The trail offered new surprises each day as we traversed its roller-coaster hills. Sometimes we walked in single file along a narrow path through deep forests that were carpeted with white wood anemone and blue bells. Other times we hiked in pairs as we passed through fields alive with the breathtaking color of yellow canola flowers or red poppies. One sweet-smelling field of buttercups spread so invitingly to the horizon, some of us felt the call to lie down in it, ignoring small insects that zigzagged among the blossoms. We lay on that fragrant bed for a while and watched white clouds gambol like fluffy sheep above us in the azure sky.
One day we came upon the arched ruins of Haile’s Abbey, built in the 12th century. The abbey’s once bustling cloisters were burned in 1539 when Henry VIII dissolved England’s Catholic churches and monasteries so he could divorce his first wife and marry Anne Boleyn.
Another day we took a brief break from the trail to spend two hours at the historic Sudeley Castle, where Katherine Parr, the last wife of Henry VIII lived out her life. There we learned the sing-song device that every English school-child knows for remembering what happened to Henry’s six wives: divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived. Katherine was the last survivor of Henry’s fabled involvements and she is buried in an ornate tomb at the 16th century St. Mary’s Church next to the castle.
Occasionally we came across 2,500–year-old hill forts, their circular, grass-covered walls still standing to protect interior spaces now inhabited by sheep. One of these Iron-age forts surrounded a golf course where players have carefully chipped and putted around the fortifications for 100 years. The trail led us between the ancient walls and manicured greens where we chatted with friendly golfers who insisted we eat lunch at their golf club, rather than wait to dine in the town of Painswick, which awaited us an hour’s walk away.
For seven days, we walked under sunny skies until the last hour of the last day, when dark clouds quickly moved in and produced large rain drops. While we hastily pulled rain pants and waterproof jackets out of our daypacks and struggled to put them on, a bevy of sheep nearby stopped munching on grass to watch us like curious children.
“Great!” Tom said, squinting up at the spitting clouds. “This rain justifies the expense and bother of buying and carrying this rain-gear all week.”
Our long-anticipated walk through the Cotswolds ended a few miles later at the aptly named Folly End Farm in Cold Ashton, about ten miles north of Bath. There we dried off and enjoyed a cream-tea lunch, feeling both sad that it was over and elated that we had completed the hike without blisters or sprains. After lunch we called a taxi and rode the last few miles into Bath along the wet and busy A46 highway.
We spent two nights in Bath at the formal, French inspired Villa Magdala, a welcome step up in grandeur from the small-town pub hotels that had seemed appropriate while we were on the trail. Some of us made a bee-line for the Thermae Bath Spa, for a warm soak and gentle massage, while the rest of us took a guided walking tour of Bath in the rain. We visited the ancient Roman baths, lunched next door at the Pump Room and ogled the city’s columned Georgian buildings such as the Royal Crescent, now home to movie stars, authors and royalty.
Our tour ended at the recently restored Bath Abbey, one of England’s most magnificent churches, built during the reign of Elizabeth 1. On the pavement in front of the Abbey is a stone circle that marks the end (and beginning) of the Cotswold Way. Like pilgrims of old, we gathered in front of the church and gave thanks for our extraordinary walk through 70 miles of historic English countryside to celebrate our own short history of walking on this earth for 70 years.