Welcome to the Cotswolds

London’s new Elizabeth Line

My trip from London to southern England’s famous Cotswolds region began with a glitch, finding giant locked metal doors at the entrance to the new Elizabeth subway line I was planning to take to Paddington train station. When more subway riders joined me, also unaware the line closed on Sunday, I knew we were in trouble. When I pushed the Help button on the wall, a man’s voice told me to take the Central Line to Oxford Circus then change to the Bakerloo line to Paddington.

Racing upstairs, I caught up with a pair of young women catching the same train to Moreton-in-Marsh. Up and down stairs and through platforms we ran. One woman announced the last three stations would take eight minutes. The other assured me we’d make the 10:38 train. And we did, with 20 minutes to spare.

As the coach filled up, a young woman took the seat across from me and a young man sat beside me. He turned out to be a tenor coming for the summer with five friends to perform at Longborough Festival Opera, a 500-seat opera house built in a wealthy patron’s back garden near Moreton-in-Marsh. The young woman, who works with several Canadian hospitals, had grown up in the area and was visiting her parents. During our pleasant 1.5-hour journey she not only found the singer and his pals a taxi from the train station to the site — they’d apparently tried a dozen companies with no luck and had decided to walk — but she offered Gabriel the coach house behind her house “in the middle of nowhere” for a week. In return for her kindness, the singers promised to arrange opera tickets for her and her parents.

Tamas from Hungary, who adores his new home, met me at the station for a quick taxi ride to the cosy, friendly Cotswold House Hotel in downtown Chipping Campden. As it was too early to check-in I left my bag and my breakfast order with Trish at the front desk and changed into my hiking boots.

Trish suggested starting small with a short walk up to Dover’s Hill for the views. I tried to follow the map she’d given me but was soon wandering aimlessly on the road behind the hotel ’til I found a gentleman working in his garden. He puzzled over the map then sent me further down the road. And there it was, a weathered grey Cotswold Way sign, starting point for an eight-day, 164-km journey that would take one to Bath if one had eight days (I had five) and could handle walking up to 20 km a day.

The sign pointed me up an asphalt road past honey-coloured brick homes made of the area’s famous oolitic limestone. The oldest had roofs made of thick dark brown thatch. As the path narrowed, I was joined by a newly-retired couple who were walking up Dover’s Hill then down to the next village, Broadway, for lunch. By the time we got to the top we were swatting aside tall, thick stalks of cow parsley, like monster Queen Ann’s lace, that lined both sides of the path.

Several gates later we stepped into a meadow dotted with munching sheep, locals walking their dogs and tourists photographing the sheep. Their poop was as ubiquitous as Canada geese and as impossible to avoid. My new friends said goodbye and continued on their way.

Once I’d taken in the Views and admired the sheep I started back to town through a car park and a field that had been mowed for walkers. That’s when I saw a young woman striding my way who said she was returning from Broadway Tower, Was it far? About an hour, she said, beginning from a well-signed trail across the road. As it was only 2 p.m. I had plenty of time before dinner. Straight ahead was a driveway marked Private, while across the road I could see a public footpath skirting a farmer’s field. Onward!

The first leg of the walk took me through a meadow alive with birdsong from nearby trees. My Merlin Bird app identified colourful chaffinches and European goldfinches. Otherwise it was just me, wildflowers and tons of fresh air.

My only concern at this point was the ever-darkening sky. I had no rain gear with me; what if it poured and I still had an hour to walk? I debated whether to head back but decided to keep going. I was soon joined by other couples, some with dogs. An American woman suggested I take a photo of their map since I’d come without one and couldn’t even get Google to work. When I asked a couple returning from the tower how far they’d come they figured about two kilometres. After they left I realized they might have been Canadian as the English measure distance in miles.

By this point I was walking through a field of blue-grey wheat with bushy stalks. How kind of the farmer to mow a path through his crop for strangers, I thought, not realizing he had no choice as footpaths are considered public land.

The path led across several roads, through a bit of woods crowded with English ivy and upward through a rocky sheep pasture before Broadview Tower came into view. This wee castle, 20 meters high, was built in 1799 on the second-highest point on the Cotswold escarpment. On a clear day they say you can see as many as 16 counties in a 62-mile radius. The tiny gift shop inside sells maps and a tour.

A local who’d walked with his dog all the way from Moreton-in-Marsh told me today’s sheep are bred for meat as their wool is worth less than the cost of shearing them. What a change from the 1300s when Cotswold wool powered the English economy and created the wealthy merchants who built these beautiful villages with their soaring church steeples.

With the temperature dropping, though it no longer felt like rain, I didn’t stay long admiring the misty views below and began retracing my steps. With luck, I might even get back to Chipping Campden before the stores closed at 5.

Just as I was feeling particularly pleased with my orienteering abilities, I hit my second snag of the day. The trail I was following ended abruptly at a road and I didn’t see a corresponding gate on the other side. I walked up and down but saw no opening in the bushes across from me. Help! Tamas had joked that when tourists got lost they just followed the road home. Unfortunately I didn’t even know which direction home was.

At that moment a young couple out for a stroll wandered into view . They, too, were heading back to town and showed me where I’d gone wrong — if I’d looked to my right about two meters before reaching the road I’d have found the marked trail. As we walked together I learned they’d lived in the Cotswolds for several years while working in the arts (he’s an actor, she narrates voiceovers). They’d almost bought a house but between Covid and local rules the sale hadn’t gone through. I told them many, many young Canadians share their pain.

Though the stores were closed by the time I arrived at the inn, Trish was there to show me to my sumptuous room at the top of a spiral staircase. She whispered that I was lucky, the AC in my room worked “to American standards,” which she said is rare in these old hotels. I laughed off her comment, not realizing I’d spend the rest of the week melting in quaint rooms with barely-there AC.

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