Walking in the Cotswolds

With a great network of footpaths, beautiful scenery and pretty villages, this corner of England is supremely well-suited to exploration on foot.

The Cotswolds are the epitome of Blake’s ‘England’s Green and Pleasant Land’, place with a charm all of its own which is ideally explored on foot. Local tour guide Anne Martis describes the appeal.

The rolling hills afford wide views over a patchwork of green pastures bounded by old hedgerows and dry stone walls. Ancient churches, picture-perfect cottages and traditional village pubs sit in small towns and villages built from the distinctive, local, honey-coloured limestone.

One to one-and-a-half hours from Birmingham, Bristol and London, the region is easily accessible by public transport for walking holidays and short breaks. There’s a good network of public footpaths and long distance walking routes. The walking grade is easy to moderate with some strenuous sections along the Cotswold Way National Trail and in the southwest of the region.

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The second-largest protected landscape in England, the Cotswolds extend from Warwickshire and Worcestershire in the north, through Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire to Bath and Wiltshire in the south.

Topographically, the area consists of a steep escarpment in the west, known as the Cotswold Edge, which drops down to the Severn and Warwickshire Avon valleys, and a dip slope to the east that falls gradually for around 40 miles towards Oxford. The highest point is Cleeve Hill at 330 metres (1,083 feet).

The area can nominally be divided into five sub-regions; the Cotswold Edge, the North Cotswolds, the Southwest Cotswolds, the Thames Valley and the Oxfordshire Cotswolds.

The Cotswold Edge

The Cotswold Edge runs southwest from Chipping Campden to Bath. The main walking in the area is along all or part of The Cotswold Way National Walking Trail that runs along the Edge for over 100 miles. The trail attracts some 150,000 walkers every year but rarely seems busy. Walking is moderate to strenuous, because the route ascends and descends the escarpment along its length: views to the west across the to the Malvern Hills and South Wales are magnificent. There are also many circular walks taking in the valleys along the Edge.
 
The Tyndale Monument
Some of the top attractions include Broadway Tower, the Devil's Chimney and the Tyndale Monument; the Iron Age Fort at Crickley Hill, one of a string of forts along the Edge; Stanway House and Sudeley Castle, historic manor houses dating from Tudor times; and the ruins of Hailes Abbey, destroyed in 1539 during the Dissolution of the Monasteries.

North Cotswolds

The North Cotswolds lie between the Cotswold Edge and the towns of Moreton-in-Marsh and Bourton-on-the-Water, where the high wold gives way to a gentle dip slope cut by the shallow valleys of the rivers Windrush, Eye and Dikler that are tributaries of the Thames. This area offers easy to moderate grade walking along the network of footpaths that pass through the rolling countryside. Long-distance trails traversing the area include the Cross Cotswold Pathway, Diamond Way, Donnington Way, Gloucestershire Way, Heart of England Way, Monarch’s Way and Winchcombe Way.
Many of the villages also have summer fetes and festivals that are a delight to encounter along the trail.

Here, many of the famous Cotswold towns have double-barrelled descriptive names; Moreton-in-Marsh, Stow-on-the-Wold and Bourton-on-the-Water. Villages have equally intriguing names, such as the Slaughters, the Swells and Ford.
 
The Wool Church at Chipping Campden
Places to see include Batsford Arboretum, 55 acres of parkland sheltering over 1500 species of tree; Sezincote House and Gardens; and Chedworth Roman Villa, the site of one of the largest Roman villas in the country with several fine mosaics. Also the Wool Church at Northleach (see top attractions, below).



Southwest Cotswolds

This narrow area of upland around the town of Stroud is cut by several steep-sided wooded valleys, and walking here is rather more strenuous than in other parts of the Cotswolds. The Cotswold Way, the Cotswold Round and the Cross Cotswold Pathway pass through the area.

It was the fast-running streams in the steep valleys that powered water mills, turning Stroud into the centre of the local cloth industry, being particularly famous for the production of military uniforms in the colour Stroudwater Scarlet. Today the few remaining working mills produce high-quality felt for tennis balls and snooker tables.

More recently, the area has become a thriving centre for organic food movement and alternative lifestyles with thriving communities of artists living in the valleys and in villages such as Minchinhampton, Nailsworth, Sheepscombe and Slad.

It was in Slad that author Laurie Lee was brought up in the years after World War I. He wrote his novel Cider with Rosie gives a vivid description of life in the village at the time.
Attractions in the area include Rodmarton Manor built by craftsmen in the Arts and Crafts style, and Woodchester Mansion, a partly built – and rather spooky – Victorian country house that was abandoned by its builders before completion.

Upper Thames Valley

The Upper Thames Valley lies in the southwest of the region, around the towns of Cirencester, Tetbury, Malmesbury, Cricklade and Lechlade. Walking along the network of footpaths is easy as the area is fairly flat. The Thames Path National Trail starts at the source of the River Thames near Kemble, Cirencester, and makes its way east for 296 km (184 miles) to the Thames Barrier, east of London. The Monarch’s Way, Macmillan Way and Cross Cotswold Pathway also pass through the area.

The Cotswold Water Park comprises a series of 150 lakes on former gravel pits, created in the 1970s. They are now an important area for wildlife and particularly for wintering and breeding birds. The park offers birdwatching and watersports and a network of walking trails.

While you’re in the area it’s worth visiting the Wool Church at Cirencester (see top five sights, below), and Kelmscot Manor - the country home of William Morris, the artist, author and socialist who inspired the Arts and Crafts Movement from the mid-19th century.

Oxfordshire Cotswolds

Less well known than their Gloucestershire counterparts, the Oxfordshire Cotswolds comprise an undulating landscape crossed by the River Evenlode and other tributaries of the Thames, and the handsome and prosperous market towns of Burford, Chipping Norton, Witney and Woodstock. This area offers easy walking along a network of quiet footpaths and long distance trails: Oxfordshire Way, D’arcy Dalton Way, Cross-Cotswold Pathway.

Local attractions include the Rollright Stones (see below); Chastleton House, a Jacobean gem tucked away in the Evenlode Valley; Bampton, the idyllic location for the village of Downton in the TV series, Downton Abbey; and Blenheim Palace, sumptuous home of the 1st Duke of Marlborough and birthplace of Sir Winston Churchill.
 

TOP 5 EXPERIENCES

1. Monuments along the Cotswolds Edge

Several iconic landmarks in this part of the Cotswolds include the Broadway Tower, an 18th-century folly commanding some of the most spectacular views in England. The Devil's Chimney and Tyndale Monument are others.

2. Rollright Stones

These prehistoric megaliths lie on an important ancient thoroughfare and date back some 6,000 years. There are three distinct groups of stones at the site.

3. Cotswold Manor Houses

After Henry VIII's dissolution of the monasteries, former church lands were divided up between the 'great and the good' of the time. Wealthy landowners soon built impressive houses, many of which survive such as Chastelton Manor, Stanway House and Sudeley Castle. Later, ever grander houses include Sezingcote, Bourton House and Woodchester Mansion.

4. Wool Churches

In the Middle Ages, the region prospered greatly from the wool trade, and rich merchants in the 15th and 16th centuries gave money to build what are now called the Wool Churches. Best known examples are in Chipping Campden, Northleach, Burford and Cirencester.

5. The village pub

No walking holiday would be complete without stopping at a cosy local pub with oak beams, a roaring log fire and splendidly kept real ales. Practically any sizeable village will have one.

WHEN TO VISIT

Best times to go:

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For picturesque scenery, the Cotswolds can be visited at any time of the year. In spring, the countryside is fresh and new with leaves unfurling on the trees and early wild flowers. In May, the countryside is dotted with bright yellow fields of oil seed rape and hedgerows are heavy with white May blossom. In August the landscape turns golden with ripening corn. Autumn is equally beautiful, as the leaves on the trees turn rich reds, yellows and oranges, and the native beech become a golden bronze. And finally, in winter, the bare sculptured trees silhouetted against the horizon allow long, unfettered views across the rural landscape.

This being England, it can rain hard at any time of year, although more likely between November and March. Always carry a waterproof jacket and trousers. The Lias clay in the valley can get muddy and slippery during and after rain so waterproof boots or shoes with good treads (lugs) are a must. Snow falls in some winters, often obliterating footpaths and signage, making it very difficult to find your way. Prevailing winds are from the southwest so plan to travel with your back to the wind during winter walks.

There’s a very good chance of sunny days from May to September, when it’s a joy to walk through the picturesque rolling countryside and stop off at a village pub for lunch. Crisp frosty winter days with blue skies and winter sunshine are also some of the best times to walk.

To combine a visit with (or avoid) one of the many festivals in and around the Cotswolds, here’s a list of the most popular:
• Cheltenham Folk Festival – February
• Cheltenham Festival for National Hunt Horse Racing - March
• Cotswold Way Challenge – Two day ultra – April
• Cheltenham Jazz Festival - April/May
• Chipping Campden Music Festival - May
• Cheese Rolling at Cooper's Hill near Brockworth and at Randwick nr Stroud - May
• Wychwood Festival – May
• Robert Dover's Olimpick Games, Chipping Campden - May
• Winchcombe Cotswolds Walking Festival – May
• Cheltenham Science Festival – June
• Cornbury Music Festival, Great Tew, Oxfordshire – late June/early July
• Longborough Festival Opera - June/July
• The Cotswold Show, Cirencester – July
• Cheltenham Music Festival – July
• World of Music, Arts and Dance (WOMAD) Festival, Malmsbury – July
• Multi-day Ultra Marathon Event along the Cotswold Way - August
• Treefest at Westonbirt Arboretum, Tetbury – August
• Bourton-on-the-Water Football in the River - August
• Alex James & Jamie Oliver’s Big Food and Music Festival, Kingham – late August/early September
• Moreton-in-Marsh Agricultural and Horse Show – September
• Stroud Food Festival – September
• Cheltenham Literature Festival – October

Many of the villages also have summer fetes and festivals that are a delight to encounter along the trail.

Some of the fairs and festivals attract people from far outside the area and reduce the availability of accommodation. This is particularly true of the Cheltenham Festival in March.

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