My friend Fiona and I completed the Cotswold Way National Trail back in April 2023. In my adventure journal series so far, I’ve been recounting each day on the trail – we covered the 108-miles (our mileage total) in six days. If you’re new here, do head to the start of the story.
We completed our hike in the late afternoon, and, as you’ll have read in my day six post, celebrated with pizza once we’d had chance to freshen up. But we weren’t done with the merriments; joining up some sections in order that we could finish on Thursday evening meant we had the opportunity to try a very special and old Bath tradition before we headed home. And no, we hadn’t carried our swimmers so we could take the waters.
In this post, while not about the adventure of physically hiking the Cotswold Way per se, I want to concentrate on the events and thoughts I experienced in the immediate aftermath. For me, exploring Bath and eating a Bath Bun was absolutely part of the hiking trip. Ticking off the Cotswold Way National Trail absolutely included this day.
The Pros and Cons of the Cotswold Way
If you’ve been using this series to inspire your next long-distance hike, I hope the sections towards the end of this article will help you decide whether the Cotswold Way is for you or not. I’ll share a few thoughts on the trail as a whole, some notes on logistics, and also offer up a handful of reasons why you should – and why you shouldn’t – hike the Cotswold Way.
And, as I’ve mentioned in previous adventure journal series’ (read my final Coast to Coast post), the feelings and emotions that hit in the immediate aftermath of an adventure – and how I am able to deal with those – are especially important to how the memory of the adventure lasts in my mind.
Cotswold Way Day 7
Friday, The Train Home to Cheltenham, 0 Miles!
The Z Hotel in Bath really was the perfect base for our one-night post-hike mini break. I had a fantastic sleep, and while I woke feeling a bit stiff in the legs and back, I was refreshed and ready to get moving again. Okay, a lot stiff in the legs and back – I groaned as I got out of bed and into the shower – but once I was up and about, you know, I was all good.
Also positive was the fact my gear had completely dried out overnight, including my sodden pack and, more importantly, hiking boots. The fact I didn’t put my waterproof over trousers on the previous day, thanks to being unwilling to admit the rain was heavy enough until it was far too late, meant the water had pooled inside my Meindl Bhutans.
Anyone with Gore-Tex footwear knows this is a complete nightmare. The same waterproof membrane which stops water getting in, also prevents water from escaping, and you end up walking in two puddles. Squelchy! This is the very reason a lot of long-distance hikers, especially in the USA, won’t wear Gore-Tex shoes on trail. But, as this is the first time since I got these boots back nearly four years ago I’ve ended up with water inside them, and it was my own stupid fault (put your waterproof trousers on, kids…), I’m still very happy with my choice. For hiking in the UK, at least.
A Solo Wander in the Quiet
Fiona and I weren’t meeting up until 10am. Not one to sit around when there’s exploring to be done, and with those slightly stiff yet restless legs, I decided to get out for a wander while the streets of Bath were quiet. We had (unsurprisingly) arrived at Bath Abbey to crowds of people, and I liked the idea of seeing some of the city’s sights without other people getting in the way.
I was only out for a little over an hour, but I wandered to the (outside of the) Abbey, Roman Baths, Parade Gardens, Pulteney Bridge and Weir, as well as wandering a few of the alleyways and ginnels around North Parade. An aimless wander as the city woke up was a lovely way to spend some of my morning – Bath is a beautiful city, and this isn’t my first time, so I had the luxury of just meandering about.
Bath is a reasonably compact city if you are only looking for the big sights. I will be back in Bath soon to explore more, maybe even for the Christmas market this year, I’m told that’s a lovely day out. I guess you’ll have to read my weekly blogs to see if I make good on that idea.
Meanwhile, Fiona had taken herself out for a first breakfast, which I thought was an odd thing to do seeing as we were meeting up for brunch. As it happens, I was a little jealous of her early morning coffee and granola; my wander was just what I needed to wake up, stretch my legs, and get One Hour Outside, but I did reach our 10am meeting time a little ravenous!!
Sally Lunn’s Bath Buns
Fiona and I walked over to the famous Sally Lunn’s historic eating house for our celebration brunch. One of the oldest houses in Bath, dating back to 1482, the kitchen is believed to have been the bakery of the young Huguenot baker Solange Luyon, who’s French name was butchered by the English and became Sally Lunn. We’re so bad at languages!
Sally Lunn’s is famous for the original Bath Bun – the Sally Lunn Bun (Bunn). Part bun, part bread, part cake, this large and generous treat is a little like brioche or French festival bread. Apparently, there is some confusion between the London Bath Bun and a Sally Lunn Bun. The former is small and doughy, whereas the latter is large and light.
It’s likely the Sally Lunn version was cooked in small batches and eaten locally, whereas the London version was ‘mass produced’ and, as a result, rather low in quality. Oh, and if it’s Bath Bun or Bath Bunn is up to you… the Sally Lunn’s website spells it with one, but the menu has it with two, so I’ve gone with one ‘n’ for the simple reason that then I don’t get red lines everywhere in my blog drafts file!!
Having never had a Sally Lunn Bath Bun before, I was very happy when Fiona suggested we headed there for brunch. I had stumbled across the eating house on my early morning wander and happened to witness the delivery of these buns – trays and trays of freshly baked goodness. They are indeed large, and looked really fantastic.
We checked out of our hotel, carrying our hiking packs once again, and headed over to the bakery to arrive just as it opens (10am daily). You can’t reserve tables in the daytime, but we heard that if you go for brunch, it’s normally possible to be seated straight away.
When you order, you get half a bun – the top if you order sweet, and the bottom if you order savoury. There were heaps of options to choose from. I had mine French toast style from the breakfast menu, which was half a Sally Lunn Bath Bun dipped in cinnamon eggs topped with dry cure smoked bacon and honey.
It was delicious, as was the pot of Sally Lunn blend tea that came with it. In my hiker-hunger state I could definitely have eaten a whole bun (there was that jealousy that this was Fiona’s second breakfast), but it would normally be plenty for breakfast. At £12 you are paying for the experience of eating in such an ancient bakery as well as the food itself, but it was worth it; good food, a nice experience, and a lovely way to celebrate the Cotswold Way with Fiona.
Our stay in Bath might have been for less than 24 hours (it was something around the 18-hour mark I reckon), but it was a very nice way to wind down from and celebrate completing the Cotswold Way before catching the train home and returning to normality (whatever that is…).
Looking back now, and comparing it to the end of other adventures I have been on, I can recommend doing something similar; it provided a good buffer between life on the trail and life at home – and it seemed only right to spend some time in the place we’d spent a week walking to! Jenni and I did something similar at the end of the West Highland Way; we had a night in Edinburgh, walked up Arthur’s Seat, and ate brunch in a lovely café on Cockburn Street. Maybe this is my perfect post-adventure routine?!
Not keen to do much more wandering after brunch, given we were carrying our packs, we mooched in a few outdoor shops (a favourite pastime), stocked up on train snacks in M&S, and sat in the sunshine in Bath centre chatting and reading. We got the midday-ish train from Bath to Cheltenham, which carried us through the scenery we’d been walking for the previous few days – a lovely and very convenient journey back home.
We did do some reminiscing as we watched Tyndale Monument and Cam Long Down fly past the window, but the journey was mainly spent in our own little worlds – reading, listening to music, and having some quiet time. The train was followed by a bus, and we walked in my front door sometime in the mid-afternoon.
Cup of Tea?
In true Zoe fashion, the kettle went on as soon as we walked in the door, and then the cleaning and sorting began. I might have lived out of a small backpack with just a few personal belongings with me for a week, but it still felt like there was a lot of cleaning and sorting to be done! And for some reason I found that to be quite stress-inducing. My brain seemed to want everything clean and put away instantly, which was clearly not going to happen.
It was my turn to have the benefit of ending an adventure at home; Fiona was staying at mine and heading back north the following day. I did my best to make her feel super welcome, but I know from personal experience that it will have been much harder for her to relax than it was for me. I mean, I was in my own home, with my own bed, kitchen and all the clean clothes I could want. Fiona had to manage with whatever she’d packed. Still, I think the homemade vegetable-packed Spaghetti Bolognese and apple crumble helped, or at least I hope it did!
And with that, my Cotswold Way adventure was over. Six days, 108-miles, three counties, a large number of hills climbed, a bunch of main roads crossed, monuments passed, woodlands wandered through, and all weathers experienced. Which leaves me with the small matter of a few final observations about hiking my most local National Trail yet. You know what that means…
Some Notes on the Cotswold Way
Considered one of the most picturesque areas of England, the Cotswolds Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) is a gorgeous area of gently rolling hills, farmland surrounded by dry stone walls and plump hedges, and pale-yellow houses and thatched cottages which make up villages complete with ancient churches, old roadside inns, and little tearooms. This tourist hotspot is nothing short of magical in look and feel – quintessentially English, chocolate-box-pretty, you know what I’m saying.
At 102 official miles, the Cotswold Way runs down the western side of the Cotswolds AONB, teetering on the edge of the Cotswold Hills, following (very closely) the geological feature known as the Cotswold Edge. The escarpment, broken in places after centuries of erosion (which means lots of short sharp ascents and descents, sometimes at very regular intervals), acts a bit like a natural wall between the valley of the River Severn and the plush green and pleasant lands of the Cotswolds-proper.
On the Edge
Given that you’re following the edge of an escarpment, you will be walking along exposed footpaths most of the time. That means you get some stunning views across the valley and even as far as the Brecon Beacons (Bannau Brycheiniog) in Wales on a good day. And we did – on day four we could see for miles and miles. But given the geography, any weather that is making its way up the Bristol channel stops here, and on a bad day that means heavy rain and cold winds. Fiona and I certainly experienced both sides of that coin!
While you are certainly walking through some beautiful scenery and pretty villages, you are not, strictly speaking, exploring what the guidebooks might suggest is ‘the best of the Cotswolds’. Yes, you walk through Broadway and Wotton-under-Edge – but there’s no Morton in Marsh, Bourton on the Water, Burford or Castle Combe on this route. Don’t fret, though; while you aren’t going to find purse-emptying cream teas on a daily basis (some days there are no cafes to sit in), and spend a lot of time overlooking the not-quite-in-the-Cotswolds Spa town of Cheltenham, you do get big views, peaceful woodland, interesting monuments, manicured golf courses, Iron Age history, and plenty more besides.
I think my three favourite general elements of the Cotswold Way were the pretty paths through woodland, the seemingly random towers and follies we saw, and the city of Bath itself. And the three worst? Walking across golf courses, the market town of Dursley (sorry Dursley!), and having to cross some very busy roads.
Regarding navigation, the route is very easy to follow. Apart from making regular use of the OS Maps app and the handy map book Fiona was carrying with her (I decided to leave my Cicerone guidebook at home), to see what features we were looking at or how far we were away from places, I think we needed to check the map for routing purposes maybe two or three times along the whole 108-miles. And two of those times were due to diversions – one road closed on the edge of Stroud, and then the official diversion on day six.
Signage is quite simply excellent, the Cotswold Way trail is managed very well. Even (and in fact, especially) in the woodland sections where the number of little trails crossing the main path might have been confusing, the little acorns were spot on.
The place that springs to mind as being most difficult was the market town of Dursley on day four, when we had no choice but to follow the route on OS Maps to get us in and through. Bath also required paying attention – the signs were there, but they were not the same as the ones we’d been looking at the rest of the way, and were not in obvious places, so we had to be especially observant.
This isn’t a hike that can be easily backpacked. While there are campsites, they are few and far between, the pubs aren’t as hiker-friendly as along other National Trails (you can’t camp in beer gardens like on the Coast to Coast or West Highland Way), and there are no hostels or bunkhouses until you reach Bath. Instead, most hikers rely on B&Bs – and as you’re competing with the thousands of people heading to the Cotswolds for their week-in-the-countryside holidays, the prices for these do not make for a cheap week of hiking.
Each place we stayed in was very good, welcoming, comfortable, and not over-priced for what we had. But the cost does add up when you’re paying £50 each for a twin room rather than £10 for a campsite pitch or £20 for a hostel bed. Of course, the traditional B&Bs all included breakfast, which certainly helped.
The same applies to food. As you aren’t likely staying anywhere with kitchen facilities, you will be reliant on eating out. The cafes, pubs and restaurants along the Cotswold Way are priced as you might imagine they would be in the Cotswolds – meals aren’t cheap.
For Fiona and I, staying in B&Bs and eating good food was all part of the experience – we joked when planning that this was something of a food tour of the Cotswolds for us. We relished the opportunity to sleep comfortably and eat well. We certainly hiked hard all day, but in the evenings we enjoyed the finer things in life. A nice balance, and I would definitely do another National Trail in this way given the opportunity.
It’s Not Easy
This National Trail is harder, perhaps, than you may first think. There are plenty of beautiful walks across gently rolling hills in the Cotswolds, but this National Trail is not one of them. Be prepared for some serious ascent; while your route isn’t the equivalent of hiking over Red Pike in the Lake District, you will certainly understand contour lines by the end of this one.
Thankfully I was prepared, at least psychologically; one benefit of living close to the trail and having walked quite a few sections – some many times – over the last few years. I’ve mused on my fitness struggles and how much I panted going up some of the hills a number of times in this series, but I was, at least, not surprised by the terrain.
I’ve heard it said that the trail should be renamed the Cotswold Hills Way, and I appreciate that sentiment. Whoever originally planned the route clearly loved a hill. Basically, if there’s a hill to be climbed, you will be going up and over the top rather than around it. You’ll also find, on more than one occasion, your route goes all the way around the edge of something rather than cutting across the middle – take Stinchcombe Hill on day four and Sodbury Hill Fort on day five as examples.
There are alternative flatter routes and shortcuts if you know how to use your OS Map, but those hours spent slogging up slopes and traipsing around the very edge of the escarpment are what gives this hike its character. We stuck to the route even where other options were very temping (yes, even around Stinchcombe Hill at the end of day five), and I’m so glad we did.
Why You Should Hike the Cotswold Way
How about I put things in these terms… If you are considering hiking the Cotswold Way, what are some of the reasons that might go in your ‘should’ column, and some of the reasons that might go on the ‘shouldn’t’ side? I’ll start with should.
A One-Week National Trail
The Cotswold Way is a very well-maintained National Trail with plenty of published information to help you plan and prepare. At 102-miles, it can realistically be hiked with one week off work including travelling to the start and from the finish – most people take six or seven days to do the walking part.
Long Reaching Views
Widely regarded as the prettiest place in England, walking along the Cotswold escarpment for 100-miles provides days of long-reaching views. Admittedly, the views are of one of two vistas, so if you’re not keen on looking over the Bristol Channel into Wales, or seeing the view across Cheltenham, then you may find things a little samey. But still, the views are great – all the way into the next country!
One of the best things about the Cotswold Way, in my humble opinion, was the woodland. As someone who is a massive fan of wandering in amongst the trees, I thoroughly enjoyed miles and miles of woodland footpaths. It was a tad muddy in places, especially Cooper’s Hill, but that’s all part of the charm. The Cotswold Way is perfect for forest bathing.
Iron Age History
The Cotswolds, especially the edge of the Cotswold escarpment, was an important place in Iron Age Britain. People lived and died here, and evidence of their existence is clear. There are long barrows, hill forts, strip lynchets and more. In some places, you really have to know your geography to spot the signs, but in others the clues are obvious – a reason to carry a guidebook and paper map with you, so you have all the details to hand.
Monuments and Memorials
When you’re not wandering through ancient historical features, you are treated to more modern ones! The Cotwold Way is littered with towers, follies and other monuments, which provide additional interest in the landscape. Some stand proud right on the edge of the hill, to be seen for miles – including from the train ride home, while others are found hidden in woodland and require a bit of research to discover their origins. I really came to enjoy finding a bench to sit on, eating a snack, and learning something about the random stone benches, posts and other things we’d seen – and I hope you’ve enjoyed the retelling of some of that research in this adventure journal series.
Okay, so above I mentioned that you’re not hitting all the major tourist hot-spots of the Cotswolds, but you are still getting a good number of beautiful and quaint yellow villages on your way. Chipping Campden, Broadway, Stanton, Winchcombe, Painswick, North Nibley, Wootton-under-Edge, Old Sodbury, Tomarton, Cold Ashton, to name just a few. Each with some Cotswold charm – although far too many of them don’t have pubs or cafes for tired hikers to grab a sandwich!
Walking to Bath
Sometimes ending long distance hikes in very urban and busy places is a real culture shock, something I like to avoid (and the reason we didn’t go all the way to Carlisle on our Cumbria Way hike). The exception to this rule is certainly Bath. A beautiful city and well worth a visit by any means – but walking there really is the icing on the cake. The perfect place to celebrate hiking over 100-miles, and by far the main reason to do this hike south rather than north.
Why You Shouldn’t Hike the Cotswold Way
I think it’s healthy to acknowledge the not-so-great things about adventures, and for people to be fully informed when making their to-hike-or-not-to-hike lists. Here are some things that might put you off hiking the Cotswold Way, based on my own experience of this trail.
Okay, I know, this is the same as for any National Trail in Great Britain – the weather can never be guaranteed. Far from it. But it must be said; with the Cotswold Hills being very exposed in places, there’s nowhere to hide when the weather does come down. You might not be worried about mountain weather in the same way as on other long distance hikes, but being prepared to hike in heavy rain and strong winds, both psychologically and in terms of the gear you carry, is vital to your enjoyment of this one. I think we were fortunate to only have two days of heavy rain out of our six, but even those sapped our energy and made us miserable in the moment!
Not Cheap and Cheerful
As mentioned above, overnight accommodation and food in the Cotswolds is pricey, thanks to it being both a famously wealthy part of the country, and due to the touristy nature of the area. While we found the B&Bs we stayed in to be good value for what we got, it’s hard to do this one on-the-cheap thanks to the lack of campsites and hostels on the trail. Evening meals out are likely to set you back proper restaurant prices in most places. If you want a cheap and cheerful week hiking, don’t hike in the Cotswolds.
Accommodation over Route
We had to do a lot of adjusting when planning our traverse of the Cotswold Way due to being unable to find accommodation in the most natural places to break up the 102-miles. We added extra miles here and took them off there, which ultimately resulted in a couple of very long days to finish and, as you know, doing the hike in six days instead of seven because we couldn’t find B&Bs or similar with availability.
There were two reasons for this – the first being that the Cotswold Way doesn’t have anywhere near as many accommodation options as other National Trails, and the second being that as hikers we were competing with holiday makers for the same rooms. Even planning several months in advance, and avoiding School holidays (etc), we were planning our days based on where we could stay, rather than staying based on how we planned our route.
Climbing all Those Hills
Please know I am not anti-hill, the best views often involve going up, but it’s worth pointing out you do need to be ready to for the ascent on this National Trail. While none of the hills on the Cotswold Way are terrible to climb on their own – we’re talking short and sharp in the main, with obvious summits and well-maintained footpaths – they come along on a pretty regular basis. And of course, what goes up, must come down; some of the downhill sections are very steep and slippery. I didn’t carry walking poles (read about my last-minute decision in my day three post), but they certainly would have been useful for the descents.
Lack of Public Transport
Everyone in the Cotswolds clearly has a car, because the public transport in this part of the country is really rather terrible. This isn’t helped by the fact that, with the exception of perhaps Broadway and Dursley, the places you walk through on the trail are tiny, and just aren’t serviced by regular busses these days – if they ever were. And the only train station on the route is in Bath itself. If you are wanting to hike this in sections, you’ll almost certainly be wanting two cars available so you can sort your own transport logistics.
We were fortunate to have someone willing to drive us to Chipping Campden, which made all the difference to our enjoyment of the first day thanks to not having to faff with a series of busses. And at the start of day three we booked a taxi to get us to the trail because a bus (well, three buses), would have taken nearly two-hours instead of the 30-minutes by car.
This really has turned into a dissertation-length blog post, so I really do need to stop… but just let me answer one more question.
You’ll know if you’ve been reading my weekly blogs that a little over a month after hiking the Cotswold Way, I went up north to hike the Cumbria Way. So I guess, at the time of writing, that long distance trail was next on my list. But right now, in November 2023, I don’t have any adventure hikes planned. But there are lots on my list.
I think one thing I have learnt is that I really enjoy week-long hikes. The Coast to Coast was absolutely amazing, and I do hope to find the time and energy to hike the Pennine Way and maybe even the South West Coast Path sometime in the future, but I feel five or six days is a perfect period to be on trail. I can hike a reasonable distance in that time, get my wilderness fix, find routine in hiking, and feel like I’m away from it all. But without it taking too much time, energy, money, or using up all my annual leave.
If you were me, and looking for a five or six-day hike in the UK, either National Trail or another curated route, with beautiful scenery, a sense of wild about it, and easy to find accommodation, which trail would you hike next?