At the March meeting of the Thornbury Local History and Archaeology Society, Steven Blake spoke to a packed hall about the history and archaeology to be found along the Cotswold Way.
Wending its way from Chipping Camden to Bath – or Bath to Chipping Camden, if you prefer – for much of its route the Cotswold Way follows ancient paths which have been trodden for many centuries, and it passes by several prehistoric sites. Perhaps the best known of these is the Neolithic long barrow at Belas Knap. One of its most distinctive features is the impressive door recessed between two projecting arms: this, however, is what is known as a "false portal" – it never led to the burial chambers within the mound, which were in fact reached from side entrances which were covered over with earth once the mound had stopped being used for burial. The mound was excavated in the nineteenth century, but this was evidently not the first time the mound had been disturbed as Roman pottery was found inside.
The Iron Age, too, is well-represented with half-a-dozen hill forts taking advantage of the strategic position along the edge of the Cotswold escarpment. The Romans also left their mark on the Cotswold landscape, with Great Witcombe Roman Villa not far from the route of the trail.
However, the glory of the Cotswold Way is surely its many fine medieval churches. Wool from the Cotswolds was considered among the best in Europe in the early Middle Ages, and wealth from the wool trade was ploughed into churches by merchants eager to glorify God and, perhaps, not averse to a little self-promotion at the same time. The twelfth century was a period of particular prosperity in the region, and as a result around 90 churches in the Cotswolds saw substantial building works at this time. Beside the medieval church often stands the manor house, and especially fine examples can be found at Stanway, Horton, and Dyrham.
There are also a number of former monastic sites along the route: Bath Abbey, of course, sits at the southern end of the trail, but Winchcombe and Hailes once boasted cloistered communities and were important sites of pilgrimage. Winchcombe was the site of a shrine to St Kenelm, according to legend a boy king of the Saxon kingdom of Mercia who was murdered on the orders of his sister. Pilgrims, of course, needed food and accommodation, and the remains of a galleried medieval pilgrimage inn can be seen in the courtyard of the George Inn: pilgrims would have slept on the first floor and stabled their horses beneath. The nearby Cistercian abbey of Hailes was founded by Henry III's brother Richard, Earl of Cornwall, and drew pilgrims with a phial said to contain the blood of Christ.
Whether walking the entire trail or merely strolling along a short stretch, you will find that the Cotswold Way offers not only the English countryside at its best, but also a rich tapestry of history. Go and experience it for yourself – weather permitting....
The Thornbury Local History and Archaeology Society always welcomes new and occasional members. Details of our programme can be found on this website, the library or the Town Hall. Our meetings are on the second Tuesday of the month, held at St Mary's Church Hall beginning at 7.30pm. Visitors are always welcome at the society for the small charge of £2.50.