Day 4 of the epic trek along the Cotswold Way.. accompanied by my surprisingly resilient daughters.
The sound of drumming on the cottage skylight demonstrated that our walk was proving to be symmetrical. The opening two days in brilliant sunshine followed by two days of rain.
I checked the met office ap which foretold precipitation until 2pm. Kate and Emma groaned and we had a leisurely breakfast. No impetus to embark.
Top tip: when considering long distance walking… choose the middle of the year when the days are long. Although autumn sunsets can be beautiful, early darkness can catch you out. Long ago I spent a night on a Pennine Way moor when we ran out of time and lost the path in the blackness. Baldersdale hostel was out there somewhere but proved impossible to find.
We wrapped our clothes in plastic bags and eventually set off in our waterproofs, dodging the articulated lorries back at the Seven Springs Hotel and then heading north. The path branched from the A435 to Cheltenham and aimed towards Hartley Hill and the escarpment edge.
I suggested to the girls that we would be at Crickley Hill by late morning but the Cotswold Way is cruel here…it kinks backwards and forwards. We could have dropped south from Coberley and followed the Gloucestershire Way which would have taken us to Crickley in no time…. but of course…. that would have been wrong.
We reached the top of Hartley Hill in rain and deep mist. Memorial benches loomed out of the murk. It was suggested, on the seat plaques, that there were fine views that people had once loved. We assumed that this must be true as we grunted mutual commiseration with the wet walkers who crossed our path. An Australian couple were backpacking too and had considered camping but had plumped for B&B like us.
Soon we had reached the famous Leckhampton hillfort. Excavations here had found Early Iron Age pottery and guard chambers at the entrances through the hillfort. The ramparts were of stone, laced with transverse timbers and found to be burnt when excavated.
The Cotswold Way symbol is the ‘ Devil’s Chimney’ which of course needed to be seen and photographed as part of the CW experience. The girls weren’t bothered so I did a slight detour and found it. A limestone pillar the old quarrymen had left behind, looming above a steep drop.
The Devil’s Chimney
We pressed on. There was something about the next stretch that seemed interminable. The route dropped down and then zig-zagged along roads and fields and more roads. The clock ticked and it was hard to know whether it was better to be soaked by rain or by the perspiration we generated inside our own water-proofs.
A narrow road took us past a college …with the welcoming siren call of a bistro with hot drinks ..but Crickley beckoned. We finally entered the woods weaving between the trees. I knew this place.. just a mile up the path was the tea room and our lunch stop.
At last, we burst out of the vegetation at the car park and found Ron and Sue our Australian compatriots from Cleeve Hill. We looked frazzled and they looked cool and collected under umbrellas. They welcomed us like old friends and said they’d taken a taxi there.
We staggered into the tea room like outlaws and dumped our sodden rucksacks beside the door. Scattered civilised people dotted the room and we grabbed a table at the back. Ignoring the now crushed sandwiches, made that morning, I strode to the bar and ordered hot chocolates and toasted ciabattas.
A young couple and their baby sat at the next table… and politely winced with the rest of the room as we peeled off our waterproofs and boots.
Revived, we left the now empty cafe and walked through the entrance of the hillfort. The sky was clearing and we could now appreciate the strategic position of this place jutting out from the Cotswold edge with views to the Welsh hills.
We know a lot about Crickley because the site was excavated each summer from 1969-1993
The strongest earthwork defences faced the level land towards the tea room but the other sides had steep drops which did not require ramparts. These Iron Age features enclosed two periods of Early Iron Age occupation and both ended in fire and destruction it seems. The first settlement about 700 BC had rectangular houses (very unusual and rather continental) and the second of about 500 BC had the more conventional round houses.
Further in, I pointed out the low banks of the Early Neolithic causewayed enclosure. This proved to be remarkable as hundreds of leaf-shaped arrowheads were found scattered across the earthworks suggesting that there had been a battle here about 3500 BC. Such ancientness.. and strange to think that the people who occupied the hillfort were closer to us in time than these Neolithic people.
Nobody lived here it seems in the later Iron Age and Roman periods but the excavations found that, in the dark days after the Roman military were withdrawn from Britain, people took shelter here again in the 5th-6th century AD.
Now it was time for the crossing of the A417. At a National Trust meeting here a few weeks earlier, I had witnessed back packers dicing with death as they braced themselves for this challenge. Smell the clutch pads, someone had said, as the massed vehicles screeched and juddered towards the roundabout.
There are extensive consultations and discussions taking place to solve the traffic problems at this hot spot where several roads meet. The solution needs to work but protect and improve the environment and include a green bridge where future walkers can cross in safety.
I did not feel nimble, we were carrying too much weight and the trucks and cars kept coming. A driver caught my eye and halted, another shamed into compliance did the same and we crossed to the island. Eventually a slight gap and we were across the opposite carriageway to the Air Balloon Inn.
It was getting quite late now.
Still…now the fog was clearing and views opened out over Gloucester from Barrow Wake, the site of the famous Late Iron Age burials. Three bodies discovered by quarrymen in 1879. Two men without grave goods and a woman accompanied by a decorated bronze mirror, a bracelet and two bowls.
We met Ron and Sue again who said that they’d probably take the bus at Birdlip. We left them and became concerned that they were not taking the pain of the walk seriously. What did they think this was… a holiday or something.
We needed to get a move on and stepped it out along mile after mile of contour hugging woodland. If we had been more leisurely, we would have taken the detour to Great Whitcombe Roman Villa but we had gone beyond such dalliances.
We reached Cooper’s Hill at 5pm. The annual cheese rolling championships were that weekend and the path crossed the foot of it. A camera crew was filming at the top of the steep slope and members of the team were keeping an eye on the bottom. We looked up.. very glad that we didn’t have to go up there. Someone shouted READY! and we expected a cheese to start bouncing down the slope with someone bouncing behind it but nothing happened. Someone shouted READY! again but nothing happened again so we went round the corner. We rested, drew chocolate from the store and put a battered banana out of its misery.
The camera crew at the cheese rolling summit of Cooper’s Hill
We then discovered that the path did in fact go to the top of Cooper’s Hill so slogged up there and found the film crew. We became distracted and missed the path and mistakenly plunged into woodland without guidance. Always a good idea to stop and back-track if no fresh CW markers are found. It turned out that the correct turning was beside the film crew… who were packing up.
Then on and on through woodland and then out onto a golf course and then Painswick Beacon hillfort. Kate thought we could miss that and take the straightest possible route to Painswick itself.
We walked through an active limestone quarry with some good geological stratigraphy but we weren’t that interested by that stage and dropped down into the town.
8pm and we staggered into the medieval hotel. Glad to rest and rebuild ourselves and then slip into the pub next door to eat and talk.