Cotswold Ways Walk: In the footsteps of composers on Crickey Hill

PUBLISHED: 14:42 04 December 2017 | UPDATED: 14:47 04 December 2017

The Devil's Table, Crickley Hill

The Devil's Table, Crickley Hill

Kevan Manwaring

Be inspired by the stunning vistas and evocative Iron Age and Roman heritage of Crickley Hill in the footsteps of poet Ivor Gurney and fellow composer Gustav Holst

The distinctive spear-head of Crickley Hill, thrusting out across the Severn Vale from the dramatic heights of Cotswold edge, is a place to stir the imagination. It certainly inspired two of our greatest composers, which Gloucestershire can proudly claim as sons – Ivor Bertie Gurney, born in Gloucester in 1890, and Gustav Holst, born in Cheltenham, 1874.

The latter is widely-known and rightly acclaimed, but Gurney less so – although he has attracted passionate advocates of his work as a poet and composer (including Sir Andrew Motion, patron of the Ivor Gurney Society).

For Gurney, growing up in Gloucester Crickley Hill – an alluring blue parenthesis to his days – held a special place in his affections. It was a key dreaming place and one he would return to again and again on his long cycle rides fuelled by nothing more than sugar and bread. Its craggy slopes revealed a visible strata of time that can be revealed in his poetry – a palimpsest of past and present. For Gurney there was no separation. With his poet’s eye he saw ancient history co-existing with the contemporary – Roman legionnaires rubbing shoulders with Cotswold farmers. This was epitomized in his first collection, Severn and Somme, published 100 years ago, in November 1917. From an early age his musical gifts were apparent and he became a chorister at Gloucester cathedral.

Taught by Dr Herbert Brewer, Gurney won a scholarship to the Royal College of Music, but his promising music career was postponed as he was caught up in the madness of the Great War. Enlisting in the Gloucestershire Regiment, he endured the horror of No Man’s Land, but miraculously survived being gassed. Yet in the Trenches he pictured his beloved Cotswold countryside. And back home, convalescing, he saw the Trenches superimposed upon forest, vale and high blue hill.

Suffering from a debilitating mental state, he was diagnosed with ‘shell shock’ and later, in a London hospital, ‘delusional insanity’. It would be tempting to see his breakdowns as a direct result of his experiences on the Front, but he displayed symptoms of Bipolar Disorder from his teens. Sadly, he spent the last 15 years of his life in mental hospitals, in County Durham, Edinburgh, Dartford and Barnwood House, Gloucester. Being torn away from his personal mythscape probably did him more harm than anything.

A friend of the Dymock poets, Edward Thomas’ widow visited, bringing her husband’s old OS maps, which Gurney delighted in tracing imaginary journeys on. He died in 1937, aged only 47 years old – but his music and words lives on, performed by the likes of Richard Carder and Johnny Coppin. And walking on Crickley Hill and reciting his poetry in situ brings alive his distinctive voice and genius – his words come home and rhyme with the land of his soul and birth.

Crickley HillCrickley Hill

The Walk:

1. From the carpark walk up to visitor centre, where there is a pleasant little cafe, information and toilets. From here turn left (facing the building) and follow road along briefly until you come to a wooden signpost (you’ll be following the white acorns of the Cotswold Way national trail until Greenway Lane).

2. Cross road carefully and follow path along the edge of the escarpment heading north-east. Use the Cotswold Way signs as a guide. You will intersect the Holst Way as well. You’ll be walking in the footsteps of Gurney and Holst along this route, who both loved to wander here, seeking inspiration.

3. Enter the deciduous woodland, keep following the escarpment.

4. Continue along Cotswold Way. Take left fork (following metal fence).

5. Go through metal gate. You should come out by a Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust interpretation board about the beech trees. Follow path out to the edge.

View from Crickley Hill towards the MalvernsView from Crickley Hill towards the Malverns

6. Continue straight along. Enjoy view out across towards the Malvern Hills (but watch your step too!).

7. Continue along until you reach a wooden gate where you drop down to the shady hollow of Greenway Lane. Here you leave the Cotswold Way and turn left downhill.

8. After a short distance (passed turning for Springway Farm), you come to Dryhill Farm. Take footpath on your left – passing through two gates, crossing down through the field.

9. Head towards the gap just to the left of the telegraph pole. Enjoy the views of the hills in the distance: Churchdown to right, Robinswood to left, and May Hill straight ahead with its distinctive copse of trees.

10. Through the gap follow line of telegraph poles down the hill to corner of the field. Look out for deer. You should be heading back towards Crickley Hill now.

11. Diagonally across this second field, you exit the bottom corner through a metal gate, crossing Norman’s Brook. Be careful as this can be very muddy!

12. Turn left, up the lane, through gates, cross lane (pass sign for Dryhill Cottage and Farm), and continue (through 3rd gate) into meadow.

13. This meadow of fair aspect, beneath Crickley Hill, is a site of a former Roman villa. Note the clear spring on your left – no doubt an important water source. This is a good place to read some Gurney in situ (e.g. ‘Quietude’ which mentions the villa).

14. Exit at the top of field through a wooden gate, turn right, and follow line of escarpment along, keeping right (don’t go up the hill).

15. Keep going right, following line of the fence, enjoying the views across the Malverns.

16. Eventually you come out on a metalled road (through a 5-bar gate). Here turn right down a steep lane, signed ‘Journeys End: unsuitable for motor vehicles’. NB if it’s been raining heavily then this route is best avoided – just follow current lane along to the bottom of Crickley Hill, skipping to #20.

17. You will pass a cottage on your left hidden in the trees – geographer Eleanor M. Rawling identifies this as the likeliest site of Ivor Gurney’s cottage, which he lived in briefly to be close to his beloved Crickley Hill.

18. Continue down past last house – Journey’s End – through gate, down a hollow lane (practically a stream-bed, so decent boots essential). It looks unpromising and can be muddy, but this eventually comes out by a footbridge by a footpath. Hold your nerve! Fortitude!

19. Cross footbridge and stile and take footpath left up the hill, heading back towards Crickley Hill. You are now on the Gloucestershire Way and all is well again.

20. After a steep climb, crossing a stone stile at far side of field, you emerge by a lane. Cross here, and take the footpath opposite (signed ‘Gloucestershire Way’) that leads up the ‘beak’ of Crickley Hill, passing the Devil’s Table on your right (a slab of rock suitable for devilish dining).

21. You will emerge triumphantly on the brow of Crickley Hill – enjoy the view as you catch your breath.

22. Explore the fascinating Iron Age heritage of Crickley Hill, a hill fort with a unique processional ridge and ritual circle, dramatically situated facing the sunset – ideal for ‘sacrifices’ if you’ve brought a picnic!

23. Follow the line of post-holes to the gap in the ramparts – here there are some interpretation boards describing the remarkable prehistoric heritage of Crickley Hill, clearly a significant place at one point and still a place to dream and wonder.

24. Continue back to visitor centre and carpark. The cafe or pub awaits!

Need to Know:

Distance: 5.38km / 3.34ml walk

Time: 2 hrs

Level: Moderate – some steep/muddy sections. Suitable clothing & footwear essential. Walking poles advised

Map: OS Explorer 179

Pub: The Air Balloon, Crickley Hill, Gloucestershire, GL4 8JY Tel: 01452 862541

Dog-friendly: Park,yes; pub, no

Public transport: Buses from Cheltenham

Parking: Crickley Hill country park (pay and display)

Toilets: Crickley Hill visitor centre

See more literary walks from Kevan Manwaring...

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