Sunday 27th September 2015
For each of the previous two years, I’ve taken part in the twenty-mile Circuit of Bath walk on the last Sunday in September. This year though, I decided to take upon myself a new challenge a little further north in the Cotswolds.
Meningitis Now are behind the Five Valleys Walk and I arrived in Stonehouse near Stroud at 8.45am, ready to go.
I mention the Circuit of Bath walk here because not only do both events fall upon the same date each year but they’re set up along a similar structure, from which you can begin and end your walk from any one of the manned checkpoints.
As it was the most westerly checkpoint and closest to the M5 motorway, I selected to start at Wycliffe Perparatory School. I wasn’t sure of the entire route and how the terrain may fair and so I had no reason to believe that any other position would’ve offer any form of advantage. I was handed a map that follows the walk in an anti-clockwise direction. There was no apparent option to complete the walk in reverse but their website suggests that you can do so; you’d just be walking against the signposting and without official guidance.
There was plenty of room for cars within the overflow car park and from the A419, it was a short walk down to the canal, where we began to follow a cycle path on towards Dudbridge.
Although a few of us were wearing shorts, there weren’t many at all who could bear a T-shirt alone. Secluded between a consistent tunnel of trees, we weren’t receiving enough sunlight and there was a distinct chill to the air. Summer had come and gone.
It’s rare that I will ever enjoy walking a cycle path, particularly one that follows a course of water. Usually, your pace is frequently interrupted by cyclists coming from either direction… But as this was between the hours of 9.00 and 10.00, we were only disturbed on one or two occasions. Had I been walking this section anything more than two-hours later in the day and I believe it would’ve been a less than pleasant experience.
Our canal walk ended as we reached the former mill that now houses council offices.
We remained on course with the cycle path for Nailsworth, as we reached our first checkpoint, only 1.5 miles in, at Dudbridge.
From here and until we reached Minchinhampton, the path continued through woodland.
But as the sun tried its best to filter light down through the trees, I conceded that I would have to delve in to my backpack and dig out a pair of gloves (in my defence, both my hat and neck warmer remained tucked away).
It’s fair to say that some of the bridges along this stretch were more ‘urban’ than in some areas I’ve walked in.
Immediately after the Nailsworth checkpoint, (4.75 miles from the start), we were climbing uphill. First, we followed roads before the gradient increased and we were heading up through woodland.
About halfway up, I stopped to remove my winter layers [regain my breath] and then found the stitching break away on the carry case I used for my camera. No longer would I be able to fasten it on to my belt. So, for the remaining fifteen-or-so miles, I’d have to hold it carefully in my front pocket.
At the very top and, a good ten-minutes later, we reached Minchinhampton Common, where I turned around to take the photo above.
I’m not certain that I had ever walked here before. I vaguely remember crossing a common near Stroud in 2013 but that could equally have been Rodborough Common, which isn’t very far away.
I’d approached this walk without the usual determination to complete it in a reasonably fast time. But, knowing the common land would be flat and with a number of people ‘bimbling‘ along with dogs and all, I decided to up my pace slightly and start passing by until the next checkpoint, where I had planned to stop for a snack.
This open space covers a large expanse and yet it was still very strange to have to cross active roads, several times, in order to continue with the walk.
It was also upon the common that the first series of letters was to be found, which help to guide you along the correct round, between mounds and causing the least amount of stress for the nearby golfers.
Shortly before reaching the next checkpoint on the common, there was a band playing some kind of “European” music… I don’t think they were there for the event but it was a nice surprised, all the same.
After receiving a stamp from the check point, I sat down for five minutes or so, eating a few snacks and intaking a cup of tea. At each checkpoint, they also have free water and fruit for participants while you can also buy chocolate bars, wristbands and T-shirts.
From Minchinhampton Common, we soon began to descend steeply downhill and in to the heart of the next valley, only 1.5 miles from the next checkpoint.
It was at the checkpoint in Brimscombe that I payed a total of £7 for both a Meningitis Now T-shirt and one of their orange wristbands. I also helped myself an apple – the first time I had seen fruit (and not sweets) available on a walk.
Looking on the map, I could see the names of familiar places ahead; areas I had walked through previously on my own. I had a good idea of what was to come and the level of effort that would be required.
Initially, the route on towards Fennells Farm wasn’t too bad until we reached a cross roads in the woods, at which point we’d have to turn left and begin climbing a steep and winding path.
Something took over and I found the energy to burst up this hill, moments after reassuring the crowd of the correct direction… I also vaguely recognised the path from a walk I did in the area almost a year ago.
There was some kind of circus fair also taking place at Fennells Farm. Receiving my fifth stamp of the day, I was then informed I was now entitled to a free pint of beer, by showing my stamped map at the bar… Even if I was a drinker, I don’t think something that dehydrates you would’ve been the best of options, especially now that the sun was out.
From here, we were destined for the quaint Cotswold village of Slad; home to the late poet Laurie Lee.
We followed a series of paths that were entirely familiar to me before a first glimpse of the iconic Swift’s Hill, below, where a number of participants had rightfully decided to stop for lunch.
But for a light chill in the breeze, I probably would’ve joined then. Now knowing what lay ahead to the north and west of this valley, I decided I might also benefit in delaying my own refuelling a little longer.
Slad was as picturesque as I could remember it.
I stopped for lunch next to a memorial in the village amongst a few others and right across the road from the checkpoint. I was a little disappointed that this route didn’t deter west to take in slightly more of the village I had seen in late 2014.
I had one of those experiences where you’re sat near someone else and you accidentally hear something less-than-pleasant that puts you off your food… Unless you’ve eaten it already (as I had), in which case, you’re almost inclined to throw it all back up!
To the right (north), you could see the unmistakable spire of the church in Painswick. For some reason, I’d thought the walk would pass right through there.
No sooner had we arrived in Pitchcombe, we seemed to be climbing uphill, almost immediately.
I knew, from a walk here last summer, what was just around the corner and, listening to a few of the guys just infront of me, it was clear that I wasn’t the only one not-exactly-looking-forward-to this climb…
It begins, sending you up through an opening between the trees…
From there, the climb goes on…
To a point where you fear and begin to doubt whether a kissing gate and fence exist just over the brow…
For me, this was the equivalent of climbing Batcombe Hollow in Draycott during the thirty-mile Mendip Challenge. Only, this hill arrived at a point barely three-miles from the end of the walk. At least Draycott is seen off within the first ten-miles of the Mendips.
Looking at the OS map now, I still can’t decide which hill this is to pre-warn any of you.
From the very top, the route immediately levels out and it’s a clear and easy walk on to Standish Wood.
As you enter these woods, the paths soon begin to branch off in all directions and, even with a compass, you could too easily become disorientated. Fortunately then, the organisers have the correct route very clearly signposted.
A momentary exit from the woods led to the penultimate checkpoint, at which I gratefully swiped a banana, having not packed one for my lunch.
This final stint led us on to the Cotswold Way, which would also lead us neatly back to the start but not without taking in a few spectacular views along the way.
Of course, now walking the Cotswold Way, the paths seemed to be quite clear and well defined – as often has been my experience of walking in these parts.
We continued down through a field where some were happy to try and help themselves to the crops.
By now, my left knee was hurting quite badly, each time I took a step down the slope.
This was an issue that had flared up a couple of hours earlier. No single instance appeared to have caused it. But for my walking pole, I fear I wouldn’t have been able to make it. Walking uphill was fine and relatively pain free (in the knees, anyway). I’m a bit wary of a mountain I’m going to be climbing, two weeks from now…
We also passed through a vineyard, before crossing a railway track and on to the A419, which would signal the completion of my walk, at least.
This was my third (and final) fundraising walk of the year. As a new experience, I’m glad to have taken part and found the event itself to be extremely well managed. Good weather also helps! There seemed to be a phenomenal number of people taking part of all ages. I still hope to learn the exactly figures but I got the impression it might have exceeded the 700+ I’m used to seeing on the Mendip Challenge.
Best of all, they even spelled my name correctly on the certificate! 😉
Thank you for reading. If you’d like to see my complete set of photos from this twenty-one mile walk, then please click here.