Following last year’s successful ride from Paris to the Champagne region, this summer my friends Jeff, Matt, Tim and I stayed closer to home and tackled the Cotswolds & Severn Vale Cycle Tour, a 180 mile circular route beginning and ending in Stroud in Gloucestershire. It proved to be a strenuous but highly enjoyable jaunt, cycling through ancient rolling countryside, chocolate box villages, some seriously challenging hills, and plenty of top notch cake and ale…
The road is signposted to ‘Waterley Bottoms’, which sounds like a place not to be sniffed at. We arrive at this point an hour or two after leaving Stroud station on a Friday lunchtime in late June; the route has begun with a gentle short section along the former Stroud-Nailsworth Railway line, and then a taste of what lies in store over the weekend with a steep climb out of Nailsworth and a sharp plunge down into Wotton.
We follow the road to the incontinent-sounding village of WB, and continue into the Severn Vale, the broad expanse of the river gleaming in the late afternoon sunshine. Jeff, as usual, is out in front on the hills, standing up and as he likes to put it ‘dancing in the saddle’; it’s even possible (warning: weak pun ahead) that he may actually be doing the Dance of the Severn Vales.
We leave the road and turn along the towpath of the Gloucester & Sharpness Canal, at one time the widest and deepest ship canal in the world, running headlong into a thick swarm of flesh-eating flies. I have rarely encountered such vicious insects this far south in Britain. I suspect we may have run into a marauding party of Scottish midges, on a weekend mini-break down in the Cotswolds, probably come to laugh at us for electing a Conservative Government.
We rejoin the network of quiet roads, passing through Frampton and Framilode, eventually arriving at our night stop in the village of Haresfield. Matt, who has been reading Laurie Lee’s classic memoir As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning, tells us that the poet passed through Haresfield in 1934 at the start of his journey from Gloucestershire to London and on to Spain. We are staying at the Beacon Inn where the affable landlord serves us platters of fish pie and pints of Uley, a wonderful golden brew made in the nearby village of the same name.
There is a wedding reception at the pub tomorrow and a party of guests staying tonight, which is why we were only able to book the family room – a new experience for us on our cycling trips and one which we are not entirely relishing. As we sit outside beneath the stars, supping our pints of Uley, a taxi pulls up just before midnight depositing some very high-spirited wedding guests, including a man who tumbles out of the cab and falls up the steps into the pub, calling loudly for more beer.
Knackered, we turn in for the night. The family room experience turns out to be less hellish than feared, the room itself comfortable and surprisingly spacious. This is just as well since we are later joined in the small hours by the chap from the taxi who barges in and galumphs around the room, realises that none of us appears to be his wife, burps, grunts an apology and leaves.
After breakfast next morning we discover why the pub is called the Beacon Inn, when we leave the village and face one of the toughest climbs we have ever done on any of our bike trips. Haresfield Beacon climbs 200 metres reaching gradients well over 20%. There is no let up as the road twists and turns upwards, becoming steeper the higher you go. No-one is dancing in the saddle now. I grind up to the summit in my granny gear and collapse on the grass by the side of the road. My heart is thumping against the walls of my ribcage and I feel like I’m going to vomit. Now this is what I call a holiday.
We are now moving into the heart of the Cotswolds and as we pass through one village I notice a macabre looking straw effigy dressed in rags – like a scarecrow or Bonfire Night Guy. This is the first of several such sightings during the weekend, some resembling grotesque human figures, others with the head of an animal, such as a stag or badger. All are placed in front of houses facing outwards to the road, possibly to ward off evil spirits or cyclists down from London for the weekend. Maybe the old gods still inhabit these ancient parts. But perhaps my imagination is just feeling a bit gothic today because it’s the eve of the Summer Solstice, or maybe because the great Christopher Lee passed away only a few days ago…
Meanwhile, north of the historic wool town of Painswick, we hit another gruelling 150 metre climb, less steep than the Haresfield Beacon but longer and almost as exhausting. There are no single hills quite as challenging as these for the rest of the day, but for the next 30 miles all the way to Winchcombe we face a leg-sapping roller coaster of continual climbs and descents.
In the middle of this assault course the Mill Inn at the village of Withington offers welcome lunchtime respite. We sit outside the pub as fat warm raindrops begin to fall, washing down plates of Smoked Haddock Florentine with pints of Sam Smiths, while watching preparations for the Withington annual summer fete in the church garden next door.
Every two years our summer bike trip happily coincides with the football World Cup or European Championship, providing entertainment in the pub after a long day in the saddle. This year there’s no football alas, but it doesn’t matter because, hey, there’s Morris dancing! Bearded men in white flannel costumes and red braces emerge from the pub, a-jingling their bells. As Tim points out, these are men who have clearly not heeded Sir Thomas Beecham’s excellent advice – ‘You should try everything once in life, except incest and Morris dancing’. We watch them trooping over to the village fete as we try, almost certainly without success, to erase all traces of a metropolitan smirk off our faces. They stare back defiantly, a-jingling their bells.
After lunch Matt and I wander over to the village fete, in search of homemade cake. Tim and Jeff stay behind. Inexplicably, they have little interest in cake. When we arrive the festivities are in full swing: clusters of adults and kids try their luck at the coconut shy, lucky dip and mini golf, the Morris Men are cavorting merrily, a-jingling their bells, and in the far corner a Scottish Presbyterian virgin is being burned alive inside a giant wicker effigy. It’s possible I may have imagined one of these.
Meanwhile, from behind a stand of trees at the back of the fete a strange rumbling sound is floating towards us. As we get closer the source of the strange sound becomes clear – a long trestle table, covered with a white cloth, literally groaning with every conceivable kind of cake! Coffee and walnut, carrot, chocolate, lemon drizzle, Dundee cake, scones, the lot…I have sworn never to use the phrase ‘a veritable cornucopia of delights’ in this blog, but if I hadn’t that is exactly the phrase I would be using right now. ’I’m very excited’ says Matt. We both are. It’s impossible to choose. Matt opts for a slab of Ginger Parkin. It does look tempting but I suspect it may sit heavily in the gut on some of those late afternoon climbs. I secretly congratulate myself on my choice of a light and fluffy Victoria Sponge.
A heavy downpour threatens for much of the afternoon but holds off until 5pm, when we suffer the obligatory soaking – every bike trip has to have one. We arrive, sodden, at our night stop Elms Farm near the small hamlet of Gretton three miles from Winchcombe, where our host – the excellent Rose – offers to dry off our shoes by the Aga. Later she drives us into Winchcombe for the evening and even comes back to collect us at closing time. The next morning we enjoy a top breakfast cooked by Rose which, for the carnivores among us, features one of Elms Farm’s very own pigs.
Today’s Midsummer’s Day and fittingly it’s the longest day of our trip with 60 miles to travel. The first half of the day picks up where yesterday left off with a continually undulating route along quiet roads. This section is quintessential Cotswolds country where everything is built from the local stone known as oolite, a form of Jurassic limestone which bathes each village in a distinctive warm yellow tone. We cycle through ‘The Slaughters’, a collective noun given to the time capsule villages of Lower Slaughter and Upper Slaughter, where there has been no new construction in more than a century. Their names sound rich with connotations of ritual sacrifice, though disappointingly it appears they only derive from the old English ‘slohtre’ meaning ‘muddy place’.
‘Bring your daughter to the slaughter’, sings Jeff, an Iron Maiden song from some years back. The song proposes an unconventional approach to child rearing which has never really caught on, and is the kind of lyric that gives heavy metal a bad name. But it suddenly occurs to me that the message the Maiden may have originally intended was ‘Bring your daughters to the Slaughters’, a song extolling the bucolic pleasures of a family weekend in the Cotswolds. As it happens we do possess a number of daughters between us – a quick headcount reveals five. But we have left them at home so, regrettably, on this occasion we won’t be able to bring our daughters to the Slaughters.
We arrive at Bourton-on-the-Water, a town overflowing (at least on a Sunday in late June) with coach loads of visitors and tacky gift shops. We stop to buy over-priced soft drinks. The others set off again and as I am pushing my bike along the pavement, waiting for a gap in the traffic, a red-faced man walking along with a small boy accuses me very aggressively of getting in his way. I politely point out that I’m not actually riding my bike on the pavement and have as much right to be there as he does. He seems unpersuaded by this argument, brandishing his son’s scooter close to my face and yelling ‘Bugger off out of Bourton!’ After a brief hesitation I decide it might be sensible to follow this advice and jump on my bike, pedalling hard down the road (though not without a brave cry of ‘wanker!’ as I go.)
After a lunchtime pit stop at the Fox Inn at Great Barrington just outside Burford, the remaining 25 miles of the day offer agreeably gentle cycling, cruising through the Windrush Valley in the afternoon sunshine. This feels more like proper slow travel after the exertion of the last couple of days, and we even find time for another tea time cake/ice cream stop at the Bibury Trout Farm (which, as one might expect, also does a mean line in trout-related cuisine if you haven’t had lunch).
We stop to ask directions from an elderly couple who have one of the poshest cut-glass accents I’ve ever heard, rather like the Harry Enfield character Mr. Cholmondley-Warner. They are courteous and helpful but reinforce the general impression of extreme well-to-do-ness in these parts that seems to bring out my inner Jeremy Corbyn. I think it’s fair to say that many of these Cotswolds villages don’t appear to be struggling unduly under the yoke of austerity. Everyone round here seems to drive huge and very expensive jeeps and 4x4s. There can be few greater pleasures than pootling down a narrow country lane on a warm summer afternoon, the scent of honeysuckle, the warbling of the skylark, and the impatient revving of an SUV stuck behind you.
By early evening we reach our night stop, the elegant Roman town of Cirencester, and check into our accommodation at the Fleece Inn. The name of the pub and the well-executed Henry Moore-esque murals of sheep in the outside bar area are a nod towards the town’s illustrious history as an important wool-producing centre. I am about to remark that punters must flock to this pub from miles around but then I remember I have already used up my annual EU quota of ovine-related puns on a previous bike trip (see An Autumn Adventure).
After a few well-earned beers we round off the last evening of our trip with a bracingly hot curry at The Sultan in the town centre. Probably just as well we haven’t got the family room tonight.
With a fairly easy 30 miles back to Stroud and a mid-afternoon train to catch, Monday offers the chance for a leisurely start. It’s a nice flat ride across the South Cotswolds countryside, rising gently beyond Tetbury to reach 200 metres up on Minchinhampton Common, where there are fine panoramic views and cows graze on the golf course or wander nonchalantly into the road. We are expecting a fairly low key end to the route – Stroud is hardly the most iconic destination for a bike trip, especially when you have started in Stroud. But the ride has one last surprise in store, as we enjoy a thrilling fifteen minute descent from high up on the Common, spiralling down into the town centre at high speed shouting at the tops of our voices.
The Cotswolds and Severn Vale Cycle Tour has been a terrific trip. Some of the route directions provided by the Cotswolds tourist board are a trifle idiosyncratic at times and it would benefit from some proper signposting. But this is a minor quibble. The route deserves to become very popular, especially given its proximity to an increasingly cycle-crazy London, and its do-ability over a long weekend, though it’s perhaps best avoided if you’re not keen on hills.
Meanwhile, there’s time for one last pub lunch before we catch the train home. As we sit in the sun there is much checking of emails as the world once more begins to intrude. Food arrives but we eat, for once, in silence as weariness and satisfaction mingle with the tinge of regret that accompanies the end of another adventure. I am reminded of the closing paragraph of Jerome K Jerome’s 1895 cycling classic Three Men On The Bummel:
“A Bummel, I should describe as a journey, long or short, without an end; the only thing regulating it being the necessity of getting back within a given time to the point from which one started. Sometimes it is through busy streets, and sometimes through the fields and lanes; sometimes we can be spared for a few hours, and sometimes for a few days. But long or short, but here or there, our thoughts are ever on the running of the sand. We nod and smile to many as we pass; with some we stop and talk awhile; and with a few we walk a little way. We have been much interested, and often a little tired. But on the whole we have had a pleasant time, and are sorry when ‘tis over.”