Enjoying the South Cotswold Walk in Autumn

By Christine Saul

The autumn/winter season is the perfect time for the Contours Customer Service Team to get away from our desks after a very busy season and go out for a walk ourselves. During this time we're often out and about researching new trails and updating route notes for our existing trails. I was lucky enough to get to walk in the Cotswolds in October. I have visited the Cotswolds before as a 'tourist', however I have never enjoyed the walking trails before; I usually head to the wilder, more remote northern parts of England. But I certainly wasn't disappointed.

The Cotswolds is the largest Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) in England and Wales. It is well known for its golden-coloured stone and quintessentially English villages. The Cotswolds covers an area of nearly 800 square miles, which means there are miles upon miles of beautiful countryside to explore on foot. Our circular South Cotswold Walk usually gets overlooked by our more popular northern Cotswold circular trails, which is a shame because it is a great walk through some of the most beautiful and less frequented parts of the Cotswolds countryside.

Our South Cotswold walk starts in Winchcombe town in the heart of the Cotswolds, known as the walking capital of the Cotswolds due to its 'Walkers are Welcome' status. On leaving Winchcombe you walk past Sudeley Castle and Gardens, which date from the 15th century and was once home to Catherine Parr, the last surviving wife of Henry VIII. From Sudeley Castle you walk through farmland and along woodland tracks to Guiting Power, a small village with pretty cottages clustered around a village green and 15th century cross.

From Guiting Power you head across picturesque farmland, both arable and pastureland, via Naunton to Bourton-on-the-Water. It was a beautiful sunny day for me and I passed through a small section of late-flowering rapeseed and corn fields, where there were lots of pheasants and bird feeding stations around.

At Naunton you pass by its famous dovecote built in 1660, which can house over 1000 pigeons. Sadly this was closed for renovation when I walked by. Bourton-on-the-Water is known as the 'Venice of the Cotswolds' due to its setting on the River Windrush with attractive stone bridges.

From Bourton-on-the-Water the trail heads south towards Northleach through fields and along tracks and quiet lanes, passing through the pretty villages of Little and Great Rissington, Windrush, Sherborne and Farmington. Sherborne is in the centre of Sherborne Park; upon walking out of the village you get great parkland views over the valley towards Sherborne Brook. Lodge Park and Sherborne Park Estate are owned by the National Trust.

My phoned died on me today and a very important lesson was learned; as most people do these days, I often rely heavily on my phone. My phone was my watch, my camera, my map and my GPS (I always download the OS maps I need onto my phone). However, I  never rely solely on my phone for navigation, and I still had paper copies of OS maps with me so I could carry on with my walk, safely knowing where I was at all times. ALWAYS take a map with you when walking and know how to read it; do not rely solely on electronic devices. (Contours will supply you with the maps you need). I will in future also always wear a watch, as I had no idea what time it was, as well as carry a pocket camera.

Northleach town lies at a crossroads with the Roman Fosse Way, and its grade II listed Old Prison is now home to the Cotswold Discovery Centre, where you can learn about the Cotswold landscape and the heritage of its people and buildings.

From Northleach the walk heads to Cirencester across farmland - arable and pastureland - and woodland. I was followed by a flock of sheep at one point, maybe because they thought I was bringing food in my backpack. There was a small section alongside Chedworth Wood where I could hear shooting in the distance and passed gun dogs out, as autumn is gamebird shooting season. The trail goes by Chedworth Roman Villa and its visitors centre, one of the largest Roman Villas in Britain owned by the National Trust. Just before dropping down into Chedworth village, look out for a very old large log, naturally seat-shaped for up to four people, acting as a great spot for lunch with a view!

Cirencester, 'the Capital of the Cotswolds', is a delightful market town. Cirencester's market square is dominated by the Parish Church of St. John Baptist, one of the largest churches in England.  After two days without one, I managed to buy a new mobile phone at Cirencester!

Cirencester to Painswick offers a complete contrast to the previous day’s walks, walking for a large part of the day alongside the abandoned Thames and Severn Canal. Left for nature to take hold, it is an interesting and pleasant walk along the old tow path and past old locks.

You walk past both ends of the Sapperton Tunnel, 2.25 miles of canal tunnel burrowed through the Cotswold Hills. It was the longest canal tunnel in the UK when it was built in 1789, but is now the 3rd longest. Between the two tunnel ends, you walk through a lovely woodland section where a large deer ran past me through the trees, very pretty with dappled sunlight and the leaves just turning to their autumn colour.

You pass through Oakridge, where the children of the small village school use the village green as their school playground, and the charming village of Bisley, with row after row of pretty stone cottages up and down the hillside. After mainly level walking along the canal in the morning, the second half of the day takes you on a bit of a rollercoaster ride through the Cotswold Hills to the historic wool town of Painswick, ‘Queen of the Cotswolds’. Painswick is one of the best preserved towns in the Cotswolds, sitting high in the Cotswold Hills. It was recently featured in the BBC's adaptation of  "A Casual Vacancy" by J.K.Rowling.

The section from Painswick to Cheltenham Spa passes out of the head of the Painswick Valley and takes you through several pleasant woodlands, including Cotswold Commons and Beechwoods Natural Nature Reserve, the largest nature reserve in the Cotswolds, and Witcombe Wood on the outskirts of Birdlip.

The route takes you up onto the escarpment of Barrow Wake, with great views over the Vale of Gloucester, and then onto Leckhampton Hill and past the Devils Chimney, a lone limestone rock pinnacle that remains from past days of limestone quarrying. It then drops down to the regency spa town of Cheltenham.

Cheltenham is the 'Cultural Centre for the Cotswolds'. It is also home to the renowned Cheltenham Festival, a 4 day horse jump race culminating in the Gold Cup. You will pass by lots of fields of race horses and riders out exercising horses on this walk.

The final day from Cheltenham to Winchcombe offers some of the best views of the Cotswolds, though this inevitably means some uphill climbing is required!

The trail leaves Cheltenham via Pittville Park, past the grade 1 listed Pittville Pump Room which, if open, you can go in and sample the medicinal spa water for free. It then walks beside Cheltenham Racecourse before climbing up onto Cleeve Hill Common, the highest point in the Cotswolds. From here there are fantastic views back over Cheltenham and its racecourse and of the Malvern Hills and the Severn Bridge on a clear day. The common is also home to a golf course which the trail meanders through, but it seems to be designed well enough, luckily, that golf balls don’t come flying over the heads of walkers! It was a warm sunny October Sunday when I was walking on the common, so there were lots of walkers, dog walkers, cyclists and golfers about.

After leaving the common, the trail follows a lovely woodland path through Breakheart Woods, but there is a steep climb before reaching another highlight of the day, Belas Knap Long Barrow. Belas Knap is one of the finest restored Neolithic long barrows in the country. Built over 5500 years ago and used to bury the dead, remains of at least 38 people have been discovered in its four burial chambers.

From Belas Knap the trail descends back across fields to Winchcombe, again with fantastic views of Winchcombe and Sudeley Castle on the way down.

To learn more about the fabulous South Costwold Walk, click here.

Contours Holidays pride ourselves on our expert knowledge of the UK’s trails. We regularly set out to check our routes and directions and to make improvements on the holidays we offer. You can find several write-ups of staff expeditions in our Trail Diaries.

Originally published 24/10/17

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