I think it’s fair to say that one thing we all have in common during this lock down period is the fact that we’ve spent some time exploring our local area a little bit more than we might have otherwise. I certainly have, building up a bank of lovely circular walks that I’ve enjoyed having in my weekly repertoire, including a bunch of one-hour-lunch-break appropriate walks from my own front door, and a selection of weekend-friendly walks that might take a bit longer but allow that extra bit of escapism.
I am fortunate that I live right on the edge of the Cotswolds. Designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), which might be considered a step down from a National Park by some, but has similar levels of protection for conservation due to its significant landscape value. We moved to this area almost exactly two years ago, and so I’m only a youngling and certainly can’t profess to knowing my local hikes like the back of my hand just yet. But I have certainly got to know my local footpaths a lot more over the last weeks and months and, in this post, I want to share one of my favourite loops with you.
Taking in woodland, meadow and hilltops, this is a beautiful loop around Southam and Cleeve Hill. Maybe you’re local and are looking for something that ticks all the boxes, or maybe you’re reading this a year or two down the line and are coming to this area for a holiday – either way, I would highly recommend giving yourself a couple of hours to follow this walk.
Perched right on the edge of the Cotswolds, Cleeve Hill is a dominating feature on the landscape that can be seen for miles around. It’s popular, for very good reason, but there is plenty of space and I haven’t found maintaining social distancing to be difficult. This area is teeming with history, and this short four-mile walk will take you through a number of interesting features of natural and archaeological value. Even on a hazy day the views are extensive, but grab a clear day (walk early in the morning or in the evening for your best chance of this) and your climb will be rewarded with views of Prestbury, Cheltenham, May Hill, the Malverns, the Severn Vale and Forest of Dean right over to the mountains of Wales.
Location and Route Finding
This route is a circular walk from Southam, to the North of Cheltenham, and there are a couple of places you can start and finish. If you want to start at the top of the hill and go down and then up, you can park in the Quarry Car Park on Cleeve Hill itself – turn off the B4632 at the summit of Cleeve Hill, signposted to Cleeve Hill Golf Club, go all the way up the lane, over the cattle grid and bear left to the parking area (grid reference SO989272, nearest postcode GL52 3PW). [Please note that this car park is currently closed due to lock down but there is pedestrian access.] If you want to start at the bottom of the hill and go up and then down, which is my preference, then there is a layby at on the B4632 at Southam close to the entrance of Ellenborough Park Hotel (which is an excellent place for afternoon tea) with space for several cars (grid reference SO973254).
As this was a route I discovered and walked several times during lock down, this isn’t the exact route I have been walking – you’ll not find my front door anywhere along the black line in the map screenshot, but I am very fortunate to call this walk very local and it’s just one of the loops that have helped to keep me (nearly) sane in these very strange times. Let me talk you through the route from the village of Southam.
You’ll find the footpath on the corner of a field next to a lane – this isn’t a stile free route I’m afraid, so bear that in mind if you have kids, dogs or accessibility difficulties, and you’re faced with your first one here at the start of the walk. Once in the meadow, which may or may not be full of sheep, follow the edge of the field straight up the hill. It is a reasonable climb, but one that can be done by most, it’s a grassy path with easy footing. Don’t forget to keep looking down and across the meadow as you climb, the views change with each metre of ascent, first with views across Ellenborough Park Hotel grounds, across Cheltenham Racecourse, and then across Prestbury and Cheltenham.
At the top left corner of the meadow, rather than following the more obvious footpath round to the right to continue around the meadow, you’ll find a narrow entrance to Queen’s Wood (which can be muddy after rain), and then another stile once you are under the tree canopy. Catch this at the right time of year you will find a stunningly beautiful blanket of bluebells in this ancient woodland, it is such a nice example of ancient English woodland and does draw the crowds when those bluebells are in full bloom. Keep heading up hill through the woodland and you won’t go wrong, although it’s tempting to take one of the many winding woodland paths that shoot off through this lovely cool section of the walk, and I’ve lost several hours just wandering aimlessly here over the last few weeks. If you do come at bluebell time, please remember to keep to the path, as bluebells are fragile and sensitive to being trodden on, damaging them both in that season and preventing them from being able to flower again next season.
Even if you don’t come here for the bluebells, it is still a beautiful ancient woodland with trees and ferns and wild garlic and the other things. It’s quiet and peaceful and this stretch of the walk is worth taking a little time over. After a short distance, if you weren’t tempted by other footpaths, you’ll exit the woodland and find a gate, you’re now on Cleeve Common.
I love to find out a bit of history about places that I’m walking – it is surprising how many things you see are not there by accident. At the top of Queen’s Wood, head through that gate and continue in the same direction between the gorse bushes and trees. Before you start your final ascent onto Cleeve Common, where a number of paths cross, there is a square stone block of stone sitting there, known (and marked on the OS Map) as “Huddlestone’s Table”. Legend tells us that this marks the spot where Kenulf, the Saxon king of Mercia, bade farewell to several important guests, including the king of Kent, after dedicating the great Benedictine Abbey in Winchcombe in 811. This is most likely untrue, however, as the history doesn’t match up – the stone doesn’t lie on tracks in use at that time and, more importantly, the Huddlestone family didn’t actually move to Southam until the 1520’s… I wonder what the real story of this particularly rectangular piece of stone is.
Once up on the hill, a final short sharp ascent along a well-trodden path, you are free to wander and explore as you wish. You top out at what is locally known as “The Twins”, a pair of beautifully windswept beech trees with a couple of benches underneath, with vast views of Cheltenham and Gloucester. If you packed a picnic, or even just a bar of chocolate, this is the spot to stop and take a few moments for a break.
You are now common land, and while that does not mean it is owned by the public (Cleeve Common is privately owned), the public do have the right to roam here. In short, you are legally permitted to access this land without being officially restricted to the footpaths. It is deemed a common because some local farmers have grazing (“commoners”) rights here, and you will find sheep, cattle and other animals on the hill for the majority of the year. I’ve actually witnessed people shoo sheep away from the path, please don’t do that, they live here!
This particular route, however, takes you immediately left along the edge of the hill, along a marked and designated footpath. This is a small section of the Cotswold Way, a 102-mile National Trail from Chipping Campden to Bath that celebrates its 50th birthday this year (2020). I hope to walk the whole thing at some point, maybe even this year if restrictions allow, although it is distinctly lacking in campsites along the route which means it isn’t a cheap and cheerful long-distance hike with any kind of flexibility, which is a shame. I digress.
Cleeve Common is absolutely beautiful all year round. Apart from being part of the Cotswolds AONB, it is also a Site of Special Scientific Interest for its geology, habitats and botany and it contains a wealth of archaeological interest, including three Scheduled Monuments. The first feature you’ll come across is an Iron Age hill fort, one of around 35 hill forts spread along the Cotswold escarpment. It dates from around 500BC. I can completely understand why you’d want a base up here – you can see for miles.
Continue along the Cotswold Way for a short time, heading over Cross Dyke (a Bronze Age boundary dating back to 700BC and thought to be the Common’s oldest archaeological feature), and back up again to the trig pillar. At 317m, this trig is not technically the highest point in the Cotswolds… there is a actually second trig point a mile or so south of here which stands an important 13m higher than this one, and which is therefore the roof of the Cotswolds, but in fairness that one has no view to speak of as it’s just on the edge of a field, the one here is much more spectacular.
Thrift Wood and Home
Cleeve Hill might not be a mountain top, but I happen to think it’s magnificent none-the-less, and this landmark is well worth the effort to reach. From the trig pillar, continue to follow the Cotswold Way a little further until you reach the Golf Club, where you’ll take a sharp left to head down the hill along a grassy track. Our route follows this track down the hill and along this contour line above Thrift Wood (note a couple of forks on the map, there are a lot of paths to choose from here).
Continue along there until you come to some private property, where the path heads down the hill along the edge of Nutterswood, and then continues down (it’s as steep down as it was up at the beginning…) alongside some paddocks and eventually down a little track to the road where you started the loop.
In just four miles you’ve had meadow, ancient woodland, a hill climb, views into another country, a trig pillar, plenty of sheep, a National Trail, more woodland, and paddocks – not bad, huh?!
If you want more shot loops in this area please do let me know, I’ve got a whole bunch I could share that I’ve been enjoying since we moved here a couple of years ago and especially since the travel restrictions kicked in. Alternatively, use the route-finding function over on OS Maps to discover both published routes and routes that others have plotted to give you some ideas.
If you have never tried OS Maps and want to, start here (affiliate link, thank you for supporting my hobbies).