Beyond Birmingham and before reaching Bristol on the way to the south west, travellers using the M5 gateway to the sun often find themselves in one of the all too frequent bottlenecks, especially around the M5/M60 junction. If they give up and decide to call it a day around Junction 9 (Tewksbury), then the possibility of a completely new experience will make itself known.
Assuming the tired motorist has left the motorway at Junction 9 on the M5, it will be a matter moments for him or her to reach Tewkesbury, a town on the Severn steeped in medieval history. In pre-motorway days the journey through this ancient place could be a nightmare of cars and lorries crawling like noisy, fume-spewing snails along the A38. How the half-timbered houses stood up to the vibration is a miracle, but they did and we must be more the grateful for it. One of the fifteenth-century houses has been converted into a Baptist chapel. It hides down a narrow alley near the abbey church, safe from the noise of traffic still using the A38, making it a haven of tranquility on even busy market days.
On a sunny day in May 1471, the Battle of Bloody Meadow, part of the Wars of the Roses took place a couple of hundred yards from Tewksbury abbey. The last of the battles between the warring houses, it was won by the Yorkists who pursued the defeated Lancastrians along what became the A38. Many of the survivors took sanctuary inside the abbey, but were dragged out and publicly executed in the main street. While the abbey church is much changed from that awful time, it managed a century or so later to withstand the officials of Henry VIII who had come to close the place down as part of the Dissolution. Today, because the abbey was part parish church it was allowed to survive, one of the few buildings to remain from the conflict between monarch and church.
Further along the M5 turning off at Junction 11 will give the opportunity of visiting two attractive places. Gloucester is, as the name suggests, a Roman town, just one of the in-places popular with our sophisticated invaders. This part of the Severn valley and the nearby Cotswolds’ gentle hills had as its residents the early equivalent to early retired Prime Ministers and sacked petrol heads. For centuries the city guarded the lowest crossing of the Severn and routes into South Wales. It became the Roman fortified town of Glevum after taking over the British Caer Glowe; the Normans walled it and built a castle (destroyed in the 17th century). A busy coaching stop in Regency times, the glory of today’s city are its inns and the Cathedral; built mainly in the 12th century as a monastic church, but refounded by Henry VIII as a cathedral. As a hint of its age, the pillars supporting the main fabric, are all of 900 years old, and the glass of its huge east window has seen the dawn and dusk of over six hundred years. In Northgate Street, the 15th century ‘New Inn’ has a galleried courtyard where crowds could safely watch coach-horses being changed. Until quite recently, Gloucester was a busy inland port and the riverside wharfs can still be explored.
On the opposite side of the motorway, the A40 leads into Cheltenham. What was once a small village quickly became a popular Regency spa when heavily charged water was found in a farmer’s field. The water is still dispensed in the Town Hall. Well known for its Gold Cup steeplechase horse racing every March and the home of an important girls’ public school, Cheltenham’s town centre is still lined with exquisite Regency buildings on either side of its wide streets. A wealth of trees preserves the character of this beautiful town despite the pressure of modern commerce. No shopping street in England can compare with the Promenade for beauty. The town has many links with music festivals – Gustav Holst was born here; concerts are given in halls around the town as well as St Mary’s Parish Church where its magnificent Rose Window is an attractive distraction.
Part of the small garden in front of Cheltenham’s Town Hall has at its centerpiece an Italianate fountain that never fails to delight passers-by of all ages. Behind and to one side, stands the statue of Edward Wilson who died on the return from the South Pole along with Captain Scott and the rest of the polar group. Touchingly, the statue of this Cheltenham man was made by Scott’s widow. Inside a small museum and art gallery close by the Town Hall, a small piece of notepaper within a display cabinet is often overlooked. Grubby it might be, it was found on Wilson’s body and was the last message he wrote to his wife. Still legible, it was obviously written in the knowledge that Wilson was dying, and from its phrases it was likely that his brave colleagues were already dead.
Moving across the Severn Valley and into that of the Wye, two features are worth discovering by a first-time visitor. The first and arguably the most attractive is Tintern Abbey, one of the most beautiful Cistercian ruins in Britain. With the wooded hills of the lower Wye Valley all around, it gives an aura of tranquility unspoiled by the vandalism of Henry VIII’s struggle with the church. A much larger structure than at first glance on driving along the valley road, the abbey in its hey-day held hundreds of monks and pilgrims as well as those in need of hospitalization. Careful excavation over recent years has unearthed the ground-plan of many of the rooms needed to support ecclesiastical activity in the main section.
The beautifully preserved ruins of Chepstow Castle still seems to guard access to the open Bristol Channel. In fact until the first Severn crossing bridge was built, Chepstow was the first town in Wales accessible to the cross Severn ferry that could only operate when the tide was high enough.
The Norman castle sits on a high limestone ridge directly above the tidal Wye at its lowest crossing. Established by William Fitz Osbert after the Battle of Hastings in 1066; originally designed as a timber structure on top of an earth mound, part of it used stone from a nearby Roman fort. Becoming a shuttlecock between the warring factions, it was eventually used by Charles II to imprison Henry Marten one of the signatories of Charles Ist’ Death Warrant. In the eighteenth century hand blown glass bottles were made in its ancient rooms. For the past 200 years the well-preserved castle has been popular with visitors and was painted by JMW Turner. There is not much to attract visitors to Chepstow town itself, but the castle more than makes up for this lack. A child’s version of a fairytale castle with the guard towers and features laid out in a line overlooking the River Wye. Several are worth seeking out, from the tower where Charles II kept Henry Marten prisoner, to the idyllic terraced garden overlooking the Wye. Dungeons and wine cellars abound and the door leading to the Great Tower is said to be over 8oo years old.
Moving back to the east, the land rises to the Cotswolds where the earliest economy was based on wool. Roman settlers built luxurious mosaic-floored villas on land once farmed by readily Romanized Celts. The real prosperity came in medieval times when wool was the European-wide currency, even superseding linen to cover the dead. Small villages with double and even quadruple names abound, making it obvious to travellers seeking a dry-shod way beyond the safety of roads connecting the major Roman settlements.
Today’s visitors have good roads to drive along, aiming from one attractive village to the next where the locals have been quick to cater for their needs. Everything is there from the high class Lygon Arms at Broadway, to small specialist museums like the model village and a perfumery in Bourton-on-the-Water, or simply villages like Burford which seems to be high on the Japanese tourist trade.
There is something to interest every visitor to the Cotswolds, be it the mysterious Rollright Stones to the east of Moreton-in-Marsh, to visiting the nearby falconry, or enjoying a walk along part of the Cotswolds Way in the Broadway Country Park.