The Cotswolds II: Stroud to Chipping Campden

Trip Start Apr 01, 2010
Trip End Jul 31, 2010

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Thursday, May 6, 2010

When we picked April as the starting month for our walk, we mainly wanted to take advantage of lengthening daylight hours and warmer days as we walked north. An unforeseen bonus was that we found ourselves in the Cotswolds at the height of spring. It would have been a beautiful walk at any time, but May was spectacularly lovely: the shady woods were carpeted in bluebell and white-flowered wild garlic, the trails lined with cowslip and aconite, and the views from the hilltops were punctuated with luminescent yellow fields of oilseed rape. (To an American accustomed to calling it Canola (TM), it's still a bit disconcerting to rhapsodise about the beauty of a rape field). We passed newborn foals and calves, and of course hundreds of lambs at every stage of development- wobbly newborns hovering close to the comforting udder; irrepressible spring-legged youngsters bounding in gangs around the pasture, chasing pheasants and rabbits; uncertain adolescents keeping their distance from their placid mum until a human gets too alarmingly close. The buds and blossoms we'd been seeing since Cornwall were finally joined by exuberant, radiantly green leaves.

After a rest in Oxford, we caught the train back to Stroud and met E and R, yet more American travellers taking time from a European tour to spend some time with us. We headed together to Painswick, whose self-proclaimed title "Queen of the Cotswolds" is slightly grating but hard to argue with. It's got the old honey-coloured cottages, narrow streets, hillside vantage, and sense of unspoilt charm that many other Cotswold villages have only in part, plus a Rococo Garden and an especially lovely churchyard with ninety-nine 200-year-old yew trees. Despite fits of chilly rain throughout the afternoon, we had a great day exploring (and ducking into pubs, cafes, and the church) with E and R.

The next day we were off again, cutting across long expanses of bluebell woods to rejoin the Cotswold Way near the village of Birdlip. The undulating Way offered a succession of views across Gloucestershire and Cheltenham vale to the hazy line of the Malverns. The sun kept finding new sublime ways of breaking through the tiers of cloud cover. It was one of the most beautiful days of the walk- even though it ended with the awful realization that our B&B was actually still a mile away, back up the hill we'd just descended. We passed a day-old foal on the way up, though; Spring was doing its best to keep us cheery.

May 5 took us to Hailes, site of an impressive ruined abbey (destroyed in the 1500s as part of Henry VIII's zealous defense of his right to serial polygamy) and a small, even older church which remains alive to this day. A parishioner's poem near the pulpit spoke of the church as "this thin place," recalling the Celtic image of places where the curtain between worlds grows thin and translucent. In the luminous serenity of the old church, it felt wholly appropriate. We camped in the nearby fruit farm, and took the repeated rain showers the next morning as divine encouragement to sleep in.

We walked on through a succession of fields that had been stripped of topsoil and dug up to lay a new gas pipeline to the Southwest. Oddly, Fi had just been wondering aloud about how gas pipelines were laid. She immediately wondered aloud how it was that long-distance walkers experienced sudden bursts of great energy and speed. We were, sadly, still wondering this five hours later when we wheezed up the hill to Broadway Tower, a Gothic folly that serves as a sort of unofficial emblem for the Cotswold Way.

From there, it was pretty much all downhill to the last viewpoint of the Way, Dover's Hill, which commands a wide vista west and north over several 'Shires. A sign informed us that tomorrow, this would be the site of the Cotswold Olimpicks, which predate the modern international Olympic games by a century or so, and (until some killjoys toned them down in the mid-1800s) featured distinctive local sports like "shin-kicking".

Our friend S and T met us in the parking lot - the first Brits to join us! - and gave us a lift down to Chipping Campden, the lovely market town where the Cotswold Way terminates. There we had a very nice dinner, were stunned to discover that the chef didn't believe in chocolate, and launched into a rowdy pub crawl to find which of the many Chipping eateries was still serving chocolatey desserts. We also tried to imagine the rules for competitive shin-kicking. (Something like wrestling, or tag, or simply a contest to see who can stand it for the longest?)

Luckily, we escaped the Cotswolds before any kicking began, and entered what many had predicted would be the most boring leg of our trip- the flat, expansive, post-industrial Midlands.
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