Sheep­walk­ers

How one Western Cana­dian fam­ily pulled on their wellies and spent a va­ca­tion strolling through Eng­land’s famed Cotswolds.

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A to the field, I take a furtive look over each shoul­der, then quickly wave my fam­ily over the gate and into the thick of some stranger’s canola crop. It’s the mid­dle of a week­day, thank­fully, and no­body has seen us. But now is no time to rest. Just as fast, we take o­ on a di­ag­o­nal, not stop­ping un­til we reach the other side a few hun­dred yards down the line.

In Canada, if you at­tempt such a short­cut through some­one else’s prop­erty, chances are it won’t end well. Most home­own­ers there tend to frown on peo­ple scal­ing their back­yard fences, and the coun­try­side is even worse: you’ll likely wind up ei­ther lost in an end­less sea of grain or face to face with live­stock that don’t take kindly to un­fa­mil­iar hu­mans. But here in the Cotswolds, a pic­turesque set of rolling hills and vil­lages about two hours out­side of Lon­don, the pub­lic foot­path is king. These paths, many of which date back cen­turies, criss-cross much of Eng­land, and their ra­tio­nale is sim­ple: the peo­ple’s right to walk trumps the land­lord’s right to pri­vacy. Which is why the 102 miles that make up the Cotswold Way foot­path cut through pri­vately owned fields and

live­stock en­clo­sures alike, not to men­tion care­fully pre­served stone vil­lages, me­dieval ru­ins and ev­ery­thing in be­tween. Add it all up and you get some of the most scenic walk­ing the coun­try has to of­fer. That’s why I’ve come here, along with my part­ner and our two kids (ages nine and five), to catch a glimpse of the Old World in per­son—and on foot.

If you’re a par­ent, chances are you are al­ready guiltily aware that kids in the 21st cen­tury don’t hoof it the way they used to. Fewer and fewer chil­dren are walk­ing to school. Re­cent data from Health Canada shows that just nine per­cent of chil­dren aged five to 17 get the rec­om­mended amount of mod­er­ate to vig­or­ous phys­i­cal ac­tiv­ity each day, pe­riod. Mean­while, a grow­ing body of re­search demon­strates the phys­i­cal and men­tal ben­e­fits that come with sim­ply trundling around out­doors. And while I’d be ly­ing if I said that peo­ple told me a walk­ing tour couldn’t be done with younger chil­dren, that’s only be­cause they didn’t have to say it: the hor­ror at the very idea was writ­ten all over their faces.

Still, Kate Trivedi, whose com­pany, In­spired Walk­ing, spe­cial­izes in cus­tom walk­ing hol­i­days in rural Eng­land, es­ti­mates that chil­dren can man­age about a mile per day per year of age, be­gin­ning at age five. So it is pos­si­ble—phys­i­cally, if not maybe men­tally. For my fam­ily, Trivedi put to­gether a three-day, 16-mile pack­age, and we spent the weeks be­fore­hand in care­ful but sub­tle prepa­ra­tion. “Hey, kids,” we would an­nounce, “to­day we’re go­ing to walk to the mar­ket in­stead!” “But…why?” they asked. “The car’s right there.”

Walk­ing tours have be­come a cot­tage in­dus­try in Eng­land, with the many daunt­ing lo­gis­tics boiled down to a science. A com­pre­hen­sive pack­age of maps and in­struc­tions ar­rives in the mail well ahead of time. Then, once you start walk­ing, the com­pany picks up your lug­gage each morn­ing and has it ready to meet you at your des­ti­na­tion that night. Re­ally, all you’re re­spon­si­ble for is not get­ting lost—as well as pre­par­ing for the fa­mously yo-yoing English weather. Even in late June, we ar­rived on that first morn­ing at a park­ing lot out­side of More­ton-in-Marsh feel­ing like we’d al­ready bombed the se­cond part. We had only flimsy plas­tic pon­chos stashed in our back­packs; our cloth­ing lay­ers were all wrong. No­body had true hik­ing footwear. Mean­while, the fore­cast had rain writ­ten all over it. But the nice thing about walk­ing as a means of trans­porta­tion is its brute sim­plic­ity: no mat­ter the sup­plies or con­di­tions, if your B and B is five miles away, the only way to get there is to take that first step. Then the next one.

And on that first day, the weather gods are on our side. We leave our suit­case with Trivedi and within min­utes are trekking up a forested hill and emerg­ing on a long dirt path next to a field of oats. We’re also get­ting ac­quainted with the par­tic­u­lar lan­guage of maps. Most of our trip aligns with the Cotswold Way foot­path, where a se­ries of posts and gates are marked ac­cord­ingly. But not all of it does. And it’s in those rogue mo­ments that my part­ner and I find our­selves hav­ing con­ver­sa­tions that feel as weirdly meta­phys­i­cal as they are prag­matic, both deep and shal­low, all at the same time. For in­stance, when our di­rec­tions in­struct us to “im­me­di­ately turn left,” what does “im­me­di­ately” mean? Does it mean a few me­tres up the trail, where a nor­mal-look­ing path awaits? Or does it mean right this se­cond, which would send us into a tech­ni­cally walk­a­ble but far sketchier route di­rectly through a patch of sting­ing net­tles? Our hav­ing beds to sleep in tonight de­pends on guess­ing cor­rectly.

But the most sur­pris­ing thing about walk­ing in Eng­land, re­ally, is how easy it is. That’s partly due to the foot­paths but also to how com­pact the en­tire coun­try is. Over the course of our first day, we pass through four dif­fer­ent vil­lages, each one charm­ing and beau­ti­ful, and—bonus!—each with its own cen­turies-old pub wait­ing to greet you with lo­cal beer and food that is sev­eral tiers higher than the per­func­tory chicken-fin­gers-and-Mol­son I’m used to back at home.

We ar­rive in Chip­ping Cam­p­den, vil­lage four of four, late that af­ter­noon. This is one of the best-pre­served towns in the Cotswolds, boast­ing more than 200 build­ings on the Na­tional Her­itage List, many of which are built out of the iconic lime­stone tiles that are har­vested,

still, from a se­ries of lo­cal quar­ries. The word “Chip­ping” it­self comes from the Old English word for “mar­ket,” and our B and B turns out to be con­ve­niently lo­cated across the high street from the town’s man­yarched Mar­ket Hall ( built in 1627). It’s a relic, to be sure, but it doesn’t look out of place. Take away the cars on the road and you would need a few sec­onds to be ab­so­lutely sure what cen­tury you’re in. We sit down on the ho­tel beds and our feet refuse to let us back up again.

The next morn­ing, the weather gods re­turn, in­sis­tent: rain is com­ing. And yet we are forced to burn our first po­ten­tial walk­ing hour at a nearby play­ground be­cause (a) we walked past it ear­lier, ( b) there wasn’t time for the kids to play on it be­fore bed and (c) it has a zi­pline. All im­por­tant considerations when trav­el­ling with young chil­dren.

In fact, by the time we’re truly on the road again, Kate and I have come up with a makeshift list of ways to keep the kids on their feet and mov­ing. The main one is to drop any ex­pec­ta­tion that they will ap­pre­ci­ate the same de­tails we do. We start the morn­ing with a 45-minute hike to the top of Dover’s Hill, home of the charm­ingly in­sane Cotswold Olimpick Games ( past events in­clude shin kick­ing and piano smash­ing), and our five-year-old is still more smitten with a gross bit of sheep’s wool he found on the ground than the panoramic views. Sure. What­ever works. Also, you know those long, ex­cru­ci­at­ingly de­tailed con­ver­sa­tions kids al­ways want to have about the Harry Pot­ter­verse or the top 50 things they love about baby ele­phants? Now is the time to have those con­ver­sa­tions. On a walk­ing tour, all you have is time. It is a beau­ti­ful thing.

Our real se­cret weapon, though, is turn­ing the tour com­pany’s in­struc­tions into a kind of real-life trea­sure hunt. We read each step of the di­rec­tions out loud and then let the kids lead the way, giv­ing them land­marks and tell­tale church spires to look out for as clues. Plus, at the end of each sec­tion, we all en­joy a peanut M&M–based re­ward. (This should go with­out say­ing, but all back­packs should have a pocket or two re­served for break-in-case-of-emer­gency treats.)

The land­mark we’re look­ing for to­day, how­ever, is par­tic­u­larly easy to spot: the Broadway Tower, a 20-me­tre folly tower on top of a bea­con hill with, well, not much around it. The tower was built in 1798 and has been many things over the en­su­ing cen­turies, from a hol­i­day re­treat for the Arts and Crafts move­ment to a work­ing farm to a look­out for the Royal Ob­server Corps dur­ing both world wars. The Cotswold Way takes you right to its door, and the view from the top of the tower is su­perb. Not that the kids would know, as they were more fo­cused on get­ting toasted tea­cakes with jam at the ad­ja­cent café—see the afore­men­tioned tips for suc­cess.

The next morn­ing, the weather gods re­turn, in­sis­tent: Rain is com­ing.

Sure, if you were to look at a map of the ter­rain we’ve covered to­gether, it would look both skimpy and wildly in­ef­fi­cient.

From here, it’s only an hour-long walk down the hill into the vil­lage of Broadway. But as soon as we get up from our ta­ble, the rain is fi­nally upon us. Most of the other vis­i­tors out­side are hastily re­treat­ing to their cars. But we’ve got no choice, breath­able footwear be damned. With the rain fall­ing in buck­ets, the four of us sprint through a se­ries of hills and gates, paus­ing only briefly un­der tree cover next to some very star­tled-look­ing sheep, com­pletely for­get­ting about the flimsy pon­chos in our back­packs all the way into Broadway proper. We’ve made such good time on this last leg that our room at his­toric Cow­ley House isn’t even ready yet; but as luck would have it, the Crown and Trum­pet pub across the road has all the crisps and pints needed to make the time pass more smoothly.

Our fi­nal day is the short­est and eas­i­est of the bunch: a leisurely four-mile walk into the town of Winch­combe, start­ing with a quick taxi ride—the walk­ing com­pany’s idea—to the es­tate vil­lage of Stan­way. From there, it’s another rain-soaked jour­ney through a se­ries of in­creas­ingly hilly sheep en­clo­sures. Luck­ily, each B and B we’ve stayed in has been well ac­cus­tomed to walk­ing-tour clien­tele like us, and ev­ery ra­di­a­tor you walk past is draped in soggy socks and boots left to dry overnight. We grab our own newly warmed gear off one of the Cow­ley House heaters and press on.

By the time we make it to Hailes Abbey, a ru­ined 13th-cen­tury Cis­ter­cian build­ing that was once home to a sup­posed vial of Christ’s blood, the mood has sub­tly changed. With more of the jour­ney now be­hind us than in front, a sense of ac­com­plish­ment be­gins to dawn on us. Sure, if you were to look at a map of the ter­rain we’ve covered to­gether, it would look both skimpy and wildly in­ef­fi­cient. (The allsee­ing Google sug­gests we could’ve done the whole trip by car in a mere 28 min­utes.) But over these three days we have got­ten to know the coun­try­side in ways that can­not be felt from the in­side of a Mini Cooper. It’s a throw­back way of travel that per­fectly matches the feel of the land it­self. We leave the abbey in much the same way its orig­i­nal users would have: leisurely, through a field, in search of the next vil­lage.

The fi­nal stage of our tour puts us back on the well-trod Cotswold Way foot­path, and when the rain re­turns, with a vengeance, this time we’re ready. Up go the hoods. Out come the pon­chos. Down go the M&Ms. As my five-year-old and I sprint across one last hill, hand in hand, yelling the­atri­cally in the face of the down­pour, I think about how far we’ve come in the past 72 hours, phys­i­cally and metaphor­i­cally. Watch­ing us now, from a big enough dis­tance, you might even think we’ve done this be­fore.

March On In Eng­land the walker en­joys mostly un­hin­dered ac­cess to pri­vate paths, mak­ing walk­ing long dis­tances a snap.

Giv­ing Thanks Near the end of the long walk, the fam­ily came across the ru­ins of Hailes Abbey (above), but by this stage, hav­ing ac­cepted the rain (in­set), they no longer needed any sal­va­tion from the el­e­ments.

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