The Cotswolds is scattered with settlement remains, including tombs. Belas Knap – or beacon hill – is a great example of a Neolithic long barrow. It might look like a green mound in a field, but it would have been the centrepiece of the settlement, a significant presence on the wolds, and it’s likely the whole community would have helped to build it. This one, with walls of limestone and covered in turf, has a false entrance and side chambers, and when excavated in 1863 and 1865, the remains of 38 people were found inside. The barrow has been restored and is open to visitors all year round.
While you can park in a layby just half a mile from the barrow, we decided to make this more of a day out and park up in nearby Winchcombe and do a longer circular walk taking in a little bit more of the Cotswold Way to add to my running total. Winchcombe itself is a lovely little village in the Cotswolds, just outside Cheltenham, with a handful of cafes and pubs and shops good for a mooch. The walking route we found was from the AA’s 50 Walks in The Cotswolds, which I’ve had for a while now. We followed a printed copy from OS Maps online (if you want a discount code give me a shout and I can send you one!) and had it downloaded on my phone just in case And it was a good job…
Having parked at the public car park in Winchcombe, we headed through the village towards Sudeley Castle, picked up part of the Warden’s Way and onto the Winchcombe Way. There are lots of waymarked footpaths in Gloucestershire, some of which are better looked after than others, but all provide some interesting routes around villages, castles, settlements, up hills, along rivers, and the rest.
Our walk started well. We knew it was going to be very muddy in places and had dressed accordingly; this part of the country is completely sodden and even rather flooded in places, any walk that goes across countryside here is currently more than a little bit slippery. We crossed a couple of fields without difficulty, the land owner had added large footpath signs on the telegraph poles across his fields, someone who clearly wants walkers, of which there were a good number that wintery morning, to stick to the marked route – it made navigation across those fields nice and easy.
We headed over a footbridge into the next field, which was very much less friendly to our morning hike. This one had been ploughed to the very edges with only a small and boggy path around the outside. A reasonably new wire fence blocked what we felt should have been the exit from the field into the next, and despite consulting our printed map and the OS Maps app, we couldn’t find our footpath out of the field. We went back a bit, carried on a bit further, and although it felt like we must have gone wrong in our navigation (which is always a possibility!), our footsteps matched the GPS line and we still couldn’t work it out.
Farmers who plough across footpaths without providing somewhere to put my feet, even if it’s a longer alternative route around the field or into another field (which I completely understand, especially when there are livestock), are definitely something of a bugbear of mine. It happens a lot; I wrote about this walk in Lincolnshire where the same had happened. I know walkers aren’t perfect, but we are allowed to be there, and a lack of consideration can very easily ruin an otherwise nice day out. I have reported our route issue to the local council in the hope they can go and make sure all is in order for others when they want to follow this published route – I should head back another time to check it out.
Frustrated, thanks to a combination of doubting our map reading skills and being caked in ploughed field, it would have been very easy to turn around and head back down into Winchcombe. Instead we used our map to find an alternative route through a coppice to a lane – a longer route to Belas Knap but I don’t like giving up and we weren’t ready to be done with our hike yet. We circled the field, keeping to the hedgerow out of the way, which was technically not a public footpath, but it allowed us to get to a small woodland and onto a lane, which meant we could continue. We were grateful for the lane as it was much easier going than the field, maybe we should have gone that way in the first place!
Belas Knap was reasonably busy, most people had parked up nearby, and I think we would both admit we were jealous of their laziness on this occasion. We walked around the barrow and went into the chambers that were open to us. It was very interesting, and thanks to it being a proper winter sun day, we had great views across the Cotswolds, too.
From the long barrow we took a combination of the Cotswold Way and a narrow country lane back down into Winchcombe. One day I will do the whole Cotswold Way, but in the meantime I’m happy doing bits here and there as I continue to explore my local AONB.
Our route ended up around a mile longer than the advertised 5.5 miles thanks to our detour, but it was still a decent half-day walk that built up a suitable appetite for lunch – one of the main reasons I walk. After swapping our muddy boots for something else we headed to Food Fanatics in Winchcombe for lunch, where I would recommend the cake but not the sandwiches.
I guess there are two lessons here. The first is that walking in the countryside in winter can be tough, even on what you might consider low level countryside trails and with with a well plotted route described wonderfully in a guidebook and with a line drawn on a GPS map. The second is that map reading is a skill anyone spending time in the countryside needs to learn as you can always find another way to reach your destination if and when your expected route becomes impassable for whatever reason.
And on the topic of plough happy farmers; yes, it really grates when it appears as though marked and public footpaths are being made impassable, bridges are broken or signs are being hidden on purpose. We know it happens. But we also know that walkers can be a pain. Let’s do our bit and be considerate to managed and unmanaged land by practicing leave no trace, and maybe those farmers will rethink their actions too.
Belas Knap long barrow is an English Heritage site but it is free to enter. There are no facilities at the long barrow itself, and if you want to drive there is a small layby for just a handful of cars. From there it’s about half a mile up a hill to the site. Based on my experience you might be better off doing that shorter walk…
I’m told that Belas Knap is actually one of four Gloucestershire long barrows looked after by English Heritage – we also have Uley Long Barrow, Nympsfield Long Barrow and Windmill Tump Long Barrow that can be visited in this county.