The Cotswolds area of south central England is known for its rolling hills, stone villages and hyphenated names, such as Stow-on-the-Wold and Bourton-on-the-Water. An extensive network of trails connects its small towns, many of which seem untouched by time.
Hiking through the Cotswolds became especially appealing when I found a tour company that would arrange the lodging along the route and transport my bag each day.
All that was left for me to do was … walk.
The circular route started and ended in Moreton-in-Marsh, the only village in the Cotswolds with a train station. The loop is fifty miles long. I chose to walk it over seven days, the shortest five miles, the longest eleven. Not much mileage per day but the extra time allowed me to explore the sights along the way.
On a typical day, the b&b would serve a cooked breakfast at 8 a.m. Afterward, I would set out with my daypack across the fields and into the woods. Often there was a castle or ruined abbey to visit. I usually ate a picnic lunch along the way, a sandwich and fruit purchased in one of the villages.
I would arrive at the destination village mid-afternoon and take my time poking around. Near 4 p.m., I would check into the b&b, where (without fail) I would find my bag waiting. The hosts would suggest a nearby pub for dinner.
As routine as this may sound, no two days were the same.
In the quire
Before heading to the Cotswolds, I spent an evening in Salisbury to see the cathedral. At over four-hundred feet, the spire of Salisbury Cathedral is the tallest in the United Kingdom.
The main part of the cathedral was built in thirty-eight years (1220-1258), remarkable given its size and the technology available at the time.
The cathedral displays one of the four surviving copies of the Magna Carta. Signed in 1215, the “Great Charter of the Liberties” is one of the most influential documents in the world, as it guarantees certain rights to British citizens. The U.S. Constitution borrowed from it.
I took my turn in line to see it, a tab-sized piece of parchment with tiny calligraphic writing.
Later I attended evensong at the cathedral. Early attendees are allowed to sit in the quire stalls next to the choir. (The church refers to the singers as the “choir,” the place where they sing as the “quire.”) Salisbury’s quire is the oldest and largest in England.
In the ancient candle-lit cathedral I sat one row behind the singers in an intricately carved stall and listened as their voices soared.
Next day, on the way from Salisbury to Moreton-in-Marsh, the train stopped in Oxford. Many students alighted and the train continued on with a lower IQ.
I arrived at Moreton-in-Marsh. Or is it Moreton-on-Marsh? Moreton-next-to-but-not-quite-within-the-Marsh?
I could never remember the right preposition.
Why is Moreton in-Marsh whereas Bourton is on-the-Water? What happened to Moreton’s “the?”
And Stow-in-the-Wold … what is a “wold?”
Although I stumbled over them, I love the hyphenated names. Some combination of The Hobbit, Wind In The Willows and Winnie-The-Pooh.
Market day was underway when I arrived at Moreton-in-Marsh. I bought some picnic food for the next day’s hike. Stopped at the Bell Inn to review my hiking directions. Supposedly the Bell Inn was the inspiration for The Prancing Pony, where J.R.R. Tolkien’s hobbits escaped from the bad guys.
Horse escort to Stow-on-the-Wold
The first day’s hike went well. Cold in the morning, warm in the afternoon. The track varied between muddy bridal trails, grassy meadows, woodland paths and surfaced lanes. Much of it was uphill. I skirted several farms and flushed dozens of pheasants. Climbed stiles and passed through field gates. The farmers grant right-of-way but expect walkers to close the gates behind them.
At Donnington Manor I entered a pasture. Two horses in blankets greeted me and walked next to me as I crossed the pasture. Like escorts, one beside me and one behind. When I took a step, they took a step. When I stopped, they stopped. I stroked their foreheads several times. Quite funny. I assume they escort every hiker through their pasture in exchange for head scratches.
Stow-on-the-Wold sits on top of an eight-hundred-feet hill, the highest in the Cotswolds, and once the site of an Iron-Age fort and Roman town. Its name means “holy place on a hill.” For centuries it was a major sheep market, where as many as twenty-thousand were sold in a day. Many of the elegant homes and churches in the Cotswolds were built with wool money.
Upon arrival, I visited Stow-on-the-Wold’s landmarks. In the middle of the square is the stone market cross. (Market crosses indicated a village had been granted the right to hold a regular market.) Off of Sheep Street are “tures,” skinny stone passages used for herding sheep into the square.
The Royalist Hotel has been dated to 987 and is perhaps the oldest hotel in England. Also on the square is a set of leg stocks for publicly humiliating any wrongdoers.
Nearby, St. Edwards Church has a doorway picturesquely framed by gnarly yew trees. These doors are thought to be the inspiration for Tolkien’s entry to the kingdom of the dwarves. The funeral for John Entwistle of the Who was held at St. Edward’s Church.
The b&b owner at the Limes had to leave for a medical emergency but left a key so I could get in. Dinner at the Queen’s Head, dating to 1630. Stone walls, fireplace, low ceilings, flagstone floor, mismatched wooden tables and chairs, framed photos, menu on a chalkboard and dogs on the floor. The perfect pub.
I hung around Stow-on-the-Wold’s library, waiting for a break in the morning’s rain. Once I set off, the hike was short and mostly downhill, although deep with mud. Sucking-your-boots-off, English-toffee mud. The trail was mostly through mushy pastures. Lots of horse farms and riding schools in the area, all bustling with activity as the horses were being exercised in the rain.
I stopped at the Old Mill in Lower Slaughter for handmade ice cream, as recommended by the guidebooks. Rum-and-raisin. The quaint village and the mill are on the River Eye. Like many of the villages in the Cotswolds, Lower Slaughter looks like a set for a PBS drama.
Bourton-on-the Water was busy with tourists when I arrived. The five stone footbridges that criss-cross the River Windrush along its high street are the reason for its designation as the “Venice of the Cotswolds.” No gondolas though.
I found the Lansdowne B&B and left my muddy hiking shoes by the door, as is the custom. Host Cheryle welcomed me with a cup of tea. I talked with some hikers from Australia. Dinner at the Mousetrap next door at Cheryle’s recommendation. Home-cooked comfort food, chicken-and-leek pie with mash (mashed potatoes) and steamed veggies.
As I was buying a cup of coffee for the trail, riders rode their horses English-style through the village. I headed out of town, moving slowly through the mud. My “waterproof” hiking shoes were still soaked from yesterday. Still, the landscape was beautiful and I tried to imagine it in sunlight.
I walked through field after field of sheep, followed by a long valley of sheep. In the rain beside a river, a walker leashed his dog as I passed and said, “Training in progress.” The English are resolute dog trainers, a point of pride. All of their dogs, especially the country dogs, appear to respond to voice commands.
Beautifully restored and landscaped stone cottages were gathered in hamlets along the way. I began to understand the Cotswolds have been gentrified, like German Village in Columbus. Once these huts belonged to farmers and shepherds. Now only the wealthy can afford them.
I walked on bridle trails, along dry-stone walls, past produce farms. The sheep were skittish, the horses friendly, the cows ambivalent. I flushed scores of pheasants and grey partridges along the hedgerows.
In Naunton I stopped long enough to visit the restored dovecote. The largest in England with over one-thousand holes, it dates from the 1600s. The wealthy landowners used to use the guano for fertilizer and eat the birds for dinner.
I arrived in Guiting Power. Guiting means “rushing stream” in Saxon. The Guiting Guesthouse couldn’t check me in until 4 p.m., so I spent a couple of hours over a late lunch at Hollow Bottom, a country club. Many of the patrons wore English-style riding gear. A large group of golfers arrived, all dressed in colorful knickers.
The guesthouse is an uneven, rambling old stone farmhouse. Despite the “Duck or Grouse” warning sign, I managed to bump my head on the low door frames several times. Dinner at the Farmers Arms, where guesthouse-host Joanne told me the locals go, implying, I think, that the gentry go to the other place, Hollow Bottom, where I had spent the afternoon.
Queen’s tomb in Winchcombe
The house I slept in last night was built in the 1600s, according to my host Chris. He stoked a fire in the breakfast room and said I would likely be their last hiker of the season.
I covered six miles, mostly downhill, and stopped to tour Sudeley Castle just outside of Winchcombe. Sudeley was built in the 15th century, possibly on the site of an earlier castle. It is one of the few castles in England that is still a residence.
In 1469, King Edward IV confiscated the castle from its rightful owner and gave it to his brother, the Duke of Gloucester, who later became the reviled King Richard III. (He was a subject of one of Shakespeare’s plays.) Richard died in battle and Sudeley eventually passed to King Henry VIII. (Richard’s remains were discovered in 2012 beneath a parking lot.)
Henry was married to Catherine Parr, his sixth and final wife. When he died, the castle went to his son, King Edward VI, who gave it to his uncle, Thomas Seymour, who married the same Catherine Parr, the widowed queen. Incestuous, eh?
Catherine became pregnant but died shortly after giving birth. In 1548 she was buried in St. Mary’s Church, next to the castle. In 1782, some sightseers discovered Catherine’s grave vault in the ruins of the chapel. They opened the coffin and found the body, after two-hundred-thirty-four years, in surprisingly good condition.
The coffin was returned to the vault but opened from time to time for kicks by the morbidly curious. Eventually the chapel was rebuilt and a marble vault erected with a statue of the woman who was once the queen of England.
In Winchcombe I checked into the White Hart Inn, an old hotel with creaky floors. A crowd gathered downstairs for the World Rugby Final. I washed the mud from the legs of my hiking trousers in the sink and hung them out of the window overnight to dry.
Doves on Broadway
Next morning on my way out of Winchcombe I visited St. Peter’s Church, dated to 1468, to see its eccentric gargoyles. Actually they are called grotesques, as they don’t have water spouts. There are forty of them, twenty depicting horrific creatures and the rest prominent people of the times. Interesting juxtaposition. Most famous is a grimacing human face with a caved hat that is said to be the model for the Mad Hatter in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland.
My longest hike, eleven miles. I started in eerie fog, the sheep and cows emerging like ghosts in the meadows. Met quite a few hikers, all English, celebrating a sunny Sunday in November. The GWR (Gloucestershire Warwickshire Railway) steam train stormed by, puffing white smoke. The GWR is a volunteer-operated historical railway.
Visited the ruins of Hailes Abbey, built in 1277 by Richard, the younger brother of King Henry III of England. The abbey became a pilgrimage magnet after Richard’s son donated a small bottle of Christ’s blood, purchased in Germany, in 1270. During the Reformation, King Henry VIII declared the famous relic to be the blood of a duck and decommissioned the abbey. The ruins are owned by the National Trust.
The stone houses in Stanway and Stanton glowed golden in the sun. Both are crossroads with populations of only a few hundred. I paused in front of a magnificent house on the road, which I took to be Stanway House. Turns out, it was the gatehouse for Stanway House. Nearby is a cricket pavilion, the gift of the author J. M. Barrie (Peter Pan) who stayed at Stanway House in the 1920s.
Broadway is a larger village with a population of over twenty-five-hundred. Called the “Jewel of the Cotswolds,” its 16th-century buildings have been restored and updated. The wide high street is lined with shops and cafés, which were filled with people when I arrived in the afternoon. All were basking in the warmth of the sun. A man on the street said, “Nice’n’ out, i’n’t?” Today was the hottest November 1 in recorded British history.
I found Dove Cottage, a bit of a walk from the center of the village. The cottage was once a dovecote, hence its name. Low doorways, tight stairways, a tiny place. Only two guest rooms. After dinner in the center, it was a long spooky walk back to the cottage in the fog.
Fireworks in Chipping Campden
My host Dinia prepared breakfast for me in the room with the dovecote holes, a cheese omelette, toast and coffee. Like every host along the way, she served a selection of homemade marmalades.
I left Broadway in heavy fog, a little earlier than normal, and had difficulty finding my way. Climbed a steep hill out of the village stepping over dozing sheep.
Toward the top the fog cleared and I had a good view of the folly, Broadway Tower. A folly is a building constructed as a decoration. In the 18th century the rich and famous had representations of Roman temples and Egyptian pyramids built for their gardens. Broadway Tower was completed in 1799 on the second highest hill in the Cotswolds.
In Chipping Campden I checked into the Noel Arms, a hotel on the high street. Chipping Campden means “market town in a valley surrounded by pastures.”
I toured the Court Barn Museum, home of an exhibit on the Arts and Crafts Movement. The late 19th-century movement stood for traditional craftsmanship vs. industrialization. A descendent of one of the original craftsmen, a silversmith, is still practicing in Chipping Campden.
The museum adjoins an estate once owned by Baptist Hicks (1551-1629), a wealthy merchant and politician. He built the covered Market Hall, the crown jewel of Chipping Campden in 1627. It stands like the Parthenon in the middle of high street.
The oldest house in town, Grevel’s House, was built in the 14th century. William Grevel was the wealthiest of the merchants in England and is thought to be the inspiration for the merchant in Canterbury Tales.
After dark, I left the b&b to go to dinner, a short walk into the village. On the way, throngs of people passed me going in the opposite direction. I decided to follow them. Down a dark leafy lane, I stayed within sight of their flashlight beams. Soon I smelled wood smoke and heard music. The path led to a clearing on the edge of town, perhaps a soccer field. A bonfire the size of a boxcar burned brightly in the middle, filling the sky with white smoke and flying sparks. I paid the five pounds to get in, a donation to the schools.
Guy Fawkes Day is observed each year on November 5 with bonfires and fireworks. On that day in 1605, Fawkes was arrested while guarding explosives hidden beneath the Parliament. The Gunpowder Plot was thwarted. People lit bonfires in the streets celebrating that King James I had survived the attempt on his life.
Hundreds of townspeople talked around the bonfire. Kids ran around the soggy field in their wellies, waving glow-toys. Pop music blared. The food tent sold grilled sausages and soft drinks. Then the fireworks began, a huge display. Perhaps it only seemed huge because I was standing about fifty yards from the guy lighting the fuses. The fireworks exploded directly over my head. It was the Fourth of July in November.
Full circle at Moreton-in-Marsh
In the village of Blockley I stopped to talk to Graham, a man repairing the side of a house. The house was at the bottom of a narrow lane on a steep downhill. He said the previous week a lorry (truck) pulling a trailer with a backhoe tried to squeeze between the two houses at the bottom of the hill. Instead, the truck became wedged between them, damaging both. Graham blamed it on the driver’s use of GPS to find his route.
Just outside of Moreton-in-Marsh is the Four Shire Stone, a nine-feet-high, 16th-century pillar. It marks the intersection of Gloucestershire, Warwickshire, Oxfordshire and Worcestershire. As a crossroads and market town, Moreton-in-Marsh was a stagecoach stop before the railway came in 1853.
The high street has many elegant 17th and 18th-century inns and houses including the Curfew Tower, which used to ring a fire-warning bell nightly. King Charles I stayed in the White Hart Inn in 1644 following the Battle of Marston Moor. (He left without paying his bill.)
I reached Tree Tops B&B, my final destination. The end of the hike. Host Liz greeted me: “We were hoping you wouldn’t arrive until tea time.” They had just painted the hallway to cover a season’s worth of suitcase scuff marks. She monitored my careful progress up the steps to make sure I didn’t touch the wet paint.
At the laundrette in town I washed the trail mud out of my clothes. Back at the b&b, I cleaned my hiking shoes in the driveway with a garden hose.
It was the best I could do before heading to big-city London.