Walk The Cotswold Way with a Cicerone guidebook
The Cotswold Way
Two-way national trail description by Kev Reynolds
A handy pocket sized guidebook for anyone walking the Cotswold Way National Trail. The 102 mile route meanders through the Cotswolds between Chipping Campden and Bath. Described in both directions over 13 stages, the Cotswolds Way is a lovely walk through one of the best-loved regions of lowland Britain. More...
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Views were lost in a grey mist of rain that had not let up since breakfast, but needing a hot drink I sank onto a cushion of heather, settled back against a silver birch and dug my flask out of the rucksack. The tea was welcome; the rain and lack of views had not affected my spirits and I was aware of being immensely happy. It was a privilege to be there, to be walking this land of timeless beauty, absorbing its past and present, gleaning experience for tomorrow’s patchwork of memory. And as I wiped the steam from my glasses I noticed, among the swamps of nodding cowslips that crowded the hillside, early purple orchids standing sentry-like here and there, their helmets tossing minute cascades of spray as raindrops fell upon them…
The soft light of a June evening pushed shadows out of a stand of beech trees. From a pathside bank I watched the patch of darkness spread down the knoll as silvered galleon clouds drifted overhead and a blackbird piped his own last post from a hawthorn bush nearby. At the foot of the slope a roe deer slipped out of the woodland shaw and sprang across the long grass, as though leaping waves. Reluctant to break the spell I delayed my onward walk and sat, content to absorb the moment …
These are just two random vignettes that spill unbidden from a host of memories gathered along the Cotswold Way, but each time I’ve walked the route end to end – and others when I’ve snatched isolated sections for the sheer pleasure of being there – I’ve been seduced by the region’s special attractions. There are the curving bays and spurs of the escarpment, the beech-crowned heights, open breezy commons, deeply cut dry valleys, mile upon mile of drystone walling from which anxious wrens dart and where snails cling limpet-like to the verticals. I think of honey-coloured cottages, roses wild and nurtured, carpets of bluebells, ramsons and wood anemones, kestrels hovering head-down above the cropped turf, larks warbling from dawn to dusk, a cumulus of sheep on the brow of a distant hill. I remember old churches, Civil War battlefields, and the even older burial mounds and hill forts that pepper the route. I recall beams of sunlight shafting onto the River Severn, clouds rolling over the Black Mountains far away. And the peace. Not silence, but peace. The peace of a countryside comfortable with itself.
A walker’s landscape is both a powerful stimulant and an inspiration. Certainly that is true where memories and dreams intertwine in a complex of pleasures on completion of the Cotswold Way.
The Cotswold Way
The Cotswold Way measures 102 miles (164km) on its journey from Chipping Campden to Bath, and it’s a devious route – a switchback, stuttering, to-ing and fro-ing, climbing and falling walk. One moment you’re wandering along the scarp edge, with toy-sized farms and villages scattered across the plains far below, the next you’re heading down to them – to explore a magical village, or a small market town with age in its streets, whose cottages are ‘faintly warm and luminous, as if they knew the trick of keeping the lost sunlight of centuries glimmering about them’. Then you head up again, zigzagging back and forth in order to capture the best the wolds can offer.
The wolds form part of an extensive belt of oolitic limestone that runs from Dorset in the south to Yorkshire in the north. The highest and broadest part of this belt is an undulating tableland, raised on its western side and draining gently towards the east, down to the Thames Valley and the Oxfordshire Plain. On its western side, where the Cotswold Way goes, the scarp slope falls abruptly to the Severn Plain, revealing its most dramatic features. This sharp-edged tableland has long jutting prows and spurs, time-moulded coombes and island-like outliers, plateaux fuzzed with woodlands and a grid of drystone walls. Numerous mounds provide evidence of a long history of occupation along the very rim of the escarpment, from which early man scanned the broad views, alert to approaching danger. Today the Cotswold wayfarer seeks those same vantage points as highlights of the walk, places on which to sprawl in the grass and dream among the flowers.
The Cotswold Way was developed by Gloucestershire County Council as a recreational route following a suggestion made by the district committee of the Ramblers' Association as long ago as the early 1950s. As one of the county council's major initiatives to mark European Conservation Year, the route was eventually launched in May 1970 during National Footpath Week. Five years later its full length was treated to a concentrated effort of waymarking, mainly by volunteers from the RA and the Cotswold Voluntary Warden Service, and it subsequently became one of the most effectively waymarked long-distance walks in Britain.
Now at last it has been recognised as a national trail, and with that recognition comes financial backing – the whole route has been surveyed, evaluated, and in some places realigned. It has been re-signed and waymarked with the acorn symbol, countless stiles have been replaced by kissing gates, and a few sections of footpath have been surfaced where before they were either eroded or boggy.
For this edition of the guide, the Cotswold Way was rechecked in the spring of 2007, just two months before its official launch as a national trail in May. Following information kindly supplied by Jo Ronald, the National Trail Officer responsible for the route, all realignments were walked and assessed, even where improvements and waymarking had yet to be completed. Route descriptions in this guide reflect those changes and, as far as can be ascertained, represent the official course of the Cotswold Way at its national trail launch. Any further necessary improvements will no doubt be posted on the national trail website www.nationaltrail.co.uk/cotswold and described in subsequent editions of this guidebook.
Waymarks follow the nationally approved method of using different coloured arrows: yellow for footpaths, blue for bridleways, white for public roads. What differentiates Cotswold Way arrows from other route directions is the black acorn symbol of a national trail (the original CW symbol was a white spot painted on or by the arrowhead, and some of these still exist). Where the route goes through a town, waymarks may be seen on kerbstones, on the posts of traffic direction signs, or on walls. Where it crosses a golf course (on Cleeve Common, Stinchcombe Hill, and Painswick Hill, for example), low wooden waymark posts will be seen. (Note that the original metal signposts along the Cotswold Way give distances in kilometres, while the new national trail posts are measured in miles.)
This is a route, like a number of others, that best repays an unhurried approach. There are so many places of interest nearby that no walker ought to resist the temptation to stray here and there in order to broaden his or her overall view of the region. ‘Intently haphazard' is a term which admirably suits this attitude to walking the Cotswold Way.
Chipping Campden makes a worthy beginning, Bath a worthy end. Between the two the way follows a meandering course through woodlands, along the western rim of the escarpment for mile after mile, down into secretive coombes, along the banks of millstreams, over sunny belvederes, exploring one glorious village after another, and always seeking to reveal the very essence of the Cotswolds, the spirit of the region. And it works. It works supremely well.
Which way to walk – north to south, or vice versa? Should you begin in Chipping Campden or Bath?
Well, the route has been signed in such a way as to make it easy to follow in either direction, and there’s a similar amount of uphill as there is downhill effort involved, whichever way you tackle it – though if anything it’s slightly more strenuous for the northbound walker. By walking northward (starting in Bath) you’ll probably have the prevailing wind at your back, some of the finest scenery teasing ahead of you, and one of the finest of all Cotswold towns as the climax.
On the other hand, heading south from Chipping Campden means that from the very start you are launched into full Cotswold grandeur, while the pilgrimage nature of the long- distance walk (and it seems to me that all long walks take the form of a pilgrimage) culminates with the heart-stopping sight of Bath Abbey, arguably one of Britain’s finest buildings, marking journey’s end. It is also physically easier to leave Bath by public transport at the end of the walk than it is Chipping Campden. This may be a deciding factor.
Whichever way you choose, both directions are described in this guide.