Saturday, June 6, 2020

A Day Hike in the Cotswolds

Last summer, my wife and I took a trip we had wanted to take for a very, very long time. When we were young and very poor, we sometimes talked about what we would do if we had more money. We both agreed that we'd like to travel. Fast forward several jobs later, after our kids were adults, and after my parents passed away, leaving a little extra money behind, and the opportunity presented itself. Most of my childhood was spent overseas. I was born in Germany, baptized in Italy, and graduated High School in England. So, when my parents passed away and we collected my father's life insurance money, we thought that there would be no more appropriate thing to do than to take some of that money and travel, as we had talked about in leaner times. I'm certain it's what Mom and Dad would have wanted us to do, no doubt about it. My wife had lived in Austria for a year and a half, so Austria was definitely on the list, and I wanted to return to England, more than anything. We ended up spending a couple of days in Germany, as well, but the bulk of our time was in the Cotswolds in England and in Vienna and Salzburg in Austria.

Before we left, I prepped myself. I intentionally tapered down my social media presence and usage because, frankly, I wanted to enjoy my real-time experience of being in the moment in Europe and I wanted to be there with my wife. This was also a chance to get back in the swing of writing, which I badly needed to do. Writing is my drug, and because of the craziness with my parents both passing away within a couple of weeks of each other and the ensuing legal "fun" that came afterwards (and is still going on - don't ask), I had not had my fix for quite some time. It really was time to get away from it all, including the digital world.

I've outlined the overall itinerary elsewhere, but I promised that I would, at some point, do some blog posts about the trip. Well, the month in which I was going to do said blog posts, I got caught up in my esoteric denim project (which was incredibly therapeutic, and now I have the coolest denim jacket I've ever owned), so I ran out of time. Now, I mean to make it up. That might mean less time on social media, too. In fact, that's very likely. So much to do, so little time. I'll have to do these posts in chunks. No way can I do one after the other. We're way too busy getting ready to move to our new house for that (I should probably do a post or series of posts on that some time, too). So, I've decided to start off with our last day in England, where we took a long hike through the Cotswolds, around 12 miles in a day. Which might not seem like much, but for us middle-aged types, that's a pretty good hike. So, without further ado, here it is: Our day hike in the Cotswolds.

Our base of operations was Moreton-In-Marsh, the town that J.R.R. Tolkien used as his model for Bree. Of course, we happened to pick the third hottest day of the year that year to go hiking. 31.6 Celsius (88.88 F), which, for England, is blazing hot. And we felt it, right from the get-go.

What we also felt, not long after we left the market at Moreton, was . . . stinging nettles! Oh, yes, nothing like hiking in that kind of heat having walked through a patch of nettles. Luckily, I was just being inoculated against fairy mischief and black magic. Or, at least that's what I chose to believe. I needed to believe in something other than pain at that moment. English nettles seem somehow more potent than their American cousins. Or maybe I'm just getting to be a wimp in my dotage.

The first thing I noticed because of their contrast with the surrounding lush countryside, were some dead trees. Nothing spectacular, just notable for their lack of greenery among such verdancy.

What can I say except that I love trees with character. Nothing says "I've temporarily abandoned electronics for this trip" like dead trees. They are the ultimate symbol of what it means to go analog.

As I mentioned earlier, this day was HOT! Seeing those trees, all parched and dead, right after walking through a bunch of nettles and having my calves peppered with stings, not to mention the incessant itching, did little to encourage me. But I've been hiking for a long time and what I lack in athletic ability, I make up for with sheer stubbornness. Onward we pressed.

First, we passed the village of Batsford, hidden away behind the barley and trees on a hill opposite our trail. We had been in the Cotswolds for nearly a week by this point, but I remarked, upon seeing the village: "Okay, now we are in the Cotswolds!"

Hills just south of Batsford

Three succesive views of Batsford. We hiked left to right, top to bottom, in these pictures. 

Near Batsford is the Batsford Arboretum. We skimmed past it, but were surprised by a herd of (Red?) deer that we didn't know was there. They were pretty skittish and did not like having us hiking so close to them. I can't blame them. They looked pretty tasty and I was probably drooling a bit.

One thing you'll see a lot of in this part of England is stone fences. No, these were not defensive works. They were meant to keep sheep in, rather than people out. Seeing the length and good condition of these fences (none of which seemed to be actually mortared together), one wonders how many hours went into building and maintaining them. They are beautiful and impressive and ubiquitous.

As some of you know, I am a big fan of weird fiction and have a particular like for folk horror. It was appropriate, then that I should be spooked by getting a glimpse of a church out among the trees to our left (west) as we journeyed this part of the trail. I had no idea it was there, only having really looked at the map for the shape of the trail, rather than for features (honestly, I was hoping we would get a bit lost - more on that later). So, when I saw this very old looking church suddenly pop up between some trees, I had visions of grim monks staring out from the belfry at us as we passed by.

Things got even weirder after we past the church, as we walked through what I can only call Faerie Tunnels - portals, maybe? I had the strangest sensation as I looked back on one of the trails, like Frodo has in the Lord of the Rings movies when he's being pursued in the Shire by the Nazgul. It was creepy and cool at the same time. Here, have a look:

Next, we walked past the arboretum's parking lot, I think? Not quite sure what the building was here, as it's not named on the map (and most buildings in the area, at least those of any historical significance) are named.

After this we turned west and climbed a killer hill. This thing just kept going UP! It was on a small road, the kind of road where you worry that someone in a mini is going to whip around the corner and smack you one. We stayed off the road as much as possible, which means we hugged another stone fence. I tried to walk along the top of it. Mistakes were made. I might have had to re-stack a few stones that had somehow fallen off disturbed by I-have-no-idea-what . . . (stupid American tourists).

I really wondered how two cars could go by each other on this road, as it was super tight. Thankfully, I didn't have to see a mishap, as traffic was very sparse. I think we might have seen two vehicles going up that (very, very long) hill.

We topped the hill and crossed the road, because that's what the map told us to do. We thought there should be a stile there, but there wasn't. There was a gate. So, we hopped it. We quickly found out that we had chosen poorly, and lost the trail. Or had we chosen wisely? Take a look at the views this opened up - which otherwise we never would have seen - and you tell me if we chose poorly.

Now, I believe the village in the last photo is Aston Magna (which is technically a "hamlet," not a village). Natives: correct me if I'm wrong on that. Quaint looking little town when you're spying it from the top of the hill, anyway.

After looking out on this and resting a moment (the hill with the wall alongside it is much steeper than it appears in the picture!) we were able to eventually find the trail again. The real trail entrance was about 40 feet down the road, but so surrounded by chest-high grass, that we didn't see it when we crested the hill. They say "it isn't an adventure until you get lost". This was the first time on this hike where we became lost. Definitely not the last time. I must say, though that the maps provided by the incredibly awesome Kooky Cotswold Tours (whom I *strongly* recommend!) were great. We got lost because . . . well, we got lost. The maps were right all along, even if our interpretations of it weren't!

We soon found that we were, thankfully, under trees again. It was sweltering hot, and it felt great to walk under the shade of some immense, old trees. I had visions of druids and faerie folk when we saw these trees.

Of course, dehydration may have had something to do with my dreams of fae and wizards. We brought and drank a *lot* of water, but should have brought half again more with us. I knew we had enough for a couple more miles, but after that, yes, we would survive, but we would both have a splitting headache if we didn't find some more water before too long.

Our trip through the old, gnarled trees took us up on a high ridge (someone needs to tell me if this is technically considered a "Down" - I'm not entirely clear on the proper usage of the word). The trees gave way, in places, to open hillside spilling down beneath us to the Village of Blockley.

I joked with my wife that some of the trees were "Blockleying" the view. I'm surprised I survived the incident, but she was a captive audience and I had the map . . .

The most prominent feature of Blockley was, as with many, if not most, Cotswold villages, the church. We later learned, on returning to the States, that this church is used as a set-piece for the Father Brown TV series on the BBC. I can see why they picked that location. It's a beautiful village, even from afar.

While it would have been nice to go down to the village, we would have had to have crossed several farmer's fields and, potentially, fields of nettle. I had had enough nettle for the day. So, we carried on.

After leaving Blockley behind, we were found ourselves trekking through farmland at the top of the highest set of hills for miles around. The are was rich, they sky was blue and very hot. Here the trail got tricky again, and we found ourselves meandering on the wrong side of the fence . . . twice . . . until we were able to backtrack and find the trail again. We trespassed on several farmer's fields, but no one seemed to mind. They were probably used to amblers wandering off the trail.

At times, the trail was very clear, bounded by walls and ferns. My wife didn't really want me to share too many pictures of her, but I'm sharing this one anyway, as it shows, around her, the beauty of these little stretches.

And, looking back up the trail . . . 

See, that's a trail you can't get lost on! But, like I said, we had already been lost a couple of times, so this was, by now, a full-fledged adventure!

We hooked around the other side of Bastford Arboretum, then downhill before taking a right turn to head, again, up hill toward the aptly-named Bourton-On-Hill.

Did I mention there were sheep? Lots of sheep? This one was marked, so we resisted the urge to steal it and turn it into a curry and wool sweater. Tempting.

We hiked up the hill on which Bourton is . . . er . . . on. And up into the village itself. We already knew it was quaint and lovely, as we had passed through it on our (harrowing left-hand-side) drive to our awesome airbnb. Still, seeing a village from the car is very, very different than seeing it on foot, especially after you've been hiking for 5 miles.

Here, we intentionally veered off-track just a bit, skipping the left-hand (south) turn on the map and continuing up-hill. The reason was, this:

I have literally never been so happy to see a pub (even in my old drinking days). We needed, more than anything, to sit down in a cool dark place get some sustenance. This was the place. And this was the meal:

I had tagliatelle, my favorite pasta, which I learned to love while living in southern Italy as a kid. Natalie opted for an American Cheeseburger. Note that, in this pub, at least, the burger was served without a bun. I don't know if that's how they're always served there (outside of McDonald's, which serve burgers in buns, or they did when I was a teenager) or if that was just a Horse and Groom pub thing. Regardless, it was all delicious. That was some smacking good tagliatelle. Makes me hungry just typing this. Not as fancy as some meals we've had, but, boy, did it hit the spot! We tanked up on water, as well. I think we ordered three large bottles of water, drank them all down, then filled out bottles again. We rested up a bit there, really enjoying the air-conditioning. We got strange looks from locals (in the room to my left, Natalie's right, in the picture) and a dropped and shattered glass (by our awesome and particularly busy hostess) turned heads our way even more. I think that the elderly regulars there didn't want to walk past us because we were so sweaty. Or maybe it was just because of me. I have that effect on people sometimes.

We then headed back downhill and past the church, which was just stark and blocky enough that I thought it would make an awesome Black Sabbath album cover:

We passed the Church, took a right, as the map instructed, then found ourselves facing a sign that say "Private Road". We were at a "T" intersection on the road, with a path going straight on. But that sign was clear - it was a private road. We looked at the map, took our best guess and turned . . . right. We ended up walking up the hill (yet again) and ended up at a dead end house. So, we went back down. We stood, again, at the same spot, right in front of the "Private Road" sign, but couldn't make heads or tails of where we were supposed to pick up the trail. We just sort of stood there, dumbfounded, in the middle of the road, quite lost (again - adventure!) when an older gentleman who was walking his dog (a beautiful Setter) asked if he could help. We explained that we were trying to follow the Monarch's Trail, but that we had lost it at this point because where the trail should be, there was, instead, a private road. He sort of chuckled and said "Oh, that. You're standing on the private road." The sign was oriented such that it looked like it was announcing that the path beyond was private. No, it was the road that ran parallel to the sign that was private. Thanking him (with a great deal of gratitude and embarrassment), we set off down the path. He probably thought we were burglars.

Not far outside town, we passed Sezincote House, an architectural symbol of the colonialism (and Orientalism) that is such a part of English history. It was pretty, from a distance, but we were here to hike, not to gawk. Besides, it's a private home and it felt a little squicky even taking this picture of it:

The next stretch, from the outskirts of Bourton-On-Hill, to the village of Longborough, was, to this point, the longest uninterrupted stretch of countryside we had gone through. This was where the meditative calm of walking really kicked in for me. We talked a bit, of course, but mostly we were slogging our way across the countryside, past fields, over stiles, through gates, many of them "kissing gates" (yes, I kissed my wife through every one of them - she humored me, or maybe "tolerated" is the better word). Walking in silence (punctuated by the occasional kiss) helped me feel like I was "part" of the trail, a single particle in the long concourse of souls who had walked before me and those who would walk after me. One with the trail. This was what we had come for, on this stretch of our holiday. I cannot tell you how good it felt to lose myself in the walk. After my parents' deaths, it felt like my soul had been repaired a bit by returning to the land I loved (and I do love England) and simply moving my body through it. It was restorative and healing.

Through the fields, we entered the Village of Longborough. It was getting on evening time, so there were very few people about. In fact, I don't think we saw one living human there while we walked through, but we saw lots of memorials to dead ones. It's actually quite creepy when I think about it. Like something out of a Folk Horror movie

The next stretch, from Longborough to Moreton-In-Marsh, was the absolute longest leg of the hike. I don't have any pictures from that leg, as I just wanted to enjoy the walk, not to mention my phone was running out of juice by this point. If you look at the pictures above showing the fields between Bourton-On-Hill and Longborough, it was much of the same, with a twist . . . the twist is: we became lost several times on this stretch. I recall it was at least four times, possibly five, where we lost the trail and became seriously disoriented. We wandered over fields we probably had no business being in, through thistle patches, across barley fields that had been cut across by mowers in seemingly random crisscross patterns, over a creek (or was it two? Or was it the same creek meandering?), past bees and flies, under massive pylons, and, finally, into the outskirts of Moreton-In-Marsh. I will be the first to admit that I *loved* getting lost in this way. We always knew the general direction of Moreton, and before too long, we could see the clocktower at the market square peeking up above the trees in the far distance. But we most definitely carved a trail of our own. It was frustrating, hot, sweaty, achy, itchy, and totally worth getting lost for the sake of the adventure! I would definitely do it all over again. Maybe someday . . . 

Our hike was at an end. We stopped for dinner, for our last time on this trip, in the UK. We had started our trip with a meal of fish-n-chips in Oxford and Natalie, being a Culinary Arts teacher, wanted to have fish-n-chips again to get the English food experience. I opted for some delicious pork. Natalie ordered what I normally order for desert, chocolate cake, and I went out on a limb and had a lavender-infused creme brulee. A well-deserved meal and, besides, we could definitely afford the calories!

The people who were sitting behind Natalie were speaking German. An interesting correspondence (maybe magic?) since we would travel to Germany the next day. It's like we were being eased into the Germany/Austria portion of our trip (which I will blog about at a later date). But for the moment, I had one piece of unfinished business: Moreton-In-Marsh was the town that Tolkien used as his model for the Village of Bree. And The Bell, a pub on the market square, was the model for The Prancing Pony. So, I had to stop to take a picture. I couldn't live with myself if I didn't. I gave up drinking a long time ago, so I wasn't going to have a pint there. And they didn't serve dinner that day, so I just popped over to get this shot. A fantastical end to a fantastical visit back to the UK.


  1. Looks like you had a great trip, glad you got the weather, living just a few miles from the Cotswolds, it’s great for a wander.

    1. It was a great trip! And only one day of our week in the UK. Can't wait to get back!

  2. Nice article, it's great to read a little more of your trip. Looks like you found a really good example of a traditional 'Dry Stone Wall' it's a bit of a dying art and many of the ones I see locally are in disrepair.

    1. Yeah, I thought they were mortared together, but not that one. Interesting. There were a few out there. Do people actually get paid to build those, or is it sort of a thing that farmers just do as a matter of course to keep the sheep in?

    2. You sometimes see examples that have been badly repaired with mortar. There are professional wallers and organisations trying to keep the tradition going.

    3. For some reason, it feels . . . reassuring to me that people will keep a tradition like that going. It's not the most efficient method and is surely expensive, but there's something to be said for that kind of preservation.