A Taster of an Alternative Cotswolds
A Taster of an Alternative Cotswolds
The Cotswolds is an iconic part of Britain with its honey stone and enchanting villages, packed full of visitors on summer days who are treating themselves to the countryside tastes and back streets little shops.
But have you considered a different kind of Cotswolds? An exploration beyond the picturesque to the history, people and character of this part of the world.
An alternative taster of the Cotswolds.
1. Windmill Tump Long Barrow at Rodmarton
It only seems right to start with a step back to the ancient history of this part of the British landscape in the Cotswolds.
Windmill Tump Long Barrow is a remnant of ancient Britain where ceremony and sacrifice were important. An open Neolithic site otherwise known as Rodmarton Long Barrow in the care of English Heritage.
Follow the path as it skirts around the gate and enters a natural corridor between crops and hedgerow.
In summer butterflies and insects abound as they dart and dance from wild poppy to rose; followed predictably by chirruping but curious small birds. It is one of the delights of this discovery. The wandering path towards an unknown destination.
The Long Barrow appears before you from out of the wilderness surrounded by a gated enclosure. Curiosity or interest will see you circle this interesting archaeology. Pondering north and south perhaps, its alignment or perhaps who they were - these people from long ago.
Before you leave, take a moment to lean upon the fence - more natural Cotswold landscape abounds.
2. Tyndale Monument above North Nibley
At 111 feet tall, it towers on the edge of the Cotswold escarpment over the River Severn valley. At its base is a foundation stone placed in 1863 by a certain Colonel Berkeley. And underneath the stone is a box. And inside the box is a Bible – an Oxford Bible inscribed with names of the Committee and Trustees who set out to build this monument.
This is the Tyndale Monument. A monument to remember the beliefs, the work and the end of William Tyndale.
His enduring legacy – the first translation of the New Testament into the English language. Perhaps opening the words of Christianity, the words of the Christian God to the native English-speaking masses for the very first time. No longer did you have to rely on papal instructors, the priests and lay-clergy, but if you could read (which was a big if back then) then you could access the source material of Christianity yourself. Self-enlightenment.
Why here? Well Tyndale was born in a barn in the village of North Nibley just down below the monument from where walkers and explorers can climb up to take in the monument which towers all around and from where, in fine weather, views are magical!
On the monument, a commemorative plaque reads:
Erected A.D. 1866
In grateful remembrance of
Translator of the English Bible
Who first caused the New Testament
To be printed in the mother tongue
Of his countrymen
Born near this spot he suffered
Martyrdom at Vilvorden in
Flanders on Oct 6 1536
Now whether you give a fig or not about religious reform, of the English Reformation, of men who defied rules, laws and did their own thing and came to an end not of their own design, you can still come to Nibley Knoll. You can gaze in desirous wonder of the beautiful views and the lovely walking to be had here as the Cotswold Way long distance walking path winds its way past this cenotaph.
3. The Souls of Great Rissington
If you come to the little church in the quiet Cotswold village of Great Rissington in amongst those honied stoned walls, you will discover a unique story of the First World War and sacrifice.
This place of Great Rissington is a lesson in the cost of war. In this case - the Great War. The First World War which lasted 1914-1918, over one hundred years ago... So long ago, some ask, so why is this relevant?
It is relevant to all. A lesson in the impact of big things that ripple on a local level. A lesson that war may happen for sometimes the noblest of reasons but ends every time, with a loss, losses.
Great Rissington, the agricultural village as was at this time, sent its young men folk off to do their duty, an unimaginable responsibility for most young people these days, but then an inescapable feeling, a moral obligation. For King, for country, for friends and family. For Mrs Souls - the mother of these five brothers, it would cost her family in blood and tears. Imagine if you will five sons go to war, and none come back. For that is the history of this place.
So do yourself a favour, teach yourself and those you love, give them a reminder of duty and its cost... these days, these lessons are important for all.
Alf and Arthur - twins - they died five days apart on the Western Front in 1918
Albert, the youngest - the first to die in 1916
Walter, who died of wounds in 1916
And Fred - who just never came home, listed as missing, never to return
They asked us to remember...
4. Lasborough and Leighterton
Of Poldark and Australia
You might never know, not unless you accidentally wander past this place. But you would have to venture through this tiny village of Leighterton. Past the farm, the limestone cottages, the church that stands centre stage and out the other side.
On to tight lanes and acute angled corners. To see past the gravestones that stand in the cemetery on the edge of the village. To see the rows of white Portland stones that line row upon row in the graveyard. Signs of service, of memorial, of men who came to this place from far away and never left.
We could have called this 'Leighterton - a part of England that is forever Australian'. For in many ways, it is true and has been the first day these Aussie boys landed here back in World War One.
It is serene, for beyond the boundaries are the wide open fields that extend as far as the eye can see. The open plains of the Cotswolds; only broken by the low stone walls that trip the eye from time to time. Birdsong, the occasional tractor, maybe the hidden hum of traffic from the main road that lies hidden to this village. But these men are left to time; only broken once or twice a month when remembrance or memorial comes to them.
It is the propeller which stands out. An airplane propeller. Abutted to the front of a gravestone. For to know what happened here, one hundred years ago, you would have to imagine the burr of aeroplanes. The brilliant hum and whine as they swoop and dive across these wide open skies.
For here at Leighterton, the only war dead are they, the Australians who came to Britain to play their part in a war. There are 23 of them. 23 who never made it home again. The men of the Australian Flying Corps (AFC) who died here during the Great War.
For Leighterton had an aerodrome, which was used by the Australian Flying Corps as a base during the Great War. The land had been cleared by the Canadian Foresters in 1917 and hangars and buildings built there on what was the Duke of Beaufort's land at Leighterton.
Australia was the only British Dominion to have its own flying corps in the Great War. There were four training squadrons based in Gloucestershire, Numbers 5 and 6 Training Squadrons A.F.C. at Minchinhampton, north of Leighterton and Numbers 7 and 8 Training Squadrons A.F.C. at Leighterton itself. Those four A.F.C. squadrons formed the 1st Training Wing A.F.C. with its headquarters and there was an A.F.C. hospital in Tetbury. Not too far from Leighterton.
The Aussies left in 1919 much to local disappointment. The aerodrome was cleared and the equipment left was put up for auction before once again being in use for the second of the great wars that century. The garage still remains on the main A46 road, which if you pass by, you may notice is named the Aerodrome Garage.
Before you leave, head across the busy road, down a quiet dead-end lane and arrive at the even tinier village of Lasborough, where you will find a gem of a church once used for filming in the television series of Poldark.
But follow your nose down to the lone Aussie war grave, and you will perhaps find the 24th man of the Australian Flying Corps - another who never made it home.
5. Earl Suffolk's Window at Charlton Park
This stained glass window at St John the Baptist church on the edge of Charlton Park near Malmesbury, Wiltshire offers a mere glimpse into the life of a man born as an earl but who lived a very real, vivid life.
He was Charles Henry George Howard, 20th Earl of Suffolk and 13th Earl of Berkshire; but sometimes referred to as Wild Jack Howard.
The memorial speaks of his life, his different journeys and his final ending when he lost his life defusing a 500lb bomb in 1941 as part of his role in the Second World War.
Upon the window are words written about the man by the then Poet Laureate John Masefield as well as words from his wife.
He loved the bright ship with the lifting wing
He felt the anguish in the hunted thing
He dared the dangers which beset the guides
Who lead men to the knowledge nature hides
Probing and playing with the lightning thus
He and his faithful friends met death for us
The beauty of a splendid man abides
His grave sits nearby in the churchyard.
The stained glass window reads:
To the glory of God
In memory of Charles Henry George Howard
20th Earl of Suffolk & 13th Earl of Berkshire G.C. BSc.
Who with unselfish devotion faced and met his death
In the course of his duties as a Scientific Research Officer Bomb Disposal Unit
May 12th 1941
Also holding in remembrance those who went with him
This window is placed here by his wife
Find the church at Charlton on the edge of the estate just outside Malmesbury in Wiltshire.
6. Down Ampney Airfield
From this airfield in 1944-5
Douglas Dakotas from 48 and
271 Squadrons RAF Transport
Command carried the 1st and 6th
Airborne Divisions, units of
the Air Despatch Regiment
and Horsa Gliders flown by
the Glider Pilots Regiment to
Normandy-Arnhem and on the
Crossing the Rhine Operations
We will remember them
This is the memorial which sits a striking reminder of this quiet corner of the Cotswolds. Surrounded by fields, the cherry trees, and the birds. But history tells us of a time and place when the soundscape in this village of Down Ampney was different when the winds told a tune of a different time. A time of war. The Second World War.
For these empty crop-lined fields once held the stories of this place, not as a quiet village, but as R.A.F. Down Ampney. It was an airfield where once men flew planes to far off troubled lands and skies. And returned, piecemeal, buffeted by their experiences; and with them the casualties of war to be patched up and soothed. When life was tense, and time was precious. And who knew if these airmen would return?
This memorial stone stands at the southern end of the runway. Where wheels once left the earth and where for some they returned.
There is more at the church, much more. For the church spire was once a marker to those airmen returning home that home was close. But for now, this is just about the landscape. For it is almost gone. The skeleton is mostly disappeared and now only fragments of the bones remain.
RAF Down Ampney and the associated airfield was only operational between February 1944 - February 1947 after it was built in 1943. But it became home to many thousands who appeared and disappeared from all parts and all nations of the war effort; not just the Brits.
And its constituent parts made up the best of them – from the E Squadron Glider Pilot’s Regiment, the Air Despatch Regiment, the Air Ambulance Section, the King’s Own Scottish Borderers (who flew out of Down Ampney to Arnhem) to 271 Squadron and 48 Squadron of the RAF. They were training in all aspects of what would be the D-Day landings – gliders and the airborne attack onto the Normandy Beaches of northern France. They were working with the 1st and 6th Airborne Divisions. This place was a hum of busy war effort. The women of the W.A.A.F. were also in contention – working on board returning planes tending to the wounded and the dying.
These were the transport of the British war effort. And Down Ampney, this place would be at the very heart of that most heated of days – D-Day - the Allied advance into France to beat back the German forces in 1944. The Dakotas which launched from here on the 5th and 6th of June, and many, many days beyond would be taking with them Horsa Gliders and Pilots, the men of Airborne Division themselves and the supplies which would allow this attack to continue apace and with some degree of success. The planes and personnel of RAF Down Ampney would also be the receiving planes taking back the wounded from the beaches and inland areas of Normandy; giving those casualties a chance of surviving the Second World War.
In September 1944, the airmen of RAF Down Ampney were at Arnhem in the Netherlands, heavily involved in the re-supply operation against massive German hostilities where many got bogged down. In the cacophony of war on the 19th September 1944, the Douglas Dakota III plane KG374 flown by Flight Lieutenant David Lord was hit – his wing on fire – he flew on succeeding in a second and a third drop knowing how urgent and desperate his cargo was to the men down below. The plane never made it, the wing falling and him and his crew crashed to their deaths, except for one lucky survivor. The story came out post-war when this prisoner of war made it home and Lord was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross for bravery for actions beyond the call of duty.
The people of RAF Down Ampney carried on with heavy involvement in Operation Market Garden and the Crossing of the Rhine into Germany in 1944 and into 1945. Towing gliders, transporting the essentials of a fighting war, the most essential of the logistics of war. Each time taking off from the airfield, now disappeared, from the tiny village of Down Ampney in Gloucestershire.
And when the war in Europe died down, even then their jobs here did not stop. This place, quiet and unobtrusive, was it seems at the centre of most things. In 1945, Anthony Eden, the Foreign Secretary arrived at Down Ampney on a plane back from the Potsdam Conference keen to hear election results at his constituency in Leamington. Churchill had arrived at RAF Northolt and went off to brief the King about peacetime affairs. Election ballets had even left Down Ampney for the Channel Islands and mainland Europe for the 1945 election.
Down Ampney had seen its fair share of walking wounded from D-Day, Arnhem and beyond. But as the war quieted in actuality, the airfield became a Casualty Air Evacuation Centre. Here under the secrecy of war conditions, Red Cross Welfare Officers welcomed back the prisoners of war, some in poor condition indeed, off the air transports from Germany and other countries continuing right up until 1946. This tiny village would be the welcome, the countryside welcome and return to Britain of men who had suffered so much as POWs. Some had returned from the worst privations that humanity can imagine. And here they came. To be treated, to be talked to, to be allowed to breathe and exist from one human to another. Here, here at Down Ampney.
The marker gives you the merest taste of the place. The church offers more. But it relies on you, the people who see and listen, those who learn, that this place was more than just an airfield. It was a place where people left, where some returned and where others came back to. Such stories as these are what makes Britain’s histories. Remember them. Remember this place long after the fragments have for the last time been all blown away.
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