The prime season for tourism in the Cotswolds is of course the summer, though the walker following the limestone ridges can rise above the parking problems and crawling traffic which besets the area. With so much on offer, the best time to walk the Cotswold Way may be in spring or autumn, when tourism is less intrusive, many of the attractions are still open to the public, and the beech woodlands that form an important part of the route are at their best. There is plenty of accommodation in the towns and villages along the way, but campsites are few and far between.
With so many distractions, it is impossible to specify how long the route will take to walk, and careful planning is necessary to fit in with opening times of places to visit. Generally, the going is moderate, though there may be quite a bit of mud in wet weather and a certain amount of hill-climbing in the area around Cheltenham. Walkers are frequently surprised that the height gain over the whole route is equal to three times the height of Snowdon.
This stage of the route passes over the top of Cleeve Hill, which, at 1079 feet (329m) is the highest point in the Cotswolds. The three masts, close to the highest point, make the hill a beacon for miles around. The Cotswold Way doesn't actually pass over the highest point but due west, where you gain a bird's eye view of Prestbury Park, the home of the prestigious Cheltenham Gold Cup. Some of the finest displays of wild flowers on Cleeve Common are at the southwest edge, an area known as Prestbury Hill Reserve. Owned by Butterfly Conservation, it has some of the best unimproved grassland that is rich with butterflies such as the chalkhill blue and the rare Duke of Burgundy.
Seven Springs roundabout is named after the springs that are the source of the River Churn, a short way down the A436. It is a tributary of the River Thames but is actually longer from its source to confluence than the Thames reaching the same point. It can therefore be argued that this, theoretically, should be the head of the Thames, whose official source is close to the Fosse Way between the villages of Coates and Kemble some 10.5 miles due south.
Turning left opposite the golf course clubhouse, the Cotswold Way takes the righthand of two stony pathways and at a second meeting of paths in 219yds (200m), the righthand path. Just beyond a deep circular hole, again take the righthand of two pathways. Now with the clubhouse over your right shoulder, the route turns sharp left by gorse bushes for a steep ascent. As soon as out of the gorse, turn right past a bench. Pass between the trig point and more gorse on left and a golf green on your right. Follow the well-trodden route between golf greens towards the edge of the escarpment and old fort, then along the west side of the ridge with fine views of Cheltenham sprawled on the plain below. Look out for Cleeve Cloud, a large rock formation on the hillside.
Beyond the prominent radio masts, off to your left, the route heads along the hillside, through Prestbury Hill Reserve, joining a lane and then heading across fields towards Upper Colgate Farm, close by the overhead power lines which sing oddly as the path passes under them. A path leads downhill by the side of Dowdeswell Wood, which has a pleasant mixture of trees being grown for commercial purposes. At the bottom of the hill the path leads out by the side of Victorian Dowdeswell Reservoir.
The reservoir could be a pleasant place to stop, but is spoilt by the proximity of the A40, which must be crossed near tThe Reservoir Inn. A track leads uphill over what was once a part of the Great Western Railway, heading through Lineover Wood, the ‘lime tree hill’. This is pleasant undulating walking through quiet woodland, a foretaste of the extensive beech woods to come nearer Painswick.
At the top of the ridge, the route turns right, still in woodland, just prior to reaching the A436. Once in the open and approximately 328yds (300m) beyond the pylons to the on top of the steep hill, from where there are magnificent views over Dowdeswell Reservoir (hidden in the trees), Cleeve Hill and Cheltenham, take the middle path (effectively straight on) at a five-way junction of footpaths.
The route leaves Wistley Hill, around a field and down through Wistley Grove, to pick up a path on the field side of a hedge alongside the A436 to Seven Springs roundabout. The Cotswold Way turns off the main road here, following a lane northwards to join a ridgeway footpath along the top of Hartley Hill, above Charlton Kings Common. From here there are immense views over Cheltenham, as the route leads to the highest point at Leckhampton Hill Fort, where there is a trig point to confirm your position. It is worth walking to the cliff edge to see the Devil’s Chimney, an impressive rock tower left by the quarry workings, which eventually ceased here in 1925. Legend says this is the chimney to the devil's underground home.
Bridleways, field paths and minor roads
Meadows, woodlands and escarpment edges with significant views
Lots of off-lead opportunities. On-lead around livestock
Car park northeast of Cleeve Hill village off B4632 or at Leckhampton Hill
None on route
Walking in safety
Read our tips to look after yourself and the environment when following this walk.