Follow the Warden

The message read: Meet Ian Macpherson on the bench in front of the Stow-on-the-Wold town hall at 9:30 a.m.

I assumed I’d be getting a tour of the town. How wonderfully wrong I was.

Tall Ian, sporting a yellow Hi-vis vest, hat, backpack and walking stick, introduced himself as a Cotswold Warden, one of a group of volunteers who offer free guided walks across this Area of Outstanding Beauty to pretty well anyone who shows up. Oh and BTW his particular specialty is 10-mile (16 km) walks.

Let’s go!

While he mapped out our route online, I headed to the Co-op to pick up snacks for our five-mile hike. I found lots of chocolate and chips but nothing healthy. When I asked, an employee pointed to a few boxes of fruit and nut bars half-hidden on a bottom shelf.

Before we left the square, Ian was keen to tell me that the romantic expectations we tourists bring to the Cotswolds — all scenic walks and golden thatched cottages frozen in time — need an update. Exciting things are happening, he said, thanks to locals with the resources to bring their big dreams to life.

“When you scratch the surface there’s all sorts of stuff going on.”

Take the 500-seat Longborough Festival Opera built in an opera lover’s back garden. Or the new Berrybank Park grassed ampitheatre constructed in a field in the village of Upper Oddington, home to summer theatre and comedy. Baroness Carole Bamford transformed a small farm shop “in the middle of nowhere” into Daylesford Organic Farm. And father and son team Joe and Adam Henson created the Cotswold Farm Park (open to the public) to preserve vanishing breeds like the Cotswold lion sheep. Their long, shaggy coat made the fortunes of local wool merchants who went on to build glorious churches and buildings in towns like Chipping Campden.

Little did I know that one of the day’s highlights would be an up-close sighting of the noble Lion, which Ian said is very rare.

A rare Cotswold Lion

Off we went, down a lane I’d never have noticed. We were soon striding along a leafy path, passing stone wells that once provided water for entire communities. These well-worn paths were all created for a purpose, said Ian, who turned out to be a fantastic local historian. For centuries they’ve linked villages, led to important landmarks like the local mill or the church and led labourers to their work in the fields. Still other paths took people into the woods to search for fuel.

Along with the Cotswold Way, which begins in Chipping Campden, I discovered England has a number of recreational walking trails with names like Heart of England Way, a 100-mile/160 km route from north to south, and The Monarch’s Way, a 579-mile/932 km trek linking paths King Charles II took as he fled to the coast after the royalists lost the battle of Worcester in 1651.

The first village on today’s modest hike was Broadwell, which from what I could see consisted of a church, a pub and a few large stone houses facing a very green village green. Apparently a local benefactor purchased it to shield it from development.

Ian said the beautifully restored homes around the green are a far cry from the wretchedly poor dwellings that stood here between the First and Second World War. Food production had stopped, forcing people to buy expensive imports and carry their water from local springs. After WW II he said the British government encouraged agricultural production, which helped raise the standard of living in the struggling villages.

The history lessons just kept coming. Having a “listed” house means following strict rules, which can make their upkeep very expensive. He pointed to small triangles cut into the walls of an impressive brick barn (many now posh homes) that were created for ventilation and to encourage barn owls to swoop in and control the rodents that threatened the grain inside.

When I asked about the flat stones stacked upright like books atop the dry stone walls he said they’re meant to dissuade livestock from jumping over the wall.

Every few hundred yards or so Ian would stop to open a gate. With so much livestock around, mostly sheep, I could see why it’s important that walkers carefully close each gate behind them. They are many styles, some long and wide while the curved “kissing gate” allows one person at a time to pass through while keeping livestock safe on the other side. After fiddling with latches for a few days It was a pleasure to have a guide who knew how they all worked.

At the front door of Broadwell Church, originally built by the French in 1100, Ian showed me a faint circle with a dent in the centre that turned out to be a sophisticated sundial. By inserting a stick in the middle and watching where the shadow fell, a parishioner could tell what time the priest would hold mass. Other marks etched in the stone may have been designed to keep witches away.

In the churchyard shaded by a giant yew tree, he pointed out the bale tombs, a flat table topped with an ornately-ribbed stone tube, about a metre long, said to represent a bale of wool. It’s thought the unusual tombs were carved for the rich, particularly those in the wool trade.

Reaching Donnington, we marched straight through a working farm beside barns with slate roofs. While I’d been thinking how generous the farmer was to let a world of strangers wander through his property, Ian said if land has been designated a public footpath, the owner has no choice but to let us pass.

As we walked I learned that like church steeples, which can always guide you home, the rolling landscape provides natural landmarks for local hikers. A favourite is this clump of trees atop a hill about 10 miles from where we stood.

For much of the hike we had the glorious scenery to ourselves. Occasionally we passed small groups of female tourists plus a few men out with their dogs. Without a guide or downloading an OS map from the internet, which I’m sure the other tourists had done, Ian admitted our route would be tricky to duplicate.

At one point, he told me to look carefully at the grassy meadow stretching before us. Instead of the flat fields we’d been ambling though all morning, this one undulated like waves. The long rows of ridges and furrows are remnants of fields plowed for crops over hundreds of years.

Repurposed phone booth, great idea!

In a modern twist on history, we passed several classic red telephone boxes. One contained a public defibrillator, another had been turned into a Little Library and the third actually had a phone inside!

The sun was so bright Ian lent me the extra hat he happened to have handy. He also provided me with a bag to sit on when we stopped for lunch with a view beside a monument to the Battle of Stow, another reminder of England’s civil war.

Before he starts a hike the Warden informs walkers there will be no water, no washrooms and no food outlets along the way unless the day’s route passes through a village. Which means bring your own snacks, water and TP.

I was so impressed that someone would happily donate their time to show tourists the beauty of his/her home and share its history. For once I didn’t have to worry about getting lost or taking a wrong turn, and a Warden’s Walk would be a great way to meet fellow travellers.

When I asked how I could thank him, Ian suggested making a donation to the Warden’s website, http://www.cotswoldsaonb.org.uk, which I did. Money collected is used to maintain the trails we’d walked on.

The site is also a fabulous resource, offering around 300 guided hikes a year along with self-guided hikes. There’s no membership fee and no need to book, just find a walk that suits you on the day you’ll be in town and show up at the appointed time. Each warden has his/her own specialty, which might be birds, flora and fauna, landscapes or villages. The site also includes hike distance and difficulty .

The Tolkien door

Back in Stow, my favourite Warden had one more bit of history to share. At the side of St. Edward’s Church stands a wooden door nestled between two ancient yew trees and lit by a large lantern. It’s rumoured to be the inspiration for J.R.R. Tolkien’s Doors of Durin, the West-door of Moria in The Fellowship of the Ring.

By the time I returned to my hotel Ian had already sent a map of our route. That evening when I emailed a few questions he wrote back to say he was just heading out for a run and would reply later.

I wondered if he was off on another five-mile jaunt to complete his daily quota.

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