CHOCOLATE BOX TOURING : THE TOP LAYER
Stephen Dyster went hostelling in search of some of England’s most beautiful villages.
There’s a little back road that runs up the eastern side of the Malvern Hills to Colwall Cutting from Lower Wyche. Having approached from Malvern Common I’d already come up a hundred metres in a little over 1.6km. Halfway through a hot spring day, this was becoming a grind. The next nine hundred metres or so heaved up another hundred metres. If you have ever read books on how to climb hills, then it would be good to know about this one. The road actually has a no entry sign on it, but being a naughty cyclist I decided to pedal on … there was no traffic. That is until the will to live on such a gradient ebbed away and a car came towards me. Mind, walking the last few yards was not much easier. It was a sweaty cyclist who emerged to find a pub on the corner and a stack of bikes outside and stack of cyclists in the beer garden taking in the huge view over Great Malvern and away to the north and east.
So much for cutting corners and taking the shortest route. There are easier ways to top out at 271 metres. This was the second day out, and a good job too as I’d had time to digest the Sunday roast that had preceded my departure. A big dinner and a sunny afternoon are best dealt with by lying down in the shade. However, it was my lot to ride the seventy or so miles I’d planned to reach Stow on the Wold and its YHA hostel.
Heading in the wrong direction ...
The sweep to the east from Leamington Spa could have been avoided, but the ironstone cottages this part of Warwickshire shares with Northamptonshire, were calling. At first there was a lively cadence all the way to Offchurch, but the lane seemed to be more uphill than down and the Yorkshire pudding was having its influence.
Arriving in Southam, it seemed advisable to have a breather. Southam is not the prettiest place in the area, but it has some attractive buildings. Keeping eastward for now, would, I knew, bring some classic ironstone buildings and some cracking country cycling.
Sitting on the village green at Priors Marston was a fellow cyclist preoccupied with his mobile phone. A small group of riders headed up the hill into Northamptonshire; I was relieved not to be heading up the hill. It was time to start heading in the right direction.
Priors Marston, Priors Hardwick and Wormleighton are all off the beaten track. Their beauty lies in the rich warmth of the oolitic limestone from which many of the buildings are constructed. Add a few thatched roofs, village greens surrounded by ancient trees and you have places well-worth a pause. The only blot on the landscape was posters protesting against HS2 - which may well blot the landscape for at least a few years during construction.
Wormleighton Manor, once the property of the Spencer family, was forsaken by them in favour of Althorp House, after being set fire to by the Royalists during the Civil War – a bit rich since they were on their side. The gatehouse and a wing of buildings remain; a jaunty mix hidden away down a side turning.
The web of country lanes hereabouts is extensive. Linked together miles pass by without touching a major road. Whilst waiting to cross the A423 at Fenny Drayton Wharf, a guy riding an old audax route hove alongside. He’d come from Coalville and was riding a 200km route based on Tamworth. He’d be approaching 300km by the time he got home …. he’d not been force-fed roast potatoes! Actually, he was that personification of audax riding, cadence steady and true. He hung a right for Northend when I went left for the surprising pull up to Burton Dassett.
Diverting to the spectacular viewpoint at the country park is a must, though the crowds enjoying the sun and the hazy views filled much of the available space. Driven on the M40? Just south of junction 12? Beacon on a hill? That is Burton Dassett Country Park. The viewpoint is a modest 171 metres above sea level, a fact belied by the extensive views.
Lanes through Avon Dassett, Arlescote and Radway bring one under Edgehill, scene of the first major battle of the English Civil War. The main fighting took place to the north on land now occupied by the MoD, the Royalists descending from their hilltop position, and the battle was once commonly known as Kineton Fight – Kineton being a large village even further away from Edgehill.
The usual stories about the moans of the dying being heard on moonlit nights that are often associated with battlefields apply here. Edgehill is an impressive feature and the stories seem to fit into the darkly wooded slope that rises steeply from the fields … the battle was fought out until an October sunset saw the Parliamentarians retreat to the north. Perhaps when the moon rises above the hill with the chill of autumn in the air the cries of the abandoned …. not this sunny afternoon, though.
From Radway to Shipston-on-Stour via the Tysoes is gentle pedalling through country that is beautiful in its gentle normality. The hills rise sharply to the south, the villages a mix of old and new, of rural function and hidden gems. Gently-beating heart of England; easy on the legs and the mind. This was once known as the Vale of the Red Horse, the figure being first recorded in 1607, but cut several times in different forms and in different places. It was covered-over a century ago.
To enter Shipston one must cross the Stour, not one of the nation’s widest rivers, as the town sits completely on the western bank. There’s a one way system that seems to keep traffic moving. Late afternoon in a small market town; café closed with the shoppers heading for home. A cyclist rode no-handed in the market square. I searched out some street art. Not one of Sustrans’ mileposts, though Shipston is at the junction of NCR5 and NCR48 (the latter of which, it turned out later, I had been following since Fenny Compton – great route planners think alike). No, though an ancestor no doubt. This one dated from much earlier, from the days of the stage-coach and the packhorse train marking the miles on the Stratford-on-Avon turnpike.
Onto the Tourist Trail
The B4035 links Shipston – clearly not a Cotswold town – with Chipping Campden – which is amongst the most beautiful in the Cotswold gallery. The last of those shoppers racing home for their tea persuaded me to divert onto country lanes via Stretton-on-Fosse and Ebrington. A round about way, but Stretton is attractive and Ebrington is true Cotswold stuff, though a little off the beaten tourist-track.
Pausing under a tree at the road junction in Ebrington, I chatted briefly with a local cyclist who had managed to get out for a late afternoon spin. He was on his way back to Ilmington, which would give him a good bit of hill-climbing. In his view the early evening was the best time to cycle around here; then, or early in the morning. Anything before the tourist traffic took over. This made me feel a little guilty as a tourist, but confirmed my preference for morning and evening cycling.
The last few tour buses headed out of Chipping Campden as I turned the corner past the great church and rolled into the hazy warmth of the High Street. The old stone houses on one side, in the sun, seemed almost to be on fire. Perhaps this Cotswold gem is just a bit too perfect? With no two buildings the same, but a symmetry of style, this testament to the wool trade rarely encourages me to stay, strange to say. But to roll down the main street in such glorious surroundings is a delight – keep an eye out for car-parking manoeuvres.
Getting the road wrong took me away from Broad Campden and Blockley – the intended route – up a steep old pull and, adjusting my intentions, through perfect uplands of dry-stone walls and pastures, towards Snowshill. Strong evening sunshine lit the scene, first towards Ford and then on the immense freewheel to Upper Swell.
There are towns with names that place them on a hill. Many are fakes, sitting on the slopes. Stow-on-the-Wold is the genuine thing. Almost all the town is smack atop the wold. The empty market square came as a relief; an end to the climb and barely a car to be seen.
I shared a dorm with a cyclist heading for YHA Cheddar the next day. We agreed that whatever hostel we stayed at, the bike storage at Stow must be the lowest. Extracting the bike next morning saw me kneeling and almost bent double. Whilst this was a handy warm up, the chill of a rapid descent of the wold early on a spring morning soon had my fingers begging for full-fingered gloves. The wish was not granted, though any photos of the Slaughters – Upper and Lower – were spoilt by greater than usual camera-shake.
My, but it was a glorious morning. Planning to breakfast in Bourton-on-the-Water, I met up with a racing-snake on the approach to the town. He couldn’t help me with a bike shop – steed seemed to have worn out the bearings on one of the pedals – nor a café; seemed he was not from round those parts; bloody tourists.
As he sped off towards Rissington, the quiet water which Bourton bestrides seemed as good a place to sit in the sun and eat Eccles cakes as anywhere on earth. Perhaps, Bourton is even more picture-perfect than Chipping Campden. Blossom added to the scene and I’d be gone before the crowds arrived.
There’s a country road that runs from Bourton all the way to Broadway, passing through Snowshill, crossing upland country that glorious in the sun and can be bitingly cold in the wind. The quiet suggested by the map is belied by the presence of quarries serviced by a stream of heavy goods vehicles, until veering off to Snowshill
Too early by a day to visit the manor, a cuppa would have gone down a treat as the sunshine of Gloucesterhire gave way to a gloomy Worcestershire shivering under a layer of cloud. Broadway, another large village with more hotels than befits its size and more cafes than a cycle touring club could drink dry, has a more functional feel to it than some other Cotswold towns – note, this is my opinion and has no body of evidence to support it. Yet, it is on the Cotswold edge. Beyond lay quiet fields and orchards on the road to Pershore.
In that town, a cyclist, stopping for a brew in Broadway, told me, was a cycle shop of good repute. The final section of the way, through Elmley Castle and Little Comberton turned out to be NCR41 and NCR442. They really are all over the place.
Pershore is a fine town, though the charm of its buildings and its grand main street are reduced by the constant stream of traffic. Echelon cycles sorted out the grinding noise in a trice and offered advice on a café. The main attraction of Pershore – except for the River Avon – is its abbey remains and grounds. A major power in the land, the oddly truncated remains of the Abbey church offer a mere indication of the original scale.
Next key point was Upton-on-Severn. A meandering route through Ramsden, Defford, Strensham and Ryhall avoided the worst excesses of lorries belting along the A4104. Other cyclists in Upton said that it wasn’t actually too bad a road, but that traffic tended to move along it in pulses.
Upton is something of an inland resort, with too much traffic on the roads and plenty on the river, too. The remarkable tower of the former church – the Pepperpot - stands almost like a sea-side lighthouse and there are gardens and a short promenade, pubs and cafes. Away from the waterside, timber-framed houses line the main street. Definitely a town for another café stop! A couple who had cycled down from Worcester pulled up outside a café, I joined them and their informal recommendation turned out to be a good one.
In the gardens, in the shade of the Pepperpot is a memorial to William Tennant, not only naval commander at Dunkirk during the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force but who later played a major part in the Normandy landings, having oversight of the Mulberry Harbours.
Beyond Upton, the Malvern Hills beckoned. Having taken them via a direct ascent, the descent began immediately. Height gained, height lost to Colwall and then by very quiet lanes to Bosbury. More timber-framed buildings stood opposite the unusually large churchyard, a tower more akin to that of a castle standing in isolation from the rest of the Church.
Intending initially to head by B road to Bromyard, a change of plan in Bishop’s Frome took me along some of the most delightful country lanes via Panks Bridge, signed as part of the National Byway) and Little Cowarne to Hegdon Hill at 255 metres above sea level and with fine views. Of all these places Little Cowarne – very little – in a narrow wooded valley, presented a vision of rural idyll … unless, I imagine, you have to make a living off the land. The climb out dealt a blow to idyllic thoughts. The home ground of Pencombe Cricket and Football Club must be one of the pleasantest places to field in the deep and admire the scenery in all of England.
Having ridden this ridge before, the prospect of a rolling ride away from most traffic enticed me to keep turning after the climb. A couple of tractors pulled over to allow me to keep going, the only other vehicle being a police car that went back and forth no less than four times. They eventually lost interest in whatever it was they were looking for and I rode undisturbed all the way to Stoke Prior – another attractive village – and down to the busy A44.
A new cycle track had been built since I last came this way. Not immediately obvious, it ran behind a hedge, over the Lugg on an old bridge and into an area of light industry on the edge of Leominster. As soon as the town centre was reached YHA Leominster was clearly signed, round the one way system at the end of a very long cul de sac that skirts the Minster grounds.
This is a really neat, quiet, well-appointed hostel. Busy the previous weekend, this night there were a couple of families and a handful of ramblers. The manager, who also looks after YHA Kington a few miles away quizzed me about bikes. What would be a good one for travelling between the two, without much luggage, when the opportunity arose? A long discussion followed, needless to say, but the gist was that something nippy and light would be fine but he’d best go and try some out.
The huge parish church was once the heart of a Benedictine monastery, though archaeological excavation has revealed the site of an earlier religious settlement dating from around 660. As a centre for the religious conversion of the area in Anglo-Saxon times and a market serving a wide rural area, Leominster was and is the major town in north Herefordshire. The wool trade made it rich and some of the earliest factories or mills were established in the town in the mid-eighteen hundreds.
As you’d expect, it is a place of character with a grand mix of buildings and all necessary facilities. It also has a station on the Newport – Shrewsbury – Crewe railway line. But the next day was fine and Leominster is the gateway to Herefordshire’s black and white villages. So, with Clun Mill to the north-west my next destination, I turned south to go and visit the best.
Maps 15 and 16 in the Pocket-sized Guides to the National Cycle Network series, published by Sustrans, were more than adequate for use on the road, though I’d taken some detail from OS 1:50 000 sheet 150 (Worcester and Malvern) for the short way up to Colwall Cutting. OS 1: 50000 sheets 149,150 and 151 cover the route, too, but take up more space.
For YHA hostels see www.yha.org.uk