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.
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.
‘Scratch and sniff the leaves’ invited the label on a Japanese katsura tree. We were rewarded with a rich waft of caramel scent, as though a crème brulée had stolen invisibly by.
Squirrels scuffed up rustling drifts of leaves, looking for nuts to hoard against the winter. Down in the valley bottom 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 to road; ahead to pass cemetery on left (827910). In 100m on left bend, ahead (fingerpost) across fields/stiles on Monarch’s Way (MW), south east for nearly 1 mile to gate into Hawkesbury Spinney (839902). In 150m, right through trees up broad track (unwaymarked, but labelled ‘Macmillan Way’ on map). Through gate at top (841900) into Westonbirt Arboretum.
Ahead along Broad Drive for ½ mile. Where Broad Drive meets Green Lane (843892), left along Willesley Drive. In ½ mile descend to bear left along valley bottom opposite road access to Visitor Centre and facilities (850896). Keep ahead along valley bottom track for ½ mile to gate into Bennett’s Spinney (844901).
Ignore MW signed straight ahead; instead fork right (blue arrow on gate). In 250m through gate (844904); on with Ellick’s Wood on left, then on up valley-bottom bridleway for ¾ mile to road (846913). Right to Bowldown Road (850917); left on verge for 400m; left (847920, fingerpost) across field to gate at corner of Bowldown Wood (844920). Keep wood on left to next gate (841920); across corner of field (stile); follow same line southwest for 1¼ miles between Sheephouse Covert and Slait Barn, then on (stiles) across fields 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)