The directions in the guide seem simple enough: "Take the path by the hedgerow, cross the stile and follow the path across the field." But then we look around. Hedgerows are on all...
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The directions in the guide seem simple enough:
“Take the path by the hedgerow, cross the stile and follow the path across the field.”
But then we look around. Hedgerows are on all sides; we can see three stiles, and there are green fields beyond them all.
We scan nearby stumps, trees and fence posts for one of the little white route-marking discs with yellow arrows that are our constant companions in the day and the object of our dreams at night.
We are on a walk a 100-mile ramble on a footpath called the Cotswold Way through the hills of South Central England.
Our eight-day journey, from the village of Chipping Campden to the city of Bath, runs along the western side of the Cotswold Hills, a rolling landscape much more gentle and open than our Northwest foothills. Some 100 miles west of London, the Way zigzags up to the top of a steep escarpment with views of expansive valleys and distant hills and down to toy-like villages built of golden stone.
We first hoist our backpacks at Chipping Campden, a classic Cotswold town, with a square church tower and thatched-roof cottages with topiary hedges tidily trimmed into whimsical shapes. (One looked like a large dodo bird.) The village’s yellow-stone buildings sparkle in the late-September rain showers, and the sun breaks we would encounter during our walk light up the landscape.
History seems to ooze up through the limestone-lined village streets. The two-story stone Woolstapler’s Hall boasts of a prosperous 14th-century wool trade. The churchyard’s decaying tombstones memorialize a population from the 1600s, and several Dickensian almshouses near the remains of a manor house reveal the kind of shelter provided to the poor about 1613.
On the path beyond this peaceful village, we encounter some steep stretches and some rough terrain, such as unplowed fields, but the Cotswold Way one of the 500 footpaths that lace England isn’t nearly as strenuous as mountain trails we are used to in Western Washington. Here though, the countryside smells not of cedar, but of sheep manure and wet wool.
To the English, walking long distances is a matter of course; for us, the appeal is the idea of walking through a culture: climbing over a 6,000-year-old drystone wall one morning and stopping at a cheesemonger’s shop that afternoon. The thatched-roof cottages and beech forests conjure up images of hobbits and sorcerers, fittingly since J.R.R. Tolkien lived nearby and was in part inspired by this landscape while writing “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy.
Up close and personal
The path plunges us into a very English way of life, within inches of people’s front rooms, through churchyards filled with weathered tombstones, over windy golf courses where sheep have the right of way, through ancient hill forts with Saxon ghosts, and into villages where cottages have names like Treacle Mary’s, Rosary Cottage, Harmony, Humblebee.
Most footpaths are marked by the Ramblers Association. Our path has white discs usually metal, sometimes just painted dots imprinted with a yellow arrow and the words “Cotswold Way.”
Searching for those little dots is like a scavenger hunt. They are attached to trees, signposts, fences and sidewalks, but also hidden by stone walls, mud, even cows. We find one, then head for the next. At day’s end, the reward is an English country pub that has warmed the bodies and souls of thirsty walkers like us for 400 years.
The Way is crisscrossed by history. Stone Age inhabitants developed a technique of making stone walls without mortar. Their descendants adapted these drystone walls, topping them with a row of upright stones, to mark field boundaries. The path crosses and follows these yellow limestone walls its entire length.
Our interest in the local culture goes beyond history to another specialty: local ales.
Each village has its own ale or bitter with names like Old Hooky, Cotswold Genesis and Old Speckled Hen.
Finding the “free house” sign on pubs becomes as much a goal as the white dots on the path. (A “free house” is a pub not owned by a large brewery; instead it offers a variety of local ales.) It helps that our Landranger map is marked with a PH (for Public House) wherever there is a pub, and that local wisdom says wherever you see a church tower, you will most likely find a pub.
One afternoon, our boots carry us into the little town of Uley, where we have a room booked at the Old Crown. When we arrive, the pub’s bar is closed. But Lisa, the daughter of the family that owns the place, sees that we are muddy and tired and serves us anyway.
Lisa’s a wholesome-looking 18 or so, with tousled short blond hair and a cheerful manner that shows she’s used to being a pub hostess. Her little brother, Chris, is doing his homework at the bar, while we sip a good Uley bitter called Old Spot Ale. Chris darts from the bar to our table enthusiastically discussing the finer points of fourth-grade English in a piping voice.
That night the pub is magically transformed; suddenly it’s alive with light and people. The wood fire is crackling, the pump handles on the bar glisten, foam from the free-flowing ale drips over the edge of glasses and the place is full of locals. An old man on a corner stool looks as if he’s been there as long as the tilting tombstones in the churchyard. Lisa flirts with young men who crowd around her. Chris enjoys being teased by some older boys.
Sandra, Chris and Lisa’s mom, is a crusty-looking woman of perhaps 40 who tosses shoulder-length brown hair as she tells us, with a tone of disdain, of Uley’s other pub, with its flashing video games and blaring television. That pub has folded, and it’s clear she will never let the Old Crown take on its gimmicks.
“Some have said we should get a television, but I say, ‘Here you have to talk.’ ”
We’ve seen those other kinds of pubs, full of electronic gadgets, and have been told again and again that we should not think those are “the real England.” But we’ve also seen enough real pubs the Royal Oak in Painswick, the Eight Bells in Chipping Campden, the Black Horse Inn at North Nibley to know the difference.
We find ourselves walking miles out of our way to go to traditional places like the Butcher’s Arms at Sheepscombe and to adjust our schedule for a mid-day stop at the Old Dog in Old Sodbury for a cold glass of the hard cider that is a specialty of the region.
Though we stay in pubs and two farmhouses, a chatty network of landladies along the Way make bed and breakfasts our most common lodging.
One such place is at Langett, a B&B that almost every Cotswold Way walker hits because of its strategic position at the base of a hill 11 miles from the village of Winchcombe. Four Jack Russell terriers romp around the room as landlady Jennifer Cox admonishes them: “Leave the walkers alone, loveys!”
Like many of the landladies, Cox is a sturdy middle-aged Englishwoman who loves to talk and keeps a constant spate going about visitors she’s had.
These women are a strong breed. They wear no-nonsense clothes with their Wellington boots at the ready, and exude an efficiency Churchill would be proud of as they dish out breakfasts of eggs, sausages, bacon, beans, toast and Vegimite. They are as generous with information as with stories, and we began to feel the effects of an efficient network. When we mention it to Jennifer Cox, she says, puzzled: “Someone referred to us as the landlady mafia, and I didn’t know how to take it.”
But it IS an underground of sorts the landladies all “put the kettle on” immediately, hand us a newspaper for our muddy boots, and steer us to their friends’ B&Bs on the path.
If the landladies are mafia, we walkers are a fraternity. The common goal exercise and ale results in a cheerful camaraderie, regardless of age or nationality.
At Langett, we meet four men on a “lads’ holiday.” The four pick a long-distance path to walk every year.
Peter Brown, the leader, tells us that someone once built a house across a public footpath in hopes the footpath could be diverted, but that after the issue went all the way to Parliament, the house was moved, not the path.
There also have been cases where developers have been forced to restore a path by knocking holes through buildings.
We walk for a time with two women in their 20s one from London, the other from Finland who throw their legs over stiles as if they were mere puddles and who, uncannily, manage to dodge thunder and hail storms that catch us. But in a Tormarton pub, they entertained everyone with a story of being chased over a barbed-wire fence by young bulls in a field we had passed through safely only an hour or so before.
Another day, we catch up with two middle-aged couples. As we wind through a cornfield, a very English voice suddenly booms into song: “Oh what a beautiful morning … .” The rest of us join in a truly horrible verse about elephants’ eyes and reaching the sky.
One fellow walker, a farmer, explains the traditional way of making a hedgerow. The young hawthorn is bent horizontal to the ground, then the fresh shoots that spring from it form a tight thorny fence. Another shows us how to make a “thumbstick” a perfect walking stick from a green tree branch.
Sometimes, the fraternity makes us feel as if 100 miles is no great accomplishment. We hear of an 80-year-old woman who has done the 200-mile Coast-to-Coast path, and we meet an old man who is walking the 830 miles from Land’s End, the southernmost point in England, to John o’ Groats, in Scotland, in 10-day segments.
The Way offers other little treasures. After a muddy walk through woods, we stand before a little wooden house clinging to a hillside. Rose’s Tea Haven seems a mirage, more so when a ruddy-faced, round old lady emerges from a house of cats and flowers to give us a tea tray and guest book. The world comes to Rose via the Cotswold Way; she grew up here and stayed, serving tea to walkers for the past 12 years now and filling three guest books with comments from walkers from as far away as Russia and South America.
After squeaking the hinges of dozens of “kissing gates” and climbing over 250 muscle-stretching stiles, we stroll into Bath.
In a moment of dramatic hyperbole, a rainbow lights the sky and we ceremoniously place our walking sticks against the huge Abbey doors. Two groups of our newfound walking friends arrive not far behind us and we hug and whoop at our triumph. Locals offer the ultimate English compliment: “Well done!”
And now, at home, we miss it: the around-the-next-corner surprises of the path, the fresh air that smells of sheep and cow pies and hawthorn, the friends, the chirping voices of the B&B landladies.
We find ourselves wishing that life itself had little white dots to mark the way.
Theresa Morrow is a Seattle writer.