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A Spring ride

The second nice weekend of 2010

Cheltenham is beautifully placed at the foot of some of the best and biggest hills of the Cotswold scarp. Which is lovely but there are no easy ways out of Cheltenham, or rather the only easy way has been stolen by the A40. So we start our ride as usual by climbing a horribly steep hill; this time Aggs rather than Ham. Colin asks which is the less hard, thinking this wasn’t as bad as he remembered, but I point out that we haven’t actually got to the steep part yet. When that’s done and Aggs has demonstrated its true standing in the hierarchy of nasty hills, we fork leftish and onto a bridleway. This evidently often doubles up as a streambed but it’s mostly rideable except when it isn’t at all. There is a motorcycle scramble area near the top and plenty of fragments of fat inner tubes and pieces of metal have been splattered here and there.

This track has very recently been “improved” to make it wide vehicle track, no doubt for access to the scramble course.

Onto road that runs along the crest, and a huge view of the town, the Severn Valley, the Malverns and even further to the Clee Hills and mountains of South Wales. And onto Cleeve Common. It’s a fantastic huge expanse of grass that in practice is a free-for-all for messing about on. We ride down the famous gallops – a long wide swathe of lush green grass, trending downhill, with enticing shimmering views of hills beyond. At the end we turn left onto the white-road. It’s usual for this stretch to be a right mud-trap gouged into deep ruts, and rarely rideable. Today it was dry. It becomes a good stony track before long, dips downhill to the ruins of Wontley Farm and climbs up again. It turns into road at the next farm, where there are great views of Winchcombe and a great whizzy downhill to the top of Corndean lane.

Here we go right onto the road and along a stretch, downhill, until the sharp left to the track through some sheep pasture fields. There’s a gate with 1000 pieces of frayed string to undo. Sheep peacefully lazing on the track go flying. Sheep droppings also go flying. There’s a down and up then a bend right to head a long, fun downhill, with great views of the climb that is going to face you next.

At the bottom where there is a house or two, it’s right onto a wide track. The track has been “improved” recently (2009?) and is far less fun than it used to be. Some stretch of the track is footpath only but we’ve never seen anyone to chase us off. After some farm building it embarks on a long climb. The steepest section, and it really is rather steep, has been tarmacked. I’m not sure what I feel about this as I used to grumble rather when it was more challenging; now I miss the challenge. There is a swanky house ahead and once at the house, the track becomes a boringly tarred drive, but it is decorated with a nice selection of narcissi in the spring. At last we reach the road near Roel Gate.

Right here then first left at Roel Gate and downhill to the next crossroads where it’s straight on. This is a very pretty spot in the valley, with poplars and a handsome grand house to the right. Soon there is a left fork, with an Unsuitable For Motors sign. Twenty years ago this was a real road but it’s one that the county council granted to roughstuffers as a gift (meaning “abandoned”). It’s actually not a great deal worse than other allegedly maintained Cotswold lanes. It’s a nice ride along a valley in deep woods. Sharp right, then follow road to Temple Guiting; an exotic looking name for what’s an unshowy and half hidden village.

Cross the main road and go through the village, down and up. Then look out for the bridleway sign on the right, just after a small village lane; the sign is barely visible. Down, then follow the obvious track up, through woods. Today it was dry but it’s steep and bumpy and there’s a thick carpet of leaf-stuff and I can imagine it’s a bit of a pig in wetter conditions. Top of the climb, you’re out of the woods follow the track through some fields to the next piece of road. I admit that this isn’t terribly interesting – it’s typical of the Cotswolds that away from the scarp the tops of anything are standard farmland and it’s the deeply cut valleys intead that provide the scenic and riding interest.

Right, taking you past the Cotswold Farm Park and tons of cars, Hey! you forgot there could be that many cars around, we’ve barely seen any on our ride. The Farm Park cafe claims to be open without having to buy a Park ticket, which might be useful to a hungry cyclist. To crossroads then left, and after a while, downhill into woods. Look for the right fork, which is pretty clear and I seem to remember it being tarmac. Soon into a parky sort of place obviously swimming in a lot of money. You get a stretch of non-tar but it’s pretty easy. Then a drop to the B-road to Stow.

Left here, then in the valley bottom, right onto BW that follows the stream. This will take you towards Upper Slaughter and deep into tourist picture postcard territory and there will be plenty of tourists strolling about. It is of course a nice spot along a stream but with quite a few gates. Upper Slaughter itself is richly pretty, a little bit too much and it’s like being forcefed clotted cream. Extract yourself from the village onto the road above the place. You could treat yourself to lunch at the Lords of the Manor, if you weren’t splattered with sheep droppings.

Right turn off the road and a drag uphill which I have a particular hate for. Then left, and then right onto a track, not signposted as far as I can remember. This becomes a cute narrow BW down into the valley, to Aston Farm, a delightful out of the way spot with pretty cottages. This is somewhere you’d never imagine was there, at the end of a dead-end, and one of the thrills of roughstuff is stumbling across these unexpected gems. Ho, then it’s uphill again. Straight over the A-road then right and drag yourself into Cold Aston for lunch.

The Plough does slightly fancier food than a cyclist might want (can I have extra extra toast, Colin asks, with his Tuscan Chicken salad).

From here the return is a standard ride for us, and a minor classic stretch of roughstuff. There’s a string of long tracks in and out of valleys where you can forget all obout the existence or even the need for roads. Form Cold Aston down a good track; uphill on a more gravelly stretch and finish up on a tree-lined avenue into Turkdean. Then the track to Hazleton, a bit bumpier and potentially muddier. The farm near the end can be quite gatey. In Hazleton, first left towards the church and keep going; through the notoriously bumpy field and to Salperton. Very grand house and park, grand even for the Cotswolds. Then resort to roads back home, because I’m afraid we’re tired.

In and out of the Frome valley

The third nice weekend of 2010

As I’ve said before, much of the fun in the Cotswolds away from the scarp is to be found in the steep little valleys. This ride joins up all the ways in and out of the Frome valley. But we start as always with a warmup climb of the scarp. This time it is Crippetts Lane , we toil up the road and spot some mountain bikers a little way ahead. They are truly the real thing evident from their suspension and round shiny plastic hats. They stop for a breather and we rip up the first section as fast as we can, so that we’re well out of their sight of them on the part we can’t ride. (As of 2011 we have found that we can ride the whole track, and I think it’s purely because the hedges have been cut back, exposing a firm line up the edge). Then Shab hill, then to Birdlip.

From Birdlip out towards Brimpsfield on the road but first right and onto the BW where this lane turns left. A narrow path through trees and spring flowers which oftentimes is muddy. Then take a left out of the woods and a nice downhill, if bumpy, through the middle of a wheat field. Today lush green. Into woods again and then out, on a bumpy track. This is the beginnings of the Frome valley. Cross the road and continue down the valley, keeping to the left of the stream. This is a long stretch belonging to Miserden Park and it’s rare to find the track dry. The ruts can be a challenge. At some point there is a BW fork across the stream but we continue on this side, and shortly the track forks. The left, climbing steeply away from the stream, is the correct BW. Out of the woods there’s a sharp left then right to follow the field edge. Then into Caudle Green and rip downhill on the tar road.

The mere name of Caudle Green strikes dread into any local cyclist: it is in sort of pit with four roads out varying in gradient from 1:5 to only about 1:8. The latter easy way out is the Winstone road; take this, crawl up till you get to the big gateway to Miserden Park. It is not clearly marked as a BW, but it is indeed one. Follow a grand avenue on tar. When there is a sort of fork of tracks you go straight on and steeply downhill on a somewhat challenging descent, to a large pond in the bottom of the valley. Now we have to climb right out again. There’s a left onto the obvious track, which has a sort of consolidated surface but it’s a little loose and not all that easy to maintain traction and to keep your front wheel down; it is eyewateringly steep. It bends left and continues in similar fashion, perhaps relenting on the gradient a little, though Colin reckoned it 1:4. Then a gate, which you may not be in that much of a hurry to go through, for any excuse for a rest is welcome. The final stretch on a grassy track contines hard, with a difficult bumpy section. If you are lucky there will be walkers who might say something encouraging. Then onto road.

Then for no particularly good reason other than it was years since I did these tracks, if I ever did them at all, we head northish past Lypiatt and onto the track to Througham to visit a different parallel valley. Soon there is a fork and you take the leftmost offering, (that is, not the barn), squeeze past a manky gate and onto a bumpy track, which takes you down through rough sheep pasture, and a bit reminiscent of wilder parts than the Cotswolds; there great views across to the little village of Througham opposite. The track becomes really rather steep, and Colin says it’s a push if you try to come up it. We reach the bottom and climb straight out again. It is not long before we resort to walking, as it’s loose, small rocks, and as much stream as path. Left past some gorgeous Cotswold houses and when the road turns left you go straight on.

This becomes a decent but unexciting track through fields but there are nice views of the valley which you have just tackled and are about to face yet again. The track forks at a barn and you go left, ending up at a posh house in Througham Slad, continue left and downhill to the farm and follow the track as it bends right, lower in the valley, a typically pretty and restful spot. You cross a side stream and there is a track to the left which looks new, but don’t take this, instead continue uphill to a field gateway, and now take the left. This is still a good wide track but steeper and I think more stony. At the bottom it’s a long ford, well, a stream actually. The climb out is rideable by Colin at least – I was waylaid by branch from the hedge. It’s challenging enough all the way up, then the gradient eases off. I can’t remember much about this as I was thinking more about when and where we were going to have lunch.

Once onto the road, we’re going back into the Frome valley to do the to do the Edgeworth Manor section. So left, past Waverly farm, and right onto the BW. It’s signposted but not well used, looks to be potentially muddy, and it’s through woods. It’s quite fun with some fallen trees to negotiate. Out of the woods and into a field. Now we’re baffled. The BW has trickled out into a faint sheep-width line and the only plausible way out is a gate into the woods to the left that looks unused for years, and no trace of a path beyond the gate. We’re getting a little grumpy because no path means no lunch, we head back to the wood, but there’s a BW sign there, so there definitely is a way. So we go back to the mystery corner of the field. I thought I had investigated it but evidently not well enough; a proper look and the gate has materialised. Now you just make your way to the opposite corner and there’s a track leading out. Hurrah. There is some large pile down here where the owners have diverted the BW to follow nearer the stream than their drive. Then back up to their drive, then a magic gate that opens as you ride up to it. Oh, if only all gates were like this, not those gates held together with frayed string or the ones with the vicious metal fingertrap clasps or the ones with devious intricate opening mechanisms that you can’t fathom or the ones that you have to heave up and lift over stones and even then can’t open it more than handlebar width. No, this was a nice gate.

At the road, left to go down to the bottom of the valley, and yes! uphill again. The BW right is obvious. Perplexing gate (you push the top lever down. see above). Predictably another up, to go past Edgeworth Manor. There is a track leading west to the Daneway main road but we failed to find it (we were a little tired) and instead followed the track parallel to the tar road to Edgeworth. Then down to Daneway. I haven’t been to the pub for years if indeed I have ever been there. It has a large garden and judging by the kitchen extractor the chips must be popular. We had potatoes and chilli. It had taken nearly 4 hours to get here – it is all of 12 miles from Cheltenham.

We thought it prudent to take a more direct route back. Daneway is emphatically at the bottom of the valley – maybe we should have had lunch at Sapperton. From the corner of Sapperton, take the BW that has been incorporated into the Macmillan Way, whatever that may be. You go through fields but there are pleasant views over the valley. At some point there is a fork and you take the lower, left-hand route through a gate. This then takes you contouring round a side valley with rather fabulous views over Pinbury Park. You end up on the drive though strictly the BW is to the side of this. A short section of road before the McM Way takes you through some more fields and then a track heading nicely downhill towards the Duntisbournes. Road to Duntisbourne Abbotts, then the track towards Winstone. This has been known to be muddy and there are certain bad memories of it. Then a bit of road. Then straight on at the righthand bend along a track where a very muddy section had been conjoured up. We had had a long enough ride by now and stuck to the roads back to Cheltenham, except for the obligatory fling down the tramway, and our first time on the jump at the bottom.

Cycling with Pevsner

The Cotswolds are a sloping plateau carved into hills by streams and small rivers. Most of the scenic interest lies in the valleys, which have long been recognised as a prime location for the construction of manor houses. The Pevsnerian cyclist, therefore, must be prepared to carry the 2lb 2oz of architectural wisdom down a succession of steep dips and up the other side.

Cheltenham is conveniently located at the foot of the western edge of the scarp (if having a massive hill to climb at the start of every ride can be considered convenient). A few miles south of the town, and 800' higher, is the village of Birdlip. This is where the Ermin Way, built by the Romans to link Gloucester to Cirencester and Silchester, crosses the scarp. A little further south is the source of an unnamed stream which cuts a deep valley before joining two other streams to form the Frome. A bridleway follows the stream down, starting as a field edge and becoming a track when it enters the woods of the Miserden Estate. Most of the time this track is a mudbath. Although the track continues right down the valley, the bridleway turns away from it and climbs steeply to a point slightly west of Caudle Green; at least this gets you out of the mud. From here you drop to Caudle Green itself, a pretty village in a valley comprising a collection of traditional cottages and fine houses around a green. It is infamous among local cyclists for the fact that all four roads connecting it to its neighbours head straight up the valley sides with gradients between 1:7 and 1:5. So once you have plummeted down through the village, your only choice is over which painful climb to endure to regain the height you have lost.

The south-eastern front of Miserden Park which partially dates back to the seventeenth centrury, and has a more recent and conspicuous five-bay Tuscan loggia due to Sir Edwin Lutyens.

We take the road towards Winstone which arrives at a grand gateway just before the village. The heavy steel gate (with an elegant gatehouse to one side) is the formal entrance to Miserden Park, giving access to a broad avenue of trees. Since the avenue is a bridleway the gate can always be pushed open. After a while the main thoroughfare bears right while the bridleway drops steeply into the valley. It is a wide enough track, but somewhat technical as it is stony, rooty and unpredictable. The stream has been dammed to form scenic ponds. The bridleway turns into a footpath where it crosses the watercourse: murderously steep up a track and its grassy continuation until a convenient gate gives you an excuse to stop and regain your breath, after which the path continues as a hollow across a field. It is from here that you get a view of the grand house, which is of grey ashlar in traditional Cotswolds style with three storeys and gables at the top. “Built for Sir William Sandys c. 1620, but much expanded in the C19 and early C20.” It is attractively asymmetric: the older parts weathered and friendly, the Arts and Crafts end quite severe.

Througham

You can then head north and west on the road to investigate a parallel N-S valley, the Holy Brook, starting with an interesting and lovely downhill. It is first a narrow path in a deep gully, somewhat overgrown with hawthorn hedges, and then it opens out into a meadow with glorious views of the secluded valley and the hamlet of Througham, a scattering of houses and small barns. The path becomes an entertaining stony descent, a little technical with a tendency to a looseness, presenting a couple of tricky sections. This fun deposits you in a permanently muddy long ford in the floor of the valley. The ascent that follows is also interesting – it is half track and half stream bed. It is not all that steep but the surface is made up of medium-sized loose rocks, pieces of tree and decades of softly composting leaf mould. Sometimes when it is dry quite a lot can be ridden (except by Colin, of course) but it is stop-start at best. Througham is a delight. The Manor and Upper Througham aren’t visible from the track but you ride past the best of the houses, Througham Court, “a beautiful gabled house, the main E-W range probably early C17, with concave-moulded mullioned windows”. It is a quintessential old Cotswold building: rough stone unevenly weathered and mottled white, grey and sandy. The dovecote-stables attached to the house define a small garden courtyard with fruit trees.

From Througham a more normal sort of farm track leads to the grander but plainer house of Througham Slad, “late medieval in origin” and much extended and modified, recently owned by Mike Oldfield. From here a track descends back into the Holy Brook valley, climbing up to the other side on good gravel through sheep pastures and views of woods. If you are here in spring you will be rewarded with the sight of a large cherry tree in gorgeous blossom. Turning left at a junction takes you down the stream which you cross by a long shallow ford, after which you head up via a challenging track. The surface is water-damaged into deep ruts and a novel obstacle is provided by overhanging conifers from the plantation to the side. It is a matter of luck as well as skill if you can ride the first hard section; a rare success which you can can bask in for the rest of the year. The track remains hard but just about possible for what is always longer than it had been last time, and finally tops out onto the plateau and meets the paved road near Edgeworth.

The usual goal by now is to get yourself to either Sapperton or Daneway for lunch because even the most determined rider will find that it has taken most of the morning to complete the ride so far. Both pubs are good; the Bell at Sapperton is posher and smaller and on busy summer weekends you may find it full. Daneway at the bottom of the Frome valley has a huge garden. The Thames and Severn canal worms its way through the hills here via the impressively long 2-mile Sapperton canal tunnel – in fact the longest in England. It fell into disuse during the sixties but the Cotswolds Canals Trust are trying to restore it along with the entire route to the Thames.

The “grandiose W front… in Cotswold Tudor style” dating to 1900 of Edgeworth Manor.

You have a choice between three routes across the Frome Valley: the Edgeworth route to the north, the Pinbury route south of it, and another route, steep but pleasant, further south still, which we seldom use. The Edgeworth route follows the road and turns right on the dead end towards the church and Edgeworth Manor.

Pinbury manor house “built for the Pooles of Sapperton in the late C16”.

The manor originated in 1685 but what you see is the “grandiose W front… in Cotswold Tudor style” dating to 1900 and extravagantly decorated with pilasters, obelisks and a large crest. The track skirts the south side below the gardens; you can’t see much over a wall but the attraction of a rollicking fast descent always wins out over looking at the view. From the bottom there’s a gate with a baffling puzzle of a latch and a nice climb through woods back up to the Winstone road from where you can continue on tarmac to Sapperton.

The Pinbury route goes past a polo ground and descends through woods owned by the Bathust estate, whose grounds extend the 6 miles from Cirencester. The way down is very variable and there’s often a fallen tree or something forcing a diversion; moreover, lower down the natural old path has been appropriated by a stream forcing humans to find a way higher up on a rooty ridge. There’s a nice stony ford at the bottom, followed by the inevitable cruel climb out but your reward is Pinbury Park whose “situation above the beech woods of the Frome Valley is probably unsurpassed in Gloucestershire”. The valley is wide and there are meadows grazed by horses. “The MANOR HOUSE was built for the Pooles of Sapperton in the late C16” and rebuilt and extendied and modified through to the 18th century, neglected and then revived in the 20th. You ride below a stone wall crowned by topiary imitating castle turrets and it’s only when you follow the track south that you get a clear view of the house. It’s not grand-looking but rather plain in the classic Cotswolds style, cottagey and irregular at the rear. Leaving it behind you follow a pleasant bridleway popular with walkers leading straight to the gastronomic pleasures of the Bell.

[Quotations from the Cotswolds volume of Pevsner’s guide, written by David Verey and Alan Brooks.]

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