The Cotswold region centers on a long steep escarpment of limestone, running north and south through Gloucestershire in southern England. The beautiful stone, creamy or golden, appeared in countless houses, barns, and field walls along our walk. The harmony of land and villages was unbroken, mile after mile. No wonder this has been named an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (an AONB, to an Englishman).
Our route was to wind up and down this Cotswold Edge, with emerald views of the Severn Vale and beyond to the Welsh Marches. Rolling pastures alternated with deep and ancient beech woodlands. It was a landscape out of an anthology of English literature.
Cottage gardens harmonize beautifully with walls of golden stone.
Why walk around the base of a hill when you can climb to the top and down the other side?
I was part of a two-week Sierra Club International outing, one of dozens offered each year. We stayed in small hotels and “bed-and-breakfasts” as we walked from town to town. A support van took our luggage ahead so we could just saunter along with day packs. Though walking distances were programmed for eight to 14 miles a day, any participant could opt out of a day’s walk and take the van. Also we had two “layover” days (to explore as we wished) in Gloucester and Stratford-on-Avon, where we saw the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Much Ado About Nothing.
The Cotswold Way is a thing of beauty in itself. It was put together in the 1960s by linking existing footpaths, some stretches of country lanes, a generous serving of stiles to cross fences, and hundreds of white “waymark” dots giving some clue to the route. This is no simple trail to follow. Just finding it was part of the challenge of each day, map in hand and narrative guidebook in pocket. At one point we concluded: if the path forks, the Way must be the one that is UP. “Maintain the ascent,” was a familiar phrase from our book, and not a bad life motto at that.
The “white dot” shows us the Cotswold Way, approaching the ruins of medieval Hailes Abbey.
This village inn of Painswick held a surprise: a Thai restaurant.
The English tradition of public footpaths is centuries old. The rights of way include many miles across private lands, and access must be kept open. This is a dream come true for walkers. The Ramblers’ Association faithfully defends the routes from any threat (for example, of landowners who refuse access) while exhorting walkers to “Respect the countryside: close the gates in the lambing season.” Often British friends came and walked with us, identifying the many varieties of sheep or spotting tiny wild orchids which were quite a thrill to find. Through exchanges with the locals, we learned of problems and issues like a protested car park for Sudeley Castle which would pave over some Saxon ruins, or the dwindling vitality of the tiniest villages. Though incredibly picturesque, these hamlets suffered from the economic problems of the countryside. “Patronize your village shop,” urged the local newspapers.
Hike leader imitates a signpost to point us down a hidden path.
The author, right, and Mrs. Blatchley in her Painswick cottage garden.
The World Cup was playing that month, and surprisingly both England and the USA were doing well. There was great anticipation in the air. One shop sign read: “10% off everything in the store whilst England remains in the tournament.” Alas, both teams were eliminated in the quarter finals. “Oh well,” said the proprietor at our pub lunch that noon, “and your lads lost today too.” One landlady, Mrs. Blatchley, took us on a fascinating history and architecture walk around Painswick, a village almost too charming to believe. Other favorite villages were Broadway, Stanton, and Snowshill. Cottage gardens featured twig pergolas and gorgeous geraniums of lapis blue.
Our food was surprisingly delicious. Fresh air breeds the best appetite, it seems. We enjoyed a Turkish dinner in Cheltenham and an Indian repast in little Wotton-under-Edge. The next day we bought cheeses (one with cranberries, one with herbs), a wheaty loaf, olives, and ginger biscuits, and ate them for lunch after climbing a prodigious hill while the silvery River Severn meandered below.
We had long daylight at that latitude, from bright dawn by 6:00 a.m. to lingering twilights lasting till 10 at night. It wouldn’t be England without some rain for which we kept rain gear at hand, but we were never drenched. Our weather was mild with scattered clouds and no-nonsense winds on the uplands. A challenge to our boots was the rich gluey mud along the bridlepaths. Sometimes we met the horses or shaggy-coated Highland cattle that churned up these narrow tracks.
A wealth of rare blooms at the Special Plants nursery near Cold Ashton village.
On our last day, we detoured to a country nursery called Special Plants, where the plant-lovers among us admired the rare varieties and chose seeds to try at home. Mine were a tiny bright blue sweet pea called Tutankhamen’s, which have now bloomed merrily in my Pasadena, California garden. Soon we could tell we were approaching a city: there were major roadways at hand, and some we had to cross — on a wing and a prayer.
The last stile! We leave the countryside and approach the city of Bath.
Reluctantly we were ending our adventure. Passing one last Iron Age hill fort, then down a broad green pasture to climb the last stile, we slipped into the outskirts, then the streets of Bath, walking past parks and grand houses, and into the churchyard of soaring Bath Abbey. “The finest journey’s end of any long distance path in England,” said our handbook. A day or two of city exploration remained, to visit the Roman baths, a museum about Jane Austen and another on the history of English dress, the famed architecture of the Royal Crescent, and beautiful bridges across the River Avon. We said farewell to our friends at dinner with poems, a toast to English memories, and that final round of sweet summer pudding.
Most Sierra Club Outings feature guided walks, while others are focused on service projects. About 40% of walking tour participants are mature vacationers and 56% of service volunteers are 50 and better. Trips are open to Club members or non-members, and a detailed trip description is available in advance to guide your choice.
Hiking tours in England and many other Sierra Club Outings – both domestic and international – are listed in each issue of Sierra Magazine, or on the club’s website, www.sierraclub.org/outings. Each inquirer is given the leader’s name to telephone or e-mail with any questions.
The Cotswold Gateway website is a great resource for all highlights that any visitor would want to discover about this designated “Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty”, www.thecotswoldgateway.co.uk.
Check also the Ramblers’ Association, Britain’s biggest walking organization, at www.ramblers.org.uk. The rare plant nursery website, with colorful photos, may be visited at www.specialplants.net.
All photos copyright by Elizabeth Pomeroy.
Elizabeth Pomeroy teaches English at Pasadena City College in California. She is an active Sierra Club member and a leader of its local mountain hikes. Her most recent books are Lost and Found (two volumes), containing storyguides to historic places in Southern California, and John Muir in Southern California. For information and orders, go to Many Moons Press, www.manymoonspress.com. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you are looking to travel by rail anywhere in the North of England, get the best train fares at the northern rail site. Northern Rail calls at over 500 stations in the North of England from Manchester to Blackpool.