An adventure story of two friends running the Cotswold Way.
OK, I will come clean. There was minimal running involved after the first day! Maybe we should rename it Jeffing the Cotswold Way. For those who don’t know, jeffing is the art of running and walking. Luckily, I don’t think anywhere has published what the ratio needs to be, which means that we can confidently say we jeffed the Cotswold Way as some running steps were done every day.
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What is the Cotswold Way?
The Cotswold Way is a national trail joining the picturesque town of Chipping Campden in North Cotswolds to the elegant city of Bath. Separated by 100 miles, the route was designed to take in every view and postcard-worthy town. The result? It is incredibly hilly! Over the course of the 100 miles (164 km), we ascended over 5,000 metres, which is more than if you were to tackle the West Highland Way in Scotland! And don’t be fooled by the “rolling hills” descriptions; some of them are STEEP! In fact, some were so steep they even came with a warning!
Most itineraries suggest taking 7 days to walk it; however, walking it in 5 days is achievable for anybody of reasonable fitness. I’m sure many have done it faster than that, and some nutters have even run it in under 24 hours! Impressive!
We opted for 5 days, and I won’t pretend they were easy. It certainly pushed us beyond our comfort zone, provided us with many sore muscles and blisters, and made us question whether we should give up a number of times. However, we persevered, gritted our teeth, and made it to the end.
The following are the diary notes I kept throughout the Cotswold Way run.
Day 1 – Chipping Campden to Cleeve Hill – 43.1K
Doug dropped us off in the picturesque village of Chipping Campden and with a brief wave he was gone. We had no choice but to start walking. The Cotswold Way took us through Chipping Campden before we embraced the gentle pull up to Dover’s Hill, which offered us lovely uninterrupted views over the Warwickshire and Worcestershire countryside. At this point we started trotting along the relatively flat path that would 10K later drop us off at Broadway Tower.
The Tower is an iconic landmark in the Cotswolds and made the perfect stop for our first break. Too windy to enjoy a conversation, we simply sat, eating a high-energy flapjack while watching the deer peacefully grazing in the nearby field.
Fully re-energized, we ran down the hill and into the picturesque town of Broadway. The high street, which is lined with horse chestnut trees, period houses, and honey coloured Cotswold stones cottages, is renowned for being one of the most beautiful Cotswold villages. It is hard to say with so many stunning villages in the Cotswolds, but we certainly couldn’t deny its beauty.
Once through the town, we resumed our running until we hit the day’s second climb. A pretty relentless climb that eventually saw us crossing the gallops where I ride before dropping us down to the pretty chocolate box town of Stanton, one of the many hidden gems of the Cotswolds. A great place if you want to spot both beautiful Cotswold stone houses with horses trotting by!
From Stanton we made our way over to Stanway before pushing up our third climb of the day.
Grow some nuts – eat a Snickers!
All I could think about as we pushed on up the steep hill out of Stanway was the Snickers I was going to enjoy when I made it to the top. This was the law on our Cotswold Way jeff. Hill summitted equals treat! The steeper the hill, the greater the treat. Luckily, there is generally also a bench left in memory of a loved one at the top of every hill. We were certainly grateful for their love of the outdoors every time we came across one!
Did you just wee yourself?
We finally trotted into Winchcombe, which marked 30 km on our route and a much needed stop for coffee and a delicious millionaire shortbread. I realise this goes against the “treat at the top of the hill rule! While Rachel grabbed the coffee and cake, I went into Co-Op to get us some more water and inadvertently created a huge scene! For some unknown reason my backpack decided to leak at that precise moment, when it hadn’t throughout our entire run. A puddle quickly emerged in the isle, and passers-by stared at me as if I had weed myself. This did cross my mind briefly too upon seeing the water, since it was running down my legs! Luckily it was cold and not hot, so I was able to deduce I hadn’t embarrassed myself!
The attendant shouted at me not to move as she ran for a bucket and mop. Once back, she was not shy about telling me off for the chaos I was creating. She was pretty keen to get me out of the shop, and I had to fight to be allowed to spend some money with them! Eventually, she allowed me to store my backpack in the bucket as I did my shopping before following me out of the door to ensure I had gone! I have no idea why my bag decided to leak at that precise moment. It hadn’t done so up until then and didn’t leak again throughout the entire run!
The final push to our first marathon
Fully fuelled and rested, we pushed on up to Belas Knap, a Neolithic long barrow where the remains of 31 people were found. Looking at the map from here we could see that it was possible to keep all the height we had gained as we made our way to Cleeve Hill. However, the Cotswold Way had other ideas. Instead of making the most efficient use of the topography, it dropped us all the way back down again so that we could admire an old period mansion.
Luckily, despite needing to regain all the height again, it was a very gentle ascent and we managed to make it with minimal effort. The glorious day we had enjoyed up to then, however, turned suddenly into torrential rain without warning. The wind picked up out of nowhere and I mistakenly let go of my jacket whilst putting it on, leaving me sprinting back down the hill to retrieve it! Which, luckily, I did!
We pushed on over Cleeve Hill and continued down until the path finally met the road where we waited, shivering, for Nick, Rachel’s husband, to rescue us. Luckily he is an adventurer himself and had come prepared with warm jackets and protein drinks to revive us as he drove us back home.
Day 2 – Cleeve Hill to Painswick – 33.4K
Despite walking like John Wayne when we had arrived home the previous night, we actually woke up feeling rather spritely and started our descent from Cleeve Hill towards Cheltenham at a comfortable jog.
Things weren’t quite right though. Every 10 minutes or so Rach would stop, take off her shoe, brush off her sock, and then put the shoe back on again. Some invisible grit was somehow getting in and causing issues. The problem was, she couldn’t see it to get rid of it! We ignored it though and pushed on.
Today was a day of hills. We dropped down to the outskirts of Cheltenham before pulling up Ravensgate Hill, only to drop back down so we could climb Leckhampton Hill. Here we met a man who was insistent we were going the wrong way. He kept telling us the signs would take us the long way round! He wasn’t wrong, but I don’t think he grasped the idea of our challenge!
You can probably guess, we had to drop down again so we could experience the pleasure of heading back up Crickley Hill. The hills were starting to a take a toll on us, particularly as every time we got to the top we were still looking over the huge expanse of Cheltenham. State of mind truly is the most important factor when it comes to energy levels, and with us starting to feel defeated, our energy dropped, our legs started to hurt and Rachel’s invisible grit got worse.
Just as thoughts of self doubt started to cloud our minds, Crickley Hill Café came in to view and it was open! Under normal circumstances this wouldn’t have been a surprise, but we were in the middle of a pandemic and many places remained closed due to lack of sufficient passing traffic. We were in luck though. We gratefully took a seat on one of the outdoor tables and got stuck into a sausage roll and coffee.
Refuelled and with spirits lifted we continued on to the Air Balloon roundabout, which quite frankly was a nightmare to cross, and on up towards Birdlip. As we left the main road and headed back into the forested area we spotted a lonely man crouching in the bushes. My mind instantly assumed he was relieving himself. In fact, it wasn’t the first time we had stumbled across someone in such a precarious situation! Luckily we weren’t interrupting anything! It was Nick, who had cycled to meet us with some chocolate and a warm smile.
The never ending forest
Sugar levels topped back up again we proceeded on our journey past Birdlip and into a never ending forest. At first, it was nice. It was secluded from the wind and rain. It’s monotony though soon started to drag. It went on and on, and on. Had I not eaten so much during our stop we would likely have been able to run a large part of the forest. Unfortunately my stomach couldn’t handle it, so we continued plodding along what soon became a very monotonous path. And once again, we allowed our minds to take over, tell us we were tired. Tell us we were bored. Tell us it was time to stop. We did our best to ignore it but it was starting to take a toll on us.
We did have a couple of moments that perked us up. The first was spotting a baby deer a mere few metres ahead of us. She didn’t run away, she simply stared back. A real life Bambi! The second, was when Rachel decided to squat behind a bush. With nobody in sight it didn’t make sense to go out of her way to hide, it wasn’t like I was going to turn around and stare. Just at the moment of no return though, 20 runners came down the path heading directly for us! I chuckled to myself knowing how mortified Rachel would be, but being a good friend decided to cross over and say hello to every single one to ensure they were looking the wrong way. We had a good giggle afterwards!
It’s a good thing we’d managed to lift our spirits as the next hill to tackle was the famous vertical cheese rolling hill. I’m not sure any photo would do it any justice. There are cliffs as steep as this. How do people run down it? A quick look at the map suggested we weren’t going up it so I did a little video gloating about the fact we could admire without suffering.
Moments later, I realised my mistake when we did in fact have to make it to the top! OK, it may not have been up the actual hill, but the side hill was no walk in the park! There was a bit of effing and jeffing at this point, but it turned out to be the perfect spot to enjoy a millionaire shortbread.
On we continued, down more hill, up some others, through more woods. We were struggling now. We were barely talking. Rachel’s feet were in agony. I was tired. My mind was in some form of internal battle telling me I was useless if I stopped but at the same time reminding me I couldn’t do it either.
We had our sights on Painswick, which was only 3K away, however, we were ready to pack it in. Could we have made it? Of course. But when a 90 year old man overtook us whilst walking across the golf course the last ounce of remaining spirit was crushed. We plonked ourselves on a rock and waited for Nick to pick us up.
Day 3 – Painswick to Coley Peak – 23.5K
It is no surprise that Rachel had struggled the previous day. The invisible grit was real and it had rubbed her soles raw! Knowing what was lying under her socks I am surprised we made it as far as we did the day before. And even more so that she was eager and ready to go today.
Nick kindly dropped us back off at “the rock” so we could continue our journey towards Painswick before starting the first brutal climb of the day. Of course, we dropped down straight afterwards only to climb up again to get to Hares Beacon, where we enjoyed our first snack of the day looking over Stonehouse.
With this being Rachel’s stomping ground she knew the way well which in a way made matters tougher. Once again we were back to those mental battles needed to encourage our bodies to keep putting one step in front of the other. After 16K of forests and fields we were passing so close to Rachel’s house that our minds decided we were going to stop.
I texted Doug to say “Stopping early, back at Rachel’s. Her feet are in agony, not sure I’ll get her back out again. I’ll let you know if you need to come and fetch me earlier than planned.”
I really did not believe we would be heading back out of the house that day.
The power of pain au chocolate
The massage gun came out, socks and shoes came off, and the oven was turned on. We sat on the floor massaging, rolling and sipping coffee whilst contemplating our next steps. Neither of us wanted to stop so early on in the day, but we were also wrecked. My feet might have been OK but my knees were sore. Rachel’s knees were OK but her feet were raw!
There was only one thing to do. Eat a pain au chocolate and let its magic powers heal us. That, and deciding that we wouldn’t run that afternoon. This allowed Rachel to swap into her walking boots which were much more comfortable.
Fully energised, and with the determination to make 100K by the end of the day, we stepped outside the house and started putting one foot in front of the other for the remaining 7.2K. Although there was of course a hill to climb, it was kind and gentle, allowing us to slowly and steadily make our way to Coley Peak. Finally we celebrated the 100K mark with a beautiful view over the Gloucestershire countryside. The clear skies allowed us to see all the way across the Severn Estuary to the Brecon Beacons. The gold kissed sky illuminated our big broad smiles as all pains were momentarily forgotten.
Day 4 – Coley Peak to Old Sodbury – 42.1K
Between days 3 and 4 we returned to work for 5 days, giving ourselves a much needed break before tackling the final section of the Cotswold Way. 5 days of rest meant Rachel was bouncing and ready to go. Her blisters had healed nicely and she had even managed to keep to her normal gym routine. I on the other hand had seized up. My muscles had become stiffer as the week went on and no matter how much stretching and rolling I did they simply did not want to cooperate.
I wasn’t one to give up though and therefore I gritted my teeth and got on with it. We had a gentle start before the day’s climbing commenced. First off we tackled the lung busting Cam Peak before descending into the not so picturesque village of Dursley. From here we tackled our second climb. The kind that would leave you out of breath even if you were driving up it! It was steep! A relentless 20% gradient that would eventually drop us off on Stinchcombe Hill Golf Course.
We had the options of taking a short cut (allowed as part of the official route) or skirting 2.5K around the hill top to enjoy the vistas of the estuary. We decided it would be cheating to take the short-cut, so we jogged the extra loop until eventually finding a bench from where to admire the Severn Bridges whilst enjoying a high energy snack.
A friendly smile
From here we made our way down to North Nibley where Nick, Doug, Suki and Phoebe were waiting to keep us company. It was nice to see them and gave us the necessary energy boost needed to get us up the next hill before waving us goodbye as we made our way down to the lovely village of Wootton on Edge. As we progressed further South the scenery became less and less dramatic. The price to pay for waving goodbye to the long steep hills.
We continued plodding along, through fields and forests. One particular forest was truly magical with its verdant shrubs and exposed routes. Walking through it transported me to a land far away. I imagined that we had, after all, managed to get away for an exotic holiday in a far flung country. Of course, that did not happen in 2020, but we did at least discover many beautiful spots that are right on our doorstep.
On route we encountered an older couple who were out enjoying the beautiful sunshine, albeit finding themselves lost. The man was telling his wife how they had to be “here” whilst pointing at the map. The wife meanwhile was saying “we can’t be”. As we walked past they asked us for help. It didn’t take long to point out they were looking at the completely wrong map! We did giggle as we heard the “I told you so” as we marched away.
As we neared the village Hawkesbury Upton we decided to take a detour in search of water. Having found the village shop we topped up our water and took a break on a lovely bench next to a war memorial. We also enjoyed what had become our daily treat: a millionaire shortbread. The respite was short lived as an angry wasp decided to ruin our break. We swiftly packed our belongings away and kept on jogging.
Our journey continued to find all hills to climb to ensure we didn’t miss out on any forts or other historic sites. As we were walking down from one of these forts, distinguishable only by the clumps of earth, Nick jumped out from the nettles where he had been lying in wait! We jumped out of our skins!
With only 4K to go to complete a marathon we decided to push on, up a final hill to see yet another fort. Our sense of humour was failing a little by now since it felt like an unnecessarily hill to climb only to see a flat patch of grass with mounds on either side, but truth be told, it was pretty impressive for anyone with good enough imagination. I do sometimes wish I could travel back in time to see what these places were actually like during their glory days. Rachel did not share this sentiment and cursed the fort the whole way down to Old Sodbury, where Nick was waiting to whisk us home.
Day 5 – Old Sodbury to Bath – 32.1K
It was never going to be an easy day. I woke up twice in the middle of the night to stretch my hamstrings, which were becoming increasingly tight. Despite my best efforts I was a mess on Sunday morning. Every step resulted in a sharp pain shooting down my left hamstring and across the ligaments at the back of my knee. I was obviously walking funny to compensate for this as I was also starting to develop pain on the side of my knee. Whether we were going up or downhill it was painful, and the end still seemed a very long way away.
Nick kindly dropped us back off at Old Sodbury so we could start our final push. We couldn’t have asked for a more beautiful first hour as we made our way through the grounds of Doddington Manor. We never got to see the house, however, when someone uses stainless steel electric fencing, as opposed to customary plastic, you know it is not going to be a humble abode! They even had their own Venice style canal and a massive lead stag in the centre of their meadow.
One step in front of the other
Nothing else we passed that day was going to match up to that manicured estate. If I am honest though, the entire day was a bit of a let down. Yes, we did pass some beautiful villages, but the rolling hills were simply no match to the scenery we had been experiencing at the beginning of the walk. After the quaint village of Todmarton we crossed the motorway and made our way across long boundaryless fields. The only highlight of these was the fact we got to hear wheat popping.
Regardless of how we felt though, we needed to keep on marching. First through the beautiful village of Dyrham, with its stately home, and then on to the very posh village of Cold Ashton, where we enjoyed the last our millionaire shortbread treats.
Are we nearly there yet?
All that was left now was to conquer one final hill before dropping into Bath. This was our first mistake. The assumption that the end was in sight made the next realisation all the harder. Once we were on top of the hill Bath was nowhere to be seen. Before we were to see our end goal we still needed to traverse a golf course and a race course, both of which seemed to take forever. And once Bath was in view, it simply did not appear to get any closer.
As the path gradually made its way down towards the outskirts of Bath, Nick once again appeared out of a bush making us both jump. Having some extra company lifted our spirits as we painfully made our way down the uneven path. On our way we passed two girls who were not suitably dressed for the hike and who were now descending bare foot. At that point I felt rather grateful to have had the sense to at least have comfortable footwear on! Imagine your shoes being that painful that you’d rather descend bare foot on sharp rocks than with them on!
A disappointing finish
Mr Cotswold Way had one final ace up his sleeve. Once we arrived on the outskirts of Bath, relieved to have all the climbing out the way, the path took a steep hill straight back out of the city again to give us another view, before dropping us back in and straight back up another steep hill. Our sense of humour was failing by this point.
Dirty, sweaty and looking rather bedraggled, the Cotswold Way took us though the crowded trendy park that lies in front of the Crescent. Locals stared us at, no doubt wondering why on earth we were dressed the way we were during a beautiful summer’s day. I felt uncomfortable. Why did we have to finish in a city when we had been enjoying the tranquil countryside all this time? Would a picturesque village like Chipping Campden, where we had started, not have been more fitting?
We finally made it to the boarded up Abbey and without even taking a photo jumped in Nick’s waiting car and drove away. Cotswold Way complete. No feeling of elation. Just pure tiredness… and an ice cream!
All in all we ran, jogged, shuffled and walked our way along 174K over 5 days. Somewhere along the way we managed to find additional miles which were not welcomed by our bodies. We also climbed 5,300 metres and burnt just under 13,000 calories (needed to cover the amount of millionaire shortbread consumed).
I felt deflated when I finished, but looking back on it I am truly elated that we did it. It was a challenge, we endured pain, we kept going when we wanted to give up and we didn’t fall out which in itself needs to be admired. I have yet to convince Rachel to do another challenge with me though!
Whilst writing up my notes from the trip I was surprised by how much I had actually suffered. Had I written it solely from memory I would have made the Cotswold Way sound like a walk in the park. It is amazing how our brain “forgets” certain elements. Maybe that is why I keep thinking it is a good idea to enter ever more challenging quests!
It wouldn’t be right to finish this blog without extending a massive than you to Nick and Doug for picking us up and dropping us off as well as joining us and surprising us at different points to help lift our spirits. One thing is for sure, we would never have been able to complete the challenge without their support.
The biggest thanks of all however, goes to Rachel, for putting up with me and being crazy enough to have said yes in the first place.
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I also made a short video of our run if you’d like to see the pain etched across our faces!