Through an evolving landscape in the southern Cotswolds.
Distance 5 miles (8km)
Minimum time 2hrs
Level of difficulty Easy
Paths Track, tow path and lanes, 10 stiles
Landscape Dead flat - lakes, light woodland, canal and village
Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer 169 Cirencester & Swindon
Start/finish SU 048974
Dog friendliness Good but be aware of a lot of waterfowl around lakes
Parking Silver Street, South Cerney
Public toilets None on route
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1 From Silver Street walk north out of the village. Immediately before the turning to Driffield and Cricklade, turn right over a stile on to a bank. Stay on this obvious path for 800yds (732m), to reach a brick bridge across the path. Turn right here up a flight of steps to reach a narrow road.
2 Turn left and walk along here for 200yds (183m) until you come to footpaths to the right and left. Turn right along a farm track, following a signpost for Cerney Wick. Almost immediately the shallow, overgrown remains of the Thames and Severn Canal appear to your left. When the track veers right into a farm, walk ahead over a stile to follow a path beneath the trees - the old canal tow path. At a bridge keep ahead across stiles and continue until you come to a busy road.
3 Cross with care. On the far side you have two choices: either continue on the tow path or take the path that skirts the lakes. If you take the lakeside path, you will eventually be able to rejoin the tow path by going left at a bridge after 600yds (549m). Continue until, after just under ½ mile (800m), you pass an old canal roundhouse across the canal to the left and, soon after, reach a lane at Cerney Wick.
4 Turn right here and walk to the junction at the end of the road, beside the Crown pub. Cross to a stile and enter a field. Walk straight ahead and come to another stile. Cross this aiming to the left of a cottage. Cross the lane, go over another stile and enter a field. Walk ahead and follow the path as it guides you across a stile on to the grass by a lake. Walk around the lake, going right and then left. In the corner before you, cross into a field, walk ahead towards trees and cross a stile to a track.
5 Turn right, rejoining the old railway line and following it all the way to a road. Cross this into a car park and go through a gate on to a track. Stay on this all the way to another road and follow a path that runs to its left.
6 Where the path ends at the beginning of South Cerney, continue along Station Road. Ignore a footpath on the right but turn right at the second one, which takes you across a bridge and brings you to a lane called 'Bow Wow'. Turn left here between streams and return to Silver Street.
By their very nature, ancient landscapes and historic architecture evolve very slowly, changing little from one century to another. Can they resist the demands of a brasher era? In the Cotswolds the answer to this question is essentially 'yes'. Here building restrictions are strict - even, sometimes, draconian. The result, however, is a significant area of largely unspoilt English countryside; sometimes, thoughtful development has even enhanced an otherwise lacklustre skyline. The Cotswold Water Park, located in and around old gravel pits, is an example of this.
Gravel has been worked in the upper Thames Valley, where the water table is close to the surface, since the 1920s. The removal of gravel leads to the creation of lakes and in the areas around South Cerney and between Fairford and Lechlade there are now some 4,000 acres (1,620ha) of water, in about 100 lakes. They provide an important wetland habitat for a variety of wildlife. Most of these lakes have been turned over to recreational use of one sort or another, being a perfect place for game and coarse fishing, board sailing, walking, boating of various kinds, riding and sundry other leisure activities. Interestingly, this has been what is now called a private/public enterprise. The landscaping has not just been a case of letting nature take over where the gravel excavators left off. The crane-grabs that were used for excavation in the 1960s, for example, left the gravel pits with vertical sides and therefore with deep water right up to the shoreline. As it happens, some forms of aquatic life flourish under these conditions, but in other lakes the shoreline has been graded to create a gentler slope - this harmonises better with the essentially flat landscape in this part of the Cotswolds and is better suited to the needs of swimmers and children. In the same way, trees have been planted and artificial hills have been constructed to offer both shelter and visual relief. Old brick railway bridges have been preserved. Finally, a style of waterside architecture has been developed to attract people to live here. It continues to evolve, just as the surrounding countryside has done for centuries.
The walk begins in South Cerney, by the River Churn, only 4 miles (6.4km) from the source of the Thames. Look inside the Norman church for the exceptional carving on the 12th-century rood. Later the walk takes you through Cerney Wick, a smaller village on the other side of the gravel workings. The highlight here is an 18th-century 'roundhouse', used by the workers on the now disused Thames and Severn Canal.
The walk passes the Crown in Cerney Wick. There are also several pubs in South Cerney - the Old George and the Eliot Arms in Clarks Hay, and the Royal Oak on the High Street.
Disused transport systems feature greatly in this walk. For much of it you will be beside or close to the old Thames and Severn Canal, or following the route of the old Andoversford railway line. The line linked Cheltenham and Swindon between 1891 and 1961. The roundhouse seen on the far side of the old canal as you approach Cerney Wick was used by lock keepers and maintenance engineers. This design was a distinctive feature of the Thames and Severn Canal. Even the windows were rounded to afford the occupants maximum visibility of their stretch of canal. The downstairs would have been used as a stable, the middle storey as a living area and the upstairs held sleeping accomodation. The flat roof was also put to use collecting rainwater for the house's water supply.
Visit often-overlooked Cricklade. The town centre is dominated by 17th- and 18th-century houses, overseen by the bulky tower of the church, visible for miles around. Unusually, it is dedicated to the Breton St Samson.