Finding Belas Knap


My husband Rob and I arrived in Winchcombe hoping to find two things: the ancient well of St. Kenelm and the Neolithic long barrow called Belas Knap. We had exactly twenty-four hours to do so--and to see the gardens and chapel of Sudeley Castle (Katherine Parr’s final resting place) and St. Peter’s Church, which boasts some of the most flamboyant gargoyles ever made (just ask Lewis Carroll)--before catching a bus to Canterbury.  

Winchcombe itself sits in the Cotswold Valley and traces of its Anglo-Saxon past remain, including bits of Winchcombe Abbey, which contained the remains of members of the royal house of Mercia and was demolished by Henry VIII’s command.  It’s a little town with typical English cottages (complete with thatched roofs) and several inns.  But then there’s the gem of St. Peter’s, the little castle, Belas Knap, the ruins of Hailes Abbey—and Kenelm’s Well.

St Peter's Gargoyles

St Peter's Gargoyles

St. Kenelm’s Well is really a spring that miraculously burst from the ground where the child-saint’s body had lain on its journey to his tomb.  It lay somewhere on the boundaries of Sudeley Castle, but we didn’t have an exact location.  An old man keeping watch at St. Peter’s promised to take us there in his car—if only we’d guard the church while he picked up his dry cleaning.  It sounded like a good deal to us, but after a terrifying short ride, it was clear that even the locals had no idea.

Sudeley Castle's Tithe-barn

Sudeley Castle's Tithe-barn

That left us Belas Knap.  We had no map or any real directions to help us locate the site.  Instead, Rob and I set off from the town center with only the English Heritage signs leading us up and up through the countryside.  We climbed through someone’s fields, past some unimpressed sheep suffocating in their unshorn wool.  As an American, I felt immensely uncomfortable “trespassing” on private farmland—something that could very well get you shot in the U.S.  The ominous chomping of the sheep seemed to confirm my discomfort.  We didn’t realize that trampers’ rights were paramount on the walking routes of England.

Pretty soon we were high over the town, looking down on those cottages and their thatched roofs and even on the spire of St. Peter’s.  We could see the valley spread out below us: the simmering sheep in their green fields, the gardens of Sudeley Castle with the ruins of its roofless medieval tithe-barn, filled, for some reason, with translucent white balloons.

But we still hadn’t found the barrow—and the clock was ticking.  With one bare hour before we had to catch our bus, we pressed on through a forest dappled in summer sunlight and emerged into an open field that slanted ever upwards like the path before it. There was a sign with an arrow on the fencepost in front of us: “Belas Knap.”  But a few yards beyond that arrow was another sign for the barrow with another arrow—pointing in the opposite direction.

We were sweaty and crestfallen and just a bit mystified.  Was the field itself the barrow?  Neither Rob nor I had ever seen a burial mound. For all we knew, this could be it. Grass. Fenceposts.  A great joke on the part of the English Heritage fellows.  I cursed our bad luck.  But just then, Rob called from a few yards ahead of me.  He’d found the Cotswold Way Trail and there—right in front of us—was a BARROW. There was no mistaking it for a grassy field.

I felt a bit idiotic, but I let it pass.  The structure was magnificent. There was a false entrance and side chambers, artfully bricked in with limestone.  Empty votive candles, placed by modern devotees, littered the side chambers.  It was a quiet and sacred space. To crouch down in those chambers and know that just beyond, encased in the dirt behind me, was the portal to another civilization, filled me with awe and silence and a little bit of dread.

This reverence didn’t stop us from climbing the mound to get a panoramic view of the Cotswold Way stretching before us.  It kindled in my heart a great desire to return and make my way down the entire path, all 102 miles of it.

In the end, we made the bus to Canterbury.  We had to pelt down hills, past perplexed sheep and through the village like our heels were on fire.  We never found Kenelm’s Well, and had to forego seeing the ruins of nearby Hailes Abbey.  This is the traveler’s conundrum: so much to see, so little time. But with good luck, I intend to fulfill my promise to return, GPS coordinates in hand, to experience the rest.

Found Belas Knap Barrow, Cotswold, England

Belas Knap Barrow, Cotswold England

Medieval Scholar & the Author of "Finding Belas Knap"

Bom Dia Algarve -- A Sampling

The Algarve Region of Portugal has been high on my list of itineraries.  Hence my delight that our UK walking partner introduced a program in the Algarve a few years ago and we at Great Circle Route added it in 2015.  It has proven to be a fabulous holiday setting -- the walking is excellent for every fitness level -- easy to moderate and thoroughly enjoyable due to the friendly terrain, the abundance and variety of interesting native trees and plants, the lessening of the crowds during the early spring and autumn periods, the stunning geological formations along the coast, the lush mountains, friendly people and great food!  At times it felt surreal to be looking out at the beautiful cliffs and the expansive sandy beaches and the Atlantic Ocean - and not wanting it to end ever!

And if that wasn't enough, our group was great too!  We may not have seen eye to eye on everything in life but that added to the banter dynamics and camaraderie.  Though we did agree without a doubt -- that this beautiful land left us invigorated and definitely wanting to return.

A few fun cusine traditions -- starters of local dishes including olives, goat cheese, sardine pate and bread.  Portuguese bread is similar to Italian but a bit thicker and moister with a harder crust like French bread.  Their wines are mild and pleasant - not overbearing at all and they complement the traditional fish that is always fresh and cooked to perfection.  During one of our lunch stops near Rogil we stopped at Museu da Batata Doce (translated as the Sweet Potato Museum).  There you could order sweet potatoes in any variation - crisps, bread, sweets, and soups!

A very enjoyable holiday!





Great Circle Route Algarve Holiday The Group Ham

Great Circle Route, Algarve Holiday, Our newest member

Great Circle Route Algarve Holiday - Menhir Fun

Walking vs Hiking

The meaning of the terms walking and hiking differ depending on what continent you are on.  In the USA, hiking often refers to a more strenuous form of walking further defined by the terrain, the ascent and the distance.  In the United Kingdom, walking is synonymous with hiking, and as in the USA, the levels of difficulty are defined to give the participant an idea of what to expect.  There isn't a hard fast rule for defining the different levels but there are general guidelines and all involve measuring the terrain, the ascent and the distance. 

This explanation is to give you an understanding of what Great Circle Route means when we talk about our walking holidays.  We hike in the USA and we walk in most of the rest of the world --- and it means the same!  We also have strolling options which means the same in all parts of the world.  Strolling is at a much slower pace and we usually cover less distance while spending more time visiting a garden or historic site.

No matter where you are, if you are hiking or walking, there is a sense of your surroundings -- forest, coast, mountain, meadow, village, city, river bank -- and always a sense of accomplishment!


Dolomites, Italy

Mallorca, Spain