|“The winter that keeps on giving”. That’s how the weatherman describes this weekend’s prospects. Last Saturday’s rain has been replaced by imminent heavy snowfall, a week before Easter. Not the weather to go too far afield, so instead I make a sooner than expected return to my new side project, the Cotswold Way. Snow is falling as I leave the house, but it’s not until the bus makes its slow way around the flanks of Cleeve Hill that I see the full scale of the winter terrain ahead.
The village of Broadway is dusted lightly, with the snow falling steadily at a sufficiently shallow angle to plaster the eastern face of the war memorial’s column. I’m in some luck, as the snowfall will be hitting my back as the route mainly heads southwest along the Cotwolds escarpment. The sky is grey in all directions, with little prospect of brighter skies ahead today.
Leaving the village, the route crosses muddy and wet fields, in what is becoming the noticeable feature of the Way so far. I’m soon climbing up more steeply, into deeper snow above the 100m mark. Broadway is disappearing into the gloom below. Once through the winter wonderland of Broadway Coppice, it’s time for my first – minor – diversion of the day. Leaving the Cotswold Way, a footpath skirts the southwestern edge of the field. The rampart of the fort comes into view once the crown of the hill has been rounded.
Carl notes that there isn’t much to see here, apart from a single rampart. All true, but this is a fairly typical promontory site, with three sides defended by the natural scarp of the hill and only one rampart needed across the dip slope of the “neck”. The single rampart isn’t the most impressive you might see, topped with very mature trees and no doubt eroded from its original height. It no longer extends across the full length of the field, presumably a victim of ploughing. There is a ditch on the outer, northeastern, side. The footpath crosses the rampart at its northwestern end, and then runs directly across the featureless interior – especially featureless in the snow today! Once at the south of the fort, the ground drops away steeply and there is a good view of Buckland village below.
I walk back around the southwestern and northern perimeter. There’s little evidence of any counterscarping and the site is not the most obviously defensible. However, various recorded finds of pottery, flints and a saddle quern suggest occupation over a long period, perhaps at times where defensive capability was not the primary focus. Certainly worth the minimal effort of the diversion today.
Back on the Cotswold Way, the route follows a farm track to the muddy yard of Manor Farm. The ascent to day’s highest point ( a modest 295m) now lies ahead, a steady climb of 100 vertical metres or so, not steep but increasingly difficult in the deepening snow. My dodgy leg is starting to protest now and as I make my way past Laverton Hill Barn I’m beginning to wonder if I should consider curtailing the planned distance. I had considered a further detour to Snowshill barrows, but reluctantly decide that today isn’t the best day to see them. Instead I carry on south, along a track filled with shin deep drifts of snow, pristine and untrodden. And blooming hard work.
Nearing the top of the hill, the northeast wind takes on an additional biting edge, driving snow in almost horizontally, over the edge of the escarpment. Shenberrow Hill Camp is another promontory fort, like its neighbour at Burhill Farm
. Unlike that site though, the ramparts of Shenberrow are rather more powerful, with two banks protecting the approach from gentler slope to the north. On the west and south sides the steep scarp provides natural defences. I walk some way along a bridleway that follows the curve of the northern rampart, but the wind is doing its best to knock me over and I’m quite relieved to retrace my steps and enter the fort. The interior is crossed by the Cotswold Way itself, and an area below the west and south sides are access land, making it possible to get a good look at the earthworks without needing any permission. The southeastern section of rampart has unfortunately been destroyed by the construction of the farmhouse. As the strong wind and drifted snow attests, this is an exposed place and life here in the Iron Age must have been very tough, even snug under thatch behind the ramparts.
The Way exits the fort through what appears to be an original entrance at the south, from which the ground drops steeply to a wooded valley. Rather than following the path, I head onto the access land to the west of the fort, for a look at the sloping flanks below. The deep snow has the advantage of making a fairly sharp descent over thorny shrubs back to the path easier than it would be at other times.
From here the route drops quickly to the village of Stanton, another of the chocolate box places that make the Cotswolds such a tourist honey trap. Here my route nearly intersects that of the almost-due bus, and for a few minutes my aching leg tells me I should call it quits here. But there’s a stupid stubbornness at work that keeps me walking, heading out of the village and onto a path crossing two of the muddiest fields it’s ever been my displeasure to have to cross. I’m below the snowline here, and the mud is deep enough to cover my boots. Squelch.
As I make my way south across more muddy fields, the whistle of a steam train on the nearby Cotswolds railway echoes, ghostly, across the flatlands to my west. Not for the first time, I wish that the designers of the Way had routed it up on the edge of the escarpment, rather than down here in the mud. I can only assume a mud-loving lunatic had a hand in the choice. Reaching Stanway, the snow is falling more heavily, sending the neighbourhood rooks cawing and flapping. I take shelter in the church to rest my leg and eat some lunch. The stop does me good and I re-emerge into slackening snow feeling more up for the second part of the walk.
After the hamlet of Wood Stanway, where a passing farmer greets me with laughter and a disbelieving “you must be mad”, the route reaches its steepest climb, up to Stumps Cross. I take the ascent rather gingerly, but it’s not a huge climb and I reach the bench at the top without any major problems, despite the mud at the bottom and drifted snow on the slopes. From here, there are expansive views across the vale to the west on a good day, but sadly little to be seen under the low cloud today.
I visited the two round barrows a little over a year ago, but neglected to write any fieldnotes. Aside from the view from the escarpment edge, which is now obscured by trees from here, there is little recommend these barrows. They have been ploughed within an inch of their lives and unless you knew they were there, you probably wouldn’t notice them at all. However, if positioning is everything, they would have been impressive in their day and can be compared with the Saintbury Barrow
a few miles away along the escarpment edge. Incidentally, Stumps Cross takes its name from the base of a now otherwise gone medieval cross alongside the road junction below the barrows.
Leaving the junction, the Cotswold Way follows a straight track up to the top of the hill. The wind is keen, blowing the sculpted snow into flurries of spindrift. The walking is hard work, the shin-deep snow a plague for tired legs. Beckbury is another site visited last year, with overdue field notes. On that occasion, I approached from the southwest, up the steep escarpment. Today I have it easier, crossing the gentle slopes from the east. Like the other forts visited today, Beckbury is a promontory fort, with the west and northern sides relying on the escarpment for protection. Here the length of single rampart is rather longer, the curving bank on the east and south sides enclosing an area approx. 160 x 130 m.
The eastern bank is rather damaged, with a gap halfway along its length that is not original but has been broken through in recent times. This has exposed some big chunks of the limestone that make up the rampart’s construction. The southern curve of the bank is topped by a drystone wall, but remains fairly well-preserved. Apart from a short section at the northern end, there is little sign of a ditch, although on today’s visit it would be filled with snow anyway!
Last time I came here there were quite a few people out for a stroll. Today it’s deserted, the howling wind the only company apart from the sheep sheltering in the lee of the escarpment. The western slopes have developed cornices of snow that wouldn’t be out of place in the Cairngorms, although obviously without the life-threatening drop below. At the northwestern corner is an enigmatic limestone monument, graffiti scratched but naming no names as to whom it commemorates. Ozymandias, perhaps?
It’s a steep descent over slippery roots off the ramparts, then something of a pell-mell downward hurry through startled sheep across the fields to the southwest. The path meets a track running into Hailes Wood, where the spun snow clings to the branches but all at once is gone from underfoot, as once more I’m below the snow line. I don’t pause to revisit Hailes Wood Camp this time (more AWOL fieldnotes) but carry on down to the ruins of the Abbey, a relic of Henry VII and Thomas Cromwell’s dismantling.
I’d love to say it was an easy stroll from here to the finish at Winchcombe, but that would be a lie. Instead, it’s yet more saturated mud and by the time I reach the intriguingly named Puck Pit Lane, I’m caked in the stuff. Luckily a fast-flowing culvert allows me to get the worst off my boots, and I can peel the splattered waterproofs off once I reach the safety of the town.
It’s been another good section, though my leg may not easily forgive me for it. The three forts seen today are all worthy of a visit and the solitude of the snowy hills never fails to lift the spirits. To the woman at Wood Stanway, mad I may be, but reminded that I’m alive as well. That’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?
Now, let’s have some sunshine please.
Posted by thesweetcheat
24th March 2013ce
Edited 28th March 2013ce
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