The secret Cotswolds
PUBLISHED: 09:00 06 May 2015
Touring beautiful Britain for a new TV series has made me think about some of the ‘secret’ places we have here in Gloucestershire
The Cotswold landscape is a beautiful and inspiring thing to see. It’s hardly a secret of course and over the years there must have been thousands of tourist guides and coffee-table books which prove the point. But the place I call home has always held a special fascination for me. The soft, undulating hills, the Jurassic limestone rock beneath our feet and the lovely golden stone that’s used to build those distinctive homes and dry stone walls have made the Cotswolds famous around the world.
But despite the obvious draw for visitors from overseas, the area is just one small part of the wider British Isles; a place that can boast some of the most diverse and awe-inspiring views of any nation our size. From the tranquil beauty of the Lake District to the rugged Cornish coast, it’s like a geological jigsaw puzzle. It’s that unique, and often untold, story of the countryside that Ellie Harrison and I have championed in our BBC One series Secret Britain. The idea was a simple one; to explore the hidden corners of the UK and meet the fascinating local people who have a passion for it. We explored everything from the watery world of Wales and the mysterious moors of Yorkshire to the Highlands of Scotland; and every single location was suggested by Countryfile viewers. There’s been a great response to the series and I’m thrilled that the three programmes have gone down so well with the public. But now I’m back home and busy welcoming visitors to the Farm Park, my Secret Britain travels have made me think about some of the gems in our own local landscape.
The first edition of the series featured Ellie trying to conquer her claustrophobia and going underground in the country’s deepest cave. Gloucestershire can’t beat that record, but the caves at Clearwell in the Forest of Dean are some of Britain’s oldest and most complex mine workings. Iron ore was mined from the underground caverns for thousands of years. About 50 years ago a wonderful local character called Ray Wright spotted the potential of the caves and finally opened them to the public in 1968. They’ve an amazing network of cool, echoing underground halls, tumbling water and colourful crevasses. Special deep level trips even take you climbing and crawling 200 feet below ground.
Then there’s the Devil’s Chimney near Cheltenham which used to be a popular and well-known attraction. The stack of limestone rock above a disused quarry looks just like a twisted chimney and it even appeared on old railway posters back in the days of steam. Sightseers used to leave a penny at the top of the formation as a bribe to the Devil to stay underground. Although I’m not sure how many of them really believed that Satan lived in Gloucestershire! But these days the Devil’s Chimney isn’t on many ‘must see’ lists. Perhaps that’s because the nearest railway station, at Leckhampton, closed back in the 1960s or maybe we’re a bit more sophisticated these days and tend to agree with the theory that the chimney isn’t the work of the Devil at all, but just a practical joke by a gang of 18th century quarrymen. Whatever its origins, I think it’s about time this local landmark was in the spotlight again.
What about one of the great overlooked locations in the region? The Cotswold Water Park. Every day tens of thousands of motorists on the A419 drive past this network of reclaimed gravel pits without a second thought. But I wonder how many people know that there are an incredible 150 lakes covering an area of 40 square miles between Cirencester and Swindon. It attracts Kayakers, sailors and cyclists of course, but it’s also home to a wide variety of wildlife such as beavers, otters, dragonflies, nightingales and siskin. Which just goes to show that there’s a secret Cotswolds out there, waiting to be discovered.
This article by Adam Henson is from the May issue of Cotswold Life.
For more from Adam, follow him on Twitter: @AdamHenson