The Cotswold Walk
The Cotswolds are posh. Make no mistake about it there is some serious currency in this corner of Gloucestershire, Worcestershire and Oxfordshire. But don’t let that fool you into thinking the only way of getting around on this windy plateau is in a Chelsea Tractor. The Cotswolds AONB offers some truly stunning walking country, especially along the Western Escarpment, where the views down over the Severn plain stretch for 50 miles or so into South Wales and The Forest of Dean. Approaching from the west, you get the best impression of what’s in store for you as an 800 foot high wall looms over you, with roads snaking up the steep approaches.
One of the best walks in this area starts and finishes at the Barrow Wake car park, just a few hundred yards uphill from the Air Balloon pub. On a fine day this car park offers one of the best views in England and it can be a test of your resolve to tear yourself away from it. Once you do however, you find yourself on the well-trodden Cotswold Way, heading briefly south, on into the beech woodlands at the head of an airy projection called The Peak. This area is festooned with ancient, well-preserved beech stands, set like islands amid the thousands of acres of sheep grazing land that brought the first waves of wool wealth to this area in the 18th century. The woodlands come as a welcome relief on a sunny day from the vast open farmland that offers little shade.
From The Peak, almost doubling back on yourself to the busy A417, and taking great care when crossing it (unless you wish to end up as Range Rover fodder) the wind drops as you leave the escarpment, and the gentle sound of birdsong and sheep conversation are your only accompaniment. As with all wide open spaces, distances are a bit of a deception and with the Birdlip Radio Mast as a general marker to your East, you gradually head towards it, crossing several large fields and passing by numerous chocolate box farmhouses. The influx of the second home brigade from The Smoke has not entirely destroyed the centuries old traditions of Cotswold sheep farming and getting off the beaten path will give you some beautiful surprises. At one time life must have been very hard on this rocky terrain, with its wafer thin topsoil, to eke out a living, but the insatiable appetite of sheep to eat everything they can find has provided the perfect opportunity to make this land productive.
Once past the radio mast, the trail drops down into a sheltered valley and begins to turn to the northwest. Crossing over the A40 road (see A417 above) and you once again enter the beech woods as you pass by the National Star Centre and the accursed Cotswold Hills Golf Club (so that’s where all those 4x4’s were heading). Some of the properties in this area are a jaw-dropping exhibition of wealth and there are several prime examples around the golf club itself. The ascents in this area are gentle in gradient but can be deceptively long and straight, and on a hot day the crest can come as a very welcome sight, especially the one leading up to the Crickley Hills Country Park.
Crickley is one of the largest unspoilt woodlands in Western England and the walk along, literally, the edge of the scarp, among the trees, teases you with brief views of what’s to come. The diffused rays of sunlight penetrating through the leaves brings these woods to life and makes the ups and downs along the ridge a treat to walk. The holloways and sunken tracks of Crickley Hill are the motorways of the animal world. From damsel flies, through various varieties of beetle and bird life, right up to fallow deer, all animals seem to use these natural highways as a form of transport, food and for finding out the local news.
Emerging from the sylvan wonderland onto the head of the Crickley Hills the views once again open up and draw your visual attention from the very near, to the very distant, both Cheltenham and Gloucester spreading out in front of you. This well worn track meanders along the contours of the Slad valley and back around to meet the main road and, thankfully, the sight of a welcoming pub. I promise I don’t end all of my walks this way, but sometimes it’s just too inviting.