High Hopes on the Cotswold Way

Jennifer Richardson

USA

The plan was to quit my job then walk the Cotswold Way, a 102-mile path along a Jurassic-age escarpment in southwest England. Beyond that there was no plan, but part of me believed that, somewhere along the Way, I would have an epiphany. As the saying goes, solivtar ambulando: it is solved by walking.

In fairness, this was a belief that had been borne out by experience. I had started taking long walks — five and six hours at a stretch — in 2007 when my husband and I began fleeing London at the weekend for the Cotswolds. I always thought it uncharacteristically fanciful that the British call this activity rambling, but it’s an appropriate term for its effect on the practitioner. There was a mellowing of the mind that happened over the long hours of such a walk, different — less manic — than the euphoria from a jog. I liked the way that my husband and I alternated between long periods of silence and deep conversation, both equally comfortable. As Clare Balding, the British broadcaster and walking enthusiast, put it, “There is no such thing as an awkward silence on a walk.” At the same time, the combination of physicality and duration generated a space for the kind of deep conversation we weren’t likely to have over morning coffee.

Outside of walking, one of my favourite things to do is to read self-affirming articles and books about the magic of walking. From the vaguely judgmental musings of Thoreau to the psychogeography of Self to the bumbling travelogue of Bryson, I’ve read them all. One of my favourites is Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust, a comprehensive history of the subject filled with quotes like this: “Walking shares with making and working that crucial element of engagement of the body and the mind with the world, of knowing the world through the body and the body through the world.” Literature was at least partially to blame for my expectations of the Cotswold Way.

To make matters worse, I also had the vague notion that walking the Cotswold Way was following in the tradition of a religious pilgrimage. In The Point of Travel, writer Alain de Botton explains how in the Middle Ages travel was used to solve problems, and the problem I wanted to solve would have dictated my destination. Toothache, for example, would have may have sent me to Rome to commune with the arm bones of Saint Apollonia. But this was 2016 and, lacking a patron saint for existential dilemmas, I was going for a walk in the gentle English countryside. The only relic I was likely to touch was an ancient packet of pork scratchings in the evening at the pub. Still, I liked the idea — also from Solnit’s Wanderlust — of anthropologists Victor and Edith Turner, who wrote of “pilgrimage as a liminal state — a state of being between one’s past and future identities and thus outside the established order, in a state of possibility.” The Cotswold Way was to be my path of possibility.

For all the romanticism I attached to walking, a flâneuse I was not. Walking the Cotswold Way wasn’t to be an aimless promenade, a romantic wander embracing life’s serendipitous bounty. A full six months before I was to quit, I had gone to work planning the trip: ticking boxes, making lists, and, crucially, reservations at nine B&Bs along the trail that were selected primarily on the basis of not being tents. One of the mercies of the Cotswold Way is that there are almost no campsites near the path. I’ve never been much of a camper — I’m adventurous but no masochist — and the idea of ending each day’s hard slog with a real mattress, no matter how lumpy, was enormously appealing.

On a scale of difficulty, the Cotswold Way hardly ranks among the great hikes of the world. Its one hundred-odd miles are a mere fraction of the two thousand-plus of well-known American trails like the Appalachian or Pacific Crest, with ascents and descents rarely exceeding one thousand feet on a day’s stretch. The walk takes about nine days to complete depending on your pace, although many do it over longer periods of time, making day trips out of each section. Some do it much faster, like Darryl Carter who ran the entire thing in 20 hours and 36 minutes in 2012. I was attracted to the idea of doing it all at once over the customary nine days, drawn as I am to feats of endurance that rely on stubbornness over skill. And so I laboured over my spreadsheet, tinkering with start and end points for each segment in an attempt to find the perfect equation of distance and difficulty and proximity to pubs.

Ostensibly I planned everything so far in advance to ensure we got rooms at the sparse accommodation situated close to the trail. It was also true that having a plan, no matter how temporary, eased my anxiety about leaving my job at a map-making company. The irony of my profession was not lost on me. Instead of exiting into a vacuum, I was exiting with a plan to walk the Cotswold Way and, conveniently, there was a map for that.

It was then with no small amount of expectation that, in late May, my husband and I took our first steps on the Cotswold Way. We began at the north end of the trail, in Chipping Campden, a classic Cotswold market town that was the cradle of the Arts and Crafts movement at the turn of the 20th century. The first three days on the trail are an avalanche of scenic landscapes, like walking through a live-action version of the stock photography of regional tourism brochures. It starts as you head down the appropriately twee-sounding Hoo Lane, past the mullioned windows and thatched roof of Graham Greene’s former home, and it doesn’t let up until you traverse a butterfly plantation a few miles outside of Cheltenham.

One of the early landmarks on the first day of the Way is Dover’s Hill, a National Trust property and site of the annual Cotswold Olimpicks. It’s an early-seventeenth-century precursor to the modern Olympics that still features such novel athletics as shin kicking, originally known as Cotswold wrestling. Alas, there were no shin kickers on the flat, grassy peak of Dover’s the day we climbed it, only disinterested sheep. Down the other side of the hill we walked the Mile Drive, a flat grass lane that has the air of a medieval procession. Soon we could see Broadway Tower, a folly conceived by the 18th century landscape designer, Capability Brown, and panoramic views of Worcestershire to the west. In the foreground of the tower, lambs lounged by a drystone wall as if posing for the perfect Cotswold snapshot.

As we made our descent into the town of Broadway, we met our first fellow thru-hikers, two Canadian Anglophiles who had used carabiners to attach rose-patterned china teacups to their backpacks. We lingered over lunch in the manicured charms of Broadway just a bit longer than was practical given the afternoon’s mileage ahead of us, but still made it into Stanton before the village pub, the Mount Inn, opened its doors for the evening.

The first stretch of the next morning was through open fields where dandelions burst around us in hazy sunlight, creating a makeshift version of a scene from the film Legend. The fairytale atmosphere continued when we stopped to rest on the front porch of a log cabin built on stone toadstool foundations, a cricket pavilion given to the village of Stanway by J.M. Barrie. The trail continued on bridleways, then through open meadow to a stone formation for a Wolf Hall moment: this was the spot where Thomas Cromwell reportedly watched the destruction of Hailes Abbey when it finally acquiesced to the Dissolution on Christmas Eve of 1539.  From there we descended to the tea room of Hayles Fruit Farm and ate maraschino cherry shortbread before our final leg into the handsome Anglo Saxon town of Winchcombe. A taxi took us a few miles off the trail to Far Stanley to spend the night with friends on their farm.

Day three took us out of Winchombe to the Neolithic long barrow of Bela’s Napp — a name in search of an indie band if I ever heard one — and down a winding path through Breakheart Plantation. In the postage-stamp hamlet of Postslip we nosed around the medieval hall, the Tithe Barn, and the 12th century chapel before beginning our ascent into the rugged microclimate of Cleeve Hill, the highest point in the Cotswold hills. Drizzle set in the higher we went, and we stopped to put on our garishly-coloured pack protectors for the first time on the hike. At the public golf club atop the common we inadvertently joined a wake before sitting on the front porch with our pint of ale, watching lone golfers battle the elements surrounded by rugged flocks of sheep grazing the course. Our descent took us through the butterfly plantation of Prestbury Hill Reserve before we veered a quarter mile off the trail to a farm that bred polo ponies and our hostelry for the evening. That night, the owner kindly drove us the ten minutes into the gentile urban surrounds of Cheltenham, where we drank more wine than was practical for the distance we had to cover the next day.

Heads fuzzy from the previous night’s indulgences, we had a quiet morning on day four, focusing on the simple right-left rhythm of walking. By now we had learned some tricks — where to pack the lip balm and chocolate so we could get to them without taking our packs off, where to attach a hat to the pack so its rhythmic bounce didn’t annoy. In our subdued state, we somehow missed one of the highlights of the day, an outcropping of rock known as Devil’s Chimney. It wouldn’t be the only time we failed to notice what the guidebook commanded. As we subsequently learned, Iron Age forts can look a lot like a meadow.

Such future oversights were not because my husband and I were deep in conversation. Over the course of the walk, our discourse was pleasant but shallow, never deepening into the soul searching I had imagined. The trail was so well-marked we had little opportunity to bicker over directions, and yet we occasionally bickered still. Sometimes we talked about where we would stop for lunch or dinner, a rather pointless topic given that was invariably the single pub in the vicinity at any given mealtime. I blame the obsession with food on the ubiquity of the aromatic wild garlic, ramson, that carpeted the woodland floors.

On day four, lunch wasn’t at a pub but on a bus that had been converted into a diner and parked up in a lay-by near a busy A-road that runs parallel to this part of the trail. Fortified, we were ready to make our ascent up Crickley Hill. With more of the droopy-white wild-ramson-strewn woods, fine drystone walls, and sweeping views out over Gloucester, it was the highlight of the afternoon. I had driven the road beneath Crickley — the major route to the M5 — a hundred times without realising a National Trust site rose above it, and the afternoon’s walk was a reminder of what we miss when we get in a car. When we eventually made it to Birdlip, the tea-cup ladies had beat us by an age. They were already dressed and ready for dinner as we limped into the hotel lobby.

The next morning started with a steep descent into yet another ramson-lined wood before the near vertical ascent of Cooper’s Hill, site of an annual cheese rolling competition that’s known for inflicting broken bones on competitors as they hurl themselves after a wheel of cheese. I didn’t have any cheese, but I stopped at the top to take an action shot with a small tub of Marmite I had liberated from the breakfast buffet that morning. There were more quarries and long barrows — the New Stone Age communal tombs that, along with golf courses, we learned are the surprise defining features of the Cotswold Way — before we made it into Painswick for lunch. This was the shortest walk of the journey, and we felt no guilt. The previous day, armed with three days’ evidence of our pace, we had taken the decision to extend our walk by one night, breaking up the final leg into Bath with an overnight stay. Take your time was one of the first lessons of the Way.

In Painswick, we loafed around waiting for the landlady of the B&B to arrive to let us into our room. A sign for Bulls Cross at one of the main intersections in town was the first indication we had entered Laurie Lee territory. It’s a location he tells a ghost story about in his quintessential Cotswold memoir, Cider with Rosie, a slim paperback copy of which was my evening’s entertainment on the trail. I had been looking forward to the next two days of walking near Lee’s home turf, and Painswick didn’t disappoint. At a café where I had gone to use the free Wifi, a tipsy local bragged to friends that his uncle, also a poet, had known Lee way back when and had found Lee to be a bit of an ass. Titillated by this mildly scandalous gossip about the Cotswolds’ most famous native son, we ended the evening drinking wine on a wisteria-strewn veranda overlooking one of his beloved Stroud five valleys.

The next morning, not far outside of Painswick, we reached an important marker — a crude stone obelisk with a plaque indicating we were 55 miles from Bath. We were halfway on our journey, and we had now fully relaxed into the confines of our world on the trail. This meant we took opportunities when they presented themselves, like when we found an ice cream truck in a National Trust parking lot near Standish Wood and bought two cones at 10:30 in the morning.

Despite my grandiose vision of this walk giving me space to think and figure stuff out, its real power so far had been narrowing my world. Getting dressed is surprisingly easy when you only have three shirts. For the duration of the walk, all my worldly possessions fit in a backpack, and the most taxing decision of each morning was whether to switch to a fresh pair of socks. Once outside, there was a path to follow and a destination to be reached, one step at a time. Never once did we have to ask what we should do that day. Any spare brain power was taken up reading from the National Trail guidebook I carried in a waterproof map holder that hung around my neck by a red shoelace of the same make as Cheryl Strayed’s in Wild. (It was a freebie from a book signing I had attended — I told you I was a walking-literature junkie.) In the evenings, the most challenging decision was which real ale to pick from the several available on tap at the pub, and, after dinner, I read the single book I had packed instead of deliberating over the tower on my nightstand at home. With all the outcomes generally good, the lack of choice was a relief.

This theme of too much choice is a common refrain of the woes of modern life. Mobile technology has made the entire world accessible in the palm of our hand. Relatively cheap travel has made the entire world physically accessible, too. My husband and I had perhaps taken this to the extreme, living at 11 addresses in five cities over the past 10 years. Thus, my notion of home ricocheted between a rented apartment in Berlin where I was working; my husband’s home country of England, where we lived for five years; and California, my native state and the place where my husband and I first met. This lifestyle was undoubtedly a privilege, but also the product of a self-imposed, often visceral sense of obligation to take advantage of our so-called freedom and good fortune. In some ways, we had enslaved ourselves to choice, and our time on the Cotswold Way so far had been an unexpected liberation.

Day six took us down the side of Stroud through an unexpected vineyard and into King’s Stanley. (I don’t know the origin of the village’s name, but I so like the idea that the King had a right-hand guy called Stanley, I don’t want to know the truth.) Our hostess that evening arranged a taxi to take us back up the valley to Slad to spend the evening at the Woolpack, Laurie Lee’s local. It was a stop I had been looking forward to since I started planning the trip. We drank real ales and smoked roll-ups while, undoubtedly like hundreds of other travellers before me, I read my paperback of Cider with Rosie and gazed out over the Slad Valley. For dinner, I ate wild asparagus and a tomato salad as pretty as a meadow and felt very, very happy.

While you’ve left the chocolate box of Cotswold tourism far behind by day four on the trail, day seven is when you feel like you’ve entered the real-life, working Cotswolds. It is no less charming for being understated, from the ancient burial ground that that sounds like a Beatrix Potter character — Hetty Pegler’s Tump — to the blue plaque in Dursley indicating the former home of cantilevered bicycle inventor, Mikael Pedersen. The window of the terraced house next door to Pedersen’s featured a curtain made from a towel printed with the likenesses of professional wrestlers, a highbrow/lowbrow contrast that made me smile. Outside of North Nibley we climbed up to the William Tyndale monument, commemorating a martyr who translated the Bible to English and, in 1536, was executed for this heresy. There were also views of the River Severn to ponder before we made the final push through woodland into Wotton-Under-Edge.

From Wotton-Under-Edge we set out on our longest day, 15 miles into Tormarton. Thankfully we had company, starting with all the cats of the town that appeared on cue to usher us out, past Perry’s 17th century almshouses — currently home to a Mrs. S. Musty and a Mr. D. Clutterbuck among others, per the post boxes on the wall — and the handsome 13th century church of St. Mary the Virgin. At Lower Kilcott we watched fishermen at the old millpond and walked for a while with a Belgian couple, also thru-hikers, before they overtook us, only to meet again over lunch at the pub. Outside Hawkesbury we met Roy, a Cotswold Warden, and walked with him and his dog, Bertie, through their patch before they turned back at a dovecote built to commemorate the millennium. In Old Sodbury we stopped on a bench outside the church and watched three roaming horses cavort around a stone topograph. We chatted with them for a while — talking to animals, particularly cows, had become quite normal in the preceding days — before making our final push into Tormarton, just above the M4.

That night at dinner in the pub, the landlord deduced we were walking the Cotswold Way. When he brought the bill, he pulled up a chair and spread a map before us on the table, exhorting us to take a shortcut the next day to avoid a stretch of the trail he deemed particularly dull. He was insistent on his route, entirely unaware that the whole point of the Cotswold Way was to walk every step of the journey.

 

Crossing the M4, the main motorway running from London to Swansea, is a major if unlikely psychological milestone on the otherwise rural path of the Cotswold Way. As we traversed its footbridge on day nine of our walk, we left my conception of the Cotswolds behind, even though the boundaries of the region’s officially designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty extended to our destination in Bath. Down south was no less beautiful, but there were subtle shifts in the landscape: rocky soil turned red and clay-like, levelled-out terrain.

At Dyrham Park — a William and Mary mansion in an ancient deer park — we chatted with a brigade of drystone wallers then joined throngs of families on a day out during half-term to eat lunch. In Dyrham Wood, we found a wood box on a post containing the only trail register on the Cotswold Way and scrawled a happy trails message in its spiral-bound pages, the hikers’ benevolent equivalent of we-were-here graffiti. That night near our farmhouse lodgings in Nimlet, we ate supper at a pub with a vibe eerily reminiscent of the Slaughtered Lamb in An American Werewolf in London. Still, little could dampen our spirits. Tomorrow was our last day on the trail.

Day 10 on the Way was a gentle reemergence into civilisation from the cocoon of the countryside. Your first view of the honeyed stone of the UNESCO World Heritage site that is Bath comes about halfway through the day’s hike at a kissing gate called Prospect Stile. From here it’s a steep descent through farmland into the uninspiring suburbs of Weston. A final push uphill and you’re walking through a neighbourhood in Bath, then down through a manicured park and past the regency architecture of the Royal Crescent and the Circus, surely Britain’s most beautiful roundabout. On Gay Street, you pass a statue of Jane Austen before reaching the final acorn-shaped marker of the Cotswold Way, embossed in stone on the ground in front of the doors to Bath Abbey. It’s an appropriate end to a pilgrimage, but one we didn’t recognise right away. We had to ask its location inside the Abbey, having looked for it in every direction except down.

It was the end of our journey, but there had been no lightning bolts of insight about what to do next for work, an expectation that had perhaps been as unrealistic as being healed by touching some ancient bones. The views alone on this walk — whether hilltop panoramas or close-ups of mossy stone walls — had been worth the trip, to say nothing of rediscovering the pleasure of food and sleep earned via physical exertion. Collapsed on the ground in front of the Abbey for our final photo op of the trail, it occurred to me that to ask for anything more from the Cotswold Way was just greedy. Anyway, walking the trail had solved a problem — it just wasn’t the problem I thought I was walking to solve. What I would do next remained unknown, but our hike had at least ended the paralysis of infinite choice and given me an actual vacation for the 10 days it lasted.

But holidays are, by definition, temporary. That last night in Bath we had the chance to eat something other than the litany of standard British pub fare — fishcakes, meat pies, burgers — that had fuelled us this far. Our palates craved subtlety and spice, and we debated trying a Latin American restaurant before choosing a Moroccan place close to the hotel. I was starving when we sat down at our table — as I always was after a day on the trail — but sent the waiter away when he came to take our order. I needed more time to decide between the couscous maison and the kofte tagine and one of the 26 mezze to start. It was, in retrospect, a good way to break myself in for decisions that would lie ahead.

 

Jennifer Richardson is a Guest Writer for Panorama.