Walk of the month
The evergreen appeal of my favourite British ramble
Come rain, shine or gale-force winds, Mark Rowe has donned his hiking boots for the past 10 years for Walk of the Month. To celebrate, he returns to his favourite destination – Bredon Hill in the Cotswolds
Saturday 13 April 2013
In 2003, I set out in a force-eight gale to roam a stretch of the North Devon coast for The Independent on Sunday's new Walk of the Month column. Since then, I have explored the north-west of Scotland, rural parts of the South-east and just about every county in between. Ten years, 1,036 miles and 113 walks later, my notebook reports three cow attacks, a horse bite and one call to mountain rescue. I replaced my boots only last year – the old pair are now doing well in the compost heap. I'm also still learning how to fold an OS map in a light breeze. To mark the 10th anniversary of the series, I've picked my top walk in the UK – deep in the Cotswolds – plus 10 more favourites.
Bredon Hill is something of an enigma; it is a landmark Cotswolds hill yet remarkably free of the herds of tourists and coach parties that flood the area's picture-postcard honeypots. The hill is, for some reason, omitted from most guidebooks and from major long-distance and landmark trails. Turn up here even on the sunniest of bank holidays and you will encounter little more than locals out with the dogs.
So, walking undisturbed up Bredon Hill's steadily ascending flanks, I'm finding it all too easy to let the imagination go, and I can't help but invent reasons or assignations for the few people I come across. Had Carnforth railway station not been available for Brief Encounter, then Bredon Hill could have easily stepped in: that couple over there, perhaps a doctor and a lonesome farmer's wife arriving separately at the brow by a thicket of yew trees; he finishing his rounds early, she keeping a watchful eye on her husband safely ensconced in his tractor cab in the fields below ...
As well as letting your mind wander, this is a walk that really does have everything: a decent hill, birds and deer, perfect walk-and-pint territory with three great pubs a short stroll away, and one of the dreamiest views – across the Vale of Evesham and taking in distant mountains – anywhere in the country. For these qualities and others, this happens to be one of my favourite walks, not just in the UK but anywhere.
I'd started out from the hamlet of Kemerton, where a plaque by St Benet's Church commemorates a best-kept village award from 1973. Little has changed since. Much of the village is made from gorgeously warm Cotswolds stone, and I admire some picturesque thatched cottages as I start the long and steady climb, making my way from 60m above sea level to a shade under 300m. To be honest, it's easy rambling all the way. Worcestershire is a two-faced county, its northern fragments fighting off what Simon Jenkins called "the dark stain" of the West Midlands, but Kemerton and Bredon Hill sneak into the top left-hand corner of the Cotswolds Area of Outstanding Beauty and here everything looks and feels like the West Country.
It's a wonderful haunt for wildlife lovers too and a good place to spot the exotic parrot imitator, the yellowhammer. I've walked this route at 6am on a clear spring morning and wondered how villagers ever enjoy a decent night's sleep given the drumming crescendo of early-rising woodpeckers and the squeaky wheel chirruping of great tits.
Leaving Kemerton behind, the views open up south, across to Cleeve Hill above Cheltenham and the last ridges of the Cotswolds escarpment. The crop fields on either side were ploughed in March and, for now, the landscape is a mustard-yellow mulch of soil, limestone and sandstone. I walk through a lovely canopy of beech trees to emerge by old quarries, now grassed over, where I've never failed to spot buzzards heaving themselves out of the surrounding treetops. Fallow deer are a decent bet too.
This is classic sheep and arable country, and the landscape is dotted with stone barns, which act as full stops to the long lines of drystone walls that cut geometrically across the landscape. To the west, the striking ridgeline of the Malvern Hills cuts across the sky, while just to the south is the conspicuous thicket of trees on top of May Hill in the Forest of Dean, a hilltop that seems to turn up as a landmark from countless viewpoints in the west and south-west. Behind that are the distinctive Sugar Loaf, the Brecon Beacons and Hay Bluff.
Bredon Hill may not be wild – nothing you can see is "natural" – but it is, for the most part, thoughtfully managed with farmers setting aside land to encourage unusual flowers. Unploughed field margins allow poppies to bloom, which are pretty enough, as well as lamb's lettuce and Venus's looking glass, which in turn support butterflies and birds.
The approaching highlight, the summit of the walk, always puts a spring in my step. The long, straight path from Kemerton finishes abruptly by a drystone wall which rings the northern ridge of the hill and overlooks a view that is just about faultless. The Vale of Evesham appears to have been ironed flat and rises up only around its edges into hills and mountains. The Malvern Hills are still present but now the pretty town of Pershore and its church spire rise out of the plains, all but ringed by the River Avon and separated by sculptured field edges from snug villages.
Pitchy smoke rises here and there from stubble fires. Behind the Malverns, deep in mid-Wales, you can make out the blurry silhouettes of the Cambrian Mountains. Way to the north lie the uprisings of the Shropshire Hills. I've stood on the Long Mynd in Shropshire and looked back at Bredon Hill, with the feeling that only walking can occasionally give you of gazing back at yourself, in another time and place.
This is spring, but it's an unbeatable view whichever time of year you visit. In the summer, Bredon Hill is bathed in a golden light; in winter it's a petrified painting from Brueghel; in our era of changing climate, floods can happen at any time and when they do, the Avon floods in seemingly biblical quantities and the view becomes an illustration from a geography textbook.
It's time to move on, and I follow the drystone wall to the west as it encircles the hill. Bredon Hill is deeply steeped in human occupation and I pass the undulating lumps and pitted remains of Kemerton Camp, a Neolithic hillfort. I duck down below Banbury Stone Tower, which housed a hermit as recently as the Second World War, but which today has been disfigured by telecommunications equipment. I keep on the hilltop and head downhill along the track and enter a woods known as the Warren.
As I round the hill, Bredon village and its church spire come into view along with Kemerton Lake. I drop back into Kemerton and pause by the delightful Daffurn's Orchard, a community conservation project. I pass a stand-alone, churchless graveyard, fronted by two plump yew trees, and arrive back at the village's main street. Just one quandary remains: which pub? Straight ahead, the Crown Inn serves the perfect pint, but so do the Fox and Hounds in Bredon and the Yew Tree in Conderton, both a 15-minute walk away. I'll let you choose for yourselves.
Directions: Start in Kemerton village. With St Benet's Church on your left, head uphill. After a gate, the lane becomes a path, keep ahead and after 100 metres bear half-right through trees. With the old quarries on your left, head uphill for 2.5km (1.5 miles) to reach the summit and drystone wall. Bear left with the wall on your right, pass Banbury stone tower and drop down into the Warren. After passing through a gate the path turns sharp left and heads across open land to a gate. Head downhill on the main track which dog-legs and then turns into a minor lane. As this lane bears right, turn sharp left (grid ref: SO944381) above a house and fields. After 300 metres turn right on a downhill track to Kemerton village.
Map: Explorer 190 Malvern Hills & Bredon Hill
Time: Three hours. Distance: 7 miles
The nearest mainline train station is Ashchurch for Tewkesbury, served by First Great Western (08457 484950; nationalrail.co.uk).
The writer stayed at the Broadway Hotel (01386 852401; cotswold-inns-hotels.co.uk/broadway), which has a “Spring in to the Cotswolds” package, valid until 31 May, from £150 for two people sharing a double room, half board.
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