South West England: A Valentine's Day Ramble in the Cotswolds
We spent four days in the pretty Toadsmoor Valley, as soggy and alluring as its charming name, hiking England’s Cotswolds hills in February, getting roses in our cheeks and drizzle down our necks.
Our plan? Book a strategically located holiday cottage in Bisley-with-Lypiatt, that toddlin’ town: whose history predates the Domesday Book (eleventh century AD), genteelly rural, and nearly the center of the Cotswold region. Through Muriel and Bob (niceworkuk.co.uk) we booked a 17th-century stone stable on a working stud farm dedicated to raising the Queen’s Highland ponies. Pleasant whinnying in the morning).
From there we would set off on day trips to trek along England’s public walking path system through drizzly copses and out amongst the sheep to search for lonely Celtic and Iron Age burial mounds, locally called ‘tumps’, in ancient oak forests until coming upon, just in time, chilled to the bone and muddy to the eyes, a fire-lit pub for sizzling bangers, robust Gloucester cheese, and frothy pints of bitter.
Yipping and Cavorting
Well, more instructively, the weather in mid-February in Gloucestershire (South West England and the Midlands) is rather like early April in the northeast US: cool (48F 9C) days, chill (35F 2C) nights and moist.
Boots, rain gear, and a fleece were a must, with night falling early (before 6) in these high latitudes, but evening light lasting long enough to get you out of the woods and into the pub or home to bed.
Walkin’ the Cotswolds
One terrific thing about England is that it is shot through with a 3000-mile web of walking trails. Large paths like the 240-mile long Fosse Way (originally a Roman road) and the 100-mile long Cotswold Trail are large, well-tended, and relatively straight regional trails.
Cotswold topography is rolling agricultural landscape and deciduous oak, beech, and alder forests, at times rampart steep, but not high (Cleeve Cloud at 1,083 feet near Winchcombe is the highest point); but the topographic lines on an OS map let you tackle or dodge the rigorous spots, and overall the low limestone hills require only reasonable fitness.
Frequently you need to ask around to find them or use your imagination to see them. Sometimes they’re just standing out among the cows like Money Tump, which is five feet tall and two hundred feet around. In addition to their grisly and historical charms, tombs are usually situated in some lovely spot with a nice view since it is now surmised that, although barrows might have contained a cremated somebody, their prime function was not funereal at all, but as territorial markers.
In fact, says David Ross, at the All Great Britain-All The Time web site Britain Express, “They are often sited at the edges of a geographic territory, and not on the true tops of the hills, but on the apparent horizon where they could have been seen from furthest away.” Like Belas Knap, which is four thousand years old, was a communal tomb stuffed with 38 people, is still 18 feet high and 178 feet long, and has a great view.
Walk along the Cotswold Way through the quaint-as-a-doily old town of Painswick, and down a rather dicey stretch of highway to the much battered, but exciting just the same Painswick Beacon, an Iron Age fort and wind-whipped hill from which you can see Wales.
Craking Like Hecate
Living the Cotswolds
Shop in the village market for local cheese and bread for breakfast (you’ll be out all day) and bring your own coffee for the French press. The kitchen will be stocked with essential kitchen utensils, an electric teapot, sugar, and tea.
Holiday Cottages sites like BritainExpress.com, and its gleeful web master David Ross, covers England, Scotland, and Wales and includes a map link to show you exactly where interesting cottages are situated in association with anything that looks vaguely familiar to you; few other sites have maps.
We stayed two pastures and a brook from the idiotically pretty village of Bisley-with-Lypiatt. Bisley is an essentially English village containing a church, a shop, a school, and two pubs. It is a two-hour walk and 10-minute drive up the valley from the larger town, Stroud. Stroud has a train station, shopping promenade, at least one Internet cafe, and several small rental car companies.
Pagan rituals linger in the wolds, even in now rather posh Bisley. We walked from our stable through fields, past the Old Manor (Georgian using chunks of Roman villa) and detoured in the lane where they were digging up the street at the Bisley’s spring.
Everyone said this was bound to cause problems since every spring on Whitsunday the whole village troops down from the All Saints church (Victorian with a 13th century foundation on a Roman site, possessing a Poor Souls light in its garden) in order to toss flowers in the spring. There’s such a time blend, that it’s hard to know how old houses really are because chunks of Roman villa or Norman church are worked right into the Georgian manse or the post office.
Drinking the Cotswolds: There are pubs and there are pubs
The Stirrup Cup in Bisley is proud of its collection of local rugby and cricket team photos, and is full of jolly conversation frequently involving rugby and cricket, but also local history and life. We drank Rucking Mole Bitter and Deuchar’s Ale by the light of the “Money Madness” machine.
A no-smoking law will be enacted in the summer. It’s impossible to anticipate a pub’s schedule. Some are open all day for refreshments, but only serve meals at mid-day and evening. Some aren’t open at all as far as we could tell.
Some, like the Stirrup Cup were rather devil-may-care, closing at 3 officially, but we had stumbled in at 2:30 and were so interested in sampling the Strong Bow Cider and listening to everybody evaluate the relative merits of Manchester United Premium Lager versus Challenge Lager that we talked and drank ‘til 4 with people stopping by all the while.
And Stan says, “Well, we thought you was on a romantic weekend, Paul. You should phone me before you're not well.” And everyone laughed.
We were pleased by the roasted potatoes and sausage chunks tossed with coarse mustard and Shepherd’s Pie in from of the fire at The Bear.
But we loved the Bangers ‘n’ Mash, Colcannon, Stout, Ale, and Rucking Mole at The Stirrup Cup served with information like, “In 1954, we still had ration books.” And “Girls’d use liquid gravy and eyeliner to draw on their stockings.” and “Jilly Cooper’s aunt, Lettice Cooper figured rations for Bisley and wrote recipes like how to make cakes out of root vegetable and all. To keep us from starvin’. A jolly time was had."
There and Away
Consider renting a car at the airport. Renting a car is easy. Returning it isn’t. If you plan to pick up the car at the airport, and jettison it elsewhere, make sure your drop off destination actually has a train or bus station at which to connect.
Although it’s not impossible to get a taxi and local bus routes are pretty brisk from a far-flung rental car agency to a train or bus hub, consider luggage lugging and allow significant time.
We rented a car, a Fiat Panda, at Heathrow, suffering the smirks and derision from the Hertz guy who chortled, “Now don’t go thinkin’ you can actually fit a panda in there, now.” Har Har.
Plus, there’s nothing like shooting down lanes like bob sledders, the little Panda rattling like a tangerine crate rocketing through villages with names like Pagan Hill and Spoonbed, past gravel drives to ancient golden houses with names like Damsel’s Close and Magpie Thumper’s Green ricocheting from grassy bank to muddy berm until, knuckles white, just as you think you can’t hold it all together, that your luck won’t last, the pub parking lot comes into view, and on your side of the road! Up you shoot into a sliver of a space between the Rovers and the recycling bins and go in for a drink and a chat.
Sure, sure: The English countryside in the summer is magnificent what with its golden light drenching the hills and great oak woods, and oozing all over everything like syrup. But early spring’s the time to go. The trails are empty, windswept, romantic, and a little macabre: Celtic burial mounds in the woods, yipping foxes in the copses, croaking and tattered rooks, and long walks home through old loamy woods with night coming on fast.
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