First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
The Royal Oak in Leighterton, all mellow pale gold stone, looked like the snuggest village pub in the world. The savour of roasting beef hung in the air like a promise. But first there was a walk to tackle on this sunny autumn morning – one of the most beautiful walks in the south Cotswold hills, but with a spice of poignancy at the outset.
The cemetery on the outskirts of Leighterton holds a cluster of Commonwealth War Graves. The two dozen young Australian trainee flyers of Leighterton aerodrome who lie beneath the neat white headstones all died in 1918 or 1919 – most of them the victims of crashes as they tried to master the volatile controls of their Sopwith Camel biplanes.
Beyond the cemetery the path led across stony ploughlands and sloping pastures, down into Hawkesbury Spinney where frills of bracket fungus clung to the trees. We climbed a bank and opened a gate into the arboreal heaven of Westonbirt Arboretum.
Squirrels scuffed up rustling drifts of leaves, looking for nuts to hoard against the winter. Families strolled, dogs yapped and photographers clicked away, entranced by the stained-glass effects of the acer leaves as the sun shone through them in liquid reds and acid yellows.
Beyond the Arboretum we looped through Willesley, whose neat lanes were edged with immaculately kept walls of Cotswold stone. Then back along Westonbirt’s valley bottom, where a track led away into a steep-sided little cleft that wound this way and that as it climbed gently to Bowldown Road and a whizz of traffic.
A short stretch along the verge and we were on the homeward path through broad sheep pastures where ewes with tender feet went hobbling away, dot-and-carry-one. Past the handsome stone walls and window arches of Slait Barn, and on over stone stiles towards Leighterton and the Royal Oak.
At the bar table by the fire we stretched out our legs, boots off. I opened my notebook and from between the pages shook out a shower of lemon and scarlet leaves, harvested under the trees of Westonbirt, now pressed and flattened to perfection.
Start: Royal Oak PH, Leighterton, Glos GL8 8UN (OS ref ST 823912)
Getting there: Leighterton is signed off A46 (Bath – Stroud) between Dunkirk and Nailsworth.
Walk (7 miles, easy, OS Explorer 168):
From pub, left through car park; ahead along road; in 400m pass cemetery; on left bend, ahead (827910) on Monarch’s Way, southeast across fields to gate into Hawkesbury Spinney (839902). In 150m, right up broad woodland track (unwaymarked; labelled ‘Macmillan Way’ on map); gate at top (841900) into Westonbirt Arboretum. Ahead along Broad Drive. At southern boundary of Arboretum, through gate (844887). Left (field path) to cross A433 (849888, kissing gate). Lane opposite; left at junction; in 200m, left (852887, stone stile, ‘Westonbirt’). Path (stiles, yellow arrows) across paddocks, then by field edges for ½ mile to stile/steps into road (858893). Left; in 100m, left to cross A433 (855894). Follow bridleway opposite along valley bottom for 1 mile to gate into Bennett’s Spinney (844901). Ignore Monarch’s Way ahead; instead, fork right (blue arrow on gate), north for ¾ mile up valley bottom past Ellick’s Wood to road (846913). Right to Bowldown Road; left on verge; in 400m, left (fingerpost) on path west, then southwest across fields for 1¾ miles, past Bowldown Wood, then between Sheephouse Covert and Slait Barn, to Leighterton.
Lunch: Royal Oak, Leighterton (01666-890250, royaloakleighterton.co.uk) – proper characterful village pub; excellent food.
Accommodation: King’s Arms, Didmarton (01454-238245, kingsarmsdidmarton.co.uk)
Westonbirt Arboretum: (0300-067-4890; forestryengland.uk/westonbirt; satmap.com; ramblers.org.uk
NB Please keep to public rights-of-way as described; all other Arboretum paths are for ticket-holders only. If you want to enjoy the best of Autumn at the Arboretum, the entrance is on A433 opposite Westonbirt village. Entrance: £10 adult, £4 child, March-November; £7/£3 December-February.