Walk of the week

The rolling, comfortable Cotswolds reveal a tougher side
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The Independent Travel

As we sheltered in the lee of a clump of thorn bushes from a hailstorm raking the high ground of the Cotswolds, the thought occurred that we could hardly have chosen worse weather to try this walk. As one squally blast succeeded another, the ancient trackway we were following was quickly blanketed in white pellets.

As we sheltered in the lee of a clump of thorn bushes from a hailstorm raking the high ground of the Cotswolds, the thought occurred that we could hardly have chosen worse weather to try this walk. As one squally blast succeeded another, the ancient trackway we were following was quickly blanketed in white pellets.

Half of Gloucestershire was under water - this was during the flood alerts at the end of 2000 - while elsewhere the footpaths were deep in glutinous mud. I am sure that for most of the year this eight-mile circuit from Winchcombe can be done in trainers but there are times when even these comfortable hills can seem a bit raw.

Winchcombe nestles beneath the western edge of the Cotswolds, 10 miles from Tewkesbury and the M5. This walk starts and finishes at the bridge that carries the B4632 over the River Isbourne at the north end of the town. Walk east up Rushley Lane and continue ahead into Stancombe Lane.

After about 10 minutes, the uphill track is crossed by the Gloucestershire Way. The well-signed trail is our route for the next two and a half miles, starting through a galvanised iron kissing gate on the left and angling steadily upwards over grass fields and between thorn scrub on to Flukes Hill - around 850ft (260m) high.

The way drops sharply from a knot of pines, then traverses the hillside to Little Farmcote. A rash of signs guide you past the classic honey-stone farmhouse and round a yard towards an excellent springy track below a wood. All the way, there is a broad valley view.

Shortly before joining a lane, early forms of agriculture can be seen in the grass - the ancient plough-line terraces marked on maps as "strip lynchets" and the outline of Anglo-Saxon "ridge and furrow" cultivation.

Turn left at the lane and follow it, bearing northwards, for a quarter of a mile to a fork. The Gloucestershire Way bears right along one lane, another bears left, but we go straight ahead on a bridleway between high tangles of thorn and beech. This atmospheric track, called Campden Lane, was no doubt once a direct route for travellers over the hills. It is an exposed spot to be caught in a hailstorm.

Follow the track for a mile and a quarter to a disused quarry and scruffy spinney of larches. Through the wide gateway turn left, joining the Cotswold Way, another well-signed long-distance route that will take us back to Winchcombe.

Soon, the way turns south-west, overlooking an escarpment, drops sharply at a stone monument, descends more gently over fields and turns right into a farm lane leading downwards between woods and orchards to the remains of Hailes Abbey.

One of the great Cistercian monasteries of England, Hailes Abbey was built in the 13th century with money given by Richard, Earl of Cornwall, in gratitude for surviving a perilous sea voyage. When Richard's second son, Edmund, presented the monks with a phial said to contain the blood of Christ, the abbey drew pilgrims from across Britain and abroad. Henry VIII and the Dissolution put paid to all of that. The ruins are now managed by English Heritage and open to the public.

Opposite the abbey is a 12th- century church, guarded by gnarled yews and remarkable for its medieval, muted and mysterious wall paintings of a hunt and a figure with a staff.

The final stretch of almost two miles follows the Cotswold Way across sloping fields. The path is indistinct on one broad field, but look out for a footbridge over a stream and then the way home is clear, leaving the fields via a track marked as Puck Pit Lane.

* Ordnance Survey Outdoor Leisure map 45 'The Cotswolds' (£6.75).

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