Cotswold Ways Walk: Discovering legendary beasts between Tewkesbury and Gloucester
- Credit: Kirsty Hartsiotis
To and from the Severn with two of Gloucestershire’s biggest legendary beasties, the Coombe Hill sea serpent and the Deerhurst dragon
Between Tewkesbury and Gloucester on a bend of the river Severn lurk two of those rarest folkloric beasts - a dragon and a sea serpent. This walk takes in the haunts of both creatures through seemingly innocent nature reserves, villages, and fields.
The older creature is the Deerhurst dragon. First recorded in Robert Atkyns's history of Gloucestershire (1712), the tale presents a St George for Gloucestershire, everyman farm labourer John Smith, who cunningly lures the creature with milk and slays it while it sleeps. From its lair on Walton Hill above Deerhurst Walton, this beastie has been poisoning wells and killing cattle. John is rewarded for his pains with the land on Walton Hill, which stayed in his family for centuries. But why Deerhurst? Well, the story may well be very old. Deerhurst was once much larger and more influential than it is today; a monastery was founded there as far back as a.d. 804, and, astonishingly, much of the Saxon church survives today … including the 'dragons'. We counted five you can see clearly and another two more eroded ones! These fierce ninth-century sculptures were to protect the church against evil spirits. Are they the origin of this tale?
The Coombe Hill story appears later. This time the monster has swum in from the Severn - was it a flood or a bore wave that brought it? Lost in the wild wetlands between the river, Coombe Hill, and The Leigh, the sea serpent acted according to its nature and soon cattle, milkmaids, and all were sliding down its slippery gullet. Something had to be done! A blacksmith from Cheltenham with the suspicious name of Tom Smith (a descendant of John, maybe?) saved the day by winning its trust with roast pork. But did he kill the poor lost creature? Might he possibly have lured it back to the river and away? We thought of the wild ride that, in the Mabinogion, King Arthur and his cousin Culhwch take upon the gigantic Salmon of Llyn Llyw up the Severn to Gloucester - and imagined Tom and the serpent slipping away together.
If you're questioning the truth of this tale, make a short diversion to nearby Tredington, where, along with some twelfth-century carved beast heads, you can see in the porch what some think may be a fossil ichthyosaur.
1. From the car park of Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust's Coombe Hill Nature Reserve (grid ref. 886272) walk along the towpath on the south side of the canal.
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2. Turn right across a footbridge and then left along the track on the north side of the canal.
3. At a signpost, turn right along the path through the North Meadows of the nature reserve. You can well imagine the sea serpent lurking in the pools and willow carr of this preserved habitat. Have binoculars ready to observe the birds, especially around the Long Pool to your left.
4. Bear right via a footbridge over a drainage ditch. Leave the reserve by the gate to the left of a water trough.
5. Bear left along the grassy space between a bosky stream and an arable field. From the gate at the end, proceed along the left-hand edge of the next field to another gate.
6. Cross through the middle of the field beyond. Then cross a track and proceed through an arable field and apple orchard to Mumford's Farm.
7. Turn right on the lane to reach the B4213. You may wish to pause at the Farmers Arms, on your right. Otherwise cross the road into another orchard and bear right to the wooden stile just before the garden wall of Willow Hill Farm.
8. Proceed across two fields - in the first we saw a pair of Gloucestershire Old Spot pigs - and a small orchard. A stile and snicket then lead you to Apperley's lovely village green. Don't miss the flying salmon weathervane atop the church tower, protecting the church from evil (and sea serpents?).
9. Take the public footpath the other side of the green and descend straight ahead through three fields to the terracotta-coloured Coalhouse Inn. Here at last you see the great river Severn up which the sea serpent swam.
10. Turn right behind the inn and follow the Severn Way for a mile-and-a-half until you see the tower of Deerhurst Church.
11. From a huge hollow oak, a path on the right leads to the end of a road and the way into Odda's Chapel, a small Saxon church dating from 1056.
12. Follow the road round to the main church, St Mary's, once the minster of the Saxon monastery, and see if you can find all the beast heads. If you're interested in Anglo-Saxon history, don't miss the excellent series of pamphlets on sale in the church.
13. From the church gate, turn left along the road, then right, then left up a cul-de-sac. At the end of this, fork left and climb the stile on the left into a big arable field.
14. Changes in field boundaries here have muddled the public footpaths shown on the map. Just head southeast along the left-hand edge of the field to a copse of trees. Contemplate this peaceful countryside being terrorised by the Deerhurst dragon.
15. Follow the path through the copse, cross an arable field to the stile opposite, and turn right after the stile. Follow the path along edge of the field and through a small wood.
16. Turn right out of the wood and go through a rusty gate to cross the B4213. Then it's a mile's walk down through Deerhurst Walton. Near the junction to Grange Farm you can see the scrubby slope up to Walton Hill Farm - just beyond the A38 - where John Smith dispatched the dragon and claimed the land.
17. From that junction, keep the stream on your left as you follow the public footpath southwest through two fields till you reach a stile the landowner has blocked. To bypass this obstruction of the public right of way, turn right along the hedge till you see a path on the left. Follow this, keeping the hedge on your left, till you reach a gateway on your left into another field.
18. Take the footpath diagonally across this field and walk round the end of the canal to the car park.
Distance: 6.5 miles/10.4 km.
Duration: 4-5 hours.
Level: Gentle walking in nature reserves, footpaths, and lanes.
Parking: Coombe Hill Nature Reserve.
Transport links: Bus services from Gloucester and Tewkesbury to Coombe Hill.
Map: OS Explorer 179: Gloucester, Cheltenham and Stroud.
Anthony Nanson and Kirsty Hartsiotis are Stroud-based storytellers and writers. Their books include Gloucestershire Folk Tales, Wiltshire Folk Tales, and Gloucestershire Ghost Tales. Kirsty is also the curator of decorative and fine art at The Wilson, Cheltenham. Anthony teaches at Bath Spa University and runs the small press Awen Publications.