23 August 2021 by Natalie Hoare
The Cotswold Way has a big birthday to celebrate; on Sunday 17 May 1970 Gloucestershire County Council officially designated the Cotswold Way trail during ‘National Footpath Week’. A week’s worth of walking-based fun will now take place this September (postponed due to Covid 19) to honour this hard-earned long-distance public path.
From Saturday 11 September to Sunday 19 September, visitors can take part in a number of walking events along the Cotswold Way, including a baton relay walk and guided group walks. The anniversary celebrations will also aim to raise funds to continue the work of the many volunteers – including ramblers and Cotswold Wardens - who help maintain and protect the route, which draws walkers from around the world.
Local ramblers lead the way
The Cotswold Way was originally envisioned by Gloucestershire Ramblers Area – spearheaded by the late Tony Drake and Cyril Trenfield – before it was officially launched in 1970 (it was not designated a National Trail until 2007).
The 163km/102-mile public path stretches from the market town of Chipping Campden in Gloucestershire and extends to the Roman town of Bath in Somerset, passing through the towns and villages of Broadway, Winchcombe, Dursley and Wotton-under-Edge, offering staggering views from the ridge of the Cotswold Escarpment across to the River Severn, the Malvern Hills and beyond to the Black Mountains of Wales.
Although it can be done in 7-10 days, really it's not a route to be hurried. Local ramblers recommend taking time to enjoy the far-reaching views and the wildlife of the unimproved calcareous grasslands with native orchids and butterflies. There are lots of Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs), numerous iron age hill forts and miles of drystone walls, too. And when it’s time to refuel, many fine tea shops can be found where the Way drops down into the honey-coloured towns and villages along the trail.
Battling for big trails
Sudeley - Credit: Gloucestershire Ramblers
In many ways, the Cotswold Way’s 50-year story charts decades of UK history of the fight for walkers’ rights in the UK, and the role the Ramblers has played. The Cotswold Way was first promulgated by Tony Drake of Gloucestershire Ramblers Area, prompted by the enactment of Countryside Parks legislation following on from the Kinder Scout mass trespass. ‘Together with Cyril Trenfield, latterly of the Cotswold Wardens, a route was devised.
The launch of the trail in 1970 also coincided with a pivotal moment in Ramblers’ history; National Footpath Week – an initiative to raise awareness of public paths that were suffering from obstruction and neglect by local authorities. The game-changing campaign was part of European Conservation Year in 1970 and made huge gains in engaging members of the public with the importance of taking action to protect their local landscape.
Rucksack, Summer 1970 (a predecessor to Walk magazine), contained plenty of coverage of National Footpath Week
A national Ramblers rally took place at Leicestershire’s Bradgate Park, and somewhere between 500 and 1,000 walking events were organised by Ramblers groups across the UK. One of these was the inaugural walk of the Cotswold Way, organised by the Ramblers Gloucester and Swindon Area (as they were then known), along existing rights of way.
A few years later, the first guide to the a trail was produced by Mark Richards, another Gloucestershire Area Rambler, swiftly followed by local Ramblers’ accompanying Cotswold Way Handbook listing accommodation options for walkers along the Way (and produced by Mavis Rear and her late husband Bob).
Image (right) Lifelong Ramblers member and countryside advocate Tony Drake MBE (1923-2012), co-creator of the Cotswold Way
Safeguarding the trail’s future
Lacking National Trail status and funding, responsibility for the maintainence and upkeep of the Way fell to a voluntary team of Cotswold Wardens, partly funded by local ramblers. It was to be almost 40 years until it was officially recognised as a National Trail.
‘It took two decades of campaigning by Gloucestershire Ramblers – led by Tony Drake and Cyril Trenfield – for the route to be recognised by Gloucestershire County Council as a promoted path [in 1970],’ explains Kate Ashbrook, a former president and chair of the Ramblers. ‘After much further lobbying by local and national ramblers, the government approved its development as a recognised National Trail, and this was finally achieved in 2007.’
But even then, the role of the Cotswold Wardens remained vital to the trail’s upkeep. In 2016, local ramblers and Cotswold Wardens got together to set up the Cotswold Way Association to promote and protect the Cotswold Way and other nearby trails.
Local ramblers were also heavily involved in organising a special marker stone for the trail. On 8th November 2014, a Cotswold Way circular marker stone was unveiled near the Market Hall, at Chipping Campden. It features place names from along the Cotswold Way and replicates another stone at the other end of the trail in Bath. It was partly funded by the Ramblers; local rambler Ros Young raised £13,000 with the town council and central office donated £500 with part of a legacy by Lilian Wise, another local rambler.
The marker stone on Chipping Campden’s High Street - Credit: Gloucestershire Ramblers
Local ramblers remain very committed to protecting the Way and its surrounding countryside; they are currently campaigning (and in fact have been for some 20 years) for action to be taken to address a busy traffic bottleneck and crossing on the A417 near Birdlip.
The Air Balloon a popular stop for walkers of the Cotswold Way that could be lost under current proposals - Credit: Gloucestershire Ramblers.
The Air Balloon is an historic Inn and a popular landmark where the Cotswold Way meets the Gloucestershire Way. Unfortunately, it is also a bottleneck for traffic cutting through the AONB from Swindon on the M4 to Gloucester on the M5.
Ramblers have been campaigning for through traffic to be taken off local roads to make them walkable and crossable again preferable with a tunnel, the landscape remaining much the same. Highways England has proposed a scheme that claims to be landscape-led and offers recreational enhancement but demolishes the Air Balloon, diverts the Cotswold Way and closes a number of paths and tracks. The Ramblers is campaigning to retain for future generations (of walkers) this magical site next to Emma's Grove neolithic round Barrows and between the Barrow Wake and Crickeley Hill SSSI.
The Ramblers’ determination to secure the future of the Cotswold Way over the past 50 years typifies the altruism and care members show for landscapes and much-loved walks across the country - and the celebrations for this national treasure are long overdue.
Celebrate the Cotswold Way’s birthday by joining a walking event with the Gloucestershire Ramblers from 11-19 September
Magazine of the Ramblers