Peter Dear, Perth, WA
The Cotswold Hills lie between Bath and Stratford-upon-Avon in an English countryside of beautiful fields, woods, ancient villages and stone cottages. It is steeped in history and tradition and is easily accessible to the walker. There is a confusing maze of paths and rights of way, which, although well marked, are inconsistent in type and placement and initially difficult to interpret. Those paths which pass through private land are preserved by legislation for public use, almost entirely due to the struggle of the Ramblers Association over more than 50 years. To an Australian, this right to walk through private property is a revelation.
The Cotswold Way winds along pathways established before the days of rail and motor transport, between the towns of Bath and Chipping-Campden. There are many guidebooks and maps available to assist walkers. Traditionally, walkers start at Chipping-Campden and walk south towards Bath, and this is reflected in most of the guidebooks. However, the Lonely Planet walking guide recommends walking north from Bath, with the sun at one’s back. At a latitude of 55 degrees north, the sun is in the southern sky and much lower on the horizon than in Perth. We followed this excellent advice.
Even in late September, after the main tourist period, it was necessary to make B&B bookings up to three days ahead as we walked. We used the Ramblers and Lonely Planet recommendations. There are no youth hostels along the Way. Our regular backpacks were only partially filled, to suit day walking. Baggage transfer operators carried our suitcases on to the next B&B, and to get to the start and finish of the Way we used National Express and local buses (discounted fares of course!). There was a major road to cross on most days, and when we came to one we felt sorry for car travellers, as we felt so superior as walkers.
There is bush tucker aplenty along the Way, blackberries, hazelnuts, elderberries, wild plums, apples, mushrooms and sweet corn are abundant, but few people pick these delicacies nowadays. I found my most useful piece of equipment was an extra long walking stick, which provided stability over rough, descending ground, while the most unnecessary item was my stove. A small Thermos flask would have been far more useful in wet, exposed and cold conditions, avoiding the need to stop and boil water. The nine days we allowed were insufficient to explore any areas other than those directly on the Way itself, as we had to average 20km a day. More time should be allowed by those who want to look further afield.
Walking is a slow mode of travel and slow travel provides many Bill Bryson moments. Of the dozens of episodes that we experienced along the Way, here are three:
Tuesday 26 September
Two friends had joined on this section, evening was approaching. and we were running late on a frustrating and tiring day. Our destination lay past Cam Long Down, and we still had the ridge to negotiate. The climb to the top of the ridge was long and slow. However, when we reached the top, the glow of the approaching sunset and the uninterrupted, 360 degree view was exquisite. Away to the east a hot air balloon floated, almost motionless, over the distant fields.
We continued slowly along the ridge and by late evening had descended to Cam Long Down. We could see a large modern manor house across the valley, just where we expected Hodgecombe Farm B&B to be. With high expectations, we crossed the fields toward this recently built home, when suddenly the Way signs directed us left along a lane to the entrance of a smaller, more modest building. The Cotswold Way ran up its driveway and the hill beyond. This was Hodgecombe Farm.
Later that evening, we discovered a framed quotation on the sideboard of the guests’ lounge, taken from Shakespeare’s King Richard the Second. It seemed to summarise our days walk:-
Bolingbroke: “….how far is it, my lord, to Berkley now?”
The Earl of Northumberland: “Believe me, noble lord, I am a stranger here in Gloucestershire. These high wild hills and rough uneven ways draw out our miles and make them wearisome………..”
Thursday 28 September
At mid-afternoon, on the way to Little Shirvington, we came to a major traffic roundabout on the A346, near the Air Balloon Inn. We needed to cross a couple of converging roads to continue. The situation was worse than tiresome, as the weather was showery and we were wet and a little nervous of the fast and continuous lanes of vehicles. At last we saw a huge semi-trailer coming around, holding up both lanes. One does not like to cross in front of such a vehicle. I saw a possible opportunity to duck behind it as it passed, and cross through the slow moving, following traffic. So I waited, and then, without warning, the semi came to a halt right in front of me, in the middle of the roundabout, and stopped all the traffic. An amazing sight! Maureen, who was a little downstream and had a better line of vision, yelled, “He wants you to cross!” And so we did.
Was it courtesy or did he wish to demonstrate his power to control the whole roadway? Or both? Either way, we were very grateful.
Sunday 1 October
The early morning was showery as we left beautiful Winchcombe, our favourite Cotswold town. Our B&B hosts forecast clearing weather. Even so, I wore my rain jacket and Maureen wore her jacket and her waterproof pants. The Way took us across fields and through woods and lanes, and all the time the cloud cover and drizzle continued. By mid-morning the wind began to blow and a large, expanding grey mass of cloud was developing an anvil top, which indicates a thunderstorm.
As the wind was blowing away from us and toward this cloud, I mistakenly thought that the cloud mass would also be blown away from us. It wasn’t until the wind increased and heavy rain started, followed by thunder and lightning, that I realised the wind, now racing towards this darkening cloud, was being sucked up and was feeding the approaching storm. Huge drops of rain poured down, accompanied by intimidating lightning and thunder, and high winds. Then heavy hail began falling.
Exposed in the valley of a large paddock, we crouched with the sheep in the mud and stinging hail, gradually becoming immobilised by the conditions. The hail washed into the low areas and solidified, looking like snow on the ground. After the worst of it had passed we continued, wet and cold, and in my case, completely saturated from the waist down. Water sloshed around inside our muddied boots. After an hour, wet and sorry, we arrived at the coffee shop of Haile’s Fruit Farm, where we were able to remove our boots and wring out our socks. We were permitted to remain in the warmth of the foyer, but no further, while the sympathetic staff brought us hot cups of coffee, to ensure our complete recovery.
Overall, this was a gentle walk through the rural heart of England, full of new experiences quite unlike those of the bushland serenity, regular campsites and occasional settlements that make up the character of the Bibbulmun Track. It was in one sense, quite exotic to me, and yet I felt at home. In retrospect, we became immersed in the countryside, the villages and the people of this picturesque part of England.
If this is the experience you seek, and you can make the arrangements, do go. After all, everything lies in the experience.