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…..

Saturday, 9 June 2012

Old Sodbury to Swineford: Day15 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).

Saturday promised to be a much better day; the rain had gone, the wind had dropped and there was even a patch of blue in the sky.
Brian, Mike & Francis prepare to leave the Dog Inn
Old Sodbury

After another hearty breakfast and with Alison duly re-fetched from Yate station we set off southwards across the fields towards the hamlet of Coombe End.

Nearing Coombe End

From here we crossed the Dodington Estate with its sweeping vistas of sheep bespattered parkland dotted with clumps of trees for raising pheasants. The park was laid out by Capability Brown in 1764 when the estate was owned by the Codrington family, who made their fortune from sugar plantations in the West Indies. It is now the home – or one of the homes - of James Dyson who bought the estate in 2003 after making his fortune rather more ethically from bagless vacuum cleaners and air-blades rather than by exploiting several hundred slaves.

Dodington Park

A few deer would have made the view perfect, but we had to settle for a large metal sculpture of a stag watching us motionlessly from a distant bank.

Plenty of sheep but no deer,
Dodington Park

The park provides a painless way of slipping back onto the Cotswold scarp. At its highest point we could look back over the valley and see the pylons of the Severn Bridge in the distance.

Crossing the park took some time, crossing the A46 was quicker, much less pleasant and considerably more dangerous. Having survived that it was only a short step to the village of Tormarton where we were meeting Heather, Francis and Alison’s daughter, who last walked with us on Day 11 (Perrott’s Brook).


Heather walked out of Tormarton on the path she had expected us to arrive on and saw us across the fields on another path, though we did not see her. Even after this early sighting we had considerable difficulty finding each other. Several phone calls simply added to the confusion.

Tormarton is not large, so we eventually we succeeded and together left the village via the bridge over the M4.

Over the M4

On the southern side we crossed fields of barley, the first cereal crop we had seen since Bredon Hill in 2010.

A lone poppy in a field of barley

The Cotswold Way took us west along Beacon Lane and back towards the motorway. Brian was very proud of his new walking poles which he had bought for the princely sum of 100 Hong Kong dollars (£8) in Stanley Market. They had been unveiled on Thursday and bent on Friday so they no longer telescoped properly and Brian was walking with a lightning conductor sticking up above his head. It is a wonderful place, Stanley Market, sometimes you get a bargain, sometimes you get what you pay for.

Brian carries his periscope along Beacon Lane

We re-crossed the A46 and visited the adjacent picnic site for coffee. With a car park and vehicle inspection centre it is not the most scenic spot, but looks fine if you point the camera in the right direction.

A sedge of Cranes at the feeding table

The Cotswold Way runs briefly parallel to the M4 giving an interesting view of the motorway climbing the hill opposite.

An unusual view of the M4

We turned south and followed the boundary of another cereal field for the next kilometre. Yesterday’s rain had smeared the compacted soil with a slick of wet clay, making it difficult walking; at times it was a struggle to keep upright.

I was glad to reach the end of this field and we soon found ourselves traversing the edge of a small valley below the wall of Dyrham Park. The valley side was covered with strip lynchets, banks of earth built up on the downslope of the field by generations of ploughing. Lynchets usually indicate Celtic farming and although they appear regularly on maps they are not always so easy to see on the ground.

Strip lynchets on the far side of the valley

We descended to the hamlet of Dyrham, passing the western frontage of Dyrham Park, built in 1694. The eastern front, the work of a different architect, was built a few years later. The house, constructed for William Blathwayt, Secretary of War to William III, is now owned by the National Trust. It featured in the films Remains of the Day (1993) and Baz Luhrmann’s Australia (2008) as well as a 2010 episode of Doctor Who.

The western front of Dyrham Park

Beyond the village we found ourselves in the flattest land we had encountered since crossing the Severn Valley at the end of 2009 and start of 2010.

Approaching Doynton

The signed paths did not match up with those on the map so we arrived in Doynton unsure as to exactly where we were. Lynne waited patiently outside the pub while we indulged in a lengthy and misguided circumnavigation of the village before joining her. The Cross House was doing good business on a Saturday lunchtime, and the weather had improved so much that we chose to drink our lunch in the garden – though Lynne did not think it was warm enough to remove her fleece.

A glass of lunch in the garden of the Cross House
As we left we passed a cricket match – what did we expect in an English village on a sunny Saturday afternoon? I merely took the picture and moved on, it was only later that I wondered what the fielding captain was doing. Why had he left so much space on the leg side? Why is the batsman not already shaping to work the ball that way? What is going on here?

Doynton cricket club - questionable tactics

With these questions still unasked we headed up Toghill Lane, climbing the Cotswold scarp for the seventh time in three days. Over the A420 we continued along the top of the hill to join Freezinghill Lane, a B road which was narrow and very busy. It was warmer than its name suggests, but the traffic made it an uncomfortable place to be and we were stuck with it for some 500m. We found what should have been our exit but the footpath sign had been reclaimed by the hedge and there was no way through.

The wooden footpath sign had been recalimed by the hedge
Freezinghill Lane

We backtracked to a gateway, and improvised our own route through the long grass.......

through the long grass
.....and down Freezing Hill.

Down Freezing Hill

Once we had descended there was nothing for it but to start our eighth and final ascent. The Cotswolds may not be the largest of hills, and the scarp may be higher in some places than others, but climbing up and down it nine times in three days is hard work. Hanging Hill is a grassy slope, the path zig-zagging upwards through a herd of cows. Reaching the top, we arrived at the site of the Battle of Lansdown.

Hanging Hill, site of the Battle of Lansdown in 1643

The battle, on July the 5th 1643, was not one of the major confrontations of the Civil War, but it did involve some 10 000 men and resulted in the deaths of 300 of them, mostly Royalists. It was a Royalist victory, in that they pushed the Parliamentarian army from their hilltop stronghold, but they lost so many men they were unable to complete their strategic aim of taking Bath.

From the top we had views over the outskirts of Bristol, the rest of the city stretching away into the distance.

Bristol from the top of Hanging Hill

Tracking along the top of the hill, we failed to find the remains of the Roman villa marked on the map, but Lansdown Golf Course was easier to locate. The golf club had signed a route outside the course, but Francis was adamant that we should take the slightly shorter right-of-way round top of the scarp. This involved walking along the edge of a couple of fairways and we were fortunate that no shouts of ‘fore’ came our way.

The long descent started down the golf course access road towards the hamlet of North Stoke. Somewhere along this path we entered Somerset having taken 8 days to cross Gloucestershire (though hardly in a straight line). We finished the descent on yet another sunken lane which deposited us at a picnic site in Swineford near the banks of the ‘Bristol’ Avon, not to be confused with the ‘Warwickshire’ Avon which we crossed (in Worcestershire!) in 2010, nor any of the Avons in Hampshire, Devon or Strathspey.

Down to North Stoke

We had survived a day of rain and a day of wind and enjoyed a day of sunshine. Perhaps it will be sunshine all the way when (all being well) we meet here in 2013 for the next instalment; and perhaps it won't. All that remained was to return various people to their cars and then to drive home. For us that meant a trip from Swineford (near North Stoke) to Swynnerton (near Stoke-on-Trent) - from a place where pigs can cross a river, to a homestead where pigs are kept; a feeble effort from a region that can offer such nominal splendours as Pucklechurch, Mangotsfield and Wickwar.

Friday, 8 June 2012

North Nibley to Old Sodbury: Day 14 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).

I have long been a connoisseur of place names, both the magnificent (Krasnoyarsk, Lithuania, Samarkand) and the faintly ridiculous (Piddletrenthide, Erfurt, Yonkers). Day 14 started and finished at places worth visiting for their names alone.

After a hearty breakfast and a trip to fetch Alison from Yate station, we headed out to face whatever the weather might throw at us. The rain had mostly moved north during the night, but the wind was still gusting strongly and we had a rather huddled look as we posed in front of the Black Horse

A fine North Nibley morning
(picture credit: Francis)

North Nibley occupies a small plateau 80 metres above the Severn Valley, the Tyndale Monument is perched on top of the Cotswold scarp a further 80 metres above the village.

To reach the monument we walked up a narrow gully and then climbed up its side with the aid of some rough steps. Being sheltered from the howling wind was a relief, but the noise it made in the trees and the precarious way some of them were anchored on the steep slope made it feel like a dangerous place. Hearing a sharp crack behind me I turned expecting to see a falling bough, but nothing happened.

The monument stands on a spur so windswept I had difficulty holding the camera steady. It commemorates William Tyndale, who certainly spent his youth in North Nibley and may have been born there. After he published his English translation of the Bible in 1525, a grateful church had him burnt as a heretic. The monument, built 1866, seems a rather belated recognition of his efforts, but building monuments was a popular job creation scheme in the mid-1800s.

The Tyndale Monument above
North Nibley
It is possible to climb the 34 metre high tower, but as we had difficult standing on the ground beside it none of us felt the need to be blown off the top, and anyway the view would have been largely of mist. Instead we battled our way across the top of Nibley Knoll and into the welcome, if hazardous, shelter of Westridge Wood.

Across Nibley Knoll
The wind had moderated by the time we reached Wotton Hill above Wotton-under-Edge. A sharp descent brought us into the streets of the first town we had walked through since Winchcombe in 2010.

On Wotton Hill

Like Winchcombe, Wotton is built of Cotswold stone and manages to look quaint without being twee. It has all the usual facilities, some of which we used (an ATM) and others we looked at but reluctantly accepted they were unsuitable for the present occasion (a spectacular cake shop).

Through Wotton-under-Edge

Also like Winchcombe, Wotton also has several handsome almshouses which are still in use though the poverty they were built to alleviate left Wotton many decades ago.


Once through the town we climbed back onto the edge and paused for coffee near the top of Blackquarries Hill. We picked a sheltered spot, but the wind had risen again and the next part of our route required us to walk straight into the gale across an exposed summit.

From here to Wortley Hill – actually a spur overlooking the village of Wortley – we were buffeted by moisture laden winds.

The descent to Wortley was down a long sunken lane. In several places fallen trees lay across the top of the banks, though none of them had come down in the current storm.

Down the Sunken Lane to Wortley

We also passed this magnificent fungus growing on a well-rotted log. Exhaustive research (ten minutes Googling and a glance at Collins Guide to Mushrooms and Toadstools) leads me to believe it is Trametes Cinnabarina, though I say this with no great confidence.

Trametes Cinnabarina

We touched the edge of the hamlet of Wortley from where field paths took us on to Alderley....

Leaving Wortley

...and then a minor road took us to Hillesley. It went down and then up, but after hopping on and off the scarp twice in the morning such gentle slopes were a relief.

The Fleece in Hillesley was our intended lunch stop, but I spotted the ‘for sale’ sign a long way off and walked the last hundred metres with foreboding. We were six months late for lunch. A group of villagers, I have since learned, are trying to raise the money to buy the pub, but they are struggling and in the meantime Hillesley has to be added to the growing list of publess villages.

We might have already known this had Alison deployed her smart phone earlier. The map showed a pub in Hawkesbury Upton, two kilometres further down our route and Alison quickly confirmed it had a website, which does not prove it is open. A phone call confirmed they were.

We briefly continued along the minor road before leaving it to climb the scarp again – thankfully it is a lot lower here – to the splendidly named Splatt’s Barn. A farm track then pointed us straight at the Somerset Monument.

A farm track pointing straight at the Somerset Monument

Strangely similar to the Tyndale Monument but built twenty years earlier in 1846, it commemorates Robert Henry Edward Somerset, a general who fought beside Wellington at Waterloo. Building towers and columns in memory of the notable dead was fashionable at the time - though Nelson (column built 1840) had already bagged the best site.

The Somerset Monument
Approaching Hawkesbury Upton we passed this sign. Given the rate of attrition of country pubs the name might be prophetic.

Hawkesbury Upton

Hawkesbury Upton is a larger village than Hillesley and the Beaufort Arms was both open and doing good business. I phoned Lynne whilst enjoying a glass of lunch to find she was at Horton Court, a mere two kilometres away, where it was raining heavily. It was a very local shower as we had encountered little rain in the morning and would meet none during the afternoon. The wind also dropped after lunch and although it was hardly a ‘nice day’ conditions for walking were pleasant enough.

The enforced revision of our lunch plans had required a small diversion from our planned route and the start of the field path back to the Cotswold Way had disappeared under a new estate. Somehow Francis divined the right route and we then followed the top of the low scarp until we were above Horton Court were the rain Lynne reported had long disappeared.

The path above Horton Court

Horton Court is a 16th century manor house now in the care of the National Trust, but all we could see from our vantage point was the top of the church tower.

Horton Court is down there somewhere

I am a bit vague about where we went next. The map shows the Cotswold Way descending the scarp almost to Horton Court and then following the minor road to the village of Horton. We followed the Cotswold way signs, but they led us first along the scarp…..

Mike and Brian look down the scarp into the bottomless abyss that is
the Severn Valley

…. and then south east to a small hill fort before descending directly into the village, a route not shown on the map.

At the start of the descent we passed this building…..

A fitting home for owls and swallows

….. which was constructed as a millennium project for the use of nesting barn owls and swallows. Whether a vote of thanks was ever passed by a parliament of owls I do not know, but the only swallows I saw were in the Beaufort Arms.

From Horton field paths took us to Little Sodbury…..

Field paths from Horton to Little Sodbury

….and past the low, compact 19th century church of St Adeline. Little Sodbury is a ‘Thankful’ or ‘Blessed’ village, phrases coined in the 1930s for those settlements that lost no servicemen in the First World War. A 2010 survey established that there were 54 civil parishes in England and Wales which were so ‘blessed’, three of them in Gloucestershire (none in Staffordshire). The only village in Gloucestershire that is ‘doubly blessed’ (i.e. 'blessed' in both World Wars) is Upper Slaughter, which proves that God does irony – assuming (s)he exists.

St Adeline's, Little Sodbury

Simple, flat field paths took us the last kilometre and a half to Old Sodbury and the sanctuary of the Dog Inn.

Arriving in Old Sodbury
(picture credit: Francis)

Thursday, 7 June 2012

Stroud to North Nibley: Day 13 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 Cotswolds is designated an ‘Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty,’ but it is not just nature that makes the Cotswolds special, the towns and villages built of the honey coloured local stone also play their part. At least most of them do, but ‘most’ does not include Stroud. If the wealth of the Cotswolds was based on wool, somewhere had to be the mill town, and that somewhere was Stroud.
After spending our final day last year walking in a big circle round the town, this year started for Francis, Brian, Lynne and me with a night in a Stroud B & B.   We dined at the Carpenter’s Arms in Westrip on a hill on the western edge of the town. Viewed from above, surrounded by green hills bathed in evening sunshine, you can be fooled into thinking Stroud is another Cotswold gem. And it was not just Stroud that flattered to deceive; Wednesday evening’s sunshine would soon be replaced by Thursday’s cold front.  

Day 13 was a triumph of the meteorologist’s art. The promised rain arrived before dawn and kept going with hardly a break until well after dusk. Winds gusting to 60 mph were promised for the night and for Friday. The first 11 days of the Odyssey had been walked in sunshine. Day 12, 'Walking round Stroud', had broken the spell and a year later it remained fragmented. Alison arrived on a bus and we met Mike outside the garage in Ryeford, in the ribbon development connecting Stroud to Stonehouse, where we had finished last year. Lynne took a picture of us standing in the rain, then drove off in a nice dry car.

Mike, Brian, Me, Alison & Francis at Ryeford

We set off south towards our goal for the day, The Black Horse Inn in North Nibley. It is a wonderful name, North Nibley; it is worth the journey just to be able to say ‘I have been to North Nibley’. It may even be worth the journey in the rain. 

Crossing the Stroudwater Canal and the A419 we had hardly left the urban area when we reached Stanley Mills (a building not a bloke) on the edge of Leonard Stanley (a village not a bloke) or was it King’s Stanley, two settlements which seem to have difficulty telling themselves apart? Dark and satanic may have been overstating it for Stanley Mills, but it was certainly the sort of building we could have seen much further north.

Stanley Mills, husband of Gladys

From here we followed the Cotswold Way as it progressed through sodden vegetation....

Through sodden vegetation

 .....and beside soaked fields to the village of Middleyard where we started to climb the Cotswold escarpment.

and beside soaked fields to Middleyard

Half way up Pen Hill the path turns to follow the scarp, contouring through the thick woodlands. Normally I would moan about the trees interrupting the views across the Severn Valley, but there was only mist to see and we were grateful for the shelter.

Discussing the route in Pen Wood

We passed an enclosure containing three of Gloucestershire's more distinctive natives. The Gloucester Old Spot is one of the oldest recognised breeds of pigs. Once ‘endangered’ their high quality meat has resulted in growing popularity and the Rare Breeds Trust now classifies them only as ‘minority’. They are renowned for their intelligence, so the notice at the end of the field offering half pigs for sale and quoting a price per kilo seemed insensitive. What if one of the pigs can read?

Gloucester Old Spots

The path eventually climbs to the top of the scarp through Buckholt Wood and we emerged on the grassy summit near Nympsfield Long Barrow, one of a line of barrows along this edge. Built some 5000 years ago, excavations have uncovered twenty three bodies. It was much ploughed over in medieval times and many stones were recycled in later buildings so most of what can now be seen is reconstructed.

Nympsfield Long Barrow

An outbreak of picnic tables speckles the flat grassland between the barrow and the viewpoint on Coaley Peak. Francis and Alison made valiant use of one – don’t they look happy? – the rest of us drank our coffee skulking in the partial shelter of a hawthorn hedge.

Happy campers on Coaley Peak

The plan had been to follow the summit to beyond the wonderfully named Hetty Pegler’s Tump – another long barrow – but the rain redoubled its efforts and the wind started blowing it in our faces, so we deserted the exposed summit for the sanctuary of the woods. The path was not far below the top of the scarp but was well sheltered, even when it climbed to cross the spur occupied by Uley Bury. Uley Bury is a substantial (13 ha) Iron Age hill fort in use between 300 BC and 100 AD, though there is little for the passer-by to see except the surrounding earthworks.

Coaley Wood

Past Uley Bury we could see the village of Uley below us......

Above Uley

and shortly turned onto a steep field path leading down to the church. The village now has 1200 inhabitants, but was much bigger in the industrial revolution when it was famed for its blue cloth. It was also renowned for its larger number of pubs – 14 at one time – but now only the Old Crown survives.

The Old Crown, Uley

Given the rate at which country pubs are currently closing we were pleased to find the Old Crown not only open, but thriving. The Uley brewery, which closed in the nineteenth century when the wool trade collapsed, reopened in 1984 as a craft brewery and a pint or two of Uley Bitter were just what we needed. I do not know why everybody looks so miserable – I did say smiling was optional, but had not expected to be taken at my word.

Miserable gits, The Old Crown

Duly refreshed we made our way through the village and past the old petrol pumps, now merely a decorative feature. We are all, sadly, old enough to remember when pumps looked like this. I can even remember buying petrol at 4/11d a gallon. (‘What’s 4/11d, Grandpa?’ About 25p you ignorant youth. ‘So what’s a gallon Grandpa?’ An eighth of a bushel, tedious child.)

Petrol pumps,

We followed paths over the fields which rose gently to the foot of the scarp which here runs east - west.

Alison enjoys the rain on the edge of the woods

The rise gave good views back to Uley. The massive church was built in the 19th century, unfortunately destroying the Norman church that had previously stood on this site.

Looking back at Uley
We followed the scarp for a couple of kilometres; sometimes the path rose, sometimes it fell, occasionally it contoured. We walked through Rook Wood, Bowcote Knoll Wood, Cooper’s Wood.....

In Cooper's Wood

Folly Wood and Dursley Wood, though where one wood became another is anybody’s guess and the caption on the photographs is a best guess.

Folly Wood

The main Cotswold scarp turned south and we continued for a while along the spur that ends at Stinchcombe Hill. Eventually we crossed the spur and took the long steep sunken path that descends Breakheart Hill – I do not know the origin of the name, but it brought my knees closer to breaking than my heart. Back in the Severn Valley, a couple of kilometres on minor roads brought us within sight of the Tyndale Monument that sits on the ridge above North Nibley.

The Tyndale Monument above North Nibley

Arriving in the village we located The Black Horse, but found ourselves locked out. Lynne, we discovered, was locked in and we stood in the rain while she searched for someone with a key.

The Black Horse
North Nibley

When we were finally admitted I would happily have appreciated a shower and some dry clothes, but first I had to drive to Stroud to reunite Brian and Mike with their cars and Alison with her bus stop, as she was returning home to Cheltenham. Our walk had been up and down, but the route had been fairly direct; driving back was anything but, the road taking us round the end of Stinchcombe Hill and through Dursley before we were even back in Uley - almost double the distance we had walked.

It was an equally long return to North Nibley, too, but preferable to sitting on a bus for fifty minutes in wet clothing, which was Alison’s lot. Once clean and dry no one ventured beyond the Black Horse that night. Outside the rain fell and the wind blew, while inside there was gammon steak and Bath Ales. Staying in seemed the sensible option.