“I’ve figured out a route we can do” Ewan told me on the phone. At this point I wasn’t sure if it was a hike or a driving tour of the northern Cotswolds. I should have known better and when we got to his place he handed me the map and drew out the route with his finger. About 10 miles, he said. Compared with the Coast Mountains this was likely to be easy terrain, so I expected us to cover that distance quite easily within four hours. I was wrong :-)
We parked up at the Fish Hill parking area and set off under blazing sunny skies on a diagonal path across a field covered in rows of inch-high shoots. The ruddy soil was a contrast to the green shoots. Within a few minutes we crossed the wall, over a road and into another field, this time with waist-high crops. We weren’t sure what they were – corn perhaps? – but here and there a few strands of barley waved in the breeze an ear or two above the grassy leaves. Birdsong filled the sky above us from an unseen skylark, and the English landscape rolled away gently to our right, a patchwork pattern of green and yellow.
We crossed another stile and came out onto a dirt road called the Mile Drive on the map. A long straight avenue leading east, lined with old oak and chestnut trees and hawthorn in blooming abundance. We walked three abreast along this open road, greeting a couple of parties of walkers heading in the opposite direction.
Our mile came to an end and we picked up a narrow path through another field, following it downslope to the outskirts of Chipping Camden. We came out onto a road and followed it further downhill for a while, past a couple of picturesque Cotswold cottages, stopping to watch a common buzzard fend off a group of noisy jackdaws. Over another grassy field and we followed the Cotswold Way back up the hill on an old road. We passed a couple of lovely thatched cottages, one of which was home to the novelist Graham Greene for a couple of years back in the 1930s.
Our uphill stretch was short and sweet, passing a sheep field or two complete with baaing lambs. I think I had just got into my uphill rhythm when we ran out of up and crossed the road again to follow a narrow hawthorn-lined path to the escarpment of Dovers Hill. I’d seen Ewan’s photos of this a few months ago, and it was great to see it in person. It really is a lovely view from up here, though a bit of a minefield in terms of the leftovers from the resident sheep.
Our attention was drawn to an incoming aircraft, flying quite low. As it passed overhead I snapped a couple of pictures, and saw that it was a WWII-era C-47 Dakota, painted in 1944 invasion markings. My best guess is that it might be something to do with the upcoming diamond jubilee.
We walked west along the escarpment, past groups of sheep hiding in the cool shade of the trees. A few minutes saw us at the main viewpoint, with a brass plate indicating what could be see (at least in principle) from this point. We couldn’t get over how close everything was – we could stand in Garibaldi or Manning Parks overlooking a similar area and see nothing but more mountains. Here a dozen towns in half-a-dozen counties lay within a few tens of miles. To my mind the most impressive feature was the distant double-hump of the Malvern Hills in Worcestershire. The line of the escarpment stretching away to our right was marked by hawthorn trees in full bloom, more sheep grazing on the grassy slopes below.
But it wasn’t all England’s green and pleasant land. Comic relief was provided by the presence of a pair of sunbathers below us (in full view of anyone standing on the rim) and a guy on a bike with delusions of mountain-biking grandeur. Fortunately his son was able to convince him that the direct descent was unwise though he still ended up with a mouthful of sheep poo when he lost control on the gentler route down. With nothing hurt but his pride, he pushed his bike onto flatter terrain before attempting once more (and failing) to ride.
Suitably amused, we followed the path down, walking past the solitude-seeking sunbathers and tracing the contour of the slope around to the next dry-stone wall. From here we took a direct line downhill to Lynches Wood. We passed through the gate and were soon presented with a choice of two routes. Somehow the higher path to the left seem like the better choice and we ambled through the sun-dappled trees. We walked on for a few minutes, admiring the mature oak and chestnut trees, complete with attendant bluebell patches. Ewan commented that he expected the path to be a little wilder, but we thought nothing of it until we reached a steep drop and the trail turned sharply left up the hill. Wait – we’re supposed to be descending, aren’t we? We looked at the map and could see no trail marked where we thought we were. We now had two choices – retrace our steps to the fork in the route, or continue on.
From the lay of the land it looked like we would simply end up back out in the open area below Dovers Hill, and seeking new views we decided to continue onwards. A few minutes later we were proved right and we emerged from the trees. We followed the fence back down the slope to the gate we’d been through half-an-hour earlier, scattering disgruntled sheep and lambs, and picked up the path once more, this time taking the lower route.
It worked. Within ten minutes we left the trees behind and followed signposts along a wide grassy route. To our right lay a field of canola (or rapeseed oil), an expanse of pale yellow. We’d seen fields of this crop from the plane as we flew in to Heathrow the week before, and I thought to myself, England’s yellow and pleasant land, and we’d seen plenty of it over our couple of days in the southern Cotswolds.
Our path turned left, past the sheep, over a stile and onto a narrow trail along the edge of a field, fenced in by barbed wire on one side and hawthorn on the other. Our way was further narrowed by waist-high cow parsley, and those of us in shorts had to be wary of encroaching nettles. A bit further on we passed a field full of buttercups, one of the surprising views we’d seen on our travels. The cheery yellow flowers carpeted the field and seemed to emphasize the parallel lines of the ancient ridge-and-furrow farming.
Passing through more gates we came to a road in the village of Weston-Subedge. A few yards down the road, we followed the path into the yew and horse-chestnut lined churchyard, around the honey-stone building with its square tower (?) and out into another field. Here we could see the remains of an old moat where a manor house once stood (according to the map). Our way wasn’t clear, but we followed what seemed to be the obvious route and found ourselves in the corner of the field.
Over the next half-hour or so we reminded ourselves that while it’s quite simple to trace out the network of public footpaths on the map, it’s quite another thing to determine the correct path on the ground. At some stiles and gates, three or more paths led off and we had to read the map quite carefully to pick the right one. At one point we had to find a path that led across an open field, barely visible as a narrow track through the long grass.
Still, we soon found ourselves in Saintbury with its steepled church. We left it behind and walked over more fields heading for the village of Broadway. More twists and turns, more stiles, more sheep, more nettles to avoid. Reaching a road, our route took us past a high-class getaway hotel. We came to a barrier and met a group of well-dressed folks. They took one look at us with our map and stopped us to inquire as to the location of the nearest pub. If I remember correctly, it went something like this: “I say, you folks have a map so you must know your way around here.” We exchanged amused glances as he went on – “so we were wondering if you knew how far it was to the village pub.” Looking at the map, we could see a suitable watering hole marked in the centre of Willersey and directed them that way. “About 15 minutes’ walk” we guesstimated. They seemed thrilled with that, and who could blame them on such a pleasant spring evening? To be honest, I think we felt like doing the same thing but we had a car to retrieve and a dinner reservation to meet…
We skirted the edge of a wood and crossed a mud patch over half-a-dozen hewn stones, labelled Alfie’s Bridge. I wonder who Alfie was? Before long we left the final field and entered the residential streets of Broadway itself. I wasn’t sure what to expect but we found ourselves in yet another beautiful Cotswold village. We walked along the broad street in the warm early evening sun, the buildings just glowing gold. Our plan was to walk into the village, and pick up a trail out the west side. We also had hopes of picking up an ice cream, but every shop was closed (except for the pubs – oh, so tempting…). A coachload of Japanese tourists had disembarked and we dodged the camera-wielding hordes as we walked the streets to the village green. I have to admit, though, it was extremely picturesque. A sign on a nearby lamp post indicated that a trio of Morris-dancing sides had spent an hour entertaining the locals earlier this afternoon. A pity we hadn’t made it here earlier – we could have enjoyed a pint and some hankie-waving.
Time to move on and after another false start – our way was almost completely blocked by nettles – we picked up the correct route once more. The route seemed obvious enough, but we soon found ourselves crossing another stile and somehow our direction didn’t feel right. Another map check and indeed we had gone wrong again. But this time we had gained some height, which we didn’t want to lose in order to pick up the correct route. We pored over the map once again and found a direct route which led us to a gate, easily crossed, and there was our path.
Now we had nothing to do but make our way straight up the final ascent to the Broadway tower. This was the steepest and longest climb of the hike, gaining some 200 m (!) in elevation over a kilometre or so. We were way behind schedule at this point, the time being well after 7 pm already (our table was for 7), and we powered up the hill scattering sheep left and right. As we climbed I noticed one very abrupt change – suddenly the flowers changed from sparse buttercups to a rich mixture of buttercups and cowslip. I had learned of the change in rock and soil types on escarpments many years ago in my school and college geography lessons, but to see it so clearly was quite something.
A few minutes later we came within sight of the folly itself – Broadway tower lit up perfectly in the sunshine. Unfortunately we didn’t have the time to explore the grounds (which contain red deer), and had to be content with admiring it from afar as we turned our backs to it and walked along the crest of the escarpment back to the car. The walk had one last surprise in store for me as we neared the car. We entered a patch of woodland and found ourselves surrounded by the most extensive display of blooming wild garlic (ramsons) I had ever seen. I couldn’t believe my eyes – what a treat. Sadly, I simply didn’t have the time (or the light) to try and capture it and I just have to commit the scene to memory.
A matter of only a few moments later we were back at the car. The time was 7.45 pm. We piled back into the car and returned to Stratford, passing through and reaching Toddington for our evening tapas at Connolly’s (yes, really!). It might have been 8.15, and we were still in our hiking gear, but we got a table right away and sat down to a delicious array of food. What a superb afternoon.
Distance: 19 km
Elevation gain: 300 m
Photos to come.