Walking England’s Cotswolds
“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.
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