In her latest report for #CroakeyExplore, contributing editor Dr Lesley Russell takes us on a long walk through the English countryside, traversing the 163-kilometre Cotswold Way, enjoying beautiful views, the kindness of strangers and historical connections.
And she also has some practical advice for anyone inspired to follow in her footsteps.
Lesley Russell writes:
2018 has been a great walking year for me: Cornwall in April; Burgundy in June; some great hikes in the Colorado Rockies in August; and in September, with my walking companion Liz Dax (we have previously walked the Stevenson Trail in the Cevennes Mountains and a part of the Camino together), I headed to England to walk the Cotswold Way, from Chipping Camden to Bath.
This walk, some 102 miles (163 km) traverses some beautiful countryside: picture perfect villages, sheep and cows quietly grazing on the hillsides, larks rising out of fields marked by dry stone walls, and ancient beech forests. Much of the walk is along the Cotswold escarpment with spectacular views as far as Wales. There are thatched cottages, stately homes, a surprising number of towers and follies, and ancient churches.
We explored the history of the region as we passed the remains of burial mounds, hill forts and monasteries, and used our very informative guidebook and local signage to learn more about the flora and fauna. There was plenty to forage: apples and pears in profusion, and the juiciest blackberries.
There were lots of animal encounters along the way as much of the walking was through farmland: the sheep seemed only too willing to be herded, the cows just lazily eyed us off, every horse I encountered was sure there was something in my backpack that was edible. We saw evidence of badgers, but no live sightings. And we learned to stay alert to avoid the manure piles that were everywhere.
This was not exactly a walk in the park – there were too many ups and downs for that, and most days we covered well over 20 kilometres – but it is easy enough to be very enjoyable and every hill climbed rewarded us with magnificent views.
As with all my previous walks, I used a travel business that booked our accommodation and (the best bit) moved our bags each day, so that we only needed to carry a day pack. We stayed in B&Bs and small hotels; all had really lovely rooms with private bathrooms and hearty English breakfasts (great if you like black pudding), and I can report that the standards for bathrooms, pub food and coffee in rural England have improved dramatically in recent years.
Taking this walk in September was good timing. The weather was kind, with very little rain, the temperatures (20-24 degrees Centigrade) were perfect for walking, and there were few tourists and even fewer walkers. I was surprised that the autumn colours were not yet in evidence, but there were still lots of wildflowers and roses in profusion in the villages.
Perhaps my enthusiastic descriptions and photos will entice you to make your own trek to this beautiful part of the world?
We had two days in Stratford-on-Avon (easily accessible by train from London, via Leamington Spa). There was plenty of practice for the walking to come as we explored the banks of the river Avon, Anne Hathaway’s cottage, the lovely old Tudor buildings, the church where Shakespeare is buried, and a great visit to the local butterfly farm. The culmination was a performance of The Merry Wives of Windsor by the Royal Shakespeare Company.
Then it was off by bus to Chipping Camden, an old market town where the Cotswold Way started right outside our hotel – a 17th century building where local men once went to sign up for volunteer armies.
Chipping Camden to Stanton (25 km)
It had rained overnight but the grey early morning turned to sunshine as we strode out into the countryside. A slow ascent through farmland brought us to Broadway Tower, built as a folly in 1799 atop Beacon Hill, the second highest point in the Cotswolds (312 m). We admired the views and headed downhill into the town of Broadway – rather touristy but quite charming, and a good place for lunch.
We walked on to Stanton, remarking that our guidebook was correct: this is rural England at its best and Stanton is the quintessential Cotswold village. We especially loved the thatch birds and animals perched atop the thatched roofs.
However, we were suddenly less enthusiastic about the glories of Stanton when we discovered that the only pub closed during the afternoons. Fortunately we were staying in the nearby village of Toddington, where the pub was definitely open and doing a roaring trade. We joined the crowd.
Stanton to Cleeve Hill (15 km)
Our ebullient host sent us on our way with lots of instructions about avoiding encounters with the local bull, where to get a morning coffee, and a good place to stop for lunch.
There were lovely small villages to explore along the way and the ruins of Hailes Abbey, built in 1246. From the top of a wooded hill we could see the steam train of the Gloucestershire Warwickshire Railway puffing through the countryside below. Lunchtime found us enjoying a pub lunch in Winchcombe.
Later we passed the long and impressive barrow of Belas Knap and then on to Cleeve Hill Common on the edge of the Cotswold escarpment. This is a huge area of unimproved limestone grassland, wild and windswept, shared by walkers, sheep and golfers (this must be an incredibly tough course!) and with a great view of Cheltenham, a Regency town with a famous racecourse, below.
Cleeve Hill to Seven Springs (20 km)
This section was exactly as we had imagined the Cotswolds, as we alternatively hiked along the escarpment, walked through magnificent old beech forests, and crossed pastures and farmland.
We soon became experts in the various styles of stiles and gates (there are an endless number on this walk) and learned to carefully read the yellow trail signs as this area is criss-crossed with walking trails. We were very admiring of the drystone walls which are a feature of the Cotswolds, especially when we several times encountered workers making repairs and could see what was involved.
There is little more than a pub at Seven Springs, but we were staying at nearby Charlton Springs and a pick-up was arranged to transport us to an elegant B&B, set in beautiful gardens and with every possible facility. Our host was happy to drive us to the local pub and we shared dinner with another walking couple from the US. He was a doctor, she was a nurse, so there was animated discussion about health care and politics.
Seven Springs to Painswick (25 km)
This was another lovely day of walking via the ancient hill fort at Crickley Hill and the very steep Cooper’s Hill which is the site of an annual cheese-rolling competition (we thought that a waste of good cheese, and, given the slope, positively dangerous).
We were a little surprised that the route into Painswick was through the golf course but there were few golfers. Painswick existed at the time of the Doomsday Book; it has elegant buildings of pale grey stone and the church yard is full of elaborate graves and neatly trimmed yew trees. The Arts and Craft movement was influential here, and nearby is the village of Slad where Laurie Lee’s autobiography Cider with Rosie begins.
Our hotel rooms had views across to the church, a bar that listed 32 different gins (with a variety of tonic waters to match) and a first-class dining room. We were happy walkers.
Painswick to Leonard Stanley (25 km)
Early this morning we passed the stone milestone that was the halfway mark in our walk – just 55 miles to Bath. What we didn’t realise then was that a series of mistakes later in the day would add an extra 10 kilometres to the walk – meaning there were actually 61 miles to go!
We passed the Cromwell Stone which commemorates the siege of Gloucester in 1643 (but almost certainly not the point where Cromwell oversaw the battle) and paused to watch the model planes flying over the escarpment at Haresfield Beacon. Then we turned from admiring the almost 360 degrees views – and took the wrong route, down the steep slope instead of along the top.
When we realised our mistake, we thought we could rectify it by taking another path back up to the escarpment and a friendly local farmer confirmed that. Yes, we did finally get back on to the Cotswold Way, but there was a deal of uphill ‘scrub bashing’ involved. As a consolation, the walk then took us through shady woods along a wide track beside the vestiges of a stone wall than ran for several kilometres.
We passed sign posts indicating that we were near Kings Stanley and then missed a short cut to Leonard Stanley and ended up on the great swathe of Selsley Common. It was a beautiful scene, marred only by the fact that we could see our destination several kilometres away in the valley. We consulted with a family walking their dogs on the common, and they volunteered to drive us to our accommodation; we accepted gladly.
So much to be grateful for in what was a tough walking day: we would otherwise have missed Selsley Common; the generosity of the family who rescued us from a further hour or more of walking (the wife said she had been treated so well during a working holiday in Australia she was delighted to help us); a welcoming host in a charming, award-winning B&B who invited us to join her for G&Ts; and Liz and I laughing together at our dreadful map-reading skills.
Leonard Stanley to Wotton-Under-Edge (22 km)
Fortified by a wonderful country breakfast and with lunch provisions supplied by our host, we set off through steeply banked beech woods, careful to check the map and our directions regularly.
At Coaley Peak we could see beyond the Severn River to the mountains of Wales. We could also see the Tyndale Monument, which we would pass later in the day, silhouetted against the skyline to the south.
As we went on, we passed badger setts (obviously in use, but no sign of the animals) among trees rising up on either side of the path like a tunnel. We ate our picnic lunch on the edge of yet another golf course, then headed towards the tower erected in 1866 in memory of Sir William Tyndale, who was burnt at the stake for heresy in 1536 (he translated the New Testament into English). It seems this part of England is really given to erecting memorial towers.
Wotton-Under-Edge is a pretty town with some lovely old buildings, including our hotel. We were warmly welcomed, despite a foyer sign stating “no muddy boots”.
Wotton-Under-Edge to Old Sodbury (23 km)
(Don’t you love the names of these Cotswold towns and villages?)
In the morning we could see rain storms coming across the hills as we ate breakfast, and we set off in rain gear, but it soon eased and the sun shone. By now we were totally into walking mode, loving the repetitive rhythm of each day and looking forward to the new sights it would bring.
There were some lovely little villages along the route, little clusters of stone buildings with cottage gardens and rambling roses everywhere. And yes, there was another tower, a monument to Lord Somerset. We were elated to see skylarks rising up from the fields we walked though.
In Old Sodbury we stayed in a converted farmhouse that dated from the 1700s. We had been advised that the best place to eat was The Dog Inn down the road. From the outside, it was a scruffy looking pub, but to our surprise we had a great seafood meal.
Old Sodbury to Cold Ashton (15 km)
This was a gusty day with clouds scudding across the sky. Quite soon we found ourselves walking across Dodington Park, which is owned by the inventor of Dyson appliances. We couldn’t see the house, but what we could see of the estate – the gardens, the fences, and the plantings – showed that it was immaculately kept. The sheep were so clean and fluffy we imagined they had been washed and blown dry (with a Dyson of course!).
Just after Tormanton the peace of the countryside was shattered by the roar or eight lanes of traffic on the busy M4, which we crossed via a flyover. The noise pollution persisted for some time, but eventually we reached the peace and quiet of the tiny village of Dyrham.
We paused at the ornamental gates of Dyrham Park, with a splendid view of the gardens leading up to the front of the house (which was the location for the film Remains of the Day). There was also a lovely old church, where we encountered a busload of Canadian tourists eager to hear about our walking adventures.
After passing the wonderfully named Cornflake Cottage, we were soon at Cold Ashton. Our host at Whittington Farm, set in beautiful gardens by the church, welcomed us with scones, strawberries and cream, and a lovely pot of tea.
Dinner was at nearby Folly Farm. We were the only guests for a wonderful meal of local produce (the icecream was the highlight) and we were entertained by a lively stream of locals who popped in for a drink. One of them – it turns out he was the driver responsible for moving our bags – gave us a lift back.
Cold Ashton to Bath (18 km)
It was really raining as we set out on our final day’s walk, but again we were lucky – the rain stopped before we got too sodden. We had to cross the busy A46 before we happily found ourselves once again walking through farmland.
Then we entered the fields where the Civil War Battle of Lansdown was fought in 1643 between the Royalists who sought to secure the south west of England for the King Charles 1 and the Parliamentarians. It’s a tiny area where 10,000 men, including cavalry, engaged – no wonder the casualties were high.
There were some ups and downs and then suddenly there was Bath laid out before us, with the cathedral clearly visible. We walked through streets with some very gracious buildings and gardens to reach the instantly recognisable Royal Crescent and then on to Bath Abbey Cathedral in the centre of the city where our walk officially ended.
That evening Liz and I celebrated another successful walk with a fabulous and outrageously expensive meal at a very elegant restaurant in the Royal Crescent (we did not wear our boots!) and the next day we headed for home.
Ready to tackle the Cotswold Way? Here’s some advice
The keys to a great walk are having the right gear and the right attitude.
This is England, so expect rain. Liz and I took lightweight rain/windproof jackets, waterproof covers for our packs (mine is built in to a little pocket at the base of my pack), and lightweight plastic ponchos for when it really rains. I also have a fold-up umbrella which is handy for evening outings. I always pack a few large plastic garbage bags – they make an emergency rain cover, provide something to sit on if the ground is wet, and can be used to carry out rubbish.
Long pants are essential as there are lots of nettles, briars and blackberries along the trail. It’s best if these are quick dry, both for when it rains, and because they will get very muddy and need to be washed.
If you’ve read my previous pieces for #CroakeyExplore, then you know the premium that I put on having the best walking boots or shoes, socks and foot care. Liz and I both subscribe to Vaseline on the feet to prevent rubbing, Compeeds whenever there is a sore spot, and changing socks every 10 kilometres. And you need to be totally sure your boots are well broken in.
I have also become a big fan of walking poles: I use one; Liz uses two.
The right attitude
Along with being fit and having the right gear, you need the right approach to long-distance walking: it will sometimes be tough; it might rain; and you can get lost. The offsets are that walking is a great opportunity to engage with nature and disengage with technology.
I take a phone (which I use as a camera and it’s there for emergencies) and an iPad for evening reading, emails, and Skyping back home. But I am not plugged in to music or podcasts as I walk, preferring birdsong and even my own singing, and although Macs Adventure does provide apps for their tours, I refuse to use them because who wants to walk looking at a phone or a GPS?
While I enjoy walking on my own, having a good companion is a wonderful thing and Liz certainly fulfils that role. There is much to share as we admire the views, explore historical sites, investigate the local flowers and fungi, and relax over drinks at the end of the day.
As we walk, we talk and sing and recite poetry, but often continue in companionable silence. We laugh at the fact that all Liz’s photos have a rear view of me out in front and all my photos have her powering up the hill behind me.
Now I’m busy planning 2019 walks – so stay tuned. The Portuguese Camino is on the list, and maybe Provence, or Brittany, or Kitzbuhel?
• Read previous articles in the #CroakeyEXPLORE series.