Birdlip to Stanton
Updated: Jan 26, 2020
Cotswold Way - Day 4 - 21.4 miles - 'Race'
There were nearly four seasons in a day. I started out in rain, found shelter until the sun reluctantly showed, then walked as stormclouds built towards a downpour end.
The trail was one of variety too.
At somewhere around mile five I met an American tackling the Cotswold Way, destination Bath. We got talking about her experience. Did she rate it compared to other long distance footpaths?
She thought for a while. "It's good," she replied, "if you like green."
On the basis of my previous days' walking I would have added "and views of the Severn Valley".
But my slight scepticism was to be proved wrong by today's walk, which featured variety that the Cotswold Way has so far lacked – and it was infinitely better for it.
The day started in rain-soaked Birdlip, where locals were coming and going from the polling station in the primary school. From there I made the first of three deviations from the Cotswold Way, cutting unnecessary miles by heading inland on quiet tree-lined lanes and then into meadowed valleys a world away from the tourist trail. This was where the wildlife was: in the space of two minutes a roe deer sprung out of a hawthorn copse just metres from me, followed by a fox. Both bounded through the dripping meadow grass giving backward glances, finding sanctuary in a hillside wood.
To Seven Springs, a five-way road intersect and an Inn. I'd never eaten at a Hungry Horse before, but it was pouring outside and I was Hungry, even though it was barely past eleven. I checked the weather. The rain was clearing in an hour. I opted for early lunch.
Trip Adviser is not kind to the Seven Springs Hungry Horse. "Awful experience", "Shockingly bad", "Might as well have served the food in a trough" and, my favourite, "Even my toddler rejected his food". Ouch.
Maybe I'm getting easier to please, but my falafel burger and fries was better than most of the equivalents I ate in the west country. And it was only £4.95. A near pint-sized tea lasted me the best part of an hour.
There was already an ageing local polishing off a pint. First orders, I guess. He was keen to know that people were exercising their democratic right. Every time a new face came to the bar he asked the same question: "Have you voted yet?"
The waitress; a group of lads in for the Hungry Horse breakfast; the chef; the manager; another morning driver all replied the same way: "Already been, Tony."
Back on the Cotswold Way the rain rolled on, leaving paths puddled. The trail did its familiar escarpment thing, tracing the Edge through rich deciduous woods. If you were taking the Way at a slower pace than me you could easily spend the best part of three days solid in trees looking down, which is probably one day too many, but there were so many characterful old trees to slow your steps as the miles slipped by.
Towards Cleeve Common, with its rare limestone grassland and airy views, clouds building with the promise of more rain. Then a little road walking, more than on any other leg of the Way. But the trees kept getting bigger and better; huge old oaks and beeches with branches in tangles. Some of them must have seen centuries.
Not as old though as those interred in Belas Knap, a restored long barrow on the delightfully named Humblee How. It's not much to see: a pile of earth and neat brickwork. But even in the rising wind, it offered quiet.
With each mile walked, my previously held complaints about the Cotswold Way were tackled one after another. The pleasant enough monotony of green that has defined the last 30 or so miles was weaved through now with variation: the lanes, the barrow, buttercup fields, gorse-enclosed downland. It really was saving the best for last.
And while my principal criticism about the Way has been its apparent reluctance to make the most of the area's limestone villages, the latter part of today changed all that.
First stop was Winchcombe. I thought I knew the Cotswolds relatively well, but this was new to me, a riverside town with Anglo Saxon roots and so many picturesque houses and secret alleys it was difficult to know where to point the lens.
Given the entire town centre is something of an antique, it was not surprising to find antiques shops dominating the high street. You could imagine a planning application for a Starbucks not getting far. Or a Vape Shop. Or a Hungry Horse. But if you can't beat them, join them. I spent an idle hour sipping tea in a sprawling antiques/tea shop hybrid, where a tea and flapjack cost more than my lunch.
Hats off to Winchcombe, as well, for its welcome to walkers. Literally: the town has won accreditation for it. Not only were there signs on trees asking traffic to SLOW, but the town is also start and end point of the immaculately maintained Winchcombe Way, a figure-of-eight trail with a reassuring 'Walkers are Welcome' emblem. It's a nice touch on a nice trail; long distance trekkers aren't always extended the same kindness. I traced the Winchcombe Way to slice off another unnecessary chunk of the Cotswold Way, and as with my earlier shortcut, it added a different flavour to the day.
The clouds had been bubbling up for hours, whites becoming ever darker greys above the hills on all sides of the valley. Pressure was building and in every field cows and sheep were staking their claims under wide-canopy trees. So far I had escaped the rain, but it was not going to last.
So the last three miles became a race to my end point of Stanton, energy upped in an attempt to outrun the brewing storm.
I was defeated, just after a BULL IN FIELD sign, when the last patch of blue above me filled and the heaven's opened.
But it didn't do much to dampen the day. It had been a good one, and even as the rain streamed, there was more to come: the Jacobean pile of Stanway House, home to the tallest gravity fountain the world; estate parkland with yet more grand trees; hamlets hidden in wooded folds that felt untouched by time; and, finally, the village of Stanton, where not a single honey-stone is out of place.
This is my last full day on the Cotswold Way. I'm pleased to leave it on good terms.