Return to Cleeve Hill

Sunday 7th June 2015

My only previous visit to Cleeve Hill, the highest point on the Cotswolds, was in February 2013. That was on a group walk led by someone else; an experience that no-one of us will ever forget… Titled ‘The Spooky Walk’ and intended to finish at around 18.00 (in winter time,remember); the fact that this hike began in Prestbury, one of the UK’s most-haunted villages, was by far one of the least frightening elements of this day.

We left Bristol at 10am, by which time it was already raining and even when the weather did change later in the day, we were soon praying for shelter from the hail, sleet and even snow that followed as night dry nearer! We got lost in the darkness and it wasn’t until 21.00 that we reached a pub in Winchcombe, from which we were able to arrange a taxi to take the drivers (I was one of them) back to the cars so that we could then return to collect the others.

Known as the Kilkenny ‘Viewpoint’…

I still can still remember wrenching out my sodden gloves as we sough desperate shelter beneath spares trees for our lunch stop. My spare pair of gloves didn’t last much longer. My hands were bizarrely swollen from the cold and it was a strange experience, struggling to turn on the hot tap in those rather elegant pub toilets. Following this experience, I set out to buy myself a pair of waterproof trousers and with some determination. With all that, and the fact that I had to drive a disgruntled van-load back to Bristol, I wasn’t heading for the warmth of a shower until 22.45 – at a time when my mum’s previous bathroom floor was under a state of repair and, in case that wasn’t enough, it was a Sunday!!

Climb the hill behind you, however and the name almost makes sense.

Ever since that day, I’ve maintained that it was a good walk and that the weather conditions were extremely unfortunate. I hold nothing against the walk leader (what’s the point in being critical and wasting energy?). In fact, without having seen him, I’ve often hoped he might re-submit the same walk during a warmer month… But, as that has still yet to happen, I had to decide to make a return there myself. Otherwise, years could pass before I’d get to see the same landscape again.

Another intention with this walk was to test-out a sixteen-mile route I’d plotted a few weeks earlier, with the hope that it would be appropriate to submit to the walking group. I didn’t fancy driving through the centre of Cheltenham again and so found a generously-sized free car park to the south-east of the town, near Andoversford. Within a hundred yards, there was also a pub (for post-walk refereshment) and we wouldn’t have to walk too far before joining the Cotswold Way, heading north.

As the initial photos show, the Kilkenny Viewpoint car point is a little bit of an anti-climax… For where there are picnic benches, you actually climb the hill southwards, towards the towering transmitter and away from the major road, before you can turn back to admire any form of view.

In fact, I did just this as I began my pre-walk. It was certainly a strange sensation to be walking away from your destination at the very start of a walk. On the map, it hadn’t looked like much of a detour but in practice, I found it not only cost me a good half-hour but each of the three fields I came to encounter was filled with waist-high grass and, in an area that may not be walked very frequently, there was little resemblance of any trodden path to follow.

In short, I won’t be walking that way again at this time of year! Next time, I’ll be taking a more direct route on to the Cotswold Way.

For the most part, the Cotswold Way heading north from here follows broad paths with clear waymarking and the odd country road. There was one final field of overgrowth to overcome as I made my first connection with the long-distance route but as I strode large and confidently in the correct direction as according to my map, I soon noticed a number of others heading in the opposite direction, who were following a more distinguished route around the field boundary.

See, I’m never sure of what you should do here, as walking around the boundary of a private field surely counts as trespassing, when the right of way route cuts straight across the centre. But then, if the landowner doesn’t play their part, are obliged to create our own diversion?

It’s not long before you get some good early views of Cheltenham.

I followed the Cotswold Way down beside Lineover Wood Nature Reserve, which might be nice to explore on another day, before crossing the A40 and heading for the top of Dowdeswell Wood, which also houses its own reserve.

There’s also a reservoir very close by but it’s view is deeply obscured by the mass of trees that surround you.

About forty-five minutes in, this was the first climb of the day and, having walked the Mendip Challenge a week earlier, I was finding this to be tougher than expected, making several brief stops along the way.

Reaching the summit of this hill would probably make for a good late-morning snack stop with a tail behind me. From here, the good news was that there wouldn’t be another hill (Cleeve Hill, in fact) for a good ninety-minutes.

Having walked with no-one in particular but amongst many others seven-days earlier and then, the week before that, experienced an incredible weekend with a friend in Wales; walking alone had suddenly lost its appeal. I found myself wanting this one to be a shared experience, from the moment I woke up in bed.

Looking back about three miles to the hill upon which I started (spot the transmitter).

For a walk in the Cotswolds, this route would turn out to be relatively flat. It was more a question of being able to cover the distance I had set out and to be able to withstand the overhead buzzing that parallels the Cotswold Way for a while after that first hill.

Any thoughts on what this is or could mean?

I continued to meet and pass a succession of walkers, each individual, pairing or group well space from the next. Most were happy to respond with a ‘Good morning’ or ‘Hello’ but sadly, one older couple chose not to and it happened moments before I passed this mysterious sculpture at the top of a gate post.

It wasn’t until I was walking along the top of Prestbury Hill that I found myself beginning to experience a tingle of déjà-vu… It was the view of Gloucestershire beneath me. Only, this time, it was sunny and there was barely a breeze for my senses to detect.

I actually took a partial lunch stop on a convenient bench, here; feeling as though Cleeve Hill wasn’t going to be much further ahead.

Perhaps one day, my name will also be carved in to a bench?

By this point, you’re already close to 300m high and the trig point at Cleeve Hill really doesn’t take you much higher at all. I spotted a steam train far below, which reminded me of one I will often see (or hear) on the Quantocks when I visit.

I did a walk around Wiltshire two-years ago where I discovered brand-new gate latches that were unlike anything I’d seen across the Mendips and Somerset.

This time, towards the north of the Cotswold Hills, I uncovered yet another new design. I wonder if these are more commonplace in other areas of the country?

Introducing the Sabrina Way.

Extra waymarks gave me an awareness of other long-distance paths cutting through here that I’d never heard of.

A little further on and I found myself climbing to the entrance to Cleeve Common, where a cyclist kindly held the gate open for me to follow in his lead.

I’ve been up and down the M5 motorway quite frequently over the past two-months and I’ve often tried to spot Cleeve Hill/Cleeve Common from the gaze of a speeding vehicle. All you really need to look for are the three masts, above – although, I found it hard to spy the motorway from such a vantage point. As a hill on its own, it’s less distinguished than one you may find in almost any other local range.

You get a rather commanding view of Cheltenham Racecourse from up here (which we probably didn’t have in 2013). Somewhere below, I could hear live music, in the form of either karaoke or someone covering current and popular songs.

With the sun out amongst a blue sky, it was a busy day for others to be out walking. As soon as those two left their seat, I nabbed the bench for my lunch stop, while taking in a distant view of the Malvern Hills – which I do intend to visit over the summer.

Last time I was hear, I was gobsmacked to discover a golf course on the very top. On that day though, the winds were near unbearable. I recall a group shot we attempted beside the trig point (albeit, in the face of rain falling sideways), with arms flailing everywhere. Today was so much nicer. A calmness filled the air and, but for a group of other walkers near by, I’d have taken a favourable seat beside the trig itself.

A topograph (if that’s what it’s called) allows you to identify high points in reach of your eye.

On a beautifully clear day, you can look all the way to Sugar Loaf Mountain – although, my camera doesn’t quite capture this as well as my own eyes could in the moment:

Overlooking Bishop’s Cleeve:

Still following the Cotswold Way after lunch, this walk turns east around the northern edge of the common, passing right in front of the club house for the golf course.

Aside from the well you can see below, this was somewhat familiar, as my next destination was identical to one we reached (shortly before nightfall) in 2013.

I found no fewer than two who enjoy my sense of humour:

The Isbourne Way – another one to research, perhaps:

Reaching a road at which point the Cotswold Way heads south, I decided to continue east before a sharp turn uphill and through woodland, now following the Winchcombe Way, in the direction of Belas Knap Long Barrow.

That village, to the north and east of Cheltenham is Winchcombe, to give you an idea of where we’d arrived at 21.00 one Sunday evening!
I believe I could also make out Sudeley Castle, through the trees.

There’s no official car park for this long barrow, which is look after by English Heritage but the flurry of cars parked at the bottom of the woods suggested it was another popular place to be on this day.

Another one for the list!

This climb proved to be the toughest challenge of the entire sixteen-mile walk – and I saw that as someone who once braved the same hill under fading light and impromptu snowfall.

An older Ramblers group was already in place as I reached Belas Knap but there was plenty of room for us all, including those who’d chosen to sit on top of the barrow and soak up the sun.

It’s suddenly coming back to me now, just how dark it was in 2013. We weren’t able to fully appreciate this landmark with the biting wind and snow.

There are three separate entrances that you are free to enter and explore – although, most of us would be required to squat down on all fours and scurry in to what is only a very small space.

It’s been restored at some point and there’s a lot of information to take in at the nearby information board. It’s a shame there was a box for donations as I’d have happily dropped some change inside on this occasion.

On the trail of a pair of runners, accompanied by their border terrier, who impressively managed to climb a stone stile; I rejoined the Cotswold Way for a short while, heading south and on a definite return now, towards the start point.

A seemingly abandoned farm.

This was only as far as Wontley Farm, where the Way returns west to complete a brief circular route at Cleeve Common. From here, I continued south along a less distinguished route.

I passed a south-eastern entrance to Cleeve Common (not marked on the OS map) before leaving a road for a series of successive paths with a rather unavoidable array of overgrowth.

Shortly before taking this shot, I saw a fox – perhaps the first fox I’d ever seen on a walk.

Walking a lesser-travelled route.

I must’ve lost a good hour just beyond the green field above; attempting to decipher a way forward through long dry grass, up over a hill deprived of waymarking with only thorns and sharp plants for further company.

I deliberately and desperately made my way through a broken wall at one point, in the hope of finding something that would correlate to the lines on my map. But, I only reached a dead-end. I was forced to backtrack several times. In the end, I decided to take a longer detour around the perimeter.

Which did at least lend me a glimpse of this pond close to Puckham Farm before continuing on towards Whalley Farm and the reassurance of a road.

Possible entrance to what was formerly a quarry.

I was entering a village known as Whittington and hoping to catch a passing glimpse of Whittington Court… But for further long grass in more unkempt fields! Did I mention that I was wearing shorts on this walk?!

With a strong hint of irony, the private fields without public passage that I happened to pass by here were beautifully cared for and would’ve made for clear and unobstructed walking.

It’s a shame Bristol’s current mayor couldn’t have adopted a scheme like the one above, instead of turning almost every road that might point towards the city centre in to a too-slow 20mph zone…

From Whittington, a medieval village, I stuck to the tarmac en route to the busy A40 (which, as you may recall, I crossed near the start of this walk).

This lead me right across the main entrance to Whittington Court. I was too tired and longing for a sit down to be able to make any sense of the ‘riddle‘ that adorned the stone pillar to the right.

I suffered a less-than-pleasant experience of walking alongside the A40 for a bit before joining a network of sideroads that would lead me back towards the A436.

I did happen to come across this rather curious water feature with a fairly-modern garden tap in its centre (probably not visible in my photo).

Crossing that last A-road wasn’t so bad. In fact, it offered great relief to return to the car park after the tribulations and trials of attempting to navigate my way beyond the jungles of green that too often surrounded my feet.

Needless to say, my car was the only remaining as I arrived back around 18.00 – making this a good eight hours of walking! I didn’t arrive home until 19.30, after finishing my food and tea.

A second attempt of this walk may be on the cards. I’m aware of how I’m going to abbreviate the beginning. All that concerns me is how to renegotiate the final quarter of the walk, without resorting to backtracking over our outward bound steps. Realistically, I believe I may need to keep this walk below fourteen-miles for it to offer enough appeal to people I consider to be friends within the walking group… Twelve could be ideal, although I’m not willing to sacrifice too much, taking in to account the one-hour drive in each direction. Hosting the walk on a Saturday may also be an option, as it would provide people with more time to rest before the following week begins.

Thanks for reading.

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