There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Sunday, 5 June 2011

Around Stroud on the Cotswold Scarp: Day 12 of the South West Odyssey (English Branch)

The South West Odyssey is a long distance walk.
Five like-minded people started in 2008 from the Cardingmill Valley in Shropshire and by walking three days a year have now (April 2018) reached Ringmore on the South Devon Coast (almost).

The final day for this year proved our Odyssey is about the journey not the (as yet undefined) destination. We spent half the day walking northwest and the other half southwest as we looped round Stroud, ending up a very few miles west of our starting point.

Stroud is not the Cotswold’s prettiest town, but somewhere has to work for a living rather than just being decorative. On the other hand, our near circumnavigation along the top of the Cotswold scarp, dipping into and out of side valleys, promised a fine day’s walking.

After eleven days of almost unbroken sunshine (ignoring the brief shower at Brockhampton, when we were under cover anyway) it was inevitable that our luck would change. Waking up in Cirencester, I looked out the window and saw thick clouds and rain, the sort of rain that seems set in for the day.

At the Round Elm crossroads

Back at the Round Elm crossroads, we donned waterproofs and, slightly reluctantly, plodded northwards through the drizzle towards Swift’s Hill. The map showed plenty of contours and I had prepared myself for a stiff climb. I should have looked more carefully; Swift’s Hill is less of a hill and more a spur sticking into the Slad Valley. As we had made the climb onto the plateau the previous afternoon, we had the slightly surreal experience of descending to the top of a ‘hill’.

Down to the 'summit' of Swift's Hill

In steady drizzle we left the ‘summit’, dropped into the valley, crossed the Slad brook and ascended the other side towards the village, which is strung out along the flank of the hill. Slad is the setting for Cider with Rosie* and Laurie Lee lived there most of his life. We crossed the northern end of the village past the war memorial. Regardless of how romanticised a place may have been in fiction, it can look as drab as anywhere else in the drizzle.

Approaching Slad

 Carrying on upwards we reached the top, where the rain called a temporary halt, and then descended Juniper Hill.

Mike descends Juniper Hill

Taking advantage of the drier spell we stopped for coffee and sat under an oak tree with a view over the large village of Painswick, which likes to style itself  ‘Queen of the Cotswolds’.

Painswick, the 'Queen of the Cotswolds'
Mike borrowed my camera and turned it away from the view to capture this dismal picture of sad, wet people huddled under a protective tree.

Wetter than we look

We reached the bottom of the Painswick Valley some way south of the village and set off up the other side, joining the Cotswold Way on our ascent of the strangely named Scottsquar Hill. In the disused quarry on the top we found our path meandering between hundreds of common spotted orchids.

Francis in the Painswick Valley

It was raining steadily by the time we entered Maitlands Wood. We followed the belt of woodland running round the top of the scarp for the next three kilometres, reaching the day’s most northerly point in Cliff Wood. The wide path was easy walking, despite the odd puddle, and the trees shielded us from the worst of the rain. It seemed preordained that the shower would last as long as the woodlands and we would emerge onto Haresfield Beacon as the sunshine broke through. So much for preordination. The drizzle continued as we climbed to the top of the beacon.

Mike and Alison in Maitlands Wood

Haresfield Beacon is on the western edge of the Cotswolds and we had a fine view over the Severn valley, with the distinctive outline of May Hill in the Forest of Dean on the far side. At this point the rain did ease a bit.

I have not spent many nights lying awake wondering how the River Severn becomes the Severn Estuary, but if I had thought of it at all, I had assumed the river just became wider and wider until, at some indefinable point, it ceased to be a river and became an inlet of the sea. Apparently, I was wrong. Even on this wet and misty day, it was possible to see a distinct, if distant, point where river suddenly becomes estuary.

The southern end of the Severn Valley
and the start of the estuary (in the misty distance)

We left Haresfield Beacon walking round the edge of the scarp, but decided not to track out to the viewpoint on the next spur as we had seen the view already and with the drizzle starting again the relative dry of Standish Wood seemed attractive.

Brian strides away from Haresfield Beacon

Navigation was not helped by the many paths that criss-cross the well-walked wood, but eventually we found the right spot to leave the trees and head for the road down to the village of Randwick for a lunch break.

It was well after two by the time we reached The Vine but it was still packed with Sunday lunchtime customers. We found a table, removed some of our wet clothes and hung them over the chairs. I found a dry shirt in my rucksack and felt a lot better after putting it on.

With the prospect of a ninety-mile drive home, Mike eschewed his second pint in favour of coffee and, somewhat typically, a pudding. Fruit, cream and brioche were involved. I had every intention of allowing Lynne to drive me home so, equally typically, I stuck to beer.

Leaving Randwick
After a long morning the afternoon’s walk was short. From Randwick we found a route back onto the Cotswold Way which descended gently into the valley west of Stroud. We mainly crossed farmland and then, as we neared the town, found ourselves in dog-walker territory. The final few hundred metres, over a railway and down a narrow alley between some buildings, seemed to be telling us we had finished with Cotswold scenery for the year.

Of course, there is plenty more of the Cotswolds to come. Next year’s walk will generally follow the Cotswold Way as it takes us from Stroud down towards Bath. You can, all being well, read about that right here in 2012 [yes you can, see links below].

*Cider with Rosie was published in the USA under the less than riveting title Edge of Day: Boyhood in the West of England

Saturday, 4 June 2011

Perrott's Brook to the Round Elm Crossroads: Day 11 of the South West Odyssey (English Branch)

The South West Odyssey is a long distance walk.
Five like-minded people started in 2008 from the Cardingmill Valley in Shropshire and by walking three days a year have now (April 2018) reached Ringmore on the South Devon Coast (almost).

Cirencester was an important city in Roman times when it was called Corinium. It may be less important today, but it is still well worth a visit. Sadly, it is the lot of the Odysseyist to be forever moving on; Lynne and I will return one day and ‘do’ Cirencester properly [We did, in May 2013 and you can read about it here].

Heather and Matthew, Francis and Alison’s offspring, joined us for the day. Matthew will be representing Great Britain in the world Orienteering Championships this summer, while Heather has run a half marathon or two, so we judged they should be able to keep up with an over 60s walking group – to be precise only 40% of us are over 60, but all must travel at the speed of the slowest (and oldest and heaviest).

Setting off from Perrott's Brook
Some years ago when he was young, and indeed alive, we shared many walks with Dino Crane. Dino would bound off to left and right of the route chasing any squirrel, rabbit or pheasant he saw, smelled or imagined. When he was not doing that he would run up ahead and then come galloping back. In the time we walked 10 miles, Dino would run 50. I had the feeling Heather and Matthew might have been capable of doing the same but, being intelligent human beings rather than a somewhat half-witted dog, they chose not to.

A kilometre after the start we passed through the hamlet of Bagendon. One of the delights of the Cotswolds is the way the buildings are so much part of the landscape they seem to have grown organically from it. The tiny church at Bagendon was a perfect example, and also an embodiment of two thousand years of Cotswold history.

Bagendon Church
Although the earliest parts of the building are Saxon, Roman votive artefacts have been found in the churchyard suggesting the site was of religious significance in pre-Christian times. The tower is Norman, but the nave was rebuilt in the late fourteen hundreds. The enormous wealth brought to the Cotswolds by the wool trade at that time resulted in many churches receiving a Perpendicular Gothic makeover. Nineteenth century restorations and the addition of a porch in the 1960s were so sympathetic it is hard to tell what is new.

Two kilometres later we passed Daglingworth quarry. Quarries are scars on the landscape, but if buildings are to be constructed from the beautiful Cotswold stone, there must be ugly Cotswold stone quarries.

Daglingworth Quarry

Moving on through Duntisbourne Rouse ....

Through the churchyard at Duntisbourne Rouse
we stopped for coffee by a field margin covered with bright red poppies....

A field margin full of poppies
...before crossing part of the Bathurst estate and passing Pinbury Park, a Tudor house largely reconstructed in the 17th century for Earl Bathurst.

Pinbury Park
We found ourselves again on the Macmillan Way and followed it into the village of Sapperton. Where the route turns south we turned west, to the bottom of the valley and reached the Thames and Severn canal at the mouth of the Sapperton tunnel.

Cottage garden, Sapperton
At 3817 yards, Sapperton Tunnel was the longest tunnel in England when it was opened in 1789. It is no longer navigable and the kilometre and a half of the canal we followed is dry and overgrown. The railways destroyed its commercial viability in the nineteenth century and although there are plans for restoration – part of the canal nearer the Thames has already reopened – a great deal of work would be required to restore this section.

The overgrown remains of a lock on the Severn Thames canal
We stopped at the Daneway Inn for a glass of lunch, the whitewashed eighteenth century building sitting at the top of a sloping garden laid out with picnic tables.

It was my round, and I emerged from the bar to find three of my companions perched the ‘wrong way round’ at a picnic table, and the others sitting on the lawn facing them. With the bench full and not wanting to sit on the grass I picked up a chair and placed it beside the picnic table facing uphill. It was a flimsy plastic chair and I was aware the legs were buckling as I lowered my weight into it. Mike shouted, ‘No, David!’ which was sound advice and would have been useful, had gravity not already assumed control of the situation. The back legs collapsed completely and I was tipped out down the slope. Having little choice in the matter I completed the backward roll and landed nimbly back on my feet. I should, perhaps, point out that ‘nimbly’ when applied to a man of sixty who weighs over 16 stone (100 kilos, 225 lbs) and is falling out of a chair, does not quite have the same nuance as when it is applied to, say, an Olympic gymnast. One of the differences can be measured on the Richter scale.

Fortunately, I had put my full glass on the picnic table before sitting down so I was saved a cold beery shower. Nothing was damaged except my dignity and I would like to thank Mike for attempting to help. Everybody else just laughed.

Eighteenth century bridge over a missing canal
We returned to the Severn Thames canal passing a bridge that was in much better repair than the canal, before leaving the cut and turning north to climb through Oldhills Wood and re-emerge on the plateau north of France Lynch. A long straight path took us to Eastcombe, a substantial village where a brief ice cream halt was called.

Alison, Francis and Heather arrive at Eastcombe
The descent into the Toadsmoor Valley was down a steep single-track road. The bridge at the bottom had originally been intended as the end of the day’s walk, but we had made a change, partly to shorten day twelve and partly because it looked a difficult place to find by car. We had not realised it would be such a difficult to place to access once it had been found.

From the bridge, we followed a zig-zag forestry track up through the wood. Above the trees it became a lane, and from Ferris Court Farm to the end of the walk at the Round Elm crossroads, where Lynne and Hilary were waiting for us, a single-track road.

There is a sign nailed to a tree at the crossroads. It says of the route we had just walked. ‘No Through Road. You cannot drive to Eastcombe this way, regardless of what your Sat Nav may say.’ Wise words.

Friday, 3 June 2011

Andoversford to Perrott's Brook: Day 10 of the South West Odyssey (English Branch)

The South West Odyssey is a long distance walk.
Five like-minded people started in 2008 from the Cardingmill Valley in Shropshire and by walking three days a year have now (April 2018) reached Ringmore on the South Devon Coast (almost).

Francis, Brian & Hilary and Lynne & I spent the night of the 2nd in a B & B in Charlton Kings. We joined Alison in Cheltenham for dinner at the Daffodil, once a cinema, now rather elegantly converted into a restaurant.

Next day, according to the theory, Mike would rise early and drive to the start at Andoversford, those of us in the B & B would have a hearty breakfast before fetching Alison and then proceeding to join Mike. Practice and theory ran side by side until Alison reached Charlton Kings. At that point, it was necessary to take her home again to fetch her boots. Mike had been waiting a while when we eventually reached Andoversford, but manfully retained his good humour. I will not mention that something very similar has happened before, and that Alison found a completely different way of delaying our start last year. To do so would be unkind and ungentlemanly.

Brian, Mike, Me, Francis & Alison
at Andoversford and ready to go

In the now customary sunshine we left Andoversford and walked southwest down a well-maintained lane and past the site of a medieval village – at least that is what it said on the map, there was nothing to see on the ground. We crossed the long, straight Withington road, evidence that the Romans had passed this way, and entered the Thorndale estate.

Up the drive at Thorndale

The footpath sign appeared to be pointing into a field of sheep but Francis was adamant we should be walking up the drive. The field was surrounded by a well maintained fence and right beside us was a metal structure set into the fence resembling a humped cattle grid a metre high. I thought it might be a stile, but Francis is usually right so we followed him up the drive. A little later, a man and a sheep dog passed us going the other way on a quad bike. A cheery wave suggested we were on the right path. Looking back we realised the humped cattle grid was exactly that, impassable for livestock, tricky for humans, but simple for a quad bike.

Despite the sheep, the main business at Thorndale is horses. We passed a set of National Hunt fences, several cross-country obstacles and crossed an all-weather gallop. The whole place was well-maintained with an air of opulence; there is clearly money in training racehorses.
National Hunt fences, Thorndale

Thorndale looked a pleasant place to live and work. A kilometre on, Upcote Farm, sitting in the sun behind its garden and its pond, continued the Cotswold idyll.

Upcote Farm

Skirting the village of Withington we climbed across the site of a now invisible Roman villa and drank our coffee sitting in a field beneath Withington Woods.

Looking back towards Withington
 from the edge of Withington Woods

The usual plethora of forest paths criss-crossing the public right of way caused some navigational uncertainty but we soon emerged into an area of open upland.

The countryside has a reputation for peace and quiet which is not always justified. To the west, two single-engined planes twirled across the sky in a noisy demonstration of aerobatics, while to the south a procession of huge military transport aircraft lumbered skywards from a far-distant air base.

Skirting an agro-chemical plant, we made our way towards a disused airfield above which two small planes were diving and rolling in a mock dogfight. The airfield was so disused that grass was reclaiming the runways, and we quickly realised we were now watching model planes operated by a group of enthusiasts gathered on the only smooth piece of tarmac remaining.

Planes apart, the couple of kilometres after the woods were not the finest walking, but the gentle descent into Chedworth took us back to the Cotswolds at their best.
Down to Chedworth church
We paused for refreshment in the Seven Tuns. The survivors of a ‘full English breakfast’ required only liquid refreshment but Alison felt the need for a BLT bap, which she ate in the most dainty and ladylike manner imaginable.

I would take great offence if anyone was to suggest this photograph is, in any way, revenge for the late start.
 I would never do such a thing

While we were in the pub, Lynne and Hilary were a mile away visiting Chedworth Roman Villa, which unlike the villa at Withington is remarkably well preserved. The only drawback with walking as a means of transport is that anything a mile off your route is too far off for a detour.

Our path out of Chedworth was part of the Macmillan Way, a 290-mile long footpath running from Boston in Lincolnshire to Abbotsbury in Dorset. It is named for and is linked to the Macmillan cancer support charity.

Leaving Chedworth on the Macmillan Way

Broad paths beside fields were easy to follow. Continuing the aeronautical theme, a bi-plane passed repeatedly above us, a ‘wing-walker’ standing strapped in position above the pilot. Well, that is one way to spend a sunny Friday afternoon.

The Macmillan Way eventually crossed the Monarchs Way which we followed southwest into Conigree Wood. This footpath follows the flight of the future King Charles II from his defeat at Worcester in September 1651 until he left for exile from Shoreham-on-sea six weeks later. At 615 miles the Monarch’s Way is England’s longest inland trail; it does not require a geography teacher to spot that he did not take a particularly direct route.

In Conigree Wood

 At the end of the woods, a steep descent dropped us into the valley of the River Churn. This small tributary of the Thames should be a delightful little river, but its waters looked milky and not entirely healthy. It was hot and humid in the valley, and cattle stood cooling themselves in the river. We followed the stream for three kilometres, passing through North Cerney before reaching the end of the day’s walk at Perrott’s Brook House.

Cattle cool themselves in the River Churn

We stayed in a B & B in Cirencester and dined locally. The Wagon and Horses sounds like a traditional English Pub, and in part it is; the other part is a Thai restaurant. The management seemed genuinely Thai, the food less so, but it was still most enjoyable. I shall pass no comment on Francis’ skill with chopsticks.