenery absolutely in the right direction. There’s the added bonus of almost-perfect waymarking, due to its National Trail status, giving a welcome opportunity for a 100-mile switch-off from route finding!
Because the Cotswold Way is so well described elsewhere, these notes have less about the route than usual but will still I hope give an insight into this wonderful trail, especially for the relatively few who travel northwards. I walked the first four days solo; Barbara joined me for the last three.
Stage 21, Wednesday 12 October 2011: Bath to Cold Ashton, 11 miles
The traditional first day out of Bath. It made sense not to have arranged to go further, just in case there were train problems going up; also it gave an opportunity not to rush out in the drizzle but to take some time in the heart of this great city, which I hardly know. The Way starts at Bath Abbey and takes you past key city landmarks but soon heads up to the first hills, with ‘Prospect stile’ a first key viewpoint; thereafter, you traverse the site of the civil war Battle of Landsowne, well-explained by information boards. Cold Ashton has accommodation but no more, alas, a pub; I took the bus into nearby Marshfield, which still has two inns, though with waiting time it would have been nearly as quick to have taken the scenic valley walk there.
Stage 22, Thursday 13 October 2011: Cold Ashton to Lower Kilcott, 15 miles
Bus back. Something had been wrong with my stomach overnight – do I blame my homemade paté sandwich or the pub’s evening meal? Still feeling delicate and with little sleep, this was a stage to take slowly. Dyrham Park aside, the first section is no great shakes, with a lot of plodding around field-margins near the M5. Things improve after Tormarton, through the fine landscaped Dodington Park, and at Little Sodbury there is the first of the Way’s great prehistoric hill forts to explore. Indeed, the Way has so many relics such as these that one gets a little blasé about them after a while! Hawkwesbury Upton has accommodation options, but I made the right choice in continuing to Lower Kilcott, a friendly place nestling in one of the first perfect Cotswold valleys of the Way.
Stage 23, Friday 14 October 2011: Lower Kilcott to Stonehouse, 21 miles
What you hope for above all, when you plan for a long stage such as this, is a fine day. By that count, I could not have been better served, enjoying wall-to-wall sunshine; and with highlight after highlight packed in, this was a day to treasure.
Mentally, I had divided the day into three roughly equal sections, to break at Wotton-under-Edge and Dursley. These are two contrasted little towns, the first rather bijou, the second more workaday. The schedule allowed for a coffee in the first and a pint in the second; as it happens, the first pub as you enter Dursley is the Old Spot Inn, one of England’s great real ale pubs, up there with the Tom Cobley in Spreyton (stage 13). But while my route deliberately sought the Tom Cobley, the Old Spot was happy chance. The downside was that there was still a very long way to go! The first hill out of Dursley is the outlier of Cam Long Down, which has a splendid little ridge-top; one could have been 2000ft up, not a mere few hundred. The evening anti-climax of the back of King’s Stanley could detract nothing from this memorable day.
Stage 24, Saturday 15 October 2011: Stonehouse to Crickley Hill, 17 miles
Another longish day, lending itself this time to two halves, with Painswick roughly in the middle. Mr Sunshine was still playing, this time with some rather nice fluffy white clouds for company. The day starts with a circuit of Haresfield hill, one of several spurs of the western Cotswold escarpment that jut into the Severn valley – Stichcombe hill above Dursley had been another. It’s perhaps only after several days of walking, with great visibility such as this, that the familiarity of the horizon landscape starts to assert itself, slowly changing with the miles. As the days unfold, it’s possible to unscramble the Brecon Beacons from the Black Mountains, and see the Malvern Hills move from a near head-on view to their full length.
Painswick is slightly off the escarpment, but the Way is right to make the detour; this is a splendid small town, entered at the most remarkable churchard full of sculpted yews. Just off the main road, a little square has an almost continental feel of relaxation. I take coffee and panini here in celebration, chatting to a local couple with memories of Laurie Lee, who lived nearby. Later, in the long wooded section near the end of the day, I make such good time that I have to make a conscious effort to slow down in order to make my planned rendezvous with Barbara.
Stage 25, Sunday 16 October 2011: Crickley Hill to Cleeve Hill, 13 miles
Touch of the pride and falls here: I’m telling Barbara what a piece of cake Cotswold Way navigation is when I lose the trail coming out of a car park just beyond the Devil’s Chimney. It’s only ever a few yards to the right, but there’s an uncertain few minutes till we have the security of the acorn waymarker once more. If there’s a downside to this stage, it’s that Cheltenham (where we had stayed, to meet Barbara’s godmother) is always in view. If there is another, it’s that the pub at Dowdeswell has closed down. We grab a sandwich from the plastic Seven Springs instead, and it’s nice to munch it on the grass common not far beyond. Indeed the narrative of this day is the transition to the highest ground of the Cotswolds, where grass commons have been maintained; and if Cheltenham is always in view, there’s the continual twist round of its shape, culminating with the fine view of the racecourse, but perhaps most evocatively the view beyond the Black Mountains and on into Wales.
Stage 26, Monday 17 October 2011: Cleeve Hill to Wood Stanway, 12 miles
Another fine Cotswold town, Winchcombe, forms the centrepiece here. There’s undoubtedly a different feel to the Cotswolds once Cleeve Hill has been left behind, and the Way exploits this to the full, taking many opportunities to dip down then rise up again. Hailes Abbey sits below the final rise of the day, and we have time in hand to spend here. Just as well, for we have to hang around a bit at our B&B, not knowing our host is busy in her walled garden just a few feet away.
Stage 27, Tuesday 18 October 2011: Wood Stanway to Chipping Campden, 12 miles
Our original plan had been to spin out the delight by breaking this stage at Broadway, tourist honeypot, but this idea seems to make less sense on the day. So it’s just a snack there, plus dump of Barbara’s sack out at the B&B (the last house in the village!) and on with the long grind to Broadway Tower. I’d long wanted to ascend this folly, and with a brisk breeze on the top it felt like a summit in its own right. There was certainly plenty of summit-spotting, not only in Wales but out towards the Clee and Lickey Hills, as well as the tower blocks of Birmingham. Many say that with Chipping Campden, the Way saves the best town for last. I’d settle for Painswick, personally, but with a dipping sun melting the colours of the Cotswold stone, it’s not hard to see why I’m in a minority. And there’s a bus at the right time to take us back to Broadway.
Use + and – keys to zoom to toggle between large-scale and 1:50,000 mapping
The Lord Nelson Inn was one of two pubs with rooms in Marshfield; it was a nice place. Bridge Farm at Lower Kilcott farm was the best B&B yet, quiet location, excellent food, and an interesting family to talk to. Merton Lodge in Stonehouse was an honest place, not pretending to be more than it is; lack of food (or kettle) was a problem, so I went in/out of Stroud by bus/taxi – maybe I should have tried Stonehouse. In Cheltenham we stayed at Bridge House, fairly typical of big-town tourist B&Bs. The Rising Sun at Cleeve Hill isn’t bad value if booked in advance, and on the obvious way down from the summit to the village. More good ratings for Wood Stanway farmhouse; in Broadway, we found The Knoll almost too clean, and it’s a fair hike from the village.