It’s a crisp winter day in the Cotswolds, with snow on the ground and enough keenness in the wind to keep you moving briskly along over the hills, through a landscape seemingly forgotten by the modern world.
Near the end of the walk, you reach the edge of the escarpment and there’s time to pause and admire the magnificent view – and also to anticipate the other pleasures that lie just ahead. Below is the village, a comforting huddle of mellow stone houses and cottages. It’s time to head downhill to the village inn, get a drink and relax before a crackling log fire. What more could you ask from a winter day?
Winter, and Christmas in particular, is a season when we tend to think, rather nostalgically, about tradition and traditional pleasures – and there are few areas of Britain where tradition is woven so thoroughly into the very fabric of the land as the Cotswolds. The first image that comes to mind is generally of a village of old, mellow houses built of the local stone that on a sunny day can seem as warm and golden as freshly made butter.
Perhaps because of this comfortable image, some people write off the area as merely postcard-pretty and rather sentimentally soft. They can never have been here in winter. The upland regions are as bleak as you’ll find anywhere, and when the snow comes it can lie in drifts that all but bury the dry-stone walls that lace the land together.
Bleak it may be, but it is a land that has its own austere beauty – and it is a place of often startling contrasts. To understand the unique appeal of the region, you have to consider the shape and form of the land itself and its history.
The Boom Times
You could think of the Cotswolds as a slice of Christmas cake. Beneath the surface is a great wedge of limestone that rises gently from the clays of Oxfordshire and Northamptonshire in the east to reach a height of around 1,000 feet, before dropping away in the west to a great escarpment that runs along the edge of the Vale of Evesham and the Severn valley.
Because of the nature of the land it has always been hard to grow crops, but it was ideal for grazing sheep, especially the local breed, whose fine and abundant fleece earned it the title ‘Cotswold Lion’. Its wool was so prized that merchants came from all over Europe to buy it: market towns such as Cirencester and Chipping Campden prospered and the local clothiers and merchants grew rich.
The wealth created from wool gave the settlements of the area their unique character. Even a small town such as Northleach can boast a magnificent church with an ornate porch that would not look out of place in a cathedral. There were other endowments too, such as the charming almshouses at Wotton-under-Edge, built in 1632. And, of course, the wealthy built fine houses for themselves, not necessarily stately homes such as Stanway House – for every town has substantial, richly detailed clothiers’ houses. Each town also has its spacious inns, such as the Lygon Arms in Broadway and the Falcon Hotel, Painswick, which had to be provided for the visitors who came to buy the wool.
All these things help to give the Cotswold towns and villages their unique quality, where humble houses are given their own beauty by the use of local stone and stone slate roofs and are never overshadowed by their grander neighbours.
Take a walk down the High Street in Chipping Campden, for example, and you can see great contrasts such as the neoclassical Bedford House, all pilasters and cheeky cherubs, close to the more traditional vernacular of 14th-century Grevel House, yet there is no sense of incongruity: everything is held by the unifying use of Cotswold stone.
Today the old trades have gone. Visitors no longer come to Cirencester market to buy wool, but the town market – which has had its charter since the 11th century – continues every Monday and Friday and is the ideal place to find the best local produce. A new type of market has gained popularity in recent years – the farmers’ market – and there is none better in the country than Stroud’s, on Saturdays. The market offers such local delights as Gloucestershire Old Spot pork sausages, and the surrounding streets bustle with life and street musicians of all kinds, from a violinist playing Bach to the local brass band. These days tourists fill the local inns not merchants, but they tend to be concentrated in the summer months, and in winter the pace is altogether slower and it is possible to enjoy the beauty of the many towns and villages without the crowds.
Spectacular Winter Walks
There is, of course, another good reason to visit the area apart from its architectural glories: the landscape – or one should say, landscapes, for different areas have different characters. The eastern side is not obviously hilly, but a place of wide-open spaces, which is why in winter the snow can whip across the land to fill up lanes and roads. One of the most popular upland areas – especially on Boxing Day, when everyone seems to feel the need to walk off the effects of that Christmas pudding – is Minchinhampton Common. This is a large plateau and genuine common, where cattle still graze on unfenced pasture. Walkers wander where they please, from one side to the other, or on the edge of the escarpment, which on a good day gives views to the Welsh hills.
Walking the uplands in winter can be daunting, but there are also little valleys that offer some shelter, such as that of the River Windrush, which proves no less attractive than its name. The best known attraction is Bourton-on-the Water, but for a really attractive walk in peace and quiet there is little to beat the way-marked Diamond Way between Naunton and Guiting Power.
Everyone who knows the area has a favourite valley walk and mine is the Golden Valley, from Chalford to Sapperton. It follows the towpath of a derelict section of the Thames and Severn Canal through a deep, wooded valley where the frosted trees create magical effects. On a chilly day you can end up at The Daneway Inn. There you can put your feet up by the wood-burning stove and enjoy a pint of local beer.
For many of us, the best walking of all is near the edge of the escarpment, where you find the richest variety of scenery. One of the finest views in the north of the area can be had by walking up the escarpment from Broadway to Broadway Tower, a magnificent folly built at the beginning of the 19th century: the direct route is steep, following the Cotswold Way – and the descent in icy weather could prove interesting, but it is possible to follow a gentler route to the west. Another popular area is Leckhampton Hill above Cheltenham, which has car parks near the summit. Here, the edge is marked by a series of limestone outcrops, including the Devil’s Chimney.
One other feature of the escarpment adds to the pleasure of a winter walk: the beech woodland. Even without leaves the trees have a majesty all their own and act as effective windbreaks on a day when there is an icy east wind blowing. Cooper’s Hill marks the edge of one such extensive area of woodland. When you feel like warming up, there is always a welcome at The Haven, a charming tearoom that has been refreshing walkers for many years.
What makes an ideal winter walk? Good scenery, full of variety, and at the end of the day a friendly pub with a fire and good local fare and beer. And that happy combination can be found all over the Cotswolds.
Anthony Burton is a writer who divides his time between walking guides (including the official guide to the Cotswold Way) and industrial and transport history. His new book on British industries during World War I will be published in 2014.