First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
Our first glimpse of Woodchester Mansion, hunched away behind trees in the depths of its sequestered Gloucestershire valley, seemed to confirm all the rumours – hauntings, murders, madness and ruin. We could have gone straight down to it. But circling the woods and lakes of Woodchester Valley in clockwise fashion allows the full face of the great house to stay hidden until the last moment, providing a satisfyingly strange full stop to the walk.
Woodchester Park is a singular place in itself, a landscaped cleft in the southern Cotswold Hills that had slipped into a state of overgrown wildness until bought by the National Trust in 1994. Good broad tracks led us east through oak and beech woods pungent with the green stink of wild garlic, skirting steep grassy banks and dense conifer plantations. Primroses were struggling out, and the carpet of dog’s mercury showed tiny green flowers, but the mulleins and bluebells of the park were still shut tight against the winter.
A forester was burning trimmings in a dingle below, his crackling fire glowing orange and sending up drifts of blue smoke. We could hear the trees roaring at the rim of the valley, but down here there was no more than a stir of cold breeze. It was a dream-like walk over landscaped banks and planted folds of ground, looking down on the string of lakes – Brick Kiln Pond, Old Pond, Middle Pond, Kennel Pond, Parkmill Pond – dug and dammed two hundred years ago to fulfil the vision of the landowning Ducie family.
At the foot of Parkmill Pond we crossed the grassy dam and set back along the south side of the lakes. A boardwalk trail in a wet mossy wood, an ornate old boathouse colonised by lesser horseshoe bats – and then the great empty house in its damp curve of valley, its blank windows staring from the Cotswold stone walls like so many black eyes in a pale face, Gothic beasts howling in stone above the gutter pipes.
Liverpool ship owner William Leigh bought the estate in 1845. But he never finished the mansion he started in 1850, and it was too damp, dark and menacing for his family to cope with. So it stands with its marvellous carvings, its empty chapel and floorless levels and stairs that go nowhere, the wonder of visitors on open days, collecting legends and gathering mystery, the house that never was.
Start: Woodchester Park car park (National Trust – members free), near Nympsfield, Glos GL10 3TS (OS ref for car park entrance: SO 795014)
Getting there: Bus (Nympsfield, ½ mile) – Service 35 (Cotswold Green, 01453-835153)
Road: Car park signed off B4066 Dursley-Nailsworth road near Nympsfield (M5 Jct 13; A419, A46)
Walk (6½ miles, easy, OS Explorer 168): From car park descend steps; follow trail downhill. Follow red and orange arrows (RA, OA), forking to left of mansion (807013); then follow RA with lakes on right. At end of Parkmill Pond (last lake), cross dam (831008); return on south side of lakes. In ⅔ mile, above Middle Pond dam, bear right downhill (822010, RA). Pass long shed; before dam, left through gate (822011, OA). Along meadow, then woodland duckboard trail. At Boathouse (818014), cross dam; left along north bank of Old Pond, then track (RA, OA), passing to left of mansion; up drive to car park.
Lunch: Rose & Crown, Nympsfield, Glos GL10 3TU (01453-860612; therosecrownnympsfields.com)
Accommodation: Hunters Hall, Kingscote, Glos GL8 8XZ (01453-860393, greenekinginns.co.uk)
Woodchester Park: 01452-814213; nationaltrust.org.uk/woodchester-park
Woodchester Mansion: 01453-861541; woodchestermansion.org.uk