Beyond the scone zone
Peter Henshaw goes for a walk in the Cotswolds and finds a gastronomic gem, fierce winds and the ancient sport of shin kicking!
The Cotswolds: gentle rolling hills with cosy, golden-stone villages, where teashops serve the best cream teas you’ll find outside Yorkshire. How quaint… how English.
Absolute nonsense, or at least that’s how it seemed to me as I struggled up to the summit of Dover’s Hill with my wife, into the teeth of a biting February gale. We’d come to discover whether there was life beyond the teashops, coach parties and postcards. We weren’t in pursuit of the perfect cream tea – though one or two wouldn’t go amiss – but we wanted to seek out the more spectacular parts.
And there are some. As we wound down the hairpin bends of Fish Hill late on Friday night, the Vale of Evesham was laid out before us. There were so many lights that it looked like some vast street-lit city, interspersed with big, unlit parks – almost as if Los Angeles had been transported to Gloucestershire.
It’s a stunning view, and the Cotswolds owe this unexpected vista to geology. Below the cottages and fields is a huge slab of limestone, tilted west end uppermost. So the eastern side of the Cotswolds is just as rolling and cottagey as the clichés lead you to expect, but the western edge has been weathered into a dramatic escarpment, giving panoramic views over several counties.
The best way to experience this area is to traverse the Cotswold Way, a 100-mile footpath that stretches from Bath to Chipping Campden. For most of those 100 miles, it sticks to high ground and the Cotswolds escarpment, so you get good views most of the way. Even better, it manages to take in plenty of villages, so there’s no need to stint on the cream teas.
"The best way to experience this area is to traverse the Cotswold Way, a 100-mile footpath that stretches from Bath to Chipping Campden"
The Cotswold Way has been revamped, with new signposts and some re-routing. It’s well signed, so much so that taking a good map is almost unnecessary, although still a good idea. One hundred miles in a weekend looked too ambitious, so we settled for the first ten or so, from our holiday cottage in Chipping Campden to Broadway, the next village on.
Chipping Campden was a mild culture shock. On a wet Friday night in mid-February, we expected it to be practically deserted; who would be taking a weekend in the Cotswolds at this time of year? The place was packed. Both sides of the long high street were jammed with so many Jags, Range Rovers and BMWs, it was almost as if we’d taken a wrong turning and stumbled on one of the more exclusive parts of Chelsea.
The landlord of the Red Lion, solved it for us. “Chipping Campden has become a bit of a gastronomic centre,” he told us. “Some people drive down from London to eat here.” Looking out at the restaurants and pubs, you could see why. We waited 30 stomach-rumbling minutes for our meals to arrive, but the smoked haddock and the chicken ballotine were well worth it.
The next day we ate and drank at The Bantam Tea Rooms and perused some to the locals shops before moving off along the Cotswold Way to Dover’s Hill.
Coming to the edge of the Cotswold escarpment is a surprise if you’re not expecting it. Almost 1,000ft high, Dover’s Hill is a natural amphitheatre from which it is said you can see for 60 miles – on a clear day, anyway. If you don’t fancy walking up from Chipping Campden, there’s a circular one-mile walk from the car park.
Captain Robert Dover chose this place to inaugurate his ‘Olympick Games’ in 1612, and they were held every year until 1852, before being a revived a century or so later. Not that they had much to do with lofty Olympic ideals; one of the original sports was shin kicking! The Cotswold Olimpick Games – along with the shin kicking – are still held in Chipping Camden on the Friday after the Late Spring Bank Holiday.
From Dover’s Hill, the Cotswold Way takes you west, along a broad, grassy, tree-lined avenue. Our goal remained frustratingly out of sight until we’d walked across a couple of fields, tramped through a small wood and risked a sticky end crossing the busy A44.
But then, there it was. Broadway Tower, built in 1799, is a glorious Gothic folly that rears its castellated head over one of the highest points in the Cotswolds. Open to the public, it sits in a country park that offers yet more spectacular views. Just follow the brown tourist signs from the A44.
It was up here, trying to stand upright against the wind howling around the tower, that I briefly succumbed to a bleak view of the Cotswolds. Then I had second thoughts. Below us, laid out like a map, was Broadway, and the Cotswold Way led straight downhill into it. This Cotswold village might or might not be well manicured and it may or may not be part of the Cotswold cliché, but it does a smashing cream tea.
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• Peter Henshaw, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org