Crossing the Stiles of the Cotswolds on a cold February trip
By Liz Kirchner
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). You can even find lodges with hot tubs at the site.
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
Let me just say, that, even if burial mounds and beer don’t sweep you off your feet, the English countryside in early spring with its loamy feral scent and a stiff breeze smart as a spank on a damp haunch is adrip with fecund, pagan sexuality. Did I mention it was Valentine’s Day? Well it was, and the birds (English robins, magpies, and my favorite, great tits) were going nuts in the roses, the muddy ponies were cavorting, and the wild things yipped in the woods all night. And when I say yipped…
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.
It was not bitterly cold, in fact, many people commented on increasingly warm winters. Boots, rain gear, and 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.
“When we were kids, the snow’d get so high we had to walk on the garden walls! But no more,” said Stan behind the bar at The Stirrup Cup pub in Bisley. “It was called ‘Bisley God Help Us’ because the winters was so horrible.” And everyone agreed. Bisley is not far from equally ancient towns called Famish and Purgatory.
Walkin’ the Cotswolds
The Cotswolds are long low hills (wolds are hills) in the South West and a little in the Midlands regions They are formed by the 100-mile long Cotswold limestone escarpment, a sort of geologic ledge, the stone of which is a characteristic honey brown like old teeth or milky tea, paling to ivory as one goes south.
The buildings throughout this region from byre to cottage to manse, the rolling stone walls, and the rubble piles that were once Roman villas or Iron Age forts are all made of this beautiful honey stone casting everything in a gentle sepia.
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.
Both large and small paths wend through public and private land: fields, woods, meadows, even crops. They both at times merge together or use lanes and roads usually in order to lead you past something of historical or aesthetic interest like a valley view or a pretty village.
Standard, well-maintained and marked stile steps and gates help walkers over field walls and through thickets. Stiles are good markers since you can usually see them even across a big field, although sometimes the path itself is merely the trodden track across a pasture or where the tall grass is mashed and can begin to look like a sheep track even if you have a map.
And a map you must have! Public walking paths are marked as green dashed lines even on everyday English highway maps, but, ideally, bring a 1:25,000 Ordnance Survey map (nationaltrail.co.uk) or buy one at larger booksellers once you’re there.
A thing of cartographic beauty, the OS map of the Cotswold region (for us, OS 80/90) is information-crammed, recording with touchingly geeky precision individual pastures, farm building, Celtic burial mounds (as ‘tumuli’), tithe barns, Neolithic long barrow, springs, and Iron Age beacons.
Although some stretches can seem remote in time and space, you are never really far from a house, village, road, or town, perfect for, in our case, long drizzle-soaked hikes punctuated by plenty of glowing pub firesides.
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.
Walking in the wolds you can see four thousand years of history in one swath of vista peppered as they are with Celtic, Saxon, and Norman burial mounds and heaps of rubble, once Roman villas.
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.
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.
Someone built a golf course on it and there’s sheep poop everywhere, but it is full of ramparts and ditches and is the home of endangered rare and endemic plants and animals cared for by English Nature. There is also Bloody Acre Camp to which we didn’t get, but it has a great name.
Craking Like Hecate
Walking at night is delightful, but can be spooky and best on a familiar path across fields with a flashlight. Searching for a tomb called ‘The Giant’s Stone,’ intrepid I brought snacks but no light, and am known to be a little jumpy in the dark.
We gave up and turned back late where the path ran through woods in which a pheasant was craking like Hecate, and an owl crossed the path.
We trudged on, our Goretex jackets making a lot of noise. Keeping with the mood, something had stirred up a flock of guinea hens in the valley as we crossed a moonlit hillside and they were screaming like they were being murdered.
Waiting for Brian to come through a stile in a copse of gnarled hawthorns, I leaned against a fence, the other side of which was being leaned on by a Highland pony who snuffled my hair in the dark. I did not respond well.
Living the Cotswolds
Holiday or self-catering cottages are not cheap, even in off-season February. At about $100/night, they’re comparable to a mid-level American hotel, but with significant bonuses of a fireplace the size of a Mini-Cooper, and muddy horses just out the kitchen window.
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 webmaster 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.
Drinking the Cotswolds: There are pubs and there are pubs
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 the 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 a Roman villa or Norman church are worked right into the Georgian manse or the post office.
“Well, the Bear serve sautéed potatoes, and The Stirrup Cup serve chips,” said Bob, our host who is grey-bearded, very tall, and shy, “if you know what I mean.” And we did.
Up and down the Toadsmoor Valley, there’s a pub in every village, sometimes two. Each has its own personality: The Bear in Bisley is proud of its 17th-century columns, enormous fireplaces, rather natty, equine (they’re huge, these people, and well-shod) clientele, and sautéed potatoes.
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.
It was Valentine’s Day, and Paul, a big, gruff guy comes in and Stan says, “Eh Paul. You haven’t been in.” and Paul says nothing, but orders a half-pint of Guinness like he’s gearing up and then holds forth to the bar with,
“Oh yes. You ask me now, don’t you Stan? Yes. Me and Stan Bailless we’re big mates,” he says to us. “Yes. I was the best man at his wedding. But, no sight of me for two days. Me at death’s door. No thought of phonin’. Not that I live alone. No stoppin’ by. No checkin’ round. No ‘Maybe we should go check on dear old Paul.’? ”
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
The train from London is expensive whether you book in advance or not (from 35 L per person round trip/ 27L one-way). Even the discount Family Rail Card web site suggests that visitors to Great Britain consider a BritRail Pass instead. The bus is less of production at 20 L per person round trip with frequent launch times, but not to and from small towns like Stroud.
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.
If you’re renting a car on your way to the country or once you’re in it, choose something compact. Lanes and tracks between hedges and lovely stonewalls are ridiculously narrow and invariably a moving van is coming the other way.
Plus, there’s nothing like shooting down lanes like bobsledders, 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 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.
Liz Kirchner writes travel narrative usually involving food, history, and hiking in places that are startlingly lovely, peculiar, or both.