As we launch our Greentraveller's Guide to the Cotswolds AONB, writer Harriet O'Brien joins the Cotswolds AONB on one of their free guided walks and encounters rare butterflies and wild orchids on a stroll through some of the region's most beautiful landscape
On Minchinhampton Common you’ll take in fabulous views across the western Cotswolds as you skirt freely-roaming cattle (dating from medieval times, it’s a tradition that local farms have the right to graze their animals there, you’ll learn). And as you walk along you may well find wild orchids at your feet, and see rare orange and brown Duke of Burgundy butterflies, too.
Over to the north of the Cotswolds AONB, you’ll hear tales about the wonderfully eccentric collector and craftsman Charles Wade Paget as you stroll through Snowshill village. And as you pass handsome Snowshill Manor where he lived you’ll be told how he entertained literary friends there, including Graham Greene, Virginia Woof and J B Priestley. (Sounds an unlikely combination? Well, the quirkiness resonates with Wade Paget himself).
There’s nothing like local insight for an all-absorbing experience, and you get it by the bucketful on guided walks offered across the Cotswolds by the AONB. What’s more, the great majority of them are free – although donations at the end are welcome and are used to support local projects. The walks are graded from easy to strenuous, one mile to 12 or more, an hour to four or sometimes five. And for most of them you simply turn up at a given spot, no booking necessary. Schedules of walks and details of the gathering points are given on the AONB’s website and in the AONB’s twice-yearly Cotswold Lion newspaper, available free in tourist offices, libraries and some shops and cafes in the region.
It’s thanks to the scheme of Cotswold voluntary wardens ‒ started in the late 60s – that the walks take place, explains John Bartram, who is the head warden. There are more than 320 people actively involved, none of them paid (with the exception of a part-time administrator) and all of them passionate about the countryside. Quite apart from running guided walks, the wardens look after footpaths (particularly the Cotswold Way and other popular trails), removing any fallen branches, picking up litter (sadly, there’s a need for this) and generally conserving the paths; they oversee projects from installing kissing gates to putting up bat boxes and clearing ponds; they give shows and talks to promote the Cotswolds; and they work with schools, arranging discovery days out for children.
The first AONB guided walks started in 1975. They are entirely the creation of individual wardens, John says. By no means do all wardens take walks; some might blench at leading a group and at the public speaking required. However, others thrive on sharing their knowledge. ‘There aren’t any set routes,’John adds. ‘If a warden wants to create a walk, he or she masterminds the topic and sets the trail – it’s all driven by personal enthusiasm and personal interests.’ There are, for example, regular mile-and-a-half town walks around Chipping Campden focussing on architecture and history; there are wild flower walks; canal walks; summer evening walks; and winter night walks to see the stars. And there’s certainly no agenda that must be followed in any given area: you might take a literary walk in the Snowshill district, but equally there could be a walk focussing on geology in part of the same area.
In the eastern Cotswolds, for example, Rosemary Wilson leads walks that she devises to appeal to children as well as adults. A former teacher, she says that her themes generally relate in some way to the interaction of people and agriculture. Some of her walks have involved tractors and trailer rides for children ‒ and it is for activities such as these that booking is sometimes required and a charge made. For other walks she might engage younger participants by handing them pictures of wild flowers to look out for together with intriguing information, such as how silverweed roots were eaten before potatoes were brought to Britain. ‘It’s all about getting a group of people engaged with the countryside,’ she says., ‘getting them to think about the landscape in a different way and adding a new dimension to their appreciation of the environment’.
John Bartram himself guides walks in the southern Cotswolds – near Bath, and around the Dyrham Park area. Creating the walks and the themes around them is enormously enjoyable, he says, and enormously time-consuming, too. You do a great deal of research over your chosen topic, he explains. And you spend a lot of time looking at routes and testing out trails ‒ indeed you’ll walk a good 20 miles to create a five-mile walk. A few days before the walk takes place, you’ll pre-walk it to check that the paths are clear and that there are no untoward difficulties such as a broken stile. Were there to be a charge reflecting all the time and effort involved, he says, the walks would command an amazing fee. So as it is they are literally priceless.
Written by Harriet O'Brien