Sunday, 11 July 2010

Belas Knap & Winchcombe

At the end of June we escaped across the border to visit nearby
Belas Knap, a prehistoric monument situated in the heart of the Cotswolds. Along the way we stopped on a top road to look across to our eventual destination - the wooded area covering the horizon. But first I wanted to pop into Winchcombe, a bustling little town which has stood here for over a thousand years.

If I were holidaying in the Cotswolds, I might get somewhat tired of reading recommendations to visit the usual tourist hotspots. Where else, I might ask, can I see unspoilt buildings and absorb heritage, without the droves of coaches and sweaty crowds, without tacky souvenir shops and half a dozen tearooms? The answer would be - visit
Winchcombe, a real, living, breathing town with bundles of history and individual shops, galleries and pubs which not only cater for the always welcome visitors, but for the locals as well.

My reason for popping in was to say hello to a couple of Twitter friends who have businesses within whistling distance of each other - just to put names to faces. On the main High Street is a wonderful old fashioned toyshop called
Sprogs, crammed with the most gorgeous array of new and modern playthings. I defy anyone to enter it and not emerge with some treasure, be it for themselves or a gift for a lucky child. I treated myself to a tin kaleidoscope. Sadly it was the owner's day off, so no Twitter meet up, but I did have the pleasure of talking to their assistant, who looked after me splendidly.

Next on my list was the
Winds of Change Gallery, just along the road, where I introduced myself again and was given the warmest of welcomes and a little tour. Although it is a modest size, it is beautifully laid out with a wide ranging and ever changing display of fine arts and crafts.

My visit had to be fairly quick though, despite the kind offer of coffee in the courtyard, which I will be taking up next time. We were headed to nearby Belas Knap, about a mile out of town. Parking the bike, we had spectacular views across to Winchcombe and beyond. If you look down you can just see
Sudely Castle, nestling in the landscape with historic grace as it has done for centuries.

The walk up to Belas Knap is fairly short - about a mile or more - but it is all uphill. The views are worth it though. Here we can see across to our first stopping point on the top road coming in - a little wisp of smoke just to the right being our landmark, which we saw from the other side as we looked over a couple of hours previously.

It was a hot, muggy day and the sheep were taking refuge under the hawthorns, soaking in the coolness from the drystone walls.

By the time we got almost to the top, we had even better views.

I'm not an ancient historian, so I won't attempt to give a potted history of this beautiful site. It's basic shape can be seen below. A number of skeletons were excavated from it in the mid-nineteenth century and since then the side chambers have been faithfully reconstructed and left open to the public.

Coming off the footpath and entering the site, with a large, false chamber heading the earthwork.

The first north-eastern chamber, which is open. At this time of year the barrow is covered with sweet Wild Thyme, Lady's Bedstraw and Scabious. If you are lucky enough to be there alone, all that can be heard is the wind skating across the hilltop and skylarks carolling as they bounce over the surrounding fields. No wonder the ancients chose it as a sacred site.

The other end, the Southern entrance.

And coming round, the Western entrance, also open and pleasant to sit inside for five minutes, listening to the density of earth and stone around you; the silence is thick.

Feeling quieter and somehow refreshed from a half hour spent pottering around this wonderful monument, we descended back down the track to the bike, with the Cotswolds and beyond spread out in glory beneath us.

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