COTSWOLD WAY - The 50 Greatest Walks of the World - Barry Stone

The 50 Greatest Walks of the World - Barry Stone (2016)


Gloucestershire, Somerset, England

Distance: 164 km

Grade: Moderate

Time: 8-10 days

The Cotswolds, as those who are aware will be only too happy to tell you, are not, in fact, hills. They are an escarpment - the Cotswold Edge - a line of high country almost 160 km in length that runs from England’s southwest up to its midlands. Like escarpments everywhere it is a region of tilted rock - on one side a gentle slope eastwards towards the Oxfordshire Plain and the Thames Valley, while on the other side a far more pronounced and abrupt westward slope down to the plain of the Severn Valley. Composed of oolitic limestone laid down 150 million years ago this rock, composed of small, round grains, is not white like limestone tends to be but is instead a lovely ethereal pale gold; easily split and delightfully weather-resistant, it hardens over time. So why does this matter? Because you see it everywhere here, not just in the ground but in many of the buildings you pass on the Cotswold Way in villages that are the equal in beauty of any in England - places like Chipping Campden, Stanton, Broadway and Stanway - villages capable of ruining itineraries because you can’t drag yourself away from them. Golden coloured vignettes that flicker in a golden-hued landscape. ‘As if they know the trick’, wrote J. B. Priestley, ‘of keeping the lost sunlight of centuries glimmering about them’.

Inaugurated as a national trail in April 2007 after first being mooted by the Rambler’s Association in the 1950s, the Cotswold Way runs northeast out of Bath and is a trail of ups and downs as it meanders along the western rim of the scarp, providing glimpses of market towns far below and then heading down to them on switchbacks through a world of wild roses, drystone walls and fields of bluebells, with kestrels above and cropped turf below. You can walk it north-south or south-north - both are equally well signed - though the going is a tad more ‘inclined’ for the northbound walker. Walking north, however, means the very best of the Cotswolds will be waiting for you as a sort of ‘grand finale’.

Leaving Bath, the first segment of the Cotswold Way is a long day’s walk to Old Sodbury, just below and to the west of the escarpment, and already you’re being seduced by the scent of wild garlic and the playful shadows cast by beech woodlands. At Penn Hill just beyond Weston (once a separate village to Bath, now swallowed up by it) and Kelston Round Hill (714 ft) the views really begin to open up and hint at the broad panoramas to come: the Severn Estuary and the Severn Bridges, the Black Mountains of southeast Wales, May Hill on the Gloucestershire/Herefordshire border, the jagged Malvern Hills, the Vale of Evesham, and Cleeve Hill.

But it’s the villages and towns along the way - and some off the way you really need to see, like Cheltenham - that make this walk what it is, a concentration of natural and built history few English trails can match. There is Wotton-under-Edge, tucked beneath the edge of the escarpment with Nibley Hill over it; the old textile mills of Stroud; gorgeous Snowshill with its ancient cottages, 19th-century church and village green set in the hills above Broadway; and there is Broadway itself, with its chestnut trees and wisteria-draped cottages built of limestone that is positively yellow. While in Broadway you also need to make the ascent to Broadway Tower, a folly completed in 1798, a place of inspiration for William Morris, the founder of the Arts and Crafts architectural style, and a high point from which the views - some say into sixteen counties - would be difficult to exaggerate. Finally the trail comes to an end in Chipping Campden, a wool trading centre in the Middle Ages now with a gorgeous High Street of terraced 14th- to 17th-century buildings and without doubt the Cotswold’s most elegant town.



Photo: Rwendland

You can bring a tent here if you want, but camping facilities are somewhat scarce though some B&Bs do allow it with prior permission. Much better, though, to rest in comfort so as not to allow aching limbs to distract you from the beauty around you as you walk this idyllic plateau that is a part of one enormous slab of limestone that stretches all the way from Dorset to Yorkshire - England’s largest continuous geological feature, sprinkled with villages clad in the very rock that made it all possible.