Rambling in the Cotswolds

PUBLISHED: 09:35 05 January 2011 | UPDATED: 15:20 20 February 2013

the Promenade, Cheltenham

the Promenade, Cheltenham

royalists, roundheads and Roman villas have all influenced our network of paths and lanes

Before the Roman came to Rye or out to Severn strode,

The rolling English drunkard made the rolling English road.

A reeling road, a rolling road, that rambles round the shire,

And after him the parson ran, the sexton and the squire

The rolling English road that GK Chesterton immortalised in his poem of that name has, of necessity, been straightened out here, there and everywhere to meet the needs of modern day travel over the nine decades that have passed since The Rolling English Road was published. But, perhaps in the Cotswolds more than anywhere else, it still forms the artery of the road network as it crosses, intersects and runs round the county, following ancient routes trodden into the landscape long before the Romans came this way.

To ramble along the old paths and tracks is to walk through the history of the Cotswolds itself, affording a glimpse into a way of life long past. Secluded in the combes and valleys away from the speeding motor traffic the milestones of centuries stand sentinel to the social and domestic changes in the form of pilgrims' marks scratched alongside the doorways of old churches, weather-worn wayside crosses and lopsided stones marking parish boundaries. A closer study of a large-scale Ordnance Survey map will give an intriguing lead to the origin of the routes, many of which are listed as a salt way or a Roman road and clues in their names, such as pilgrims' way or weavers' walk.

The Cotswold Wardens reckon that there are some 3,000 miles of footpaths in the area, and they should know for over the past forty years this doughty band of volunteers have walked, surveyed, repaired, restored, improved and maintained them for the benefit of the thousands of people who walk this way for pleasure and leisure.

The most continuous designated footpath is the Cotswold Way, following the western escarpment for about a hundred miles - walkers and planners and route masters will quibble over its exact length, which, when I walked it (in short sections through the seasons for the benefit of the BBC who recorded it for a Radio Four series, and to give me time to research it carefully for my book, Walking the Cotswold Way) was ninety-seven and a half miles. This was the exact distance as recorded by the Cotswold Wardens and the Gloucestershire Ramblers Association when they opened it up themselves in 1970 after much hard work negotiating with over a hundred individual landowners to link up existing public rights of way, and waymarking the whole route from Chipping Campden in the north to the Regency city of Bath in the south.

The very existence of the Cotswold Way is due to the voluntary body of Cotswold Wardens who, patient beings that they are, felt seventeen years a reasonable time to wait for a reply to their proposal for a footpath route along the western escarpment. The Gloucestershire Ramblers showed even more tolerance - they had first mooted the idea in the 1950s. Finally, undeterred and smiled upon kindly by the County Council, who recognised the proposal would fit in well with its then new recreational plan for the countryside, the Way was opened - but remained officially unofficial! The Cotswold Way was not designated by an Act of Parliament as an official long-distance footpath so did not benefit from maintenance grants and financial aid. Now, after decades of more work by the volunteers, upgrading such things as gates and stiles for easier access, comprehensive waymarking with the symbolic acorn on oak posts with sufficient frequency as to be able to follow the whole route without a map, resurfacing some parts of the path and re-routing where possible to avoid the more dangerous road crossings, the Cotswold Way has officially designated National Trail status. And, is now 104 miles long! This is the figure given by Alan Pilbeam, an historical geographer, who has recently published a book looking at the old paths of the county.

The Cotswold Way obviously has an important place in the book, not least because it links together paths and bridleways made by generations of Cotswold folk tramping their various ways for various reasons throughout the centuries. For much of its route, the Way follows the prehistoric track that once ran between the Iron Age hill forts on the promontories, built as genuine defensive camps, as revealed by excavations at Crickley Hill above Gloucester. Neolithic burial barrows such at Belas Knap, the site of Roman villas, paths beaten into the earth by countless pilgrims paying homage at the great medieval abbeys; routes tramped into the political field of history where Royalists and Roundheads once routed each other, towpaths cut alongside the old waterways and short cuts to mill and factory, field and farm as workers trudged to their daily toil - man, woman and child have left their footprints on the landscape for over 4,000 years.

Roads normally followed routes such as the old drovers' ways where livestock were literally walked from market to market, vestiges of those not so long ago days are identified by long stretches of extra wide verges where the animals could graze along the way - some of these are still used as temporary sites for gypsy caravans around the time of Stow Fair. Details filling in the structure of this trading on the hoof have been gleaned from account books of the drovers themselves, and a gem of a find are the entries in the Reverend Charles Coxwell's rectorial account book showing the income he received for various droves using his fields at Barnsley, the only village passed on the Welsh Way, in the late eighteenth century.

Paths for purpose have their own fascinating social history. Medieval monks laid out their gardens as much for meditation as the cultivation of food and medicinal herbs, whereas the nobles of the county added 'privie' and 'goodly' gardens to afford privacy and exercise while viewing their estate. The age of the landed gentry brought grand design to the gardens and grounds of the great country houses with drives, avenues and walks an integral and practical part of their plan. Humphrey Repton became known as 'the walk maker', devoting a section of his famous Red Books to 'walks'. He wrote of the care he took in planning the 'direction of every road or walk, that we may compel the most careless to observe those parts of a design, which have a claim upon their admiration'. His consideration for those following his planned paths extended beyond the means of getting to the feature or view to the surface most suited to those passing that way: gravel paths would be too noisy and difficult for invalid chairs, so mown turf was used instead; he was also particular in choosing an appropriate surface for a lady to walk on in satin shoes.

The Georgians were great rambling walkers and made a common pastime of strolling the pathways of the churchyards, reflecting on the lives of those whose epitaphs gave them something to talk about while they walked. It was an age for promenading - to see and be seen, leaving its legacy of famous walks and the elegant Promenade to become an enduring part of Cheltenham's distinctive historic design. Captain Henry Skillicorne laid the foundations of what was to become a prestigious spa town, charging 3s 6d for entry into the tree-lined Well Walk which gained royal status following the visits by George III and his family. In the extraordinarily long epitaph to Skillicorne in the parish church we learn that he was 'ever presiding with esteem in the walk, saw it visited with benefit by the greatest persons of the age'.

Great persons of their age, their names and purpose long forgotten, were the real way makers of some of the area's most appealing walks today, leaving their mark on the old industrial landscape, and the Oakridge Society has recently restored the paths in their area because of their historical significance. Likewise, but on a lengthier project, the Cotswold Canal Trust has promoted a restoration programme and reopening of the towpaths for the enjoyment of walkers and conservation of the natural habitat for the diversity of wildlife along the way.

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