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Let’s hear it for the Notswolds

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A new guidebook prompts Simon Hacker to consider a journey into overlooked Cotswold corners.

When anything new pops up about the Cotswolds I’m keen to get stuck in, though I’m not convinced these books are aimed at you or me. After all, the best travel lit makes you want to go there, so that’s a terrible start since it appears we’ve already arrived.

All the same, I’m nearing that age where it’s wise to be gently reminded of one’s surroundings, so I opened Sue Hazeldine’s AZ of the Cotswolds, Places – PeopleHistory (Amberley Publishing £15.99) with ravenous anticipation.

This is a brave subject since, looking at it as a former contributor to Crap Towns (a sort of anti-guide to places most tourism bureaux would like to tow out to sea), the Cotswolds is so often served up as the perfect rural idyll. And that, dear visitor, is a bit of a con.

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Sharpness Docks. Picture: Matt Bigwood.

If you’ve just booked a coach trip to Bibury, don’t panic: yes, the swans gliding on the River Eye at Lower Slaughter will be real, as indeed will all the confected cottages to be found in every postcode from Chipping Campden to Bath. From the parochial swank of Painswick to the frightful friendliness of Tetbury, the Cotswolds is, as ever, on standby to audition for whatever cosy comedy the next Richard Curtis may write. But that’s miles from its true story. 

Such thoughts are pushing me to write a guide to the Notswolds. The idea’s a book in itself, though I can’t see a publisher getting onboard: my pitch would be that we amble through a succession of locations which offer a perspective that coach trips will bypass. A sort of Glos beneath the gloss. 

After grabbing breakfast from one of the region’s burgeoning food banks, we’d eschew such postcard delights of Broadway, Bishop’s Cleeve and Castle Coombe to loiter instead in such places as Dursley, Sharpness and downtown Gloucester. The Cotswolds, you see, has sufficient photogenic heft to regularly feature in Visit Britain’s top ten places to go, but our region isn’t all honeyed stone, roses cavorting around front doors and cucumber sandwiches on the village green.

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St James Church, Dursley. Picture: Matt Bigwood.

In Hazeldine’s work, Dursley, pretty in parts but damned into nominative oblivion by JK Rowling, doesn’t get a look in. Neither, too, Wotton-under-Edge. At the limit of the Stroud universe, ie beyond Nailsworth, on the tourist-o-meter, Wotton has mixed appeal. Its centre, given casual development control, is a stronghold of listed gems marooned amid Bradstone and brick. But there’s an interesting church. That’s an oxymoron to some, I know, but St Mary’s first opened for business in 1283, which makes it epically old, while the last bits were signed off 173 years later, which even by the standards of today’s planning committees is impressively slothful.

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Wotton-under-Edge. Picture: Matt Bigwood.

More interestingly (no, really), the hostelry where the men who laboured on Wotton’s church stayed is still just about standing and is now reputed to be Britain’s most visited venue for dubious daytime TV ghost hunts. Complete with flying furniture and an open grave in the sitting room, any booked visit to the Ancient Ram Inn makes Woodchester Park feel like a laughter workshop. 

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The Ancient Ram Inn, Wotton-under-Edge. Picture: Matt Bigwood.

Like Stroud, such towns have community that cuts across class and politics to celebrate a remarkable cohesion. Witness Wotton’s swimming pool and cherished cinema, both largely created by a stubborn faith in teamwork. Yes, this isn’t guidebook material, perhaps, but tourists, if they escape the bus itinerary, are nosy. And in my Notswolds, they’d find human stories as much as architectural and navigational footnotes.

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Wotton-under-Edge and St Mary’s Church. Picture: Matt Bigwood.

Sharpness, dangling on the end of the canal to Gloucester and swilling in forgotten backwater, would be the capital. Between 1939 and 1966, this village hosted a training school for the Merchant Navy, with 70,000 14 to 17-year-old boys passing through its system. The Vindicatrix training ship was broken up in Newport decades ago but given the brutal concrete buildings that stand around the harbour like headstones to our maritime history, Sharpness – still very much a working port – has a deliciously bereft feel. Come here to take a selfie, apply a monochrome filter and you’re instantly on the cover of a 1980 synth rock album.

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TS Vindicatrix moored at Sharpness in the 1960s. Picture: Brian Candy Photographic Archive.

Speaking of alienated youth, and to be fair to Ms Hazeldine, she does touch upon the subject when visiting Northleach, a town now indelibly tied to Daisy May and Charlie Cooper’s BBC mockumentary This Country. But the reference left just a whiff of what might be a missed attempt to capture the essence of our real Cotswold life, or at least the one our guidebooks miss. Hazeldine’s work is packed with interesting detail and days-out inspiration; in its genre, it hits the nail on the head. It just gives the Notswolds a wide steer.

In 2020, The Guardian interrogated Northleach to pinpoint how much truth there was in the Coopers’ script. A resident said it like it is: “There’s a rosy view of the Cotswolds as beautiful playground for the rich and famous, full of tourists. Some of that is true. But there’s hidden stuff too: rural poverty, a lack of services, antisocial behaviour. The show brings that out.”

When I get that guide written, that’s going on the cover.

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