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). READ PART 2