Walk­ing Eng­land’s Cotswolds

The Denver Post - - TRAVEL - By Nancy Nathan

“If you ever need re­mind­ing how odd the English can be, take a trip to Swin­brook,” urged a Bri­tish travel blog I read just be­fore leav­ing for a fall walk­ing tour of the Cotswolds, that glo­ri­ous un­spoiled re­gion in south-cen­tral Eng­land, bounded roughly by Ox­ford, Bath and Strat­ford-upon-Avon.

I’m al­ways up for any re­minder of how odd the English can be, so I con­sid­ered my­self lucky that our group’s walks in­deed would lead to Swin­brook, which lies on one of the most fas­ci­nat­ing of hun­dreds of pub­lic foot­paths through the golden lime­stone vil­lages and sheep pas­tures that are so evoca­tive of the wool trade that built the re­gion six cen­turies ago.

The odd­i­ties we dis­cov­ered at Swin­brook, a small vil­lage only about 20 miles west of Ox­ford, are found at its me­dieval stone church, with its 17th-cen­tury ef­fi­gies of the Fet­ti­place fam­ily lin­ing a wall of the sanc­tu­ary. The Fet­ti­place men, who once ruled large parts of Ox­ford­shire, lie propped up on their el­bows one on top of another, carved in white mar­ble in their knights’ ar­mor, fac­ing vis­i­tors in floor-to-ceil­ing hor­i­zon­tal stacks set in tall mar­ble niches, as if frozen in the midst of Pi­lates class.

My hus­band, Dave, and I were in a group of eight Amer­i­cans and a Bri­tish guide on a six-day trip with the San Diego-based Clas­sic Jour­neys, which spe­cial­izes in small-group walk­ing tours. The two-mile Win­drush Val­ley Walk to Swin­brook from our base in the town of Bur­ford is one of many named trails found through­out the Cotswolds, whose length, de­gree of chal­lenge, and twists and turns are de­tailed in walk­ing-tour guide­books and on­line. (The Cotswolds just marked its 50th an­niver­sary as a pro­tected area, known as an Area of Out­stand­ing Natural Beauty, or AONB. There are 3,000 miles of walk­ing routes within that area. The re­gion’s web­site con­tains maps and de­tailed routes, as well as a cal­en­dar of guided walks.)

The Win­drush Val­ley walk leads you along the slow Wind-rush River, across the wooden stiles that get you over fences and past cu­ri­ous cows and sheep, whose de­posits present the only real ob­sta­cles to a walker. Mid­way is the tiny, 11th-cen­tury St. Oswald’s Church, stranded in a grassy field. Just be­fore we reached it, I paused to talk to the only hu­man we had en­coun­tered, a woman who looked well past her 70s, strid­ing over an an­cient, nar­row bridge where the Win­drush passed by her stone farm­house. She told me that the paths “evolved” be­cause peo­ple used them to go from home to work over cen­turies, like the man she saw for many years car­ry­ing his scythe

through her fam­ily’s fields on his daily jour­ney. I told her I was writ­ing this ar­ti­cle and asked her name. She said I could just call her “Mrs. Bux­ton.” So it was of spe­cial in­ter­est a few min­utes later when we crossed the pas­ture to St. Oswald’s, walked over two mossy stone mark­ers on the ground just out­side the thresh­old and saw the fam­ily that they memo­ri­al­ized: Bux­ton.

St. Oswald’s is known be­cause it was the church serv­ing a van­ished me­dieval vil­lage. Only by walk­ing there can you make out the faint out­lines of foun­da­tions and streets of the set­tle­ment wiped out by the famine of 1315 and then the Great Plague of 1348.

As with the other walks we took dur­ing our Cotswolds stay, which were al­most en­tirely through level or gen­tly slop­ing fields, the one along the Win­drush Val­ley trail was re­mote. Be­sides Mrs. Bux­ton, the only oth­ers we passed were a pair of young women – with the dogs that seem to ac­com­pany all Bri­tons at all times and in all places – who told me they had driven 20 miles from Cirences­ter for an af­ter­noon ram­ble of their own. They grew up walk­ing the foot­paths with their grand­par­ents, they said, be­fore trail mark­ers pointed the way.

Though we de­cided to join a group — and there are many com­pa­nies, Amer­i­can and Bri­tish, which of­fer Cotswolds walk­ing tours of var­i­ous lengths — it is also pos­si­ble to do it your­self by choos­ing one or more vil­lages to stay in and set­ting out from there with your trail maps. Thirty years ago, NBC News an­chor John Chan­cel­lor wrote about his love of walk­ing from one Cotswolds vil­lage inn to the next, where he would bed down for the night and con­tinue the fol­low­ing morn­ing. My hus­band and I used some free time to re­trace the Chan­cel­lor route to see how it had changed, and found that while he wrote that it was largely un­marked, to­day the path — like all in the Cotswolds — is clearly signed with fixed wooden Monarch’s Way and Heart of Eng­land Way mark­ers at twists and turns, and guide­books to take you step-by-step.

The beauty of walk­ing is what you see right in front of your nose that you couldn’t catch in a driveby. There were the faint out­lines of that dis­ap­peared vil­lage at the stranded church of St. Oswald’s in the mid­dle of pas­tures and nowhere near any road. Another day, we came over a rise be­tween fields and could make out on a green hill­side the lines that were the rem­nant of ridge-and-fur­row plow­ing aban­doned af­ter the pop­u­la­tion was dec­i­mated in the 14th cen­tury and the farm­ing econ­omy tran­si­tioned from agri­cul­ture to live­stock.

And while it lies south of the Cotswolds, our tour in­cluded a three-mile walk into Stone­henge, a route that in­dis­pens­ably al­lows you to see how that mon­u­ment from 2500 B.C. is just one part of a com­plex ar­ray of other henges and bar­rows and an­cient “av­enues” to Stone­henge it­self.

Among the more than 50 trails in guide­books, there are some “bread-and-but­ter” Cotswolds walk­ing routes, a group of vol­un­tary war­dens told me when I sat down with them in Bur­ford. One is that Win­drush Val­ley walk to Swin­brook. Another is the Cotswold Way Na­tional Trail, which runs all the way from Chip­ping Cam­p­den in the north down to Bath, a to­tal of 102 miles, and which some group tours walk from end to end in seg­ments over dif­fer­ing lengths of time, from one to two weeks. Cotswolds trail guides lay out both “cir­cu­lar” walks that take you back to your base vil­lage or inn, and oth­ers where you ar­range a pickup or hire one of the ser­vices that will for­ward your bags to a new base.

One morn­ing’s walk started at a fas­ci­nat­ing Na­tional Trust prop­erty at Chastle­ton, a 1600 wool mer­chant’s es­tate. The Trust took it over when de­scen­dants of the orig­i­nal own­ers had to give it up af­ter 400 years of in­creas­ingly failed main­te­nance. The Trust has de­cided that Chastle­ton will stand as a mon­u­ment to the rise and fall of prop­er­ties owned by the once-wealthy.

From Chastle­ton, and across stiles and through slop­ing pas­tures where once again it was just us and the horses and sheep, we wound our way to the vil­lage of Adle­strop. We stood at a van­tage point in its church­yard that over­looks the yel­low lime­stone home where Jane Austen used to visit rel­a­tives when it was a par­son­age. In the church, a note to vis­i­tors says: “A self-pro­claimed ‘des­per­ate walker,’ Jane Austen more than likely walked the pleas­ant lanes from Adle­strop, which she de­scribes in ‘Mans­field Park’ as ‘a re­tired lit­tle vil­lage be­tween gen­tly ris­ing hills.’ ” How cool it was to re­al­ize that we had just de­scended the very same.

Spe­cial to The Washington Post

Fa­mous early-17th cen­tury ef­fi­gies to Ox­ford­shire’s prom­i­nent Fet­ti­place fam­ily adorn St. Mary’s Church in Swin­brook, Eng­land. Nancy Nathan,

Mem­bers of a Clas­sic Jour­neys walk­ing tour group in Swin­brook, Eng­land, climb one of many stiles, or fences, along a walk­ing path through pas­tures. Nancy Nathan, Spe­cial to The Washington Post

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