There are numerous reasons I love cycling along canals. To start with, they’re generally flat. They also provide great opportunities to get a history fix, courtesy of crowd-free heritage sites that aren’t necessarily accessible by road. My favourite spot on the Basingstoke Canal, for example, is Odiham Castle – the remains of a 13th-century castle built by King John, nestled in a hidden clearing set back from the water. And in Liverpool and Manchester, I’ll never tire of the huge textile mills towering over the towpaths.
But rather unexpectedly, a new destination has become my go-to spot for some canal-side pedal power: the Cotswolds. Both the Stroudwater Navigation, which heads west from Stroud, and the Thames and Severn Canal, which heads east, are lined with mills. Although it’s worth noting this area wasn’t just famous for its cloth but for its dyeing industry, more specifically a red cloth used for military uniforms and coloured with cochineal, a dye made from insects. At Stroud’s Cotswold Canals Visitor Centre (which, by the way, is a goldmine of information), paintings of Stroud in the 1800s show vast swathes of scarlet cloth laid out to dry on the surrounding hillsides.
Read more on UK travel:
Stroud, a market town tucked below the western escarpment of the Cotswold Hills, is a great starting point for cyclists, who can tackle either the Stroudwater Navigation or the Thames and Severn Canal. I start with the latter, joining a smooth, well-maintained towpath which weaves through an area known as the Golden Valley on account of the riches once amassed by the owners of its mills – places such as Griffins Mill, which dates back to the 1500s, and Bourne Mill, which became a walking stick factory in the 1900s. It’s a historic canal that pushes its way through steep-sided valleys, and certain sections feel wonderfully remote.
The steepness of the surrounding hills wasn’t an issue for mill owners, proof of which is canal-side Chalford. There were once over 20 mills in and around this tiny village, and workers lived in cottages which still cling to the steep slopes, connected by roads so narrow that cars struggle to navigate them. Until the 1930s, donkeys delivered groceries, and they continued to be used as occasional delivery vehicles until the early 2000s.