April 6

The Cotswolds Landscape


The character of the Cotswolds is derived partly from the nature of the landscape and partly from the ways in which the inhabitants over the centuries have changed and developed that landscape until it has become the scenery familiar to us.

Many books describe the Cotswold countryside; fewer writers have attempted to explain it. An historian may identify a dozen features which contribute to the Cotswold hentage, and in this journey from Rollright to Bath these are taken in historical sequence. In order that chronology should march with topography some favourite places and well-known tales receive scant notice, but I hope that such omissions are balanced by fresh material from the historical records and local people.

Dunng the preparation of this article I have talked to many farmers, CGergymen, masons, innkeepers and others; sometimes we exchanged names, but more often we did not. To all of them I acknowledge my gratitude for their courtesy, patience and information, and especially I would mention three masons, Mr Philip Lee of Taynton, Mr A-R. Wright of Windrush and Mr P. Juggins of Chedworth. Some of the books on the Cotswolds which I have consulted are mentioned in the last chapter, but that list is by no means exhaustive. I have also drawn upon a small selection of the rich historical sources in the Gloucestershire Record Office, and had help from the County Archivists of Oxfordshire and Somerset.

The broad ridge of the Cotswold hills divides south-eastern England from the Midlands. Their distinctive character is formed both from the landscape and its history, for the familiar countryside of the present day has been shaped by the ways in which its inhabitants have for two thousand years and more cultivated the land and earned their livelihood, built their homes and buried their dead. The scenery has constantly changed over the centuries as each generation and age have developed the countryside for their use — prehistoric men constructing their great ramparted forts above the steep beech woods of the western edge; medieval sheep masters spreading their flocks over the short turf of the downs, and spending the profits from wool on the lofty new towers that dwarf the old Norman churches; the textile manufacturers filling the valleys with their tall mills and terraced cottages; the stone-walled fields and new roads of inclosure and mail-coach days; and in our own time the rebirth of decayed villages and the restoration of old houses.

The fabric of society has changed also, each phase and new fashion accompanied by destruction and tragedy, which can now only be pieced together by the archaeologist and historian. The art treasures and civilization of Roman towns and villas crumbled, unheeded by the rough and vigorous English settlers; Tudor squires and yeomen grew rich and built their fine manor houses and farms on the wealth dispersed by the dissolution of the monasteries; the stark poverty of the cloth industry’s bankruptcy and the farming depression of the nineteenth century were the prelude to the discovery of the Cotswolds by the artists, architects, tourists and commuters.

Like the mechanization of transport and farming, there runs the link of the long memory and stable experience of generations of Cotswold squires, masons, shepherds, farmers and labourers ~ men whose familiar surnames appear in the electoral roll today and the muster roll of 1608.

There is one further all-important common factor hnking the centuries and the 100-mile ridge of hills, and that 1s the Cotswold stone. The Cotswolds are part of the long limestone belt of upland country which stretches diagonally across England from Lin colnshire to the Dorset coast. Historically the name was originally given only to the high wolds between Winchcombe and Stow-on-theWold. Thirteen or fourteen centuries ago when the English were first exploring and settling the high wolds a Saxon called Cod (pronounced ‘Code’) established his farm on the slope above the source of the Windrush. The valley became known as ‘Cod’s dene’, or Cutsdean, and the sweeping wolds around were called ‘Cod’s wold’. Only very gradually was the name applied to a larger area. Ralph Bigland stated in 1791 that Bisley near Stroud was ‘the last Parish of that Division of the County called Cotswold’, but there is no real break in either the geology or the scenery until the valley of the Avon is reached near Bath. To the west the Cotswolds are dramatically bounded by the steep scarp of the edge overlooking the Midland plain and Severn vale, a clear-cut cliff up to 500 ft high with a few outlying islands, and on the east the hills give out in the lush meadows of the upper Thames valley. Only on the north is the boundary indistinct, for the rolling hills run unbroken towards Edge Hill and the Cherwell valley, although the hidden geological frontier hes between Hook Norton and Great Rollright where the brown Oxfordshire ironstone gives way to the pale grey oolite of the Cotswolds.

Oxfordshire, a nugget picked up in the ironstone quarry is the colour of old leather, but one from Taynton and Milton is creamy white, appearing coarse, with numberless white, orange and grey shells and sands of every shape and size crushed together, ready to reflect white in the sunlight or sombre grey under a winter sky. A piece of white Painswick stone consists of uniform granules the size of fairy pinheads, much smoother and more regular than the yellower stone from Bath and Box.

At the bottom are the oldest rocks of the lower, middle and upper lias, with the marlstone, Cotswold sands, and inferior and upper oolite at the top, separated in some places by a thin band of fuller’s earth. The oolites are in turn divided into a number of layers which produce a varicty of stone. If the sandwich cake remained level and unbroken we should therefore have everywhere beneath the topsoil the successive layers of rock from the oolites down to the lower lias, But the sandwich is neither level, nor unbroken. In the first place it is ulted, exposing its sharp side to the Severn Vale in the escarpment which rises so abruptly from the plain, but on the south-eastern side subsiding gently into the Thames valley where the lias and oolite is overlaid with the rising tide of the later cornbrash and Oxford clays, Moreover, the long limestone belt of hills, in addition to tilting or listing to the south-east, is pressed somewhat like a concertina, with valleys running more or less at right angles to the line of the main ridge. Rivers flow down these valleys, mostly the long smooth streams of the Evenlode, Dikler, Windrush, Coln and Churn towards the south-east, or shorter, swifter ones pushing through weaknesses in the edge to flow to the Severn. Consequently the various stones of the sandwich layer are exposed where the rocks are irregularly folded and forced to the surface.

The underlying structure of the land is an important ingredient in the character of the Cotswolds. These late, soft rocks escaped the pressures and disturbances of older geological formations, and are therefore formed into the easy curves and convex slopes of the wolds. The underlying lias clay holds back the water, so that springs erupt at the base of the inferior oolite, and it is at this level that most of the old villages and farms stand, for water is the first essential for any dwelling. Because the rock is of a late date it has experienced litle natural weathering or submergence in geological oceans, and as a result its topsoil is thin. In turn, the quality of the topsoil decides the growth of plant life, such as the dense beech woods that formerly covered much of the hills and still survive along the edge. When the woodland was cleared, the land was only suitable for pasturage. for arable farming is only feasible if there is much surplus lard to compensate for low yiclds (as in early historical times) or an abundance of fertilizers (as in recent farming).

The Cotswold Landscape from the retreating Midland glaciers slowly yielded to a more temperate climate. Animals moved into the forest — their bones are occasionally found among the river gravels, like the mammoth’s tusk at Little Rissington in 1973 — and well before the land link to Europe was broken 9,000 or 10,000 years ago hunting men followed the animals.

At the extreme northern limit of the Cotswolds, where the limestone and Oxfordshire ironstone mect, is the prehistoric stone circle known as the Rollright Stones. The Stones stand near the edge of the open wold, 700 ft above sea level, with the tall King Stone acting as q guide post. Gnarled, misshapen and unworked by the Bronze Age people who arranged them in their great hundred-foot circle, the King’s Men are a weird and awesome landmark. As long ago as the sixteenth century, when the antiquary William Camden described them in his Britannia as ‘irregular and of unequal height, and by the decays of time grown ragged and very much impair’d’, the nearby villagers believed that they were the figures of men turned into stone. Camden recorded a simplified version of the popular legend about the king who was offered the crown of England if he could tak: -he seven short strides to the Cotswold edge overlooking Long Com. a. He failed, and he, his followers and the separate huddled grc:« of the Whispering Knights, leaning towards each other as they ple..-d treason, were turned into stone by the triumphant witch who had issued the challenge. On a winter’s day or early in the morning when the mist lingers and there is no traffic on the nearby road, the Stones retain something of their primitive mystery, and this is the time to walk alone among the seventy-seven grey weather-worn and pitted stones, some of them still standing taller than the tallest man. Originally, when the circle was constructed about 1500 to 2000 BC, there were only eleven giant stones, forming a centre of primitive worship

Whispering Knights, standing in silhouette by the dark hedge across the field, are survivals from an even older prchistoric structure, a chambered long barrow of neolithic times. The Rollright Stones,
therefore, are by no means the oldest prehistoric remains in the Cotswolds, nor do they compare in grandeur with the largest Iron Age forts of later centurics. They are not even unique as a temple, for at Westwell near Burford a shadowy circle spotted from the air in a field long called Barrow Field proved in the late 1940s to be the silted ditch of a circular ‘henge’ or temple, and another has_ been discovered at Condicote. Standing stones are not associated with either, but their purpose must have been broadly similar to the stone circle at Rollright. Nevertheless, this is the most unusual and striking prchistoric landmark in the Cotswolds and the obvious Starting point for exploring cither the northern wolds or the archaeological remains of the Cotswolds gencrally.

The site was probably chosen for its access to the ancient track along the Cotswold ridgeway from Edge Hill, which is followed by the modern road dividing the King Stone from the King’s Men. This continues southwards past the fort of Salmonsbury at Bourton-on. the-Water — one of the few places in the Cotswolds where there could have been continuous links from the Iron Age to the present day ~ and on by Birdlip and Avening all the way to Bath. Near that route are many of the hundred surviving long barrows concentrated in the Cotswolds, which were built as the burial places of Stone-Age neolithic communities. These were the people who were the first Cotswold farmers to clear the scrubland and establish villages, turning from a purely nomadic life as hunters and herdsmen to start the long process of shaping our landscape. From an archaeological excavation at Ascott-under-Wychwood we know that they had already created there a grassy downland for their flocks by 2800 Bc, burning the trees and furze and scratching the soil with wooden ploughshares and other tools. Some of these primitive tools and pottery may be seen in the local museums, but out-of-doors their burial mounds are their most impressive legacy.

In addition to being the first settlers and farmers these neolithic folk were the first to build in Cotswold stone. Their burial places consist of a large chamber or chambers constructed of huge slabs of stone standing upright with other slabs laid across the top to form a roof, over which earth and turf was piled to complete the mound; the Whispering Knights at Rollright are the ruins of such a chamber, stripped of its protective earth and with the roof fallen at one end. The largest burial chamber is in the south Cotswolds at Leighterton where the huge tree-covered mound, nearly a hundred yards long, is clearly visible from the Bath road. A few miles away, above Uley, is Hetty Pegler’s Tump, where provided with a candle or torch you can crouch in the low womb-like central chamber where some 15 neolithic bodies were laid to rest. Long, long after those days another body was thrust into the mound in Roman times, an example of the continuing fascination that these burial places exert over men’s imaginations.

Caesar’s invasion seems from the present day, a span of two thousand years, The long barrows were already two thousand years old when the Roman Iegions landed. Their size and strength have led to their survival, combined with the fact that many were on sheep pastures and downs where later generations of ploughmen did not disturb them. The great majority are not, of course, as easily recognizable as the Whispering Knights or Belas Knap. They are marked on the Ordnance Survey maps but a low swell of the ground or a walled copse among the fields may be all that one can see.

From the Rollright Stones the Oxfordshire wolds stretch to the wooded horizon at Heythrop and the hillside market town of Chipping Norton. Like other Cotswold towns its chief speciality was wool. A carved sheep’s head greets everyone entering the hexagonalribbed porch of the parish church, which is of the same style and size as the better known ‘wool churches’ of Chipping Campden, Northleach and Fairford. Until 1980 it was the only place in the high Cotswolds where cloth was still manufactured. As a medieval new town possessing a great sloping square, crammed with stalls on a Wednesday market day, Chipping Norton cannot compare with the antiquity of either Rollright or Enstone, where another large ruined barrow called the Hoar Stone (or the ‘old stone’) gave its name to the village. Before the inclosure of the open ficlds and downland above the village in 1844 the Hoar Stone ‘stood like a beacon on the hills’, but it is now hidden in a plantation at the crossroads above the village. It is still impressively large. The covering of earth has long since been removed and the barrow has been reduced to a twentyfoot-long chamber; even so the tallest upright stone towers eight feet above the ground,

The position of the Hoar Stone is not marked at all clearly on the Ordnance Survey map, but it is a lot easier to find than the site of Bushell’s Grotto. In 1635, in the course of cleaning out the spring near the river Glyme called the Goldwell, Thomas Bushell, an inventive mining engineer who had been secretary to Lord Chancellor Francis Bacon, came across a great rock. With a little imaginative improvement he thought it might be an attraction.

Across the narrow valley of the Glyme is that part of the twin village called Church Enstone, where beside the church stands the great tithe barn built in 1382 for Winchcombe Abbey, lords of the manor. As one of the oldest stone buildings in the Cotswolds it is a compromise between the novel use of stone and the older tradition of timber-framing. Sturdy cruck beams thrust upward from the stone walls to support the great span of the roof, hidden in the dark hay-filled gloom of the barn. The roof is now covered with stone slates from the nearby village of Stonesfield, but the farmer (from whom written permission must be obtained before going to see the barn) believes that the slates for the original roof probably came from Enstone itself where there is still a field nearby called the Slatepits.

Earlier editions of the Ordnance Survey map showed many more burial mounds and standing stones around Enstone, Lidstone and Spelsbury than are marked on the modern maps. It would be worth looking for them. Some no doubt were merestones marking the furlongs in the open fields before inclosure, for on the hills between Gloucester and Stroud several have been found hidden at the headlands, used as gateposts or built into barns. Other stones may well have been prehistoric, For generations ploughmen have encroached upon the barrows, and three at Chalford in Enstone were removed about 1850, Even the survival of the Rollright Stones, broken up as they are, has been a case of good fortune.

A recent survey of the Cotswold barrows contains the repetiuve phrases ‘ploughed annually’, ‘eradicated in the last decade’, ‘trimmed by the plough’. No one, however, has yet dared Thor’s wrath by removing the crude Thor’s Stone which gives its name to Taston, the next village to Enstone.

These relics of the first Cotswold inhabitants can be found all over the north Oxfordshire Wolds. At Churchill the giant hillock called the Mount gave the village its name. Contrary to what one might expect the village is not called after its prominent hilltop church, built in 1826, but from the Celtic word ‘cruc’, meaning a hill or barrow. The same word is used of Churchdown Hill and Crickley Hill near Gloucester and of Crickley Barrow above Coln St Dennis Undoubtedly when the first English settlers arrived they added ther own name for a hill to the unintelligible name for the place that the Romano-British inhabitants told them. It is therefore ‘hill-hill in two languages!

At the cross roads in the centre of the village is a huge rough monolith of local stone from Sarsgrove Wood commemorating William Smith, ‘father of British geology’. His father was the village blacksmith, but he was brought up by his step-father Robert Gardner, the Jandlord of the Chequers inn. In 1787 the open fields of Churchill were inclosed and the surveyor for the inclosure, Edward Webb of Stow, employed William as his assistant. The 18-year-old Jad must have shown promise for he stayed on with Webb for the next five years, eventually being sent by the latter to survey an estate near Bath. Although he is said to have been interested in fossils when a boy at Churchill it was during his ten years in Bath that his studies in stratigraphical geology developed. His first geological map of the Bath area was published in 1799 and his complete Delineation of tht Strata of England and Wales in 1815, Copies of his maps are much prized by collectors and geologists, whose subsequent work is based on Smith’s pioneering methods. It seems extraordinary that the same small Cotswold village should also have been the birthplace of another eighteenth-century pioneer whose childhood circumstances were similar, for a short way down the road from Smith’s memorial is the house in which Warren Hastings was born in 1732.

A fairly narrow ridge stretches southwards from Chipping Norton with fine views on both sides over the Evenlode valley. To the west, beyond the former heaths of Churchill and Lyncham, converted by the nineteenth-century inclosures into good farming land, are the high Cotswolds about Stow, while to the south the horizon 1s bounded by the dark woodland of Wychwood Forest. Though much reduced in size from its medieval extent of 50,000 acres stretching from Woodstock to Burford, the forest still marks the boundary of the Cotswolds. Its woodland was gradually assarted, or cleared and ploughed, over the centuries, and it was finally formally disafforested in 1857. The surviving woodland is largely that part allotted to the ranger of the forest on disafforestation, and the speed with which they cleared the other parts is remarkable. About 2,000 acres of the Crown Forest near the radio station at Langley was felled at that time. The first trees were sawn down during October 1856. Seven new farms were built, the large stone-walled fields laid out, and in January 1858 the tenants were sowing their first crops. The presence of Roman villas within the medieval forest bounds suggests that in earlier times much of the area had formerly been cultivated, and in the very centre of Wychwood there is a large prehistoric mound at Leafield, a pleasant village with a wide green indicating its origin as a clearing in the medieval woodland.

On the windswept summit of the Lyneham ridge is a neolithic long barrow typical of the Cotswolds. It is a big mound just inside a ploughed field, covered with brambles and thorns, and with a slight depression in the middle where at some time grave robbers have dug into it. It is sull impressively large, but its original length is betrayed by the six-foot-high stone standing alone in the ploughland, which must once have been an upright to the burial chamber or its entrance. A short way up the hill is the circular Iron Age fort called the Roundabout. The area within its ramparts is large and level enough to contain a cornfield, and it must be imagined less as a fort than as a defensive refuge for neighbouring communities in times of trouble.

The Iron Age peoples have left few traces of their activities in this part of the Cotswolds, although archaeologists are now suggesting that there was a very considerable population — perhaps a million or two million people in England as a whole, or about the same numbers as at the time of William the Conqueror. There are similay circular forts at Chastlcton and Tadmarton, and from the Round. about the view westwards is limited by the wolds at Stow on which were built Maugersbury, Icomb and Idbury camps. All the really huge forts, however, are along the Costwold edge farther south where the inhabitants in the last century before the Roman invasion had to defend themselves against other Iron Age invaders from the Severn estuary. In this east Cotswold hinterland there was no such threat. Distance was sufficient security.

Most northerly of the main camps is Shenberrow between Stanway and Stanton, It is far from the roads and undisturbed. The closely cropped turf is bordered by walls of dazzling white stone which shelter harebells, ragwort and scarlet pimpernel, With the barley fields at its back the camp looks over the treetops of the plunging scarp to the level vale and the broad hump of Bredon Hill. Walking on southwards there are more camps every few miles. Some, like Nottingham Hill (where the Bugatti Club has its Prescott Hill Climb), are vast in areca, and many, like those on Cleeve Hill and Crickicy, have been damaged by later quarrying. ‘Two of the biggest and most accessible from the road are Painswick Beacon and Haresficld Beacon between Gloucester and Stroud. In both cases the ramparts rise smoothly and steeply, tier upon tier, with tremendous views across the vale to the grey ribbon of the Severn and the Forest of Dean hills. The view represents the defenders’ outlook. All the camps are easily reached from the roads and from footpaths along the top of the cdge.

The proper approach to appreciate their size and strength is to climb from the vale. From the little hamlet of Artcbrook at the foot of Haresficld Beacon Iess than 200 ft above sea level a footpath leads across the fields towards the hill. It is then a steep and unrelenting climb of over 500 ft in half a mile to the summit of the Beacon, a breath-taking walk even without any opposition from hostile defenders above.

Uley is one of the best Cotswold centres for a varied archaeological expedition. The escarpment is split here by deep wooded valleys running towards Westonbirt and Badminton, completely concealed from the level wolds which are sprinkled with neolithic barrows. It is only five miles to the giant Leighterton long barrow, and near the main Bath road farther south is Nan Tow’s Tump, one of the biggest Bronze Age round barrows. The local legend is that Nan Tow was a witch who lived in a cottage nearby and was buried upright, and that this is the reason for the height of the barrow. Tales of witches, ghosts and buried treasure are repeated about many of the Cotswold barrows. Nearer to Uley, at the top of Frocester Hill opposite the Nympsfield gliding centre, is the Nympsfield long barrow where thirteen or more skeletons were discovered in a double burial chamber, The old road down Froccster Hill is a Roman one, heading for the Severn ford between Arlingham and Newnham, and at the foot of the hill is the site of a big courtyard-style Roman villa, where summer after summer archacologists have been patiently uncovering every feature, not just of the house itself, but the outbuildings, yards
and gardens as well.

The Cotswolds have been the home of several notable archaeologists. Another printer and amateur archaeologist, like Rudder, was Edward Burrow of Cheltenham who wrote an illustrated handbook of the Cotswold hill forts in 1919, but two of the giants of nineteenthcentury archacology, when the science was in its infancy, both came from the northern Cotswolds, They were G.B. Witts, He wrote histories of Stow and of half a dozen other north Cotswold villages, and published an cdition of the great two-volume monastic cartulary of Winchcombe Abbcy. He scoured his parish and neighbourhood to discover hundreds of prchistoric flints and arrowheads, so that the Stow and Swell area is one of the few parts of the Cotswolds which has been surveyed in detail. It should not be thought that he neglected his pastoral dutics for his antiquarian pursuits. Lower Swell, nowadays a trim and well-preserved stone village, was a remote and backward place with a dwindling church attendance when the 33-year-old David Royce went there in 1850. He preached his first sermon on 5 October and twelve months later called a vestry meeting ‘for the purpose of considering the determining upon the expediency of making certain extensive enlargments, alterations and reparations in the Parish Church’. Royce was not the sort of parson wantonly to destroy a Norman building, even if it could seat only 113 of his 431 parishioners, and a scheme was devised to replace the north wall with an arcade leading into an aisle larger than the original church. The result is not an entirely happy arrangement, but the Norman building was spared.

This was only the beginning of Royce’s reforms at Lower Swell. A village school was started, music introduced into the church services ~regarded with some suspicion as a High Church innovation — the Nether Swell Hymm Book written well before Hymns Ancient and Modern, the church furnished with stained glass, and the chancel walls covered with murals designed by the rector. Towards the end of his life the parish built a new bell turret on the church in his memory, but really the whole church is a memorial to this priest and scholar who did so much for Cotswold archaeology and history.

David Royce was a field archaeologist, who searched the countryside for visible relics rather than excavated for them. His modern counterpart is Leslie Grinsell who with rucksack and notebook has ranged all over the Cotswolds and southern England recording finds, and checking and updating records of relics from prehistoric sites, especially barrows. His meticulous surveys bear an individual character, partly because he measures sites not in feet or metres, but in paces, the even, unvarying paces of the life-long hill-walker. By thus shortening his labour — and what did either the imperial or metric measure mean to neolithic men? — Grinsell has carried out singlehanded more fieldwork than any other living archaeologist.

Gloucestershire survey was published jointly by himself and Mrs H.E. O’Neil of Bourton-on-the-Water, another of the first generation of professional archaeologists who carried out excavations throughout the north Cotswolds. Nowadays, excavation (a destructive business even when done professionally) is more popular than fieldwork in archaeology, but there is still a need for observers to follow the plough for flints and sherds and to record changes or deterioration as a result of modern farming practices.

Many of the most important discoveries have been made in a more haphazard way. The Chedworth Roman villa, hidden in woods where no aerial reconnaissance could penetrate even now, was discovered because a rabbiting party lost a ferret in 1864. The West Littleton murders were only brought to light in 1968 when the trench for a gas pipeline cut through the hidden burial place of a couple of youths. Both had been brutally assaulted about 3,000 years ago, beaten down with clubbing blows on the head and struck paralysingly through to the spinal cord with spears. Two bronze spearheads, snapped off as the one young man collapsed, are embedded in his body. And, returning to the Oxfordshire wolds, pottery fragments and the occasional coin turned up by the plough are the only clue to a Roman villa or settlement awaiting identification in the Evenlode valley. There are still exciting archacological discoveries to be made by the observant walker in the Cotswolds.



Cotswolds, Landscape

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