WHERE IS THE PATH? The trail runs along the western edge of the Cotswold Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, following the Cotswold Edge – the western escarpment of the Cotswold Hills. On the way it visits three counties – Gloucestershire, Worcestershire (briefly) and Somerset.
HOW LONG IS THE COTSWOLD WAY? 102-105 miles
HOW LONG DOES IT TAKE TO ‘DO’ THE COTSWOLD WAY? 7-9 days
WHERE DOES THE COTSWOLD WAY BEGIN? Chipping Campden, a well-to-do market town in Glouccestershire.
AND WHERE DOES IT END?Bath, one of the loveliest cities in England.
IS IT A NATIONAL TRAIL: Yes
HOW HARD IS THE COTSWOLD WAY? Harder, perhaps, than you may think. The designers of the walk clearly liked a hill, and many an afternoon you’ll spend slogging up a slope, even when easier, flatter alternatives are available.
Another stretch of lovely woodland on the Way, this one on the way to Leckhampton Hill
Ahh the joy of the Cotswolds. A gorgeous little world of gold and amber buildings, cosy thatched cottages, gently rolling hills and villages crammed with teeny tearooms and ancient inns. Is there anywhere more magical in England?
And here we have a National Trail that is named after the Cotswolds – a path that allows you to meander for a week or more through this delightful landscape. What could be better?
Well, actually, quite a bit. Because while I still enjoyed myself on the Cotswold Way, this must be said:
This is my least favourite national trail.
In fact, I’ll go further: this is my least favourite of all the long-distance trails.
But why is this, when it seems to have so much going for it?
Well, to be fair, that is probably less the fault of the trail, and more to do with my expectations. The problem is that the trail is actually misnamed. For this trail is less about the Cotswolds, and more about the Cotswold Hills.
The difference is a subtle one, but very significant. For while the Cotswolds Hills are part of the Cotswold Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), they are quite distinctive from it. True, there are still some pretty honey-coloured villages on the way, and you can still get cream teas at various points on the walk. But this path doesn’t meander around looking for lovely villages, as you may have thought (and hoped).
Instead, it follows a very specific geographic feature – namely, the western escarpment of the Cotswold Hills that overlooks the Severn River and which defines the western edge of the AONB. This escarpment, which is called the Edge, has its attractions – views, woodland, towers, bits and bobs that date back to the Iron Age – but these aren’t necessarily what you picture when you think of the Cotswolds.
What I am saying, then, is that you shouldn’t ‘do’ the Cotswold Way in order to see the Cotswolds; or, at least, not to see the best of them. This is a very idiosyncratic trail following a very specific geological feature. In that sense, it is similar to the North Downs Way and South Downs Way, the South-West Coast Path and Pembrokeshire Coast Path, Thames Path and the Pennine Way. And just as it would be both pointless and unfair to complain that the North Downs Way doesn’t visit London – why would it, when the North Downs themselves don’t go through the capital – so it’s wrong to expect that the Cotswolds Way should visit some of the Cotswolds’ prettiest villages. It’s just unfortunate that the name of the trek may lead you to believe that it does.
Instead, the Cotswold Way seems to have an almost perverse addiction for hills. If there’s a direct route from village A to village B, or an alternative, longer route that takes in an unnecessary gradient or two, then the Cotswold Way will always choose the latter.
I’m not against a gradient or two, as you can hopefully see from the other walks on this site. But the regularity with which you’re expected to climb is both monotonous and more than a little annoying. And though one of the main reasons I like climbing up a hill is because of the views you can get at the top, walking along the Cotswold Way I found myself wondering how many times I was expected to gaze in slack-jawed awe over the town of Cheltenham? Because if I’m going to be asked to climb slope after slope, then at least give me something a little more attractive than bl***dy Cheltenham as a reward for my efforts!
Of course, the Cotswold Way does have its attractions too, and perhaps I’ve been rather unfair in listing its drawbacks first. I loved, to give you just one example, the mile after mile of peaceful woodland that the trail passes through; perhaps the most, along with the North Downs Way, of any National Trail. The towers, of which there are several along the Way – are intriguing and impressive. (Mostly built as follies, the most impressive of them, Broadway Tower, on the first day of walking, has connections with William Morris.) And the city of Bath is, in my opinion, the best end to a trek that I can think of – or even imagine. It’s just a shame that, overall, much of the rest of the trail didn’t live up to my expectations.
So there you have it. A simple week-long stroll in one of the most beautiful parts of England is not one to be passed up. Just don’t expect to spend all your time grazing on cream tea after cream tea, interspersed with a few hours mooching around antique shops and auction houses, before ambling on to a cosy inn for supper and sleep. The Cotswold Way does have all of those features, it’s true: but not as many of them as you were perhaps expecting, or hoping for. Nor, given all those hills, is it particularly simple. But if you fancy a fairly vigorous trek through some lovely beech woods, with Iron Age forts and follies aplenty – not to mention countless bird’s-eye views of bloody Cheltenham! – then this is the path for you.
Where I was expecting tearooms, instead I got trees. Lots of them. I reckon that only the North Downs Way can rival this path when it comes to the number of lovely stretches of woodland on the way – and as someone who’s a big fan of a bit of sylvian strolling, this was an unexpected bonus.
Another surprise that was as welcome as it was unforeseen. The Cotswold Edge was clearly an important place for ancient Britons who lived up there, hunted up there, fought up there and were buried up there. And there are several places right on the path where you can see the evidence. None of these places will make your eyes pop out of your head on stalks in wonder (unlike those ancient monuments on the Ridgeway, for example), but they do offer a bit of extra colour to the trail.
It’s not just the early Britons who liked building up on the Edge either. There are several follies and other assorted architecture decorating the hills that you can visit (usually for a fee). Why you’d want to spend more in order to enjoy a lofty vantage point when you’re already enjoying one from the top of the hill is a moot point, but the towers are often fabulous and always photogenic.
Two parts beauty to one part snooty, Chipping Campden is a good place to start: small, attractive and with a range of useful facilities for the trekker. The ancient market hall, built in 1627 and now owned by the National Trust, is also one of the more photogenic places to start a trail too (especially when compared to the Thames Path, which also starts in the Cotswolds – by a stone in a field).
Bath is a lovely place to visit at any time of year and under any circumstance, and even more so when you’ve just finished a National Trail. I am struggling to think of a better terminus for a long-distance walk. The Flood Barrier at the end of the Thames Path is quite spectacular, but you’re in the middle of nowhere and have to walk through an industrial no-man’s land just to get a bus home. Whereas here, your final step on the trail takes you to the doors of Bath Abbey, in the heart of the city – magnificent!
It’s a National Trail and as such the maintenance of the path is very good and the information on their website is, as always, good too. Also means you can order a certificate too, of course..and a badge!
The regularity with which you climb becomes monotonous – and, after a while, pretty annoying too. Hills I can handle. Hills that are climbed just for the sake of it are annoying, however, unless of course there’s a reason for climbing it. An iron-age earthwork, of which there are a couple, is a good reason for climbing. Views over Cheltenham are not.
It’s not unusual for the path to loop around, sometimes with little apparent reason. This can be annoying when you find yourself just a few metres from where you were fifteen minutes ago, especially when you’ve walked over a kilometre to get there.
Parts of the Cotswolds are famously posh, and as a result it can be quite an expensive walk if you’re staying in B&Bs and eating in pubs and restaurants every night. The situation is exacerbated by the lack of camping and bunkhouse accommodation on the way – so for much of the time, B&Bs may be your only option for accommodation.
The transport network feels like it’s been left to rot, perhaps because few of the locals use it. You can usually find some sort of bus service to most places along the trail – though to get from A to B you may find yourself having to travel via C and D first.
Useful info for Cotswold Way walkers
Transport to and from the path
Overlooking Selsey from the Common with the same name.
Getting to the start of the trail is a bit of an expedition in itself. Chipping Campden is not a huge place and there’s no railway station. Arriving by bus is thus your best option, either from Moreton in Marsh – the nearest place with a train service – or from Stratford-upon-Avon.
Thankfully, getting away from Bath at the end of the trail is no problem, with the city well served by buses, National Express coaches and trains.
Transport along the Cotswold Way
You won’t find any useful train services along the trail, and in order to find any railway service you’ll have to walk a mile or three off the path.
Most places along the trail have some sort of bus service. The main problem is that finding a bus that travels along the path is quite difficult. In particular, finding a bus that connects the northern half of the path with the southern half is impossible – presumably because the path crosses into different counties, which presumably have their own bus networks that rarely overlap.
Between Chipping Campden and Winchcombe there are buses that run along the trail.
Between Winchcombe and Painswick you’ll probably have to travel via Cheltenham.
Between Painswick and Wootton under Edge you’ll struggle to find connections between the places en route though you may have some luck if you look at travelling via Stroud.
Wootton to Old Sodbury is pretty well connected by a couple of buses.
Between Old Sodbury and Bath you’ll probably have to travel via Chipping Sodbury.
Walking the Cotswold Way with a dog
There are no major concerns with bringing a dog along the Way and there are plenty of woodland where your hound can run amok to its heart content.
It might be an idea to keep him or her on a lead, however, if they’re the kind of dog that can’t help but chase golf balls – the path crosses several courses.
There are, of course, also several farms you cross with livestock.
Signpost at Ebley Canal
So where might I get lost? It’s not easy to get lost on the Cotswold Way. The trail is comprehensively signposted, like all National Trails. The biggest problem may be when you’re walking through the woods. These woods are sometimes very extensive and there are always plenty of smaller trails branching off the main one, so you could get lost for a while.
The only place that I can recall where I had any problems was after Selsey Common, where the signposts were missing and it appears that the path has been moved. It delayed us for only twenty minutes or so but that was long enough to be annoying. Hopefully new posts have been erected now and you’ll find the situation much improved.
Finally, finding your way through Bath to the Abbey is not difficult, but if you are hoping to follow the correct trail then you’ve got to watch out very closely for any indications, as the signposts disappear at this point. Acorn stickers attached to roadsigns, bollards and other street furniture are your only hope, but after a while you may have to accept defeat and just try to get to the abbey by whatever route you find.
Camping and accommodation along the Cotswold Way
Camping along the Cotswold Way is not straightforward. There aren’t many official campsites and, of course, wild camping is illegal (though very possible, given the extensive woods and forests along the way).
The hostel situation along the Cotswold Way is also pretty depressing, with only two independent hostels to supplement Bath’s youth hostel.
Bunkhouses, too, are few and far between.
So it’s B&Bs that you’ll be relying on for most of your trek.
Facilities along the Cotswold Way
The Cotswold Way is not as rural or isolated as some trails, and as a consequence facilities are fairly easy to come by along the trail. ATMs, shops, post offices are all available along the way, though you do still need to plan ahead – there are some pretty long stretches where you won’t find anything.
As I’ve already said, public transport isn’t very comprehensive along the trail either, so even if you want to leave the trail to go shopping or get some money out it won’t always be easy.
Dangers and annoyances
Devil’s Chimney, Leckhampton Hill
Perhaps the biggest potential hazard is people under-estimating the Cotswold Way. It can in places be a tough walk with some steep sections. Furthermore, you can still be some distance from any help should you become immobilised for some reason and require assistance.
You probably have to go out of your way – and off the path – for this to be a hazard, but there are some steep drops, particularly around Devil’s Chimney on Leckhampton Hill. Just watch your footing around here.
Heatstroke is a more realistic danger – so make sure you take a lot of water with you on the trail, wear sunscreen and cover up when it gets really sunny.
Tips and hints
If you can, give yourself a day or two at the end of the trek so you can spend more time in Bath. It’s a lovely place.
On that subject, if you’ve never been to the Cotswolds before and, after this walk, you’re wondering what all the fuss is about, do check out some of the other villages in the region. Some of them are just gorgeous – and you may then understand why I’m a little disappointed with the trail itself.
If you’ve got the time, do visit the Cold War nuclear bunker near Broadway Tower – it’s the only one near a National Trail (well, at least as far as I know) and it’s fascinating.
Don’t miss the churchyard at Painswick, either. My younger self would be shaking his head in despair that now get a kick out of topiary – but I love the manicured yew trees here.
‘A polished guide … with detailed maps and masses of practical information’ Walk Magazine (Ramblers)
‘Maintains the hallmarks of these popular guides’ Strider (Long Distance Walkers Association).
Comprehensive, all-in-one guide to walking the Cotswold Way, one of England’s favourite National Trails.
The walking guide includes:
* 44 large-scale walking maps at just under 1:20,000 – showing route times, places to stay, places to eat, points of interest and much more.
* Town plans, colour stage maps and altitude profiles of the entire way
* Places to stay with reviews Pubs, hotels, B&Bs, hostels, bunkhouses, campsites.
* Places to eat with reviews Teashops, cafes, takeaways, pubs, restaurants.
* What to see along the way Historical, cultural and geographical background information.
* Itineraries for all walkers Whether walking the route in its entirety over a week to 10 days or sampling the highlights on day walks and short breaks.
* Comprehensive public transport information For all access points on the path.
* Flora and fauna Four page full colour flower guide, plus an illustrated section on local wildlife.
* Green hiking Understanding the local environment and minimizing our impact on it.
* Downloadable GPS waypoints.
* The information is written onto the maps. Walking directions, tricky junctions, places to stay and eat, points of interest and walking times are all written onto the maps themselves in the places to which they apply. The maps are not general-purpose ones but fully-edited maps drawn by walkers for walkers.
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