A friend and I recently undertook a do-it-yyourself 100-mile ramble for 8 1/2 days along the spine of the Cotswold Hills in England. It is a charming, indeed invigorating, way to see the best of the sylvan and romantic countryside.
And it certainly is none too strenuous for anyone capable of a 10-mile weekend hike in Virginia's Shenandoah Mountains or a 40-mile bike ride through suburban Maryland. Walking is a grand way to escape the usual crush of tourists in England -- for you will see none.
The best news of all: It is inexpensive. It would be difficult for the average walker to spend more than $20 or $25 a day staying in bed-and-breakfast places along the route and eating lunch and dinner in local pubs.
The English system of public footpaths reaches back centuries to the roots of the common law. Paths crisscross the nation, traversing fields and pastures, back yards and country lanes. The paths may be a simple lane from one village to another, or a trail across a hill. In recent years, English walking societies have developed and marked long-distance paths. One of these is the Cotswold Way, our route through one of the most picturesque regions of England.
The Cotswolds are a system of hills that run along a northeast-southwest axis west of London. Most Americans who get outside London will at some point stop in the Cotswolds -- at a teahouse in Broadway, a pub in Moreton-in-Marsh or to view the thatched roofs in a village such as Lower Slaughter.
Of course, the village names will charm your boots off: Chipping Sodbury, Wotton under Edge, Nympsfield, Birdlip, then on to Chipping Campden.
We usually came upon three or four villages a day, each a cluster of a dozen or two houses around a crossroads, plus a pub with a rural name (the Fleece, the White Hart, the Black Horse), a church and maybe a shop or two. We stopped to peek into the church, possibly replenished our supply of chocolate and always checked the back yard gardens -- roses eight inches in diameter, yellow St. John's wort and delphiniums often six feet tall. We rarely saw any of the inhabitants because apparently most of them were working in nearby towns.
The Cotswold Way is sometimes no more than a discoloration produced by many boots that have crossed a pasture, or a clear line a few inches wide that swoops down across a field of corn -- that catchall word the English use for barley and wheat, the dominant grains woven into the Cotswolds. Corn, of course, must share these hills with animals -- cattle toward the south, sheep farther north, with an occasional field of Shetland ponies.
Our path was well marked and quite easy to follow, particularly with the use of a guidebook available at most bookshops. The one we used was "The Cotswold Way -- a Walker's Guide" by Mark Richards. It contains detailed maps and directions for the full route. In 100 miles, we missed the path only half a dozen times, and we were able to correct ourselves within a few minutes each occasion.
It is surprising how little the route is traveled, although the Cotswolds are a heavily visited area. We passed 15 other persons carrying backpacks; on some days, we saw no one strolling along the designated way. This is startling when you remember that the Way begins less than 90 minutes from London's Paddington Station.
To begin our walk, we flew to London and caught one of the hourly trains from Paddington Station to Bath. Bath is a lovely Georgian city built atop a Roman town. A number of pleasant hotels are within a 10-minute walk of the railway station.
But the goal of this trip was not this cream-colored city of Beau Nash, a dandy who popularized Bath as a spa two centuries ago, but the countryside beyond, where the view from one hill across the green fields and woodlands reveals a tower atop a hill, or a castle, or a village encircling a 15th-century church.
The eccentricity of the English gentry often manifested itself by the construction of "follies" -- towers, fac,ades, spires and monuments that dot the Cotswolds and serve as valuable directional aids to the trekker. Just short of North Nibley you pass (and can climb) Tyndale's Monument, an 111-foot-tall stone tower erected to honor William Tyndale, believed to have been the first to translate the Bible into English.
The landscape is so peaceful, with rolling vistas of green and tan. The tranquility is broken only by the sound of a car or motorcycle passing on a road behind a hedge or a bit of woodland. Or when, two or three times each day, RAF jets thunder overhead.
While the countryside is open to the walker, it is also crosshatched with fences, hedgerows and stone walls. They control the livestock but present repeated obstructions to the hiker.
We breached many of these impediments through iron gates; more were crossed by the use of a stile, a generic term that often means simply a board set at an oblique angle to the fence, enabling a walker to step over the fence with little discomfort. Occasionally there was even an elaborate "kissing" stile, a metal gate that swings across a 90-degree angle inside a metal horseshoe, allowing just enough room for a human to swing the gate in front of the body, yet restrain a curious lamb or cow.
What to carry with you? A backpack with two water bottles, a couple of changes of clothing, some form of rain gear (it rained for only 10 minutes during 8 1/2 days), a camera and some munchies should suffice.
If it's not too warm, wear long pants. If it turns hot, put on shorts, but wear long socks that you can roll up to the knee for walking through (as you must) patches of nettles. They sting.
As with any route, the Cotswold Way can be walked in either of two directions. I recommend south-to-north for three reasons:
First, this enables you to begin in Bath. Aside from its many 18th-century charms, Bath is a fine city in which to purchase last-minute maps and other provisions you might want to take on your ramble.
Second, the Richards guidebook moves south to north.
And, third, the northern end of the way is the more picturesque portion, particularly the final 20 miles or so from Cleeve Common to Chipping Camden. The hills to the north are somewhat steeper, the vistas more dramatic, the villages more remote. Meadows of sheep replace crops. The houses here are built of yellow Cotswold stone, many with a lid of thatching. My companion insists she even spotted a thatched birdhouse. It's always wise to leave the best for last.
Camping is possible, and, I am certain, rather pleasant. But we found it far more pleasant to organize the walk between bed-and-breakfast establishments, with two daily pub stops -- one for lunch, one for dinner. A village evening usually began with a hot bath to remove the day's grime and aches, followed by a stroll around the community. After dinner, we went to the pub to chat with the local folks about the weather (dry); the merits of the local ales (about $1 a pint); the rural economy (milk price supports have been slashed, much to the general distress of the locals), and of course, our route for the next day. And then early to bed, for extra sleep seems essential to keep up one's strength.
A rambler should arrange the day based on the location of pubs for lunches, for there simply is no other way to eat. A key fact to keep in mind is that the pubs close for several hours at 2:30 each afternoon, except on Sunday, when they close at 2 p.m. You might be fortunate to find a more luxurious meal, or you may have to subsist on raisins one day, but it's almost always possible to find two pubs daily.
A reality must be faced: English country cuisine remains boring and bland. It comes inevitably with peas, the only vegetable that seems to be available in rural England. It usually brings forth french fried potatoes ("chips"), and it means one of several entrees -- a steak and kidney pie, heavily fried "scampi" or a piece of meat, cruelly overdone.
Yet while a standard meal may prove disappointing, a traveler can subsist on a ploughman's lunch or its equivalent -- cheese, pa te', bread and a bit of tomato and lettuce. And some culinary gems can be found sequestered in these hamlets. For example, the village of Hillesley, a half-mile off the Way, contains a fine restaurant, the Portcullis, where a meal of succulent lamb roast, enjoyed with a good claret, enables you to forget the standard fare.
Yet do not count on most meals to do anything other than serve as bulk to absorb the wonderfully tasty bitter ale available in every British pub. Of course, one need not drink beer. Soft drinks, coffee or tea are available, and the gentleman or lady behind the bar will be more than happy to refill a hiker's water bottle -- an essential addition to the backpack.
The Ramblers Association (1-5 Wandsworth Road, London SW8-2LT, England) publishes a list of families that provide bed and breakfast along the Cotswold Way. But the list is incomplete and is not essential. A more practical way to approach the trip is to take your chances, to calculate a destination for that evening, then ask your breakfast host -- or the publican at lunchtime -- for suggestions.
We found this invariably successful, producing some of our best accommodations. Mrs. Pain at North Nibley provides a fine room, with breakfast, for less than $10 per person. She will even drive you to the nearby pub for dinner.
Because you are walking, you will never be more than half a dozen road miles from your destination, so that anyone you ask almost certainly knows the residents and services of the next village, or the one beyond that.
North of Cheltenham (a potential detour for a bank, the post office, the latest newspaper) rises Cleeve Hill, one of the most exciting portions of the walk. Cleeve Common is a broad stretch of moorland, covered in gorse, a golf course, endless vistas and families running their dogs. The Way winds around for miles through this lovely barren land.
If you want one night of luxury, stay at the Rising Sun Hotel on Cleeve Hill. From the front, you look out on the plains of Gloucestershire; the rear fronts onto Cleeve Common. The food is good, and the ale at the Hiker's Pub most worthy.
There are bits of history along the way. Dyrham House is a fine, stately mansion built in the 17th century by an advisor to King Charles II. It is open to the public. North of Cleeve Hill are Sudeley Castle, home of Henry VIII's widow, Catherine Parr, and the ruins of Hailes Abbey, founded in 1246 to fulfill a vow made during the Crusades.
The curiosity, even today, of an American making a long-distance walk through even a well-visited area like the Cotswolds brings out the generosity of the English. One publican left his post to drive us two miles to a shop where we needed to make a purchase; the vicar in Broadway insisted we stop for tea and cakes; Fred and Vera Trinder at the Duke of Beauford pub in Hawkesbury Upton spent nearly an hour one afternoon phoning around until they were certain we had the best accommodations available for the evening.
And soon you will reach the end, Chipping Campden, a fine old medieval wool-marketing town that was a center of Royalists during the Cromwell period. While awaiting the bus, stop at the half-timbered Eight Bells pub, just off Market Square. It's a wonderful place to recuperate before returning the few miles to Stratford upon Avon to catch the train back to London.
A Cotswolds trek is that simple.