Gloucestershire: Cleeve Common

Windy. So very windy.

To my shame I’d never heard of Cleeve Common, or Cleeve Hill, or the impossibly romantic sounding Cleeve Cloud. They’re all basically the same place, and what a treat of a place to visit.

The highest point in Gloucestershire is a limestone grassland. It’s an enormous open space where golfers, kite flyers, mountain bikers, dog walkers, and toddlers co-exist harmoniously. It sits on the escarpment at the western edge of the Cotswolds and far across the Severn valley loom the foothills of the Welsh mountains while just down below is Cheltenham racecourse.

Cleeve Hill golf course

And it’s windy. The prevailing wind is from the west – you can see that from the asymmetrical trees, but today there was a slight Arctic chill to the gusts as the wind was coming from the north. Recording audio was going to be a challenge.

We popped into the Rising Sun hotel on the slopes of Cleeve Hill to tell them we’d parked there for the walk but would be coming in for lunch. They seemed relaxed about it. And off we went. All the uphill of this walk was at the very start – nothing challenging, but a good pull up with views improving as we gained height.

Cotswold Way signpost

Cleeve Common is covered in ancient earthworks, some identified on the OS maps (who’s not going to snigger at “Ben’s Tump”?), others just left to our imaginations, though clearly a large chunk of the common right over the escarpment was once a large-scale Iron Age fort. It would have been an easy place to defend given its lofty vantage point. There’s much more about the various earthworks in this excellent piece from Dr Tim Copeland, an archaeologist at the University of Gloucestershire (which suggests the fort may not have been a fort at all).

Ben’s Tump turned out to be hard to identify on the ground, so we may well have trampled over it as we made a beeline for the summit of Cleeve Hill. The “Hill” is a little lower than the top of Cleeve Common itself, but the views are better and there’s a trig point and a faded metal toposcope – augmented reality for the pre-digital age – that purports to show all the various sights and hills across the valley. It’s also right by one of the greens on the golf course.

Summit of Cleeve Hill

Apparently, Cleeve Hill golf course is considered an “inland links”, which seems a very apt description given the blustery conditions facing players. While we milled around the trig point, a foursome played through, with one chap holing a very impressive long put, but even making the green in these winds was quite a challenge.

Picnic spot on Cleeve Hill looking over Cheltenham

We tried to do a piece to film, but the wind was playing havoc with the sound, and a joke I had about JK Rowling, who was born in Gloucestershire, fell flat, so instead we ducked down out of the wind and had a snack stop while Zoë’s tousled hair looked even more wild than usual.

I have got a daughter, whose life is already separate from mine, whose will already follows its own directions, and who has quickly corrected my woolly preconceptions of her by being something remorselessly different. She is the child of herself and will be what she is. I am merely the keeper of her temporary helplessness.

Laurie Lee, The Firstborn

We joined the Cotswold Way – a long-distance footpath that traverses the common. Our target point was a fantastically exposed and windswept beech tree silhouetted on the horizon. Straight out of Sleepy Hollow, its spindly branches swayed in the wind. Around the low wall that protect the tree are numerous plaques in memory of people who had loved the Common. The bench with the best view had one lone plaque. In memory of Adrian Turton. A distant relative perhaps? I’m not aware of an Adrian in the family, and nor is my Dad. Adrian died at the young age of 50. I hope he enjoyed his days on the Common.

With grey clouds overhead it made for a sombre moment.

Solitary beech tree between Cleeve Hill & Cleeve Common

There was no shelter from the wind; the branches were too high and bare to offer any protection, but we shot a quick bit to camera anyway with Cheltenham racecourse in the background. I killed the JK Rowling joke. Then it was off to the real highpoint, which lay just beyond three gigantic radio masts.

There was a sudden uptick in people and dogs on this part of the common thanks to the small (and full) car park right near the radio masts. This would be the lazy person’s way of bagging the Gloucestershire county top but this section lacks the drama of the golf course and earthworks further north with their views across the Severn valley.

There’s a trig point, but otherwise, the summit itself is barely discernible amid the expanse of open grassland. I did the triumphant summit piece to camera leaning casually on the trig point while Zoë pottered around ignoring my cartographic geekery.

I dug out an old winter cycling hat for the return journey. We hoped Zoë would hop into the  baby carrier for the way back, but she was having none of it yet didn’t want to walk. A predictable stand-off ensued with Nicky carrying her in her arms for a bit before finally Zoë decided she had recovered and wanted to walk again. She racked up more than 3.5 miles over the day with about 130 metres of up and down.

Cheltenham Racecourse from Cleeve Common

With an older child we could have struck a path north-east to Belas Knap, a five-thousand-year-old Neolithic long barrow a couple of miles across the other side of the common. It is also accessible by driving round to the other side, but the walk up from the road is apparently very steep. We gave it a miss and headed back towards the Rising Sun, this time following the edge of the escarpment.

Cleeve Cloud looking north towards Ben's Tump

The sun started to break up the clouds, but the views across to the Welsh mountains never improved much. Still, walking back through more iron age earthworks skirting the rockface was particularly pleasant. You could take a number of short steep tracks that drop quickly to an unpaved road from where the walk back to the pub would be quick, but they’re not toddler-friendly, so we ended up retracing our steps and falling happily into the bar of the Rising Sun for a Sunday roast.

Cleeve Common is fantastic and we’ll be back to explore further, perhaps in better weather. It seems like a place that has many secrets to surrender to those who invest the time in it.

Gloucestershire. Done. Next stop: Worcestershire or Northamptonshire? Decisions decisions.

What we liked: Views ¦ Mixed use ¦ History
What we didn’t like: What? Sorry, can’t hear you. It’s too windy

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