The Cotswold Way (Part 1)
Ah, to walk! And to have nothing to do but walk for the day’s agenda: what a slice of heaven. In May, three like-minded friends and I tackled 70 miles of England’s famous Cotswold Way. It’s one of many long-distance footpaths that are part of the National Trails in Britain.
Some say it’s among the prettiest of England’s walks, situated as it is atop the immense limestone escarpment running north to south in the region, and which tilts upward at its western end. The result: exquisite extended views (and lots of ups and downs for us!)
We joined the trail just outside the small city of Cheltenham and walked for six days south to the famous city of Bath, with a day off in the middle that seemed prudent while planning this trip. Indeed, one among us was a complete novice, and all of us learned that what the English mean by “walk” is more what Americans think of as “hike”! We averaged about 12.5 miles a day on terrain that was varied and uneven, sometimes even a bit difficult—but always agreeable to us.
I found it delightful to be on our own, essentially. We planned our walk with the capable, friendly help of a company, HillWalk Tours, that does this sort of thing. We gave dates, said we were looking for a “moderate” level of difficulty, and presto: they arranged our lodging and relocation of luggage to the next stop, and sent us step-by-step directions for use during the day. But actually finding our way was up to us.
The first day, we stopped in the hamlet of Birdlip for a welcome lunch (love those English place names...). A navigation hiccup (mine) led us a bit out of the way, so that evening, we arrived a little footsore but feeling successful in the town of Painswick. That said, the steep climb back up to the restaurant from our (delightful) B&B was daunting. The meal, by a Romanian chef aiming for a Michelin star, was delicious. We agreed later we’d have liked to explore the town more (some call it the “Queen of the Cotswolds”) but on the way out of town the next day we did enjoy a quick tour of the 15th century parish church and its 99 yews, planted in the 1790's.
And what a day! Clear visibility, moderate temperatures, far-distant views to the end of the world. Springtime flowers danced in the breeze, farm fields were being worked, the way markers were easy to find. We noticed that, despite a lot of obvious agriculture, not once did we see anyone actually working the fields, despite the fact that the first cutting of hay was being harvested! It seemed odd, but we were happy for the way it made the countryside seem especially peaceful.
We began day three by walking down from the escarpment to the large, bustling market town of Dursley in time for a picnic lunch. Then we climbed steeply back up to the top, where we found a golf course. We added 2.5 miles to our day by walking around the edge of the golf course to take in the splendid views.
On the far side, we could see our next objective: the Tyndale Monument. It seemed so far away! All we could do was trudge onwards, down across the valley and then up again to the monument. And that’s what walking does: it eventually brings you to your objective in a most wonderful gentle cadence, with ample time to notice the details you are passing as well as reflect in your head whatever it is you care to ponder.
Near the hamlet of North Nibley, we met a most curious man, a “naturist” who had the decency to wrap his middle with a towel so as not to offend. This 80 year old man had walked about 30 miles (in the buff except for his stout hiking boots) to buy his grandchild a birthday gift. From Tyndale Monument, he reassured us, our route would soon take us to our objective. Then he walked on, easily outdistancing us.
In all, we were feeling fit and well, and our luck with the weather was high. Nonetheless, we were happy to have a day off from walking to browse the very sweet town of Wotton-under-Edge (so named because it’s tucked under the escarpment). More to come on that!
For more information about walking tours, see hillwalktours.com