Originally, this was to be a blog about my preparations to enter the TGO Challenge in 2012. For a variety of reasons that didn't happen, so this has now become the repository for my outdoor musings.

Monday, 17 October 2011

Sometimes, It's Right on our Doorstep

It can be very easy to dismiss the familiar as mundane. I confess to having done it. If I have a day clear when I can head for the hills, do I look out the window at the local countryside and think “Yep, that’s what I want to do” or do I get my maps out, pull the guide books off the shelves, fire up Grough and look for something challenging, steep and rocky? Clue: it’s the second one. The reasoning seems to be that unless it’s toughish and mountain-shaped, then it’s not really going to give me what I need. The adage “Familiarity breeds contempt” fits here, although it’s not really contempt, more ambivalence, an existential “meh”.

Well, last Friday, I learned my lesson. I set off on what turned out today one of the finest days walking I have had in a very long time. It was no epic, there was no packraft, no rucksack stuffed with a month’s food or wading through thigh-deep swamp. The weather was glorious, my physical altitude peaked at around 320 metres, but my emotional altitude was way higher. So what did I do?

A little background information first. I moved up to Cheltenham, Glos., in 1996, and aside from a few years living in Ross-on-Wye after I got married that’s where home has remained. Cheltenham markets itself as “Centre for the Cotswolds”. Note the for in that slogan; it’s not in the Cotswolds, it’s on the edge, down on the Severn plain. Nonetheless, from my window as I type this I can see the Cotswolds. The escarpment arcs around the eastern edge of Cheltenham, so I can see Cleeve Hill to the north and follow the sweep that takes in Wistley, Leckhampton and Crickley Hills. I’ve strolled about on the their slopes, I have ground up and flown down their twisty trails on my mountain bike. But I have never viewed them as a destination for a hillwalking day. In fact the Cotswold Way has always struck me as a bit red-socked rambler, a bit “Country Walking”, a bit, dare I say it, Julia Bradbury...

Interestingly, as I have got older, I think I have become more prepared to reconsider my opinions. Naturally, we make decisions very quickly on what we see or hear, and we base our actions on those judgements. It is really important to remember that they are just that, snap judgements worthy of further, deeper consideration. And this is what happened with me and the Cotswold Way. Looking for a project to keep me occupied over the winter I thought why not do the Cotswold Way in stages. It passes no more than three kilometres from my house, it seems churlish to ignore a 105 mile long, waymarked trail that’s right on my doorstep. I bought the Harveys Cotswold Way map (also another first, having always been an OS loyalist) and looked over the route. Game on.

So this Friday just gone, Bev dropped me of in the middle of Chipping Campden at the northern end of the route. It’s a pretty little town, but I didn’t linger. I was heading for Winchcombe, 30 kilometres and a days walk south.

The Start

Now, I am not going to give a blow by blow description of the route; there are plenty of maps and guide books that will do that for you. I thought I could just mention a couple of highlights, and maybe list some observations that might be helpful to those following in my footsteps.

The Mile Drive

One of things that struck me was how big Cotswoldian sky can be. The top of the hills can be very flat, and on a beautiful day the canopy of the sky seems immense. Although you are never far from a road, the vertical space makes up for the slightly constricted horizontal.

Something else that you cannot help but pick up on is the age of the landscape. When you walk the wild parts of Britain, very often it is easy to imagine that all human life has disappeared. Would that landscape look any different if that were the case? Not much. Yet the Cotswolds are different. They feel ancient. And there is a good reason why this is the case. They are ancient. A quick glance at an OS map shows earthworks, forts, barrows and settlements. Roman roads, villas and ruins dot the landscape (Bath, the terminus of the Cotswold Way is probably the most famous Roman site in Britain). That depth of history permeates you as you walk through the landscape. You seem to soak it up through your feet until you are brimming over with it. It’s hard to describe, it’s definitely worth experiencing.

A good crop of Cotswold stone coming on.

Fairly straightforward navigation at this point.

The Cotswold Way also passes through what must be some of the most quintessentially English countryside you could imagine. It crosses the high, flat tops of the hills before dropping down through little valleys to freakishly charming Cotswold stone villages (some of which are yet to be overrun by camera-wielding, tat-buying tourists). Winding across park-like fields, it suddenly climbs steeply, opening up beautiful vistas to the west. It is very pretty!

Stanton, home of the Mount Inn

I thought I might list here a few observations that may help those who are thinking of doing the Cotswold Way, perhaps backpacking it.

The route is ridiculously well signposted. Every junction, or direction change either has a finger board pointing the way or a little yellow “Cotswold Way” (with acorn) confirming the route. On longer stretches through fields or woods where there is no direction change a wooden bollard guides you onwards. I only used my map to see how far away the next stop was, I don’t think I used it for route-finding the whole day. If visibility was really, really bad it might be an issue.

The paths when I walked this section were in very good condition. They were varied (narrow, wide, stony, smooth, grassy) but firm under foot and easy to follow generally. I imagine after rain or a prolonged wet spell that may not be the case, I know from experience that they can get very slippery. I suspect I will confirm that as I continue walking the route over the winter.

One thing that struck me was the fact that on a couple of occasions the route leads you off the high ground to run you through towns like Broadway and Winchcombe. This is handy if you need to re-supply or make use of a hostelry (more on that in a moment) but it feels a bit contrived. If you don’t need to visit them, then these towns can be bypassed and a more logical route picked, although I guess that means you are not walking the Cotswold Way proper.

If you’re backpacking, it should be possible to find a somewhere to pitch up, if you are sensible. The route passes through woods and spinneys, and quite a number of the fields are very rolling. A low-profile tent or tarp, in a muted colour, pitched late in the day could well go unnoticed.

Normally I like to take in a mountain when I go walking. There are no mountains to be had in Gloucestershire so I had to settle on the Mount Inn in Stanton instead. It’s very slightly off the route, back up a short steep climb, but it’s worth a stop. Good beer, good food and ample beer garden to enjoy it in. Other hostelry stops could include Broadway and Winchcombe. There’s no shop in Stanton, so the only other resupply point would the shop at Hailes Abbey which has a small selection of drinks and sweets.

Stanway House

I hope that is of some interest, there will be more information posted as I work my way south over the coming weeks. I never really gave the Cotswold Way much credit, but my eyes have been opened and I am thoroughly looking forward to the miles to come.