The Cotswolds are alive with the sound of music

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Alan Payling suggests that a spin through a couple of the lesser known valleys in the Cotswolds will delight passengers and enable them to visit the lost world of Laurie Lee’s ‘Cider with Rosie,’ particularly if you take an orchestra with you and drive a 1920s charabanc.

There are some magnificent views across the Severn Valley into Wales on this drive. ALAN PAYLING

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The Cotswolds are a popular destination for coach tours, and deservedly so. Who could fail to be charmed by the many delightful villages and towns in this part of the world. Even the wonderful and evocative names of places like Stow-on-the-Wold, Bourton-on-the-Water, Moreton-in-Marsh and The Slaughters conjures up an image of a part of England that has retained a great deal of its charm and beauty. A regal Regency town like Cheltenham Spa and the classy and stylish district of Montpelier, the Imperial Gardens and the grand open boulevards still remind the visitor of a lost era of elegant living. But I always tend to think that even though the Cotswolds sit on high ground, of itself, large parts of the rural landscape thereabouts is not all that scenic. However, the south western corner of this area of outstanding natural beauty is one place where you will find a couple of valleys that are well worth taking in via a scenic drive and which also have connections to one of England’s more popular writers, Laurie Lee.

The scenic drive I’m talking about is a circular north-south route from Birdlip along the B4070 in the north to Stroud in the south. From Stroud, the route takes you back north along the A46 to the Cross Hands Roundabout at Brockworth on the outskirts of Gloucester. These roads could form part of a scenic drive after a visit to places like nearby Cirencester, or, if you had been into Gloucester to visit the cathedral or the shopping area at Gloucester Docks, this drive is not far away. Also, if you were travelling along the M5 and weren’t in a rush and wanted to either kill time and/or give your passengers a treat, then both ends of this drive are only a few minutes from the motorway. It’s not a long drive either and at about 20 miles in total. At a steady speed, it would last about an hour. During any season of the year it would be a delight but the spring and summer would be grand times to motor through. But as both roads pass through heavily wooded valleys, then autumn would veer towards the mildly spectacular given the changing, colourful hues of the leaves as they ready themselves to come falling down. The drive is suitable for coaches and even where they do narrow a bit, these are not very busy roads. As this is still the Cotswolds, you might find that you have an impatient four wheel driver eager to get past you. But if, as they frequently do in this neck of the woods, they are towing a horse box with a horse inside, then such drivers show and expect to receive great courtesy on the roads. Makes a change I suppose. And this is Clarkson country, after all – yes, the petrol-head. Indeed, some of this drive forms part of what he described in a newspaper article for the Sunday Times as the Cheltenham Loop. I’m not sure what farmer Clarkson thinks about coaches when he wants to get his toe down: any ideas – that we can print? Mind you, you might always find yourself stuck behind that pricey tractor he bought. If you do, give him a toot.

However, there is something tricky to watch out for at the end of the northern section of this route in Birdlip. Please avoid turning left at the northern part of this route in Birdlip or turning right if you have come up the old road from Gloucester to go down the B4070. This is because there is a tricky turn at the top of the rather steep Birdlip Hill, the old one, not the one on the A417 that runs into Air Balloon Roundabout. So let’s say you’re coming from Cirencester or up from Gloucester on the A417. Turn off onto the B4070 marked for Stroud and then Birdlip and then keep following the road into the village. The road curves to the right which is signposted to Stroud B4070. Be careful here as very quickly you have to turn to the left making sure that you don’t miss the rather small sign for Stroud B4070 tucked into the bushes on your right. If, as you pass The Royal George on the right, you start thinking that it looks like a nice pub – it is – you’ll miss the turn and end up going down Birdlip Hill. Save thoughts of a nice drink until you later pass the Woolpack in Slad. Picking up the A46 in Stroud won’t be a problem but at the northern end of this route at Brockworth, if you keep following the A46 you will quickly end up back on the A417 again. This is one of the main arteries in this area so will avoid the tricky turn in Birdlip and will put you on a good road that will lead eventually in all directions. Personally, I would head south from Birdlip and then north from Stroud. Why? At the end of the drive, as the A46 drops down round Cooper’s Hill – yes, the one where the cheese-rolling takes place – you get impressive to spectacular views front left across the Severn Valley towards Gloucester’s Chosen Hill, the Malvern Hills and on into Wales. Not to be missed.

‘Cider with Rosie’

So, what are your passengers going to see on this drive? Certainly, there will be some wonderful unspoilt countryside as you travel along the Slad Valley – the B4070 section – and the Painswick Valley – the A46 section. One of the highlights of this part of the world and a point to push when you’re trying to sell this drive as part of a tour or a day out is the connection with the author Laurie Lee, who wrote one of the country’s very popular novels, ‘Cider With Rosie.’ This is a book that has apparently sold some six million copies worldwide since it was first published in 1959. Given the popularity of the book, and because it will be remembered with great affection by its many readers, it is, potentially, a good selling point. It’s also worth noting that it was called ‘Edge of Day: Boyhood in the West of England’ when it was published in the States so that title might always help get a few Yanks on board. In comparison to some of the mega blockbusters penned by writers like JK Rowling, six million copies is small potatoes, but if I sold six million copies of this article, I – and the editor – wouldn’t be complaining. But as I mentioned, this is a book that is remembered fondly by readers and given that it was first published in 1959, many will now be older readers too. If some of those older readers are like me, it might be a long time since they first read ‘Cider with Rosie’ but it will be remembered warmly. And if they can’t recall chapter and verse about the book, they will most certainly remember that ‘Cider with Rosie’ tells the tale of Laurie Lee’s early life when he was growing up in the Slad Valley, the valley that this drive takes you right through. If you haven’t read the book – and there is at least one chapter which will persuade you that you might want to – then it tells the story of Laurie Lee’s life from 1917 until the early 1930s.

The A4070 narrows in places but you won’t want to rush in the Slad Valley. Alan Payling











An outing to Weston-super-Mare

‘Cider with Rosie’ describes a way of life in rural England that has largely disappeared. However, when you drive through the Slad Valley and the village of Slad itself, where Laurie Lee’s former home still stands and where he is buried in the grounds of Holy Trinity Church, because it is such a quiet road you can still get a sense of the spirit of the world ‘Cider with Rosie’ describes. This was a world where the local bus into Stroud was still horse drawn, for example. In fact, when I say a bus, I really mean a horse and cart. The whole pace of life was very slow, tranquil and this was a world where most people didn’t travel far. But of some interest to the coach trade, Laurie Lee provides in the chapter entitled ‘Outings and Festivals,’ a wonderful insight into what going away for the day on a charabanc in the 1920s was like.

This chapter describes the excitement of everyone in Slad getting ready to wait at the village pub, the Woolpack, which this route takes you past. You will be able to tell your passengers how the excited throng waited eagerly for the fleet of five charabancs that arrived to take them to Weston-super-Mare for their outing. Laurie Lee describes in wonderful detail the women who were carrying picnics in pig-buckets, how the children had cocoa-tin spades and how the men’s overcoats were bulging with bottles – and not milk bottles, that’s for sure. If the book itself describes a lost world, this chapter portrays the very early days of motorised group travel. Today, while many will look forward to their trips on a coach, at a time when many people’s personal horizons were very limited and speed had been experienced by so few, a ride on an open top charabanc must have been a marvel, even at 20 mph. Laurie Lee’s account describes how the fleet of charabancs sped down the Slad Valley, through Stroud, on to Bristol, perhaps down the Gloucester Road, through the Clifton Gorge and on to Weston-super-Mare via the old A370 down through Long Ashton and then via Flax Bourton, Backwell, Cleve, Congresbury, Hewish, Worle and on to the sea. Well, when I say ‘sea,’ I am of course talking about Weston-super-Mare, or ‘Mud’ as it was affectionately known even by people who were rolling up on windswept charas back in the 1920s. But the day out was a real thrill for one and all and it’s worth getting the book for that section alone to read about the industry’s windy old days.

Author Laurie Lee’s former home in Slad sits right next to the A4070. Alan Payling












The Slad Valley is still a rural enclave that many will enjoy. Alan Payling











Painswick Rococo Garden

If you want to add something a bit special to your scenic drive then including a visit to the Rococo Garden at Painswick would be ideal. This delightful garden sits in the Painswick Valley just off the A46 section of the drive. Coach parties are more than welcome and the man made beauty of the garden would be the perfect complement to the dramatic natural scenery of the Slad and Painswick Valleys. It’s described as a quirky and unique place to visit as it was designed as a country gentleman’s fanciful pleasure garden complete with magical follies where the owner could enjoy intimate garden parties and views over the surrounding countryside. Oh, and there’s a cafe there as well. They don’t make them like this any more.

A bit of man-made magic at Painswick Rococo Garden, just off the A46. Alan Payling










Up with the lark

This drive is a visual feast offering passengers a chance to see an absolutely delightful part of England. Even though the lifestyles of the people that Laurie Lee grew up with have changed, the landscape hasn’t apart from the tarmac on the highway and the road signs. Other than that, if Laurie was to drive through the Slad Valley with you, while he would most certainly be in awe of your coach, he would have no difficulty recognising the valleys themselves. And my guess is that this hidden bit of countryside will be new to many given the way other routes have bypassed what are now tranquil backwaters. So can I make a suggestion that will perhaps make this a more memorable part of any trip? In addition to the rural visual delights, why not play a special piece of music to make this both a visual spectacle and an aural wonder.
My own suggestions would be pieces by the English composer, Ralph Vaughan William and the The Lark Ascending and Fantasia on Greensleeves – what else would be appropriate for this bit of our green and very pleasant land? After all, the composer was born in Down Ampney in Gloucestershire which is only about 18 miles as the lark flies from Birdlip. When I drove through to check out the route, I took a CD of The Lark Ascending that I’d bought on eBay to play as I pootled along. It was only £2.99 including postage and it was a real treat. The drive, the scenery and the music. Magic, just magic. You might have other ideas. A bit of Elgar for example may go down well particularly as he was a Worcestershire lad from the nearby Malvern Hills, but personally, I think something a bit more subtle would hit the spot and raise the goosebumps. Dvorak’s Symphony No 9 From the New World might go down well. You know the one: known to down to earth culture vultures as the Hovis Symphony, but that might have them weeping in the aisles or wondering when you’re stopping for some bread and butter. Another suggestion would be John Ireland’s Downland Suite. He had the South Downs in Sussex in mind when he wrote this, but it won’t be out of place played in the Cotswolds. The sleeve notes to my copy describe this as ‘fresh air music’. Not half as fresh as trundling down to Weston-super-Mare on an open top charabanc with a stiff breeze from the Bristol Channel blowing up your trouser leg, but appropriate nonetheless.

The village of Painswick is a charming place to pass through. Alan Payling











But take your pick. Some classical pieces might not quite suit, like the William Tell Overture. It might make you put your toe down and then you’d get a speeding ticket, and for sure, there’s bound to be someone on the coach shouting: ‘Hi Ho, Silver!’ Trust me on that one, Kemosabe! So maybe save that one for the next time you and Tonto are double-manning down in the Swiss Alps. And before you complain to the editor that Lord Snooty is writing for the magazine, I did try to take an objective, hard headed, informed approach when I made this suggestion about playing a sample of the classics. For example, according to the most recent figures I could find from Radio Joint Audience Research, Classic FM has an audience numbering somewhere around six million listeners across all age groups. Therefore, a bit of carefully chosen classical music will appeal to a wide range of people even if you do have the Bash Street Kids (Retired Members Club) on board. And when you’re trundling along through the Slad Valley, it may go down a lot better than Steve Wright in the Afternoon. Or, you could just play Classic FM. With broadcasters like John Suchet, Aled Jones, Alexander Armstrong and of course the gardener Alan Titchmarsh, the favourite of green fingered grannies and grandads from the gardens and allotments of England, plus many others with soothing voices and great taste, they would strike just the right chord with older passengers. Fantasia on Greensleeves will make all those hearts of oak on your coach swell with pride at the beauty of the unchanged English landscape and make them really impressed at the thought you have put into the drive. But, if you only pick one piece, I think The Lark Ascending is the one. The sleeve notes for this piece say that: ‘To many people this piece typifies their idea of an English landscape transcribed into musical terms.’ Quite so. Music to raise the goosebumps. And do you know what, I think Laurie Lee would have wholeheartedly approved, especially after a drop of cider with Rosie – if you don’t know, read the book. It was a treat for him, it was a great treat for Rosie and it will be a treat for you, but most important of all, this drive will be a real treat for your passengers.

Painswick Rococo Garden: 01452 813 204 / [email protected]