Slow Cotswolds

  • Taking the strain out of the hills: e-cycling

    It's as if the Cotswolds were made for exploring slowly: tiny lanes, some of the prettiest English valleys and glorious views from the hilltops and escarpments. But, oh those hills! You can't escape them in the Cotswolds and if you want to explore the area by bike, the hills can be, at best, off-putting and, at worst, a reason not to get on a bike at all. Especially if you're not a regular wearer of lycra, haven't been on a bike for a while or simply don't fancy spending more time off the bike, pushing, than on it, cycling.

    All the reason then to have a go at e-cycling. It's as if the Cotswolds were made for electric bikes too! Some people are a bit snooty about e-cycling - being given a little bit of assistance - citing it's not 'proper' cycling. Well, unless you really do wear lycra regularly - and you train in the mountains - I reckon even the fittest cyclist will feel the Cotswolds in their calf muscles by the end of a day in the saddle.

    So I went to PEDEGO Electirc Bikes that hire out electric bikes by the day in addition to bike sales. The company is based in the village of Thrupp, in Golden Valley (the River Frome), one of the five Stroud Valleys. Though located on the valley floor east of Stroud, you can't help but go up at least one hill to venture out on a bike for the day.

    Daniel and his team at PEDEGO Electric Bikes lent me a helmet and provided a run down on how to use my sugar-pink e-bike (I nicknamed her the 'Pink Panther'), the gears and the power assist before setting off on one of their Cotswold Electric Bike Treasure Trail routes. There's a choice of two circular routes to select from, and a choice of two morning start times, the timing worked to perfection to arrive at a watering hole in time for lunch, with arrangements made that, should you need to, you can recharge the bike battery as well as your own batteries. One route takes you north of Golden Valley, visiting Bisley, Miserden and the Slad Valley (Laurie Lee country). I chose the Amberley and Avening route that takes in Minchinhampton and Rodborough Commons and the Nailsworth Valley (you'll find details of all these places within Slow Cotswolds, the book).

    So, armed with my map and a set of clues and navigational instructions, I set off. I recommend a few turns around the car park first, for you exit straight out onto a busy road that runs along Golden Valley for a quarter-mile before turning off - and the first hill. Burleigh Hill, which climbs up to Minchinhampton Common, is notoriously steep. Even in a car it requires several changes of gear. I admit to feeling apprehensive about making it to the top of the hill without getting off and pushing (and electric bikes are notoriously heavy for doing that). But I made it to the top - in one go - ably assisted by the bike, whose extra power just helps ease the effort with pedalling. And at the top, you're rewarded with the most fabulous views of Golden Valley and beyond, from whence you came.

    On to Minchinhampton, I could have quite happily stopped for a brew in the town - The Minchinhampton Kitchen offers excellent coffee and cake - but I was keen to press on with my treasure hunt, searching for answers to the clues amid the house names and quirky detail of the town's architecture. The route continues southeast with a short descent into beech woods and up (power-assisted) the other side of this antler-shaped valley (the start of the Nailsworth Valley) into the village of Cherington. It's a quiet lane and the perfect opportunity to appreciate the peace and tranquility of the Cotswolds.

    Taking a dog leg towards the village of Avening, with glorious viewpoints across the fields along the way, the road then descends into Avening and the Nailsworth Valley proper. There are two pubs here but the Treasure Trail recommendation is the Weybridge Inn, a mile-and-a-half along the road towards Nailsworth. The route provides a glorious descent along the contorted valley, passing the most majestic of former mills and their chimneys, standing tall. In the autumn sunlight, these mills looked all the grander as the creamy stone walls soaked up the rays, shining almost iridescent.

    The Weybridge Inn is renowned for its 'meat and veg' 2-in-1 pies and it sits opposite the first of several bridges to cross the valley. If you wanted to take a detour off the treasure trail route, you could cross the river here and head back up into Minchinhampton. There's also a very reasonable garden centre restaurant a few yards further along the Nailsworth Valley road should the Weybridge Inn be shut and you're less than a quarter-mile from Nailsworth, where you're spoilt for choice in eateries of every sort - from pub food (my pick would be the Britannia Inn, right in the centre) to William's Oyster and Seafood Bar, which you pass on the treasure trail route (though you're limited with parking your bike here).

    The treasure trail route takes you out of Nailsworth back up onto Minchinhampton Common via the very picturesque clustered village of Box. The route takes the steepness out of the otherwise hairpin route known, for obvious reasons, as the 'W'. However, a glutton for punishment, I took this considerably steeper route - for it provides incredible views over Nailsworth and the valley as you climb. And, with the assistance from the power bank, I had no trouble with the climb.

    The treasure trail skirts the western edge of Minchinhampton Common towards Amberley where the Black Horse is the recommended stop, either to recharge the bike battery or simply to use that as an excuse to sit and admire the wonderful views that the pub garden offers over the northern stretch of the Nailsworth Valley, Selsley Common and the Painswick and Slad Valleys beyond Stroud. You should stop a while.

    I was glad to see the need to pass Winstone's Ice-cream, on neighbouring Rodborough Common, to continue with the treasure trail clues - another worthwhile stop to sample the delicious Cotswold delicacy, tasting all the better for the views of, once more, the Golden Valley as you lick. The final section of clues involves cycling along 'Quiet Lanes', designated tracks where the cyclist, walker and horserider have priority over cars - should you see one. Looking over Bownham Common, adjoining Rodborough Common, there are fabulous views looking up Stroud's other valley, the Toadsmoor Valley towards Bisley. It's the perfect place to stop for a picnic, if you've brought a flask of tea with you.

    Reaching Burleigh Hill once more, this time for its descent, I couldn't quite grasp how on earth I'd managed to cycle up it without getting off at the start of my bike ride. But that's the beauty of the electric bikes - you can keep it just ticking over on a low power ratio when you don't actually need any assistance and then, as you get tired towards the end of a bike ride and you'd be grateful for a helping hand (the point at which, as a kid, you'd ask someone to give you a push), the battery pack gives you that push.

    In all, I'd covered twenty miles or thereabouts in just over 4 hours. For sure, it's not a racing time, but then this wasn't a race. It was all about seeing the Cotswolds in detail, enjoying a pub lunch and embracing the soothing autumnal sunshine. And not worrying about those damn hills!

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