Date: 10th August 2019.
Weather conditions: Poor. In fact, let me be blunt: the first hour was the worst shit I have walked in for about 2 years (since 31/7/17, as it happens). It got a little better later, when it stopped raining, but remained ferociously windy throughout.
County Top bagged: Cleeve Hill, which at 1,082ft/330m above sea level is the highest point in the county of Gloucestershire, both historic and modern. It is the highest point in the Cotswold Hills, which run through several counties in the central-south-west bit of England; and the highest point within the drainage basin of the River Thames. (Hanging Hill and Ebrington Hill are the other Cotswold CTs.)
Rankings by altitude:
- 58th of the 91 historic Tops;
- 73rd of the 172 modern Tops;
- 91st of the full list of 196.
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Start and end point of walk: Started in the housing estate of Noverton Park, in the village of Prestbury to the east of Cheltenham. The #N bus (Cheltenham buses are mostly designated by letters rather than numbers) runs here from Cheltenham town centre. See also the ‘Access’ notes below.
Finished at the Rising Sun Hotel, grid reference SO980266, which is on the B4632 a few miles north-east of Cheltenham. There is a bus stop right outside and #W1 buses run back from here to the town.
Pub at end: The Rising Sun would prefer to see itself as a vaguely upmarket hotel and bistro rather than anything so vulgar as a ‘pub’ (darling), but though it was bland that doesn’t mean it was unpleasant. The beer was decent and it was certainly a convenient place to end the walk.
Distance walked: By the route I describe below, approximately 4.2 miles/6.75km. Longer walks are possible in better weather.
Feet of ascent: 800 feet/245m approximately.
Difficulty: ★. Yes, the first twenty minutes or so are uphill, but come on, you’re going to a county top: there’s going to be some uphill. Get used to it. This slope is not steep and once atop it the rest of the walk is either level or downhill. This walk could safely be done in trainers. As Cleeve Hill is made of limestone, it is dry underfoot.
Ease of access: ★★★★★. Cleeve Hill is right outside Cheltenham, a sizeable town on a significant rail line. I did this in a day-trip from West Yorkshire, without trouble, and I’m sure a similar performance is possible from most of England and Wales. In short this is one of the most accessible county tops.
However, Cheltenham Spa rail station is quite a distance from the centre and on the wrong side of town for the walk. You do need to use buses. I arrived at the station at 10:50 (this train had left Leeds at 08:11), and got straight on a #E bus from the station to the town centre, which allowed me to catch the 11:10 #N bus from Pittville Street. I started walking at 11:25. But I was cutting this connection rather fine. Had I missed any aspect of it I could have got a frequent #A bus to Prestbury, but these do not run as near to the starting point of my walk as does the #N. In this case I would have ended up starting the walk in Prestbury village centre which would have added about half a mile to it.
The walk took me about two hours, including a fifteen-minute lunch-and-sheltering-from-the-most-egregious-rain break.
Scenic qualities: ★★. Doing it on a grim day didn’t help, but while there are extensive views from later on in the walk, Gloucestershire’s county summit is undistinguished and there’s little encountered that you wouldn’t experience on most other high points of southern England.
The area: Cheltenham is a spa town with lots of elegant, Georgian-style buildings in the centre, and thatched cottages in the villages around. It is also the home of the UK Government’s spy and surveillance centre, GCHQ. So I wouldn’t expect it to be a hotbed of radical politics, and nor does it look like one.
It’s a decent spot geographically though. Cleeve Hill sits on the edge of the Cotswolds and as noted above, its eastern slopes drain across the width of England, via the Thames. But the main visual outlook — as depicted in this page’s banner image — is west, over the wide valley of the Severn to the Malvern Hills in the distance. You are stood right on the main west-east watershed of southern Britain, of this there is no doubt.
Map: OS Explorer 179 (Gloucester, Cheltenham and Stroud) covers the walk, but it’s not a vital piece of equipment.
Route: The bus driver on the #N service dropped me at the junction of Desert Orchid Close with Noverton Lane, from where the latter lane heads upwards through the woods and past the eponymous Noverton Farm on the right. As you ascend, there develops a twisted skein of intertwining paths, but keep heading upwards without worrying too much about the exact route. Ignore all temptations left (north) until coming out of the main canopy of the woods and encountering the first of the Cotswold Way signs (pictured).
These will be a reliable guide for the next half mile or so, pointing you along a decent path with a view of Cheltenham to the left. This goes over a stile and into a designated nature reserve. Following the signposts, drop into a dry valley and then, before this path starts on a steeper descent, bear right up to a distinctive, large copse of trees (under which I sheltered while having lunch, as this was the point on my walk at which the rain came down most ferociously). Through the copse, a path leads up to the tarmac road, where turn left for the Cleeve Common car park.
Through the gate at the end of the car park, underneath the radio masts, the summit — the trig point at grid reference SO996245 — is to the right, a couple of hundred yards away along the fence. You can be forgiven for speculating about how the Ordnance Survey could be so sure about the highest point of this elevated, but remarkably flat, grassy plateau. It’s certainly not a prominent summit. But looking around from the trig column does not suggest anything in the vicinity is higher. And nor is it; in fact, heading east of here, south, or anywhere inbetween, nothing exceeds its 1,082 feet above sea level at all, until well into France.
One could of course return from here to Cheltenham, and if you experience weather like the day I did it you may feel motivated to do so. But interest and views are added to the walk by returning to the gate to the car park then continuing beyond, past the masts and in the direction of the ‘ripples’ in the escarpment visible ahead, these being the ramparts of a prehistoric fort, marked on the OS map. This section has much better views, with Cheltenham (and its racecourse) down to the left at first, and then the separate villages of Woodmancote and Bishop’s Cleeve, north of the racecourse, which head towards.
Ahead there is another prehistoric settlement, marked on the OS map as “The Ring”, but I didn’t get this far, being terribly windswept by this point. There is a noticeable escarpment below, so don’t descend without care. Head north to the slightly unexpected golf course, and shortly afterwards there is an obvious path down, which comes out by the Rising Sun hotel. There is a bus stop outside, from which services can take you back into Cheltenham.
Commentary: Which county tops (or any other walks) that can be done from home, and which cannot, is not simply a factor of distance. One must factor in convenience of transport connections. In this respect Cleeve Hill ranks highly. This barely cost me any more time on the day than a walk in some of the more remote parts of the western Lake District (like Buttermere, for a start). And I got an obscure football match into the day as well (namely an FA Cup Extra Preliminary Round tie at Bishop’s Cleeve FC, but that’s another story — see the picture at the bottom, however).
But I can’t control so well for the weather on a long-distance trip. To get affordable train fares I had to book this well in advance, and it still cost me about £80, meaning I was committed and had to just suck up the rather foul conditions. Who could have foreseen this rain and — particularly — wind on August 10th though? It got better after noon, but by then I was already wet and cold. So be it though. I could have committed to a more exposed walk and I’m glad I didn’t.
Despite not having truly yet committed to the County Tops this still seems to be my third in as many months. and in diverse parts of the country too. I like the walk/football match partnership and should do more of these. The match is a good excuse to do the walk and the walk is a good excuse to do the match. I would have preferred to do this in better weather, of course, but on the whole the day was fully worthwhile, all public transport connections functioning properly, and a nice change of scene. But I don’t feel I saw Gloucestershire at its best.
I can’t be wholly sure about this but the next county top should hopefully come along in mid-October: probably something in the Home Counties…
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