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Travel Memoir – Hike in the Cotswolds, Part 3

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. 

Travel Memoir – Hike in the Cotswolds, Part 2

dsc_0022That afternoon we explored the charming town and photographed its hand-hewn stone houses, some covered with climbing roses and others with thatched roofs perched like well-coifed wigs.  We ate the first of many pub dinners together that evening at the Eight Bells Inn, savoring fish and chips or bangers and mash.  Then we retired early to our private rooms at the 300-year-old Noel Arms Inn to rest up for our eight-day walk to Bath. 

The next morning, after a full English breakfast of eggs, bacon, sausages, kippers and dry toast, we left our bags in the hotel lobby for a taxi pickup, strapped on our little daypacks filled with water and rain gear, and headed across the street to the arched 18th century market hall that stands at the beginning of the Cotswold Way.   We posed for a photo there together and then started off down the street in high spirits.

At the edge of town, we found the first wooden trail marker with a distinctive acorn carved on its face.  A small arrow on the post, labeled “Cotswold Way” pointed toward a broad hill.  For the next eight days, we looked for those markers at every juncture where the way crossed a local footpath or road.   While the markers were well placed along the trail, sometimes they were swallowed by tall wild flowers, so we had to refer to the maps Andrew had given us to be sure of our route.

For the first five miles we walked together, three or four abreast, watching our steps as we passed through rich farmland dotted with sheep.  We stopped often to take photos of panoramic vistas and to listen to the insistent bleating of baby lambs.  Together, we learned how to scramble over stiles and negotiate “kissing-gates” one at a time to gain access to the trail that wove through walled private fields. 

Around noon we spotted the Broadway Tower, a five-story turreted structure that sat atop Beacon Hill.   Known as a “folly,” the medieval-looking tower was actually built as a viewing platform in the 18th century.  Two couples from our group decided to climb the tower to overlook the countryside and see historical museum inside.   The other four couples, stomachs grumbling, decided to skip the tower and push on to The Swan pub for lunch in the town of Broadway, which marked the half-way point of our 10-mile walk for that day.  After dining on salads or fish and chips, we carried on for five more miles to the pretty little town of Stanton, where we would spend the night. 

As we settled into our private room in the 17th century stone-block home that once served as Stanton’s post house, my husband’s cell phone rang. 

“We’re lost,” said a man with an American accent.

“Oh dear,” Tom said, recognizing Ron’s voice.  “What do you see around you?”

“There’s a long stone wall with an iron gate and a pasture full of sheep.  Any idea where we are?”

Ron’s plaintive wail became a running gag throughout the trip, as we strolled through countless walled pastures with sheep.  The tower climbers eventually made it to their B & B in Stanton and joined us for a superb dinner at the town’s Mount Inn, which is said to be a favorite dining spot of Paul McCartney and his daughter who lives nearby.  A pony-sized dog lay in the doorway like a rolled up rug, but the bill of fare offered a sophisticated menu of fresh haddock, sirloin steak and locally sourced vegetables.  Best of all, the English ales were cold.  After dinner some of us sat out on the restaurant’s hillside patio with a cold one and watched a sunset that turned the sky the color of amber stout. 

Read more of Kay’s travel memoir about a 70-mile walk through the Cotswolds in her next blog, January 1, 2017.