Becca Hughes-Davies said if I wasn’t back by 6 p.m. she’d send out a search party.
Ever-friendly and helpful though she’s non-stop busy, Becca manages the quirky, comfy 13-room The Porch House in Stow-on-the-Wold, said to be England’s oldest inn. In fact bits of the building, with its stone walls, twisty, creaky stairs and low ceilings lined with ancient beams, date back to 947.
When I told her I planned to walk from Stow to Upper Slaughter and Lower Slaughter, often described as the prettiest villages in England, and on to Bourton-on-the-Water, she pulled a laminated OS (Ordinance Survey) map of the route from the bulging binder she’s assembled for guests.
Of course it might as well have been written in Greek, but she added just enough details to make it feel possible, along with a hearty “You can do this!”
To fortify myself for the journey, she suggested I buy a sandwich at Cotswold Baguettes on nearby Church Street. I also visited a local outfitter to buy the khaki-coloured Tilley hat I’d tried on the day before. Which was ridiculous, as it’s made in Canada and I don’t want to think about how much I paid. After a few hours walking in dazzling 30C sunshine, however, I was grateful for its protection.
My next task was to find the main traffic light on the edge of town. I was positive I’d found it, until a passerby steered me to the light in the next block. With a sign pointing to Lesser Swell. Though Becca had assured me I wouldn’t have to walk on the road, things got a bit dicey when the sidewalk beside the road — more like a highway — petered out. Just then, a footpath almost hidden by trees appeared on the far side of the road and I was back in business. That is until I reached Lesser Swell, a cluster of homes with few trees. A sign for The Slaughters seemed to point right but I saw no sign of a footpath. The only person around was a woman in her front yard who pointed me up the road. Yes!
The name of the route seemed to change at some point from Heart of England to Monarch’s Way, as in King Charles 1, who fled to the coast on a 625-mile journey after being defeated in Worcester.
Though Becca was convinced I’d have plenty of company along the way, I found myself alone in fields of green grass serenaded by jackdaws and European goldfinches. The fresh air mingled with the scent of ripe cow manure. Fortunately there were no cows to manoeuver around though they’d left their calling cards. An escarpment rose in the distance but there were few trees and no hills on today’s route.
It may sound silly, but finding yourself alone in an empty pasture as big as a football field with no visible way out can be rather daunting. Do I walk straight across, down or diagonally to find the next gate? My stress level dialled up a notch when I came upon fields divided by a thin electric fence. Perhaps the owner wanted to keep out animals and people? Once I found the gate I stepped gingerly through, careful not to touch anything. Another gate was shaped like a wooden V, another design to add to my growing collection.
After walking nearly two hours with me, myself and I, the path led me into a shady area next to the Slaughters United Cricket Club pitch. In the distance I could see a few houses with tall peaked roofs and straight chimneys. Civilization! Lower Slaughter!
The word Slaughter, by the way, apparently comes from the old English word slohtre meaning marshy place or mud, rather than commemorating some bloody battle.
Judging by the number of SUVs lining the village streets, I realized that tourists in this part of the Cotswolds hadn’t come for a walking holiday, they’d come to sightsee by car. I was a wee bit envious as they’d be able to see so much more, but walking had brought its own pleasures and a sense of satisfaction.
The Parish Church of St. Mary, small and exquisite, was built in 1867, replacing an earlier one built in the 13th century. A sign invited visitors to enter and look around, while noting that it takes 500 pounds sterling ($760 Cdn) a week to keep the doors open so feel free to leave a donation.
I also wandered into a local art exhibition in the community hall. Most artists offered their work as note cards, easier to carry home than a full-sized painting.
I followed the crowd to The Old Mill, built in the 1800s and operational ’til 1958. No WC, no shade, but a few owners let their dogs frolic in the water near the mill wheel.
Becca had suggested I stop for ice cream. I chose summer berry and paid an extra 50 pence for a chocolate Cadbury flake. Delish! The mill’s gift shop was jammed with kitsch and leather goods. Good thing I didn’t find fall in love with another tea towel — I was already up to four.
I could have walked another mile to Upper Slaughter but Becca, and a few websites, said not to bother. Guess I’ll never know why! Instead, I found the bridle path to Bourton-on-the-Water, wide enough for horses and refreshingly cool under the trees. After crossing a busy road, another footpath took me straight into town. I was joined by a local woman with family in New Brunswick who was rather pleased she recognized my Canadian accent.
To my surprise, I’d arrived in Disneyland, Cotswolds-style. I stopped at the public toilet, paying with a tap of my credit card, then joined the throng of visitors spilling into the streets lined with shops, taking selfies on Bourton’s famous wee bridges and cooling off in the river. GIft shops galore sell Scottish linens, china tea cups, tea towels with William Morris prints (I barely resisted) and gin from the Cotswolds Distillery. Bourton also has plenty of bakeries advertising tea and scones and every second shop sold ice cream. There are even real attractions to visit, from a bird park to a vintage car museum.
I sat at a picnic table in the shade to enjoy my sandwich wrapped in sturdy white paper. It was delicious, ham layered with grated cheese, lettuce, tomato and sliced cucumber on a buttered homemade brown baguette.
Since the route back to Stow was complicated, Becca had suggested taking the public bus home. She’d even provided a schedule. Pullhams, one of several local bus companies, pulled up on the main street right at 2:15. The fare, about $3.50. Beside me were women from Seattle and Philadelphia who’d decided to spend a few nights in the Cotswolds after a work trip to Oxford.
Becca cheered when she saw I’d returned safely, which meant a lot. I celebrated my (still-pathetic) orienteering skills with a pre-dinner G&T made with Highclere (as in Downton Abbey) gin.