Cotswold Way (+Heart of England, Monarch’s, Diamond, Gloucestershire, Macmillan, Windrush, and Wardens’ Ways).
The first time my husband got me onto British soil, he was virtually dragging me, kicking and struggling (well, a bit of hyperbole there). My image of this island was that it had wall-to-wall buildings, that you would never get away from the madding crowds and that the food would be egregious. And, to add insult to injury, the denizens spoke English. How boring is that!
I changed my mind very quickly, about nearly everything. England has never ceased to amaze me in that it can have the population that it does, yet still retain endless tracts of houseless land. Not only that, but the system of ancient rights of way means that you can walk on far more of that land than often seems the case here in Australia, where “Thou shalt not” seems written on every door and fence. Following these dotted lines on the map, you can spend whole days without encountering a single other soul if that’s what you choose.
Tonight I have gone through my Cotswold Way photos with a view to writing this article, and feel the most astonishing homesickness for that path that we enjoyed so much. It is not wilderness like our national parks might aspire to, but it is certainly not urbanised, and almost all of every day we wandered at our leisure through woods and fields, past domesticated and wild animals and magnificent gardens, monstrous trees that reeked of history, their beer-bellied girths and gigantically spreading canopies telling their own tale of longevity. Meanwhile, when we chose to, we could interact with friendly country people who seemed to share none of the rapacious ways of the twenty first century. We loved them.
Our route was utterly unorthodox, and designed by me to fit our needs. The first part was done in 2011, and followed the traditional Bath to Winchcombe part of the route as per the map. At this beautiful village (town?) we unfortunately had to stop as our time was finished and we had to fly home. But we were in love, and couldn’t wait to be back (2012) to complete what we had begun – except, because we love it so much, we didn’t want to finish it as soon as the map said we should (we had a mere two days left). In addition, we would leave a bag of weighty stuff at our second starting point (Winchcombe), so needed to finish where we started in order to pick it back up. I thus designed a big circle that continued on past the end of that route, and went clockwise in a huge loop that returned us eventually to Winchcombe. This joined up sections of all the Ways mentioned in the title, in the order in which they occur.
There is something pretty amazing about wandering along, and happening on an ancient fort 5500 years old (Crickley Hill); reading a sign that says the beech trees you’re passing through are some of the oldest in the UK. Meanwhile, Painswick’s churchyard dated to 1377, and the post office there was the oldest in the UK (1428). Belas Knap had a burial ground dated 2500BC. All this history thrilled us.
And then we come to the wonderful Sudeley Castle, which originally dates back to Ethelred, in the tenth Century. The present structure, however, is much newer – built in 1442. In 1535, Henry VIII visited the castle with Anne Boleyn. Of lesser interest to me was the fact that Katherine Parr (another of Henry’s wives) is buried there; at Sudeley Queen Elizabeth I was entertained 3 times, and in 1592 was given a spectacular three-day feast to celebrate the anniversary of the defeat of the Spanish Armada. You just roam around, absorbing all this history along with the heavenly smells and sights being emitted by the old world roses – Albas, Gallicas, Portlands and more – thinking yourself back to those ancient times and somehow becoming part of them while you are there.
Tiny villages with caramel-coloured dolls’ houses and roses growing up the walls, spilling over the gates, sneaking through gaps in the walls; clear streams with ducks that quack hello as you pass; lush pastures with inquisitive bovines that chew and moo to pass the time of day; little V, a lamb I took a particular fancy to – all these and more are the delights of the Cotswold Way.
And as for the food! Wow. We were fed like kings. Breakfasts where bowls of fresh berries and homemade yoghurt accompanied the cereal were perhaps my favourites. At lunch we usually just had some soup, as we’d eaten so well at the start of the day. Dinner we had fun trying out various pubs.
Unfortunately something that can’t be repeated is the fact that – totally by fluke – we were there for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. We didn’t even know it was on until all of a sudden we couldn’t get in anywhere. We never make bookings. For me walking and holidays mean you are FREE, and freedom means no arrangements, no deadlines, no script, no constraints. I’d prefer to sleep under a tree in the drizzle than be a puppet, dictated to by a rigid plan. This is all very nice, except that when the people who actually rule England decide that since the queen has been on the throne for sixty years the people should rejoice. That means the Brits are going to party big time, and there is NO room at the inn – or anywhere else. We walked from village to village trying to find a free place to sleep. It was really tricky, but we always turned up lucky in the end, and had some absolutely fabulous experiences along the way, but I don’t want to turn this blog into a thesis, so I’m going to tantalise you and leave it right here. I will only say that if they declare another party for her 65th, we’ll be there!!!!