Stroud to Birdlip
Updated: Jan 26, 2020
Cotswold Way - Day 3 - 15.8 miles - 'Edge'
The rain may have blown out, but if anything the wind was stronger as we climbed from Stroud onto the Cotswold Edge escarpment that scythes for miles above the Severn Valley and Evesham Vale.
Everywhere there were torn fronds and boughs littering the trail. Above, trees flailed as the westerly reached its first hurdle in a hundred or more miles and gave its all.
I'm not usually unsettled by windy weather, but the day was to be spent entirely on the wooded Edge. Every few minutes a crack in the canopy raised pulses, then a shower of new greenery dropped to the puddled path. An hour in a dislodged beech clump fell on my head.
It was a warning to keep a wary eye on the leafy roof above – and pick up the pace. The quicker today's leg was done, the better.
The experience got me thinking, naturally, about death. Specifically, walking deaths. How likely am I to reach John o'Groats in one piece?
Read enough headlines of a certain ilk and you'd be forgiven for thinking the Great British countryside is best avoided. It's a jungle of bulls and snakes and Giant Hogweed out there.
But how many people actually meet their end on the humble country walk?
The answer - predictably - isn't many.
The University of Liverpool found that over the space of two decades there had been 54 cattle attacks, of which 13 resulted in death. That's an average of less than one fatality a year, though 2009 was a bad year, with 13 attacks and four deaths. If you consider the fact that annually 3.6 billion tourists visit the UK countryside, 18% of whom are walkers, my fears of meeting a bovine end felt unfounded.
Falling boughs are twice as deadly. Every year between 5 and 6 people are killed by falling branches and trees. Climate change appears to be increasing the risk, particularly of summer falls.
Research into other potential walking deaths didn't yield much. Electric fences seriously injure just one person a year worldwide. And nettles can't and won't kill you (unless you're wandering through the undergrowth of Java.)
Averaged up, then, around 6.3 people in the UK die each year to the collected perils of cows, bulls, falling branches, electric fences and nettle stings. Which meant, however blowy the day, I was statistically likely to live through it.
On with the trail.
It was a walk of woods and, when they thinned, big views. The best of the woods were the nature reserves around High Brotheridge: lush, deep, enclosed, in which tumbledown walls of Cotswold stone hinted at times and industry past. The best of the views were from the ledge by tiny Paradise, Painswick Beacon and Cooper's Hill, an ever-changing panorama over the expansive Severn Valley towards the Malvern Hills and border county of Monmouthshire.
Our tea spot was lovely Painswick, Queen of the Cotswolds and a popular stop-off on the coach trip circuit, with its can't-fail-to-love buildings and churchyard with 100 legendary yews (that's 99 plus one for the devil). We spent more time in the rather splendid Patchwork Mouse Café - great cards, and the best brownie since I left Land's End.
Painswick is also home to a beautiful metalwork memorial to walker, writer and mountaineer Tony Drake MBE, principal creator of the Cotswold Way, and the more challenging Cambrian Way. It shows a stile, a waymark and a tree - a fine tribute to any lover of walking.
Our picnic spot (I was walking the leg with my sister Rache) was Cooper's Hill.
Sure, the horizon panorama was good, but the view over the precipitous grass slope below was what arrested the attention. For this is the site of the annual Cooper's Hill Cheese-Rolling competition (and wake), a frankly insane challenge that sees certifiable men and women plunge 200 yards down a cliff face to try and catch an 8lb rolling Double Gloucester. The winner is the first person to touch it. At the bottom of the slope rugby players bring down runners to stop them plunging into the houses beyond. If they miss a runner, the hay-bale wall beyond does the job.
So dangerous is the event that each year it is attended by St John's Ambulance, voluntary medics and a "number of additional ambulance vehicles". The post rolling 'wake' - which takes place at a number of local watering holes, including Shurdington's Cheese Rollers Inn, is probably as lethal as the event itself. (If you've never seen footage of the Rolling, it's mind boggling stuff.)
Visiting the scene of carnage in peacetime put my earlier musings on countryside perils into perspective. And even though the wind was still throwing the treetops above all over the place, the remaining miles to beautifully named Birdlip were spent thinking that next to Cheese-Rolling, my jaunt in the country didn't merit much in the way of concern.
Back to Cotswold Way
Continue the walk: Day 4 - Birdlip to Stanton