An Afternoon Around Stroud

One of the things that I love about traveling in England is the density of historic sites to visit. Last week our friends Wendy and Richard were visiting from London, so we decided to do some local exploring. We have all traveled in this area and have seen most of the villages and historic sites, so I pulled out my Cotswold guidebooks and maps to find some things we had not seen. This is what we saw within a 15 minute drive from our home in Nailsworth on an overcast Friday afternoon.

Medieval – Frocester Tythe Barn

Frocester is a small village on the flat fields below the Cotswold Escarpment, just a few miles west of Stroud. In the 1500s, Henry VIII gave Frocester estate to Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset. There had been a settlement on the land since pre-historic times. The present houses were built during Queen Elizabeth’s time – the first Elizabeth, daughter of Henry VIII. It is still a working farm and the current owner lives in the timber-framed medieval house beside the barn.

We parked on a lane near the barn. A sign says to knock on the door if you want to see the barn. The man who came to the door answered it with a funny troll speech from something that I should have recognized but didn’t – “Ho ho, who’se at my door then?” – I told him just some American tourists wanting to see the barn. He gave us a brochure explaining the history of the estate and barn and pointed us towards it. His dog put huge muddy paws on my purse. The cat ignored us.

Frocester Court Medieval Barn
Frocester Court Medieval Barn

We walked through the beautiful gardens, into the barnyard and into the large medieval barn, which is still in use. It was built in the late 1200s and is one of the longest barns in the country – 186 feet long, 30 feet wide, 12 feet to the eaves, 36 feet to the top of the roof. The oak timbers creating the roof were replaced in the 1500s after a fire. How wonderful to find such a well-preserved, historic building as part of a working farm and to be welcomed into the farmyard to have a look.

Industrial – Saul Junction

The Stroudwater Navigation, a canal built in the late 1700s to bring coal to the mills in the Stroud valleys, starts at the River Severn on the western edge of the Cotswolds and joins the Thames and Severn Canal in Stroud to connect to the River Thames at Lechlade. Today these two canals are called the Cotswold Canal.

These canals were abandoned in the 1950s. In recent years parts have been restored, but this is not yet a functioning canal. However, there is a good walking path along the canal from Saul Junction to Lechlade, so the whole canal is accessible to walkers.

There is an interesting two mile canal tunnel between Sapperton and Coates (caved in now but the entrances have been restored). To get through the tunnel, the canal boat workers used their legs to push the boat through – and that is where we get the term “legging it”.

Saul Junction is near the start of the Stroudwater Navigation, where it crosses the Gloucester and Sharpness Canal, and is one of the best restored parts. We parked on the road by the canal and walked along the Gloucester Canal to reach the junction. Even though it was a gray afternoon, there were many people about. There is a large dock area with many parked narrowboats, the long and narrow boats used to travel along the canals.

Saul Junction, Cotswold Canal
Saul Junction, Cotswold Canal

The Cotswold canal is narrow and boats can only go about 200 feet along before reaching the unrestored portion where they have to stop, but the Gloucester Canal is wide and fully restored. Boats can go all the way from open seas near Bristol, up the very wide River Severn and then by canal into the center of Gloucester. The canal was built because the River Severn becomes shallow when it gets near Gloucester.

Canals in England are no longer used for transporting goods, but many have been restored as waterways. People travel the canals on narrowboats, living on them for weeks at a time and making their way slowly through the countryside. The towpaths along the canal that were originally used for the horses pulling the boats are now used by walkers and bikers.

Currently work is being done on the Cotswold Canal on a bridge at the edge of Stroud. When this project is finished, boats will be able to go along the canal through Stroud. I don’t know how long this project will take, or when the entire Cotswold Canal will be restored, but when completed it will be a big change to this area. The canal paths are used now by local walkers and runners, but there are no boats. In the future this will become part of the extensive British Waterways system and visitors will come into the southern Cotswolds by narrowboat.

Arts & Crafts – Selsley, All Saints Church

I have long wanted to see this church, but never made time for it. I figured one day we would be driving by, since it is just over the hill from us, and we would stop.

Selsley is a pretty village on a hillside overlooking the Stroud-Stonehouse area. Above it is the Selsley Common, smaller than the Minchinhampton and Rodborough Commons to the east, but with nice open spaces and views to the River Severn.

All Saints Church sits on the edge of the village, just below the common. It was built in the late 1800s and designed in the French Gothic style. It was the last of the great Cotswold wool churches, built when this area was made prosperous by sheep farms and woolen mills.

All Saints Church, Selsley
All Saints Church, Selsley

What sets this church apart from older and larger wool churches is the Arts & Crafts decoration inside. The stained glass windows were made by Morris and Company. Artists William Morris, Edward Burne-Jones, Rossetti, Ford Madox Brown and Phillip Webb (the Pre-Raphaelites) designed the windows based on medieval style stained glass. There are many other Arts & Crafts touches in the church – choir stalls with fleur-de-lys finials*, ironwork, painted Biblical text on the doorway and walls. The church is beautiful.

Rose Window, Selsley Church
Rose Window, Selsley Church

We were the only ones in the church that afternoon and were able to spend as long as we wanted looking at the details and taking photos of the windows. They had a table with cards, postcards and books about the church for sale (put your payment in the box) and we all bought a few things. I got the small book about the church with good photos of the stained glass windows.

The church at Fairford, east of Cirencester, has finished restoring their medieval stained glass windows and they are magnificent. An interesting combination would be to see the Selsley church with its Arts & Crafts version of medieval stained glass and the Fairford church with the real thing. We have seen both, and both are exceptional.

* I don’t know what a “fleur-de-lys finial” is – I copied that description from the book I bought at the church. See how travel makes you cultured?

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Pauline Kenny

Pauline Kenny and Steve Cohen are US expats living in Dorset. We moved to the UK in 2010. Read about our move. If you would like to talk about travel, please join us on the Slow Europe Travel Forums.