The Cotswolds. Such a gentle-sounding area. Golden stone and cricket pitches. Farrow and Ball. Barbour jackets. Wisteria and honeysuckle. David Cameron chillaxing in his garden. Alex James making cheese. What could be more relaxing and serene than a stroll through this particularly green and pleasant part of our green and pleasant land? Hills? Do I hear you say hills? (Shhhhhh! Spoiler alert!)
It has been several years since Caralyn and I walked the Bath-to-Cheltenham stretch of the Cotswold Way: plenty of time for all memories of unpleasantness (aka hills) to be erased. (You can read about that walk here). We liked the sound of Race to the Tower, which would more or less complete the Cotswold Way, from Stroud to Broadway Tower, and so we entered last year – but, alas, it was postponed twice due to the pandemic. Instead, a virtual event was offered, and we decided to do it on the actual Cotswold Way, from Cheltenham to Broadway Tower. We committed to doing a marathon (26.2 miles) but knew that the whole route would be more like 35 miles, which we hoped to manage. Glorious weather was forecast and we had the promise of support from a soigneuse extraordinaire: Veronica, Caralyn’s marvellous Mum.
The 4.50 a.m alarm was not exactly welcomed, but an early start was essential, and we set off from Leckhampton at 5.35 a.m. In a matter of minutes we were climbing a very steep hill, up and away from Cheltenham to the ridge above it. With blue skies and clear air, we could see all the way across to the distant Malvern Hills and beyond. We walked past fields of barley and wild flowers, as a cuckoo sang, and rabbits scampered left and right. There were deer. There were llamas. (Yes). We did a slight detour to see the Devil’s Chimney, a local landmark, but despaired of the pile of litter someone had left there, presumably from a late-night BBQ. After a steep descent through Lineover Woods, we arrived at Dowdeswell reservoir. Three hours had passed and it was getting hot!
From the reservoir, another steep climb led us to more rolling countryside with farmland and disused quarries: a landscape of dry stone walls, cow parsley and hawthorn blossom. The path took us on into a Butterfly Nature Reserve, and a precarious descent down grassy tussocks. Until this point, we had barely seen anyone else, but then a man with binoculars popped up out of the grass, and beckoned us over with some excitement: “That’s a Marsh Fritillary!” What looked to us like an ordinary brown butterfly was posing happily on some brambles. Binoculars Man explained that this was a shockingly rare sighting. Another man appeared – this one with a big camera lens. When Binoculars Man said what he thought it was, Camera Man looked suspicious and doubtful. But with a “Well I never!” he confirmed that it was, indeed, a Marsh Fritillary. “You don’t usually get these beyond Stroud!”. We shared the celebration for a few minutes before continuing on our path – with just a minor interruption from some cows.
We soon arrived at Cleeve Common: a huge stretch of common land, containing the highest point of the Cotswold Hills, Cleeve Cloud, where we sat down for a break to enjoy the views over Cheltenham with its easily-spotted landmarks such as GCHQ and the Racecourse. The air was buzzing with the song of skylarks and we enjoyed watching them whirring up and down from the grass, like melodious little helicopters. By now it was mid-morning and there were many walkers and joggers enjoying the increasingly hot sunshine. We had expected to meet others doing the virtual event, and here we met up with three such women, so we chatted with them for a while. Moving on, the path took us across the golf course and then down through farmland, where we saw crows frolicking in buttercups, which made us wonder whether the phrase “crows frolicking in buttercups” has ever been said or written before. Leaving the crows, we followed the path down to a stream at the bottom of a valley. Unfortunately that only meant one thing: an ascent on the other side. This ascent was through the fittingly-named Breakheart Plantation, and it was a real struggle to climb to the top, even if we did appreciate the cool shade of the woods along the way. Before long we reached Belas Knap, a Neolithic burial mound (possibly for people who had expired following the climb through Breakheart Plantation). A descent through woods was made slightly more thrilling by a Red Arrows flypast – and then it was just a short way to the cricket pitch at Winchcombe, where Veronica was waiting with provisions: an extremely welcome sight. The sun was really drilling down now, so we sat in the shade, restocking, refilling, refuelling, revitalising.
Setting off again, we walked through Winchcombe High Street: our first real glimpse of classic Cotswold architecture. The path then took us away through flowery fields, and at this point we had the surreal experience of coming across a group of people who burst into a loud round of cheers and applause and offered us water – or anything else we might need. It turned out they were waiting for friends who had set off from Stroud at 3am, and while waiting they were more than happy to make us feel like conquering heroes. It was wonderful! This high point was somewhat marred by a signage failure, which meant we wandered off route and ending up in a field full of ridged mud and uneven ground. Eventually finding the path once more, I enjoyed a Monty Python/Holy Grail moment when a man ran past us and called out in a foreign – possibly French – accent: “You are goeeng to ze Towerrr? I already bin zere….eet’s vairy naise!”. This little exchange kept me going until the Hailes Farm shop, where we met up with Veronica once more, for ice cream and drinks.
We were so exhausted by now that we decided to deviate from the Cotswold way, cunningly avoiding yet another hill, and instead took the Winchcombe Way across flat fields to the picturesque village of Stanway. The welcome committee from Winchcombe had also made their way there, and they gave us an even louder round of applause this time. Walking on past what seemed like an infinite number of idyllic churches, manor houses and cottages, we plodded on towards Stanton. I think it was on our way there that we met two local women out walking, and had a chat with them about the forthcoming route. We assumed they were local because they looked so clean, so exquisitely dressed and coiffeured, in contrast to the two of us who were looking like hot, sweaty tramps. In our exhausted and dishevelled state, they seemed the epitome of charm and grace, and thenceforth were referred to by us as “the fragrant ladies of Stanton”. Stanton itself was true to the description given in Caralyn’s Cotswold Way guidebook: It has been called the perfect Cotswold village…it is, in truth, almost too perfect, like a Hollywood Director’s idea of a “quaint English village”. We took rebellious pleasure in sitting outside someone’s mansion for a rest before facing the hills ahead.
Strengthened by some superlative rum and raisin fudge, we began the gruelling climb up from Stanton, which we just took slowly, steadily and with many breaks for breathing. It was after this that we got our first glimpse of Broadway Tower on the horizon. The end was in sight! By now, it was late afternoon and there was a slight chill in the air: a sense of the approaching evening. Unfortunately, the lack of a sign just where we needed it, combined with our exhausted brains, meant that we took a wrong turn and walked for about half an hour away from Broadway, instead of towards it. There was a horrible moment of realisation when we cross-referenced our map with a footpath app and realised we (I) had been looking at it upside down. On the verge of begging to be picked up by Caralyn’s Mum and driven to the Tower, we decided instead to find an alternative route, which Google Maps said would be another 50 minutes. We felt we just about had that much left in us, so we set off through nearby Snowshill – another impossibly perfect village – and down a busy main road until we reached a small, side road, that Google promised would lead to the Tower. We had to take Google’s word for it as the Tower had been invisible ever since that brief first sighting, so there was no sense of anticipation or hope. In fact there was only dismay as the road turned sharply upwards and became a very steep hill. Reaching the top of that, we turned a corner only to be confronted with another very steep hill. And then yet another. Our breaks for breathing became ever more frequent, the Tower remained invisible, and we were literally clinging in blind faith to Google’s assertion that we had “0.4…0.3….0.2 miles left”. Eventually we reached a sign proclaiming “Broadway Tower” and a carpark… (but still no sign of anything Tower-like). Then – at last – there it was: a magnificent, unforgettable sight. (As the man said earlier: it was very nice).
The light was beginning to fade, the clouds were slowly gathering, and there were panoramic views over goodness knows how many counties. After a journey of 37 miles and a combined climb of 5,179 feet) we had finally reached the Tower.