Gloucestershire1 is a mostly rural county covering 265,000 hectares (1,025 square miles), with a population of about 570,000 located at the northern end of the south-west of England. Starting from the south and proceeding anti-clockwise, it is bordered by South Gloucestershire2, Wiltshire, Oxfordshire, Warwickshire, Worcestershire, Herefordshire and Monmouthshire; the modern county boundary is smaller than the ceremonial/historical one, as various parts were sliced off and reassigned, mostly in the southern end. Bristol (currently another one of those unitary authorities) also used to be part of Gloucestershire, until in 1373, it was granted county status of its own. Bristol and South Gloucestershire were later to form part of Avon when it was created in 1976.
An 1819 map of the county by the cartographer John Cary (and used a base for the first geological map of the county by William Smith) shows the boundary to run from the south bank of the Severn along the River Avon, taking in Bristol, skirting above Bath before turning north as far as Didmarton where it runs east to Lechlade, then as far north as Clifford Chambers. From here it undulated westwards around the hills and valleys until meeting the River Wye, which it follows along the western side of the Forest of Dean until it once again meets the Severn.
From Fleeces to Fission
The county can be split into three parts: the Cotswold Hills, the Forest of Dean, and the Severn Vale.
The Cotswold Hills
The southern end of the Cotswold Hills forms the eastern third of the county. The Oolitic3 limestone that underlies this part of the county was formed during the Jurassic Period, when this part of the UK was located in the tropics, as part of a shallow ocean. 150 million years or so of geological commotion led to it forming the rolling hills, valleys and steep escarpments of today that are characteristic of this area.
The limestone contributes in several ways to the landscape: as a building material, it provides the honey-grey colour that makes the towns so ideal for tourist photographs and postcards; its elevation and the low fertility of the soils mean grasses and low crops are the main agriculture. The grazing of the hills helps maintain one of the rarer habitats in Britain, that of unimproved limestone grassland, 50% of which is found within the Cotswolds 'Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty' (AONB). The view from the top of the hills across the Severn Valley towards the Forest and the Welsh Mountains beyond is quietly impressive on a clear day.
The Cotswold Sheep is one of the larger British breeds of sheep, good for both wool and meat. With its high-held head, long white wool, and almost mane-like forelock, it has been nicknamed the 'Cotswold Lion'. The breed is believed to have been brought over by the Romans, and was the basis for much of the county's historic wealth and importance.
The rivers and streams in the valleys provided water to power mills to turn the wool into cloth. In some areas, deposits of Fullers Earth were found, a clay mineral used for its absorbent qualities in cleaning the fleeces of the natural oils and lanolin. Good transport links, such as the Roman roads, and the docks at Gloucester, and later the canal and rail networks increased the market for the fleeces, wool and cloth.
In this part of Gloucestershire, near Cirencester, is Thames Head, one of the sources of the River Thames, where the waters rise (most of the year) from a spring. The river course is marked by a marshy trickle in a dip in the ground, gradually improving in depth, might and magnitude till it becomes navigable near Lechlade. A statue showing old father Thames (a Neptune-esque bearded bloke in a thoughtful reclining pose) used to mark the source but theft and vandalism over the years have rendered the source unmarked. The sign on the nearby pub, the Thames Head features an artistic impression of the statue.
The Forest of Dean
The Royal Forest of Dean is one of the last remnants of England’s ancient forests. Known for its forestry, iron and coal mining since Roman times, the Forest lies on the Welsh border, and manages to be both easily accessible yet still feel out-of-the-way:
"It has this very different and very distinctive character and culture and landscape and historically it is of incredible significance. Because it is tucked away between two rivers in this funny little corner, that character has been protected. It can also seem terribly, terribly remote, although here we are just 45 minutes from Bristol"
– Loyd Grossman.
The Forest has its own, distinctive dialect, protected in part by the area’s isolation, with expressive vernacular such as ‘Ow bist old butt?’ (How are you my friend?). Originally a royal hunting forest, the woods were also a centre for charcoal production (for the iron industry) and for supplying the shipbuilding industry, especially the Royal Navy. They have been replanted many times, most notably in the 17th century for the Admiralty by request of Lord Nelson, leading to the so-called 'Trafalgar Oaks'.
The mines ranged from small ‘one-man-bands’ to larger mines and collieries. Most of the iron mines closed in 1890-1900 because of the ore thinning out with depth and competition from Spanish mines. Some pits re-opened during WW1, but closed again soon after. Ochre, iron oxides found alongside the ore, and used for pigments in paint and cosmetics, is still mined by hand from Clearwell Caves to this day.
Over time, the coal mining developed from the small scowles and adits into larger, deeper collieries, with 20 or so large pits by 1920. They were nationalised along with the rest of the coal industry in 1948, under the National Coal Board. However, the industry was already struggling with rising costs due to the vast water pumping schemes required to keep the mines ‘dry’ - due to the lack of covering rock strata, the mines were some of the wettest collieries in the country. In addition the depth to the coal became greater and faulting of the seams made it harder to follow. Less than 20 years later in 1965 the last one of these, Northern United, near Cinderford, closed.
One unusual aspect of the extractive industry in this area were the Freeminers, so called because Edward I granted them freedom to mine anywhere in the Forest without interference after they used their skills to help him in the siege of Berwick Castle by undermining the foundations. Historically, to qualify as a Freeminer the following conditions had to be met:
- Over 21
- Be born in the Hundred of St Briavels
- Have worked for a year and a day in a coal/iron/stone mine
The prospective Freeminer had to then apply to the Court of Mine Law at the Speech House in Coleford for a gale (a permission to work a specified area of the Forest for iron, coal or stone) from the Gaveller and the Constable of St Briavels castle. Once granted, a gale had to be started within five years, and worked at least one day each subsequent year, or it was revoked.
A few Freeminers still exist today, though their numbers have dwindled to a handful of men. The local hospital shut, meaning most local boys are no longer born within the Hundred of St Briavels. High insurance costs, low returns on the coal, and the dangers of working underground make it an unattractive prospect. In 2010, Elaine Mormon was accepted as the first female Freeminer after a campaign involving her local MP.
Tourism is becoming increasingly important as an industry, with attractions such as the Dean Heritage Centre, The Forest of Dean Sculpture Trail, the Dean Valley Railway and Clearwell Caves are some of the highlights.
The Severn Vale
The Severn Vale runs from the eastern bank of Severn to the edge of the Cotswold Hills. Mostly founded on the dark stiff clays of the Lias, the main industries of the area were brick pits, and lowland farming - especially dairy, leading to the rather tasty Single and Double Gloucester cheese varieties; pork from the Gloucester Old Spot pig breed (originally known as the 'Orchard Pig') and apples and pears from the orchards.
Slimbridge, located on the bank of the Severn, is home to the headquarters of the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust. It was founded in 1946 by the artist and naturalist Sir Peter Scott as a centre for 'scientific study, public display and conservation of the wildfowl of the world'. These days it is an important wintering area for migrating water birds, and is home to a colony of Lesser Flamingos, set up to try and help conserve this near threatened species.
Berkeley Castle, set in an estate of 6000 acres that include Slimbridge, was built in 1153 as one of the March castles, to keep an eye on the Welsh. Although enlarged during Medieval times, it retains its Norman keep and curtain wall, built from a pink-hued stone, and is still a family home. It is probably most famous for the connection with Edward II who was imprisoned there in 1327, when he was allegedly murdered (rather gruesomely according to several accounts).
The proximity to the river also made the Vale a prime site for two of Britain's first nuclear power stations: the easy access to cooling water and geologically stable strata. Both stations use the Magnox gas cooled reactor technology, Oldbury (the first in the UK to have a pre-stressed concrete pressure vessel instead of steel) was constructed between 1961-1967 and is due to close in 2008; Berkeley was constructed in 1957 - 1962, and closed in 1992 when decommissioning began.
The Vale may still be a source of electricity once the reactors are decommissioned. A somewhat controversial proposal4 is for a tidal barrage to be built across the Severn, which could in theory supply 7% of the UK's electricity needs. However the environmental impact of this 'green' energy with the loss of mudflats for wading birds and possible new ecosystems within the tidal pond created behind the sluices, and the huge financial costs and logistical problems it could entail, will make it years (if ever) before it gets the go-ahead.
Another effect of any barrage would be to weaken the 'bore'. The Severn Bore is not, as some may think a local with the ability to drone on tediously in a monotone, but a naturally occurring surge or tidal wave as high as 2.00m. When high or spring tides occur, the effect of the estuary shape is to create a wave that rushes up the river at speeds of up to 21km/h between Awre and Gloucester (33km away), where the weirs prevent it from proceeding further. Bores happen on about 130 days every year, two each day. So-called 'large' bores happen about 25 days a year, with wind direction, barometric pressure and the degree of silting of the estuary channels all contributing to the size of the bore. The effect is rather spectacular, and draws a crowd to watch. Some people surf the bore, others canoe it; however it should be noted that the bore can be dangerous to both those on the river and spectators along the bank, so take notice of any safety warnings.
The earliest signs of human history in Gloucestershire are represented by the 80 or so Neolithic barrows or tumps as they're known locally. The best examples of these are Hetty Peglar's Tump, Long Kennet barrow and Belas Knap. In addition, archaeologists have found evidence of Iron-age hill fort, many along the edge of the hills, overlooking the Severn Vale. The Romans were very active in Gloucestershire, as well as the Fosse Way, Ermin Street also ran though the county. Several large villas have been found, of which Chedworth is probably the best known. Extensive mosaics, such as the Great Woodchester pavement, found in the graveyard of the parish church indicate the wealth and the county set were in existence long before the current crop of Royals and celebrities.
In medieval times and later, the wool trade became the important industry of the county, with the merchants made rich on the profits building the town houses, manors (such as Owlpen and Chavenage) and the so-called 'wool churches (e.g. Chipping Norton, Chipping Camden) that help create the character of the area today. One legacy of the importance of wool to the development of the country as a whole is the tradition that the Lord Speaker or the Lord Chancellor of the House of Lords (the upper house of Parliament) sit on a woolsack.
The industrial heritage of the area dates back to the Romans, but came to the fore in the 19th century, with the woollen mills taking over from the individual weavers in the cottages, the building of the canals (the Thames and Severn Canal, the Stroudwater Canal, the Gloucester and Sharpness Canal and the Herefordshire and Gloucestershire Canal) including engineering feats such as the Sapperton Tunnel, and the railways. Gloucestershire was connected as never before, yet somehow has remained predominantly rural. Agriculture in the county continues, though was hit hard in the foot and mouth outbreak of 2001. Recent years have seen house prices rise as the attractive landscape and good transport connections with London and Bristol made it more tempting for those seeking a second home, rural retreat or holiday property, with the usual complications and problems this brings to those trying to live and work there.
One of the most recent developments was the University of Gloucestershire, created in 2001 from College of St Paul and St Mary and the higher education wing of the Gloucestershire College of Arts and Technology, themselves derived from institutions that have 200 years of history. It has around 9000 students spread over four campuses (three in Cheltenham and one in Gloucester). It has departments covering Media, Art & Communications, Business, Education, Natural & Social Sciences, Humanities, Sport, and Health & Social Care.
Towns and Cities
Gloucester - the only city, and administrative capital of the county, it is located on the banks of the River Severn and has a slightly tatty air of faded glory about it. Home to the historic docks and National Waterways Museum; the Cathedral Church of St Peter and the Holy and Indivisible Trinity, which every third year is host to the Three Choirs Festival5; a ski and snowboard centre, and the longest railway platform in the UK, all 602.60m of it.
Cheltenham is an elegant Georgian spa town, sometimes considered the posher little sister of nearby Gloucester. It also has the most successful league football side of the county in recent times, Cheltenham Town FC. Lurking (if a large multi-million pound building can be said to 'lurk') on the outskirts of Cheltenham is GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters) part of the intelligence and security services, working with MI5 and MI6.
Tewkesbury is dominated by the 12th century abbey sitting on a hill above the confluence of the rivers Avon and Severn. The town has many narrow medieval alleys with half timbered buildings. In 1471, the battle of Tewkesbury was one of the most important in the Wars of the Roses.
Cirencester was a major Roman town, known as Corinium, on the Fosse Way (the road linking Exeter, Isca Dumnoniorum, to Lincoln, Lindum), complete with forum and a large earthworks amphitheatre (still standing). Many Roman finds, including fine mosaics, from the surrounding area are displayed in the Corinium Museum.
Stroud nestles in the meeting point of the 'Five Valleys', the watercourses then combining as the River Frome. The woollen mills that lined the valleys and were the main industry of the area are mostly now factories, warehouses and apartments.
Stow-on-the-Wold is a market town, developed around the meeting point of the Fosse Way with six other roads. As well as the church, St Edwards Hall and the market cross, the town is probably best know for the twice yearly 'Horse Fair' started in 1476, which still attracts Gypsy Traveller community from across the country.
Moreton-in-Marsh is another Cotswold market town, at the head of the Evenlode valley. Just outside the town is the Fire Service College, the biggest training facility of it's kind in Europe, and noted for the M96, a mile-long stretch of motorway (complete with hard shoulder, lane markings and gantries), a railway line (with station platform and level crossing) an oil rig and various planes and helicopters all to allow realistic training for fire service personnel.
Bourton-on-the-Water is very pretty even by Cotswold standards, with a model village (of itself, which features a model of the model), perfumery, model railway and Birdland. It gets very busy in the summer with tourists.
Tetbury, as well as the woolsack races (more of them below) the town is known for its antique shops, market house (on pillars), and the most visible attraction; the parish Church of St Mary the Virgin & St Mary Magdalene, with its soaring spire. The present building celebrated its 225th anniversary in 2006, and was rededicated by the Bishop of Gloucester to both Saints Mary, as historical evidence pointed to each having been the patron saint at one time or another over the years since worship was first recorded on site in 671 AD.
While not near the glittering lights of the capital, or the large stadia of Birmingham or Manchester, Gloucestershire does quite well for sports.
Gloucester Rugby Club
Founded in 1873, and playing at their Kingsholm ground since 1891, the 'Cherry and Whites'6 form one third of the powerhouse of south-west rugby union, along with their bitter rivals Bath and Bristol. Gloucester supporters are some of the most loyal and fervent in the country (partly due to the lack of Premiership football in the area), especially those in the 'Shed', one of the stands, noted by opponents for its noise generation capabilities.
Gloucestershire County Cricket Club
Although a first-class club, they have had mixed fortunes over the years, coming second in the County Championship six times but never winning it; they are perhaps better known as a one-day side, with eight victories in various competitions in the last 20 years. In some formats the team go by the name of 'Gloucestershire Gladiators', a reference to either the county's Roman past, or the 'Gloster Gladiator', a World War II aircraft. The County Ground is located in Bristol (ahem), and has the second largest playing area in the country. Some home games are also played in Gloucester and Cheltenham.
All things Equestrian
Based at the estate of the Duke of Beaufort, Badminton is one of only five 'four star' International Three-day Events, and one third of the 'Grand Slam' of Eventing along with Kentucky and Burleigh. First held in 1949 when 6000 spectators watched, the first prize was £150; by the 2006 competition which was held in front of over 150,000 spectators, the winner received £50,000. The event has only been rained off three times, and was cancelled during the Foot and Mouth outbreak of 2001. Another three day event, this time held every August at the home of the Princess Royal, Gatcombe Park, is the Festival of British Eventing.
The Cheltenham Festival. Strictly speaking, it's the National Hunt Festival (other Cheltenham Festivals, such as literature and jazz are available), the highlight of which is the 'Gold Cup' race. During the those four days of March it appears that the world (or at least most of Ireland) has descended on this part of Gloucestershire, so those with an allergy to traffic jams, and no interest in the racing should avoid the area surrounding the racecourse.
Other equestrian activities include numerous point-to-points, polo matches, gymkhanas, and several hunts such as the Duke of Beaufort, Berkley, Cotswold and the Vale of the White Horse are based in the county.
Are you local?
Gloucestershire is also home to some more esoteric sporting events such as:
Woolsack Racing - in an event that is unlikely to ever make the Olympics, though not lacking in spectacle or endeavour, teams or individuals race up and down the (one in four gradient) Gumstool Hill in Tetbury while carrying large, unwieldy, sacks of wool across their shoulders.
Cheese Rolling - for those with even less traumatophobia (Fear of injury) there is cheese rolling at Cooper's Hill. Competitors (up to 20 per race) chase a cheese, usually a Double Gloucester weighing about 3.2 - 3.6kg (7lb - 8lb) down the steep hill that has a gradient of one in two, or in some places, one in one. The winner is the first to reach the bottom.
Badminton Horseless Team Event is run over a five or nine miles, often in fancy dress, by teams of five competing over the same cross-country course, including the lake and the fences, that the horses cover earlier in the year. Held annually since 1984, the event is run by Rotary Club of the South Cotswolds (Malmesbury and Tetbury) for charity. Upon seeing the rather large obstacles and associated ditches up close, it is easy to understand why some horses refuse to jump them.
Laurie Lee. Born Laurence Edward Alan Lee in Stroud in 1914, Lee is one of the most famous authors associated with Gloucestershire. Cider with Rosie, the first part of his autobiographical trilogy, details his early life, growing up in Slad, a village in the valleys of Gloucestershire. The vivid descriptions of large families, small cottages and rural life in a simpler age are still popular to this day. The success of the books allowed him to buy his childhood home. Lee died in 1997 and was buried in the graveyard of Slad church.
Jack Russell, Robert Charles 'Jack' Russell, MBE, FRSA is one of the more eccentric characters to have played that most English of games, cricket. Born in Stroud in 1963, Jack made his county début for Gloucestershire in 1981, and his test début in 1988. His odder habits included a diet centred on tea (often re-using the same tea bag many times), biscuits and baked beans; and his attachment to a battered sun-hat despite many officials' and captains' attempts to replace it. A great wicket keeper, and a tenacious left-handed batsmen, he holds the world record for most dismissals in a test match, and was Wisden Cricketer of the year in 1990. Since his retirement from the sport in 2004 because of a back injury his other passion, painting, has been given full reign, and he now has his own gallery in Gloucester.
Gustav Holst, composer of The Planets Suite (much favoured by advertising executives everywhere) was born in 1874 in Cheltenham, the eldest of two sons of Adolph and Clara Holst. He studied at the Royal College of Music. As well as over 100 compositions varying from hymns (his version of In the Bleak Midwinter is well-loved), ballets and full orchestral works, he was a teacher, a strict vegetarian and an astrologer. He died in 1934.
Edward Jenner FRS was born in 1749 in Berkeley. Jenner is best known for creating a vaccination for smallpox. His interest in science extended beyond medicine, to geology and palaeontology and he was a noted naturalist. He died in 1823 and is buried in Berkeley Church.
Various celebrities have made Gloucestershire their home: as well as the Princess Royal, and Prince Charles (at Highgrove House, near Tetbury) TV presenters Richard Hammond and Anne Robinson, wine critic Jilly Goolden, artist Damien Hirst, comedian Dom Joly, and actress/model/whatever Liz Hurley all have homes in the county.
Your exits are here, here and here...
The M5 motorway runs roughly north to south-west through the county, connecting it with the West Midlands and Somerset, Devon and Cornwall. The Fosse Way is still in use, though the modern route has departed from the original in places. The M4 is within easy reach, just over the border in Wiltshire. The A40 runs east-west, connecting Wales and southern England; the A38 proceeds through Tewkesbury, south to Gloucester then on to Bristol. The A46 extends across the county north to Evesham or south towards Bath. Staverton airport, near Gloucester in the biggest civilian airport - for a bigger choice of flights and destinations you'd need Bristol International Airport. Rail links to Bristol, Birmingham, Cardiff and London are good however, we make no promises about the service on those links.