An Intrepid Petersfield Rambler’s account of walking the Cotswold Way
Until a month ago I had never visited a Cotswold village, yet I knew exactly how one should look: a cluster of quaint, sandstone cottages half-hidden by vintage roses and wisteria, with tidy garden borders filled with foxgloves and lupins, and bounded by neat topiary hedges. This quintessential image resonates across the global, upheld by a wide range of film settings from Miss Marple to Bridget Jones Diary. But is it true to life? Can anywhere today still be so picturesque and charming? By walking the Cotswold Way, I intended to take a close look and answer that question for myself.
The invaluable Cicerone handbook and maps were my guide, dividing this 102-mile long National Trail into 13 stages. From prior experience of walking the South Downs Way, I knew that getting to overnight accommodation (which is often a few miles off the trail), getting lost and investigating interesting distractions can add quite a distance to each stage, so I planned for just one stage each day. In actuality I walked 144 miles over 13 days, which was a nice pace: there was time to appreciate what I passed along the way and time to just sit, drinking in the vistas.
As recommended, I walked north to south from Chipping Campden to Bath. The trail makes a broad loop around Cheltenham, sticking to the high escarpment, looking down on Gloucester before dropping down to cross the Stroud valley. The highest peaks – just above 1,000ft – are in the north at Broadway Tower and Cleeve Hill, but the trail is a relentless roller-coaster throughout its length. In total I climbed up 15,330ft – more than half the height of Everest! That said, the Cotswold Way is doable by any fit walker.
What the Cotswold Way offers in abundance is stunning panoramas, stretching across the Evesham Valley and River Severn westwards to South Wales. At times you look down on the glorious cities of Cheltenham and Gloucester, and at others across a verdant patchwork of fields and hedgerows, to the hazy blue outlines of the Malvern Hills and distant Brecon Beacons. From one trig point to another, the splendid landscapes stretch out beneath your feet. Between the highest points are extensive woods showcasing the very best beech woodlands, wild-flower meadows rich in orchids, and moist sunken paths shaded by steep banks swathed in lush ferns.
The Cotswold villages were perfection, living up to – indeed exceeding – all expectations. Every house is pale to golden sandstone, maintained faultlessly; every garden tended to ‘chocolate-box’ beauty. Most impressive of all is the limitless topiary: whether shaped as cones, balls, miniature walls, spirals or lollipops, not a leaf is out of place – and not a hint of box-blight! Boundary walls are all dry-stone, whether old or new; not a red brick in sight. ‘Twee’ doesn’t start to describe it!
I booked my overnight hotels and B&Bs personally – through booking.com – six months earlier. That way I started to immerse myself in the walk well in advance. I searched for accommodation closest to the end location each day. Not unexpectedly, they proved to be a mix. Getting quickly to your room is a ‘must’, as you’re tired and just want to rest. Having dinner available within 100yds is necessary, so remote B&Bs can be an issue. As I would never walk with more than a day pack, I relied on ‘carryabag’ for daily transfer of my main bag. They were excellent; my bag arrived before me every day. Food enroute required careful planning. Many stages offer no opportunities for obtaining food or drink, so it’s important to identify these and carry sufficient water and light snacks for the whole journey. Low sugar at the end of a walk only leads to grumpiness!
The weather was ideal for walking – dry, not too hot – though less good for taking pictures given the mainly overcast skies. It was misty round Cleeve Hill which – along with the grazing sheep – gave this stretch a strange feeling of moorland.
Whilst I met some walkers along the way – and a fair few dogs – there were only a tiny number of long-distance hikers. Apparently the majority of trail ramblers are international visitors who, because of Covid, are currently absent. My eldest son joined me for a couple of days which was a real delight; it’s always lovely to share an experience and build new memories.
All in all, I really enjoyed my Cotswold Way adventure: the pace was right, as was the level of challenge; the scenery was wonderful, the villages delightful; and the freedom to explore after months of lockdowns was invigorating. One trivial, but noteworthy, sight will stay with me as a reminder of a rewarding adventure: a thatched cricket pavilion resting on staddle stones. Only in the Cotswold!