It’s an easy win, the Cotswolds. How hard can it be attracting people to spend money in the honey-coloured, chocolate-box villages that typify the non-London life of Richard Curtis Land? So much so that the claims on the name reach from Thame (40 miles from London) to Bath, to Coleford (40 miles from Cardiff) and beyond, many bragging the subtitle: ‘The Gateway to the Cotswolds’. That’s a big patch for AA Gill to have to avoid – after famously disparaging the area in newspaper columns. But what about that defining Cotswold stone? (It’s more pale citrus on the Dulux swatch than any honey I’ve ever eaten.) Its creamy white oolitic limestone was created by the accumulation of crustacean debris beneath the warm, shallow Midlands Sea in ancient geological times. The hills are part of an outcrop of Jurassic rocks that run from Dorset to Yorkshire. So perhaps that’s where the Cotswolds are? Surely not.
In keeping with the stereotype, there are parts of s’wolds that are something of a pantomime, the sickly cute, earnest, eye-wateringly expensive villages. In fact, there are rumours going around that Bibury used to be a working industrial estate until it was bought by the Walt Disney Corporation in the 1980s, which employed set builders and actors that moonlight on The Archers to create England’s model village. Even the post office is a viable concern. I’m singling out Bibury unfairly; there are lots of Cotswold villages whose main enterprises are expensive dust-gathering trinket shops and parking charges. They may be some people’s Cotswolds, but they’re not mine. So I’ll be absolutely clear, my Cotswolds sits mostly in the working south of the region: Painswick, Stroud, Nailsworth, Tetbury, Cirencester, Wotton-Under-Edge and the surrounds. (I know, I’m expecting letters).
My Cotswolds was a good place for growing up, removed from city neuroses. The husband of my infants-school teacher got his hands on an early video camera, so I’ve recently had the chance to see what today’s children have in megabytes: energy by the bucketload, as I had as a kid. Our school day consisted of country dancing, playing on the ‘log world’ and story time. No wonder the 11-plus passed us by. There were only 28 of us in the whole primary school at one point. That’s pretty Laurie Lee, don’t you think?
Back then, our Dad and his best friend would have a few drinks and take off down the lane aboard a vintage tractor. I have half-smiling memories of drinking homemade perry and plaiting bailer twine during the harvest, scouring the land for mushrooms, picking elderflowers for £1 a lb, raves at my friend’s farm (rural kids get started early, there’s less to do), and a late night whisky-fuelled scaling of an ancient ruin. I might not be selling the area, but couched in the beauty of the surrounding hillscapes, they’re fond memories indeed.
If it was so good, why did I leave? Well, it was boring for an 18 year old. I wanted more and I got some good living elsewhere. But I’ve always been terrible for homesickness. In my mind’s eye, the hills became bathed in hazy sunlight with pollen drifting about, bouncing off everybody’s shiny hair. Even on holiday with my family sometimes, I missed it. So 16 years later, I’ve migrated home to roost. And it’s a supreme place to be.
Certainly, I’m in a different phase of life here now. I’ve noticed that even the playgroups are better here than elsewhere: women want to pass the time – a trait thought to be the preserve of the north – and we’re content largely to ignore our children, knowing that Lord of the Flies democracy will probably prevail. There’s a great comfort in knowing that Eddie is still running the roller-disco every Saturday at the local leisure centre. (I’m not sure if it’s held as an ironic retro event or whether roller-disco is still the thing around here.)
And it’s not just because I’m older that I can now appreciate these Cotswolds. If you’ve ever checked out Gifford’s Circus, or wakeboarding at the Cotswolds Water Park, or delighted in the cows ruining the golf games on Minchinhampton Common, you’ll know that it’s not just for olds.
But the best thing about coming home is the hills. The Cotswolds are topography unrivalled. Unlike the higher peaks of the Pennines or the Lake District, the open tops and valley bottoms are all very accessible. They’re bunched up together and riddled with paths and roads, trodden down during the working past of the wool trade so you can easily reach out and touch them or even hear people on the other side of the valleys.
Technically, the Cotswolds are not hills, but an escarpment on the eastern edge of the longest river in Britain, the Severn – an elegant example of scarp-and-dip slopes (remember them from geography lessons?). Yet it’s not the gently sliding dip slope to the east that gets me going, but the steep drops of the scarp, which falls beneath your feet westwards to the Severn plain, that demands contemplation. The views are perceptibly close and give the sense of bedding you into the rock. When the weather’s good, you can gaze over the mountains of South Wales.
It’s here in the Cotswolds that geology accounts for the thickest section of Middle Jurassic inferior oolite rocks in the UK (an enviable accolade) and here, too, where the first ever dinosaur described was found.
But who cares about what lies beneath when you’re looking out, or better still when you’re making use of the undulations with our celebrated annual Cooper’s Hill cheese rolling (more grassy cliff than hill, where competitors chase a Double Gloucester to the finish line, usually resulting in spectacular injuries from cheese or hill) or the Tetbury Woolsack Races (racing down then up Gumstool Hill carrying 27kg (60lb) of wool). My favourite parts are places to suck up the view, to sit, count blessings and eat hummus.
In the south, there’s a huge lungful of views to be enjoyed from Tyndale Monument. It’s a 14-acre patch, recently purchased by local people, who raised £45,000 in just six weeks to buy it and maintain it as a place for everyone to enjoy on horses, bikes or on foot. To get to the top, you can pass through a variety of woodland, hedgerow and grassland habitats, giving you the chance to see limestone woundwort and common spotted orchids. In the summer, swifts, swallows and bats feed on insects flying above, while in winter, red kites are overhead. The elevation, some 290m (950ft), meant that on a recent trip up there I had a unique topside view of a kestrel mobbing a buzzard.
Moving on northwards along the Cotswold Way National Trail, which stretches from Bath in the south to Chipping Campden in the north, choose between the lookout at Frocester Hill for a panorama over the Severn Estuary, if you’re on wheels; or Selsley Common for a view over the Stroud valleys, if you’re on foot. Alternatively, if you’re of a paragliding persuasion, Selsley is the spot for jumping off, where you can share your thermals with local raptors. On the ground, the common’s unimproved grassland has beautiful displays of bee orchid, horseshoe vetch and chalk milkwort. It’s a thriving habitat for moths, too: the drinker, poplar hawk and burnished brass are among nearly 80 species recorded here.
At the top of Haresfield Beacon, the view wraps around you by about 270° and takes in the Malvern Hills, River Severn and Forest of Dean. It’s easy to park, big enough not to see anyone else and breezy enough to forget how your hair looks. Here, you don’t have to do a long walk to put the worries of the recession into geological perspective.
Take your pick from which valley side you view the other, but near the heartland of Stroud, the dry valleys and outlier hills over Painswick and Slad make my heart swell. Occasional bulges on the valley sides indicate that the landscape is still actively evolving: all part of the geomorphology of the area. It’s here that limestone grassland, ancient woodlands, badger setts and streams were the backdrop of Laurie Lee’s Cider With Rosie. A TV version was produced here in 1998 and everyone I knew was an extra, a runner or had lent their front room to the production… except me, to my annoyance.
Here, the hills aren’t so steep, but merely roll into my imagination when I’m far from home. Unusually, here you could sledge without breakage.
Continue on to the village of Sheepscombe, which has all you’d hope from today’s village economy: school, pub and church. It’s unassuming but good looking, sitting among Saltridge and Beech Woods, offering superb walks through Bulls Cross, past historic woollen mills along the bottom of the valley to Painswick, where surely you deserve afternoon tea at the Cotswold 88 Hotel by now.
Another pretty village trail begins in Amberley and takes in part of the National Trust common, still used by commoners exercising ancient grazing rights, to Minchinhampton.
It’s good to be back. I grant you, I’m returning when the nights are long, the swifts are screeching, the hot air balloons are cow-worrying and the love of our fellow countrymen higher than ever, but there’s nothing like leaving a place to realise how good it really is.
Still feeling sedate in the Cotswolds? Excellent, then get stuck into its cultural life. Stroud cannot be mentioned without referring to its thriving art scene. I filmed there for Countryfile recently and many have spoken to me since about the oddities of the art walk. I agree, but Stroud has a higher percentage of professional artists than anywhere else in the UK.
The art walk, odd as it seemed, is a recognised part of honing the skills of artists. Further proof of its artistic brilliance can be see at the Pangolin Foundry and the Stroud Valley Artspace, where art meets music meets friends. Musos will also enjoy the settings of Berkely Castle, Westonbirt Arboretum and Sezincote for outdoor melodies, both with beats and without. For organic pickings, the Duchy Home Farm Veg Shed (vying for the fastest time from earth to mouth) in Tetbury will delight. And try the view from the top of Cecily Hill in Cirencester Park towards Chalford or back towards the town at Cirencester. Wave at Earl Bathurst if you’re there on a Sunday and happen upon him. He’s terribly smiley and is trailed by lots of dogs.
All you need to know
Make the most of your visit to the Cotswolds
Easton Grey, Malmesbury,
Wiltshire SN16 0RB
Whatley Manor is a stunning Cotswold manor house hotel with beautiful greenery to walk through before arriving at either the Dining Room or Le Mazot Brasserie. The excellent food is largely seasonal and local.
FOOD MADE BY BOB
26 Market Place, Cirencester, Gloucestershire GL7 2NY
Bob Parkinson moved from London into a redevelopment in an old brick corn hall to cook excellent food in a simple but chic restaurant. Dine at tables or sit at the bar, where you can watch the chefs at work.
Gloucestershire GL7 5EE
This handsome manor house sits in mature, lovingly tended gardens. Rooms are elegant; each feels decadent but comfortable, while staff are professional and friendly. Rooms from £275, including breakfast.
NO. 12 CIRENCESTER
12 Park Street, Cirencester, Gloucestershire GL7 2BW
This luxury B&B, a Grade-II listed Georgian townhouse in the middle of Cirencester, features spacious, elegantly decorated rooms and hearty, tasty breakfasts. Double room £100 per night, including breakfast.
CHARLTON DOWN TO CHAVENAGE
This walk, which is about eight miles long, begins on Hookhouse Lane, near Westonbirt, the National Arboretum. You then pass Charlton Down, taking in the town of Tetbury and its pretty Market Hall, before heading out to Chavenage along Chavenage Lane. To return, walk over the fields of the Camp and through Beverston, before rejoining Hookhouse Lane.
THE OZLEWORTH VALLEY
This six-and-a-half-mile walk starts at
the Jubilee Clock in picturesque Wotton-under-Edge. Leaving the town, walk past Hawpark Farm and Leys Farm until you reach the village of Wortley. Cross the road at Elmtree Farm, on to the Cotswolds Way. Head north along the National Trail, exploring green valleys and hills, before passing National Trust property Newark Park. Then head back westwards and return to Wotton-under-Edge.
THE RED LION
Ampney St Peter,
Gloucestershire GL7 5SL
The perfect place for a pint of bitter, the Red Lion is run by 83-year-old John Barnard. He doesn’t do food, and lager is banned.
Gloucestershire GL6 8JG
If you like something other than bitter, the Crown offers fine views, reasonably priced, good quality food and a decent wine list.
THE BUTCHERS ARMS
Sheepscombe, Gloucestershire GL6 7RH
Good atmosphere and good food in this traditional country pub