First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
The infant River Thames joins Gloucestershire to Wiltshire at the outer edge of the Cotswolds, in low-lying gravelly country. Setting off along the towpath of the reed-choked old Thames & Severn Canal, we marvelled at how dozens of unsightly old gravel pits have been transformed into the wide, tree-hung lakes of the Cotswold Water Park. This is a really fine example of a conservation landscape; and down beyond the hamlet of Cerney Wick there’s another in the lush hundred-acre grassland of North Meadow.
This is a beautiful wide hayfield, fringed with greening willows and filled with flowers; a habitat that comes into its own each springtime. Entering the meadow from the old canal, we walked among spatters of wild flowers – golden buttons of dandelions and buttercups, creamy yellow cowslips, the pale blues and pinks of milkmaids, which some call lady’s smock or cuckoo flower. And everywhere the large drooping heads of snake’s head fritillaries, singly, in pairs or in loose clumps, bobbing and trembling in the wind on their dark red stems.
We got down on our knees, as though in obeisance, to enjoy a close-up look at one of Britain’s rarest and most spectacular plants. Some of the downward-hanging flowers were white with green spots inside; the majority were a dusky, deep rose-pink, speckled within in pale pink and rich purple, like stained-glass bells filtering the sunlight. It was astonishing to see them in such numbers – over a million in this one large meadow.
Snake’s head fritillaries are particularly choosy about where they colonise. They are nationally scarce – but not here. North Meadow, meticulously managed by Natural England, is home to 80% of the entire British population of these remarkable flowers. The Thames, no wider than a stream, dimples through the meadow, its waters slow and thick with nutritious earth particles which are spread across the land by winter floods. The silt-enriched grass is left uncut until midsummer or later, by which time the fritillaries and all the other plants have had time to set the seeds of the next generation.
A slice of lemon and lavender cake (improbable but delicious) in the Fritillary Tea Rooms on the outskirts of Cricklade. And then a slow stroll back through the flowery meadows and along an old railway line where primroses grew thickly and the breeze carried hints of horses, cattle and that indefinable breath of spring in full flow.
Start & finish: Cotswold Gateway Centre car park, Spine Road, South Cerney, Glos GL7 5TL (OS ref SU 072971)
Getting there: Bus service 51 (Swindon-Cirencester). Road: M4 Jct 15; A419 towards Cirencester; B4696 towards South Cerney; in 200m, left into car park (free).
Walk (6½ miles, easy, OS Explorer 169. NB: Detailed directions, online map, more walks: christophersomerville.co.uk): Pass Cotswold Gateway info centre; path to canal (073970); right along towpath. In ¾ miles cross road and on (079960, ‘Cricklade’). At Latton Basin, right (088954) down road (white/green arrow). Bear right on track (yellow arrow/YA) past lock-keeper’s house and on beside old canal bed. In 450m cross bridge (087949); ignore immediate left turn into North Meadow. In 200m, go through gate; left through kissing gate/KG into North Meadow. Fork left and walk clockwise circuit of North Meadow (1¼ miles), returning to same KG (087947)). Through it; right though gate; left (‘Thames Path’/TP) along right bank of River Thames. In 500m, right along old railway (082947). TP leaves it in 350m (080949), but keep ahead along railway for ½ mile to go under viaduct (073954). In another 250m, right through KG (070956, YA) on path through fields. In 700m cross road (076959); over stile (YA); on to road. Ahead past Crown Inn to canal (079960); left for ¾ mile to car park.
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Lunch: Old Boathouse Inn, Cotswold Gateway (01285-864111); Fritillary Tea Room, Thames Bridge, Cricklade (11-12, 18-19, 25-26 April)
Info: Cotswold Water Park (01793-752413 / 752730)
North Meadow: Natural England (01452-813982; naturalengland.org.uk). Fritillary updates – http://www.crickladeinbloom.co.uk/fritillary_watch.html