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Cotswold Ways Walk: A spring hike into the hills from Winchcombe

PUBLISHED: 11:00 11 June 2019

Close up of Hailes Abbey (c) Kirsty Hartsiotis

Close up of Hailes Abbey (c) Kirsty Hartsiotis

© Kirsty Hartsiotis

This month we welcome our new Cotswold Ways contributors Anthony Nanson and Kirsty Hartsiotis, so put your best foot forward for a satisfying spring hike into the hills from Winchcombe, on the trail of St Kenelm, Gloucestershire's patron saint, this 1200th anniversary year of his untimely death

Winchcombe may seem no more than an attractive Cotswold town, known for the pots produced by Michael Cardew and Ray Finch at the still-flourishing Winchcombe Pottery a mile out of town. But the town was once the capital of its own county, Winchcombeshire, and circa AD 800 was one of the capitals of Kenulf, King of Mercia. Kenulf founded an abbey there and made his daughter, Quenthryth, the abbess. Kenulf's son, Kenelm, became Gloucestershire's greatest saint. According to legend, Kenelm died 1,200 years ago, in 819.

The legend begins with a dream - in which young Kenelm climbs a tree, sees a vision of the whole kingdom, then a 'friend' chops down the tree and Kenelm flies to heaven as a bird. The dream proves prophetic: on a hunting trip to the Clent Hills in Worcestershire, Kenelm is murdered by his tutor, Ascebert, and his body hidden in the ground. Thanks to a divine message forwarded by the Pope, a party of monks manage to find the decapitated body (plus blood-encrusted knife) and carry it back to Winchcombe.

Hailes Abbey from the Cotswold Way (c) Kirsty HartsiotisHailes Abbey from the Cotswold Way (c) Kirsty Hartsiotis

At this point in the story we hit medieval misogyny! Quenthryth, we hear, planned the murder with Ascebert, whose lover she's said to be. Local historian John Stevinson says that this is slander of the first order, arising from a later Middle Ages fixation on celibacy and the sinfulness of women. The historical records provide no hint of scandal around Quenthryth, who remained abbess of Winchcombe after her father's and brother's death. A more likely conspirator? Kenelm's uncle, Ceolwulf, who took the crown after Kenulf, is the chief suspect. In our own telling of the tale we restore Quenthryth's reputation. With typical medieval goriness, the legend says that when her brother's body reaches the abbey her eyeballs explode by power of divine judgement and spray blood on her psalter; we instead narrate that Quenthryth felt such grief she wept tears of blood upon said psalter.

The hills around Winchcombe are the highest part of the Cotswolds. Excellent walking country. The monks' route back from the Clent Hills with Kenelm's body covers a good 45 miles. This month's circular walk from Winchcombe takes in the last part of Kenelm's journey to his final resting place in the abbey.

St Kenelm's wellhouse (c) Kirsty HartsiotisSt Kenelm's wellhouse (c) Kirsty Hartsiotis

The walk:

1. Back Lane Car Park is located where Winchcombe Abbey stood before its complete demolition after the Dissolution of the Monasteries. Head down Cowl Lane, cross the High Street, and turn right on to Castle Street. After crossing the river, turn left on to the Isbourne Way and follow it till you re-emerge on the road.

2. Turn right on to Puck Pit Lane, and two miles on the Cotswold Way to Hailes. Northwards, you may spot the trains of the Gloucestershire Warwickshire Steam Railway. Further north stands the church spire of Toddington, on the route of the ancient Salt Way, along this part of which the monks carried Kenelm's body.

3. The Cotswold Way brings you, with a right turn, on to Salter's Lane, part of the Salt Way, where you join company with Kenelm's cortège. First, though, you can detour a short way along the Cotswold Way for a view of the ruins of Hailes Abbey, famed for its relic of Christ's blood. They're haunted by Hailes's last monk, who's said to have hidden some of the blood on the site and to guard it to this day.

4. Opposite Hailes Abbey, in the tiny parish church, are some of the best-preserved medieval wall paintings in Gloucestershire, including fantastical creatures like winged dogs and elephants. The abbey ruins and museum are open April to October.

5. Having retraced your steps to Salter's Lane, turn left up the hill. It's quite steep going up the unfenced road; think of the monks hauling Kenelm's body up there with only the help of a donkey! At the top of Salters Hill, turn right on to the Winchcombe Way.

6. After two field boundaries, you come to a couple of gates. Go through the pedestrian gate to the left and head down the centre of the field. In the field beyond is a small pitch-roofed building - St Kenelm's Well. When the exhausted, thirsty monks laid Kenelm's body on the ground, a spring gushed forth and has flowed ever since.

7. Cross into the field through the gap in the trees. The sixteenth-century wellhouse stands left of the track in a small enclosure. The carving of St Kenelm above the locked door dates from 1887, as do the plaques inside, just visible if you peer through gaps in the door. There was a church here, too, till 1830. The stream trickles out beside a magnificent oak tree.

8. Turn left from St Kenelm's Well, go through the gate into the next field, and bear right to Sudeley Hill Farm. Turn left on the road and then right on to a track.

9. Turn right on to the Wardens' Way - catching your first glimpses of Sudeley Castle. Proceed through the gate at the bottom of the field and turn right along the field edge towards the castle.

10. Sudeley was the home of Henry VIII's last wife, Catherine Parr. Her ghost is seen there, accompanied by the scent of apples and the crying of a child. Pass the corner of the castle and walk ahead into the next field, with the children's playground to your right.

11. Go along the track, through the gate, and bear left, crossing the bridge over a small lake. Pass the castle gatehouse and bear right along Vineyard Street.

12. Turn left along the High Street to St Peter's Church. In the church are some tiles and a door salvaged from Winchcombe Abbey, a statue of Kenulf, and two stone coffins dug up in 1815. The larger is said to have contained the skeleton of a man who'd stood six foot six; the smaller the headless skeleton of a man of slighter build, plus a long rusty knife. If these were the remains of Kenulf and Kenelm, they crumbled into dust at the workmen's touch.

Essentials:

Distance: 7 miles/11 km.

Duration: 4-5 hours.

Level: Moderate. 500 ft/160 m of ascent up Salters Hill.

Parking: Back Lane Car Park, Winchcombe.

Toilets: Car park, Winchcombe. Tea room and abbey for customers, Hailes.

Refreshments: Many choices in Winchcombe; the Corner Cupboard Inn incorporates stone from Winchcombe Abbey. Hayles Fruit Farm Tea Room at Hailes.

Transport links: Bus services from Cheltenham and Stratford-upon-Avon.

Map: OS Explorer OL45: The Cotswolds

Route: gb.mapometer.com/walking/route_4888797

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