First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
CS Forester once had his fictitious naval hero, Captain Horatio Hornblower, RN, legging a canal barge through the Sapperton Tunnel. Even Hornblower, victor of a dozen desperate sea battles in Nelson’s navy, would be hard put to force passage today – roof falls have blocked the tunnel and severed the Thames & Severn Canal, a through route between London and the west coast of Britain in former times.
These days the wonderfully ornate southern portal of the Sapperton Tunnel looks out on a silent waterway, weed-grown and melancholy in its shadowy cutting. We passed a strange little round stone tower, once the abode of a canal maintenance man, and turned down a side path fringed with cowslips to Trewsbury Mead and the source of the River Thames.
Old Father Thames in infant form whelms from a little circle of greenish stones near an ancient ash tree. At least he does in wet seasons – today in Trewsbury Mead not a trickle disturbed the grass. Strange to think that, 180 miles to the east, this modest nothing of a river would be coursing through London before broadening out to meet the North Sea.
St Matthew’s Church in nearby Coates lay quiet and cool. From a memorial display a rather severe face looked out under a military cap. Lt Col Bernard Vann, raised as a boy in Coates Rectory, was the only C of E clergyman to win a VC as a combatant in the Great War. His decoration, for leading a charge against German positions under heavy fire, was a posthumous one. His wife was one month pregnant at the time of the attack, but neither she nor Bernard was aware of that, when a sniper killed him four days later – five short weeks before the end of the war.
A flood of bluebells splashed the floor of Hailey Wood. We turned down a broad ride between log stacks. Badger highways had been beaten out by leathery pads through the undergrowth.
Beyond the wood we climbed through a bright gold sea of oilseed rape to the great barn and chapel at Tarlton Manor, a dream of mellow perfection in Cotswold stone, before dropping down across a green and gold valley to the Tunnel House Inn and the ornate portal on the old canal once more.
Start: Tunnel House Inn, near Coates, Glos GL7 6PW (OS ref SD 966006)
Getting there: Coates is signed from A419 (Stroud-Cirencester). In village, 1st left (‘Canal Tunnel & Inn’). In ½ mile, right to Tunnel House Inn.
Walk (6 miles, easy, OS Explorer 168): Down steps into cutting; right along canal for 1 mile. At 3rd bridge (979000) right through gate; right (‘Thames & Severn’) for 500m to source of Thames (980995). Return to cross canal; ahead to road (979005). Left; first right; just before war memorial, left (978008). Go through gate; across fields to cross road (975011); on to pass church. In 50m, right up green lane (972010) for 700m to gate into Hailey Wood (966014).
Right (Country Landowners Association/CLA arrow) up path. In 100m, left (CLA); in 200m, right at junction (CLA) to turn left (south-west) just before sawmill on right (965015). Follow broad track for 450m to cross railway (961013); fork right on track for ½ mile to The Star junction (954009). Counting from left, take 3rd exit, with fence and young forestry on left.
In 100m, left (CLA) on public right of way. In 450m cross track in valley bottom (956005, CLA) and in 200m leave wood by gate (957004). Ahead along field edge; through successive gates on ridge; at Manor Farm, left along stony road (956999) between buildings. At T-junction, left (959999); right through gate (‘Macmillan Way’).
Follow Macmillan Way/Monarch’s Way; through gate on left, and half right across field to cross stone stile. Down to gate at wood edge (962002); fork right out of trees and up across fields to Tunnel House Inn.
Lunch: Tunnel House Inn, Coates (01285-770280, tunnelhouse.com)
Accommodation: Crown Inn, Frampton Mansell, Stroud GL6 8JG (01285-760601, thecrowninn-cotswolds.co.uk) – pretty Cotswold village pub-with-rooms