Sheepwalkers: Strolling Through Cotswolds, England
How one Western Canadian family pulled on their wellies and spent a vacation strolling through England’s famed Cotswolds.
At the entrance to the field, I take a furtive look over each shoulder, then quickly wave my family over the gate and into the thick of some stranger’s canola crop. It’s the middle of a weekday, thankfully, and nobody has seen us. But now is no time to rest. Just as fast, we take off on a diagonal, not stopping until we reach the other side a few hundred yards down the line.
In Canada, if you attempt such a shortcut through someone else’s property, chances are it won’t end well. Most homeowners there tend to frown on people scaling their backyard fences, and the countryside is even worse: you’ll likely wind up either lost in an endless sea of grain or face to face with livestock that don’t take kindly to unfamiliar humans. But here in the Cotswolds, a picturesque set of rolling hills and villages about two hours outside of London, the public footpath is king. These paths, many of which date back centuries, criss-cross much of England, and their rationale is simple: the people’s right to walk trumps the landlord’s right to privacy. Which is why the 102 miles that make up the Cotswold Way footpath cut through privately owned fields and livestock enclosures alike, not to mention carefully preserved stone villages, medieval ruins and everything in between. Add it all up and you get some of the most scenic walking the country has to offer. That’s why I’ve come here, along with my partner and our two kids (ages nine and five), to catch a glimpse of the Old World in person—and on foot.
Walk This Way
If you’re a parent, chances are you are already guiltily aware that kids in the 21st century don’t hoof it the way they used to. Fewer and fewer children are walking to school. Recent data from Health Canada shows that just nine percent of children aged five to 17 get the recommended amount of moderate to vigorous physical activity each day, period. Meanwhile, a growing body of research demonstrates the physical and mental benefits that come with simply trundling around outdoors. And while I’d be lying if I said that people told me a walking tour couldn’t be done with younger children, that’s only because they didn’t have to say it: the horror at the very idea was written all over their faces.
Still, Kate Trivedi, whose company, Inspired Walking, specializes in custom walking holidays in rural England, estimates that children can manage about a mile per day per year of age, beginning at age five. So it is possible—physically, if not maybe mentally. For my family, Trivedi put together a three-day, 16-mile package, and we spent the weeks beforehand in careful but subtle preparation. “Hey, kids,” we would announce, “today we’re going to walk to the market instead!” “But…why?” they asked. “The car’s right there.”
Walking tours have become a cottage industry in England, with the many daunting logistics boiled down to a science. A comprehensive package of maps and instructions arrives in the mail well ahead of time. Then, once you start walking, the company picks up your luggage each morning and has it ready to meet you at your destination that night. Really, all you’re responsible for is not getting lost—as well as preparing for the famously yo-yoing English weather. Even in late June, we arrived on that first morning at a parking lot outside of Moreton-in-Marsh feeling like we’d already bombed the second part. We had only flimsy plastic ponchos stashed in our backpacks; our clothing layers were all wrong. Nobody had true hiking footwear. Meanwhile, the forecast had rain written all over it. But the nice thing about walking as a means of transportation is its brute simplicity: no matter the supplies or conditions, if your B and B is five miles away, the only way to get there is to take that first step. Then the next one.
And on that first day, the weather gods are on our side. We leave our suitcase with Trivedi and within minutes are trekking up a forested hill and emerging on a long dirt path next to a field of oats. We’re also getting acquainted with the particular language of maps. Most of our trip aligns with the Cotswold Way footpath, where a series of posts and gates are marked accordingly. But not all of it does. And it’s in those rogue moments that my partner and I find ourselves having conversations that feel as weirdly metaphysical as they are pragmatic, both deep and shallow, all at the same time. For instance, when our directions instruct us to “immediately turn left,” what does “immediately” mean? Does it mean a few metres up the trail, where a normal-looking path awaits? Or does it mean right this second, which would send us into a technically walkable but far sketchier route directly through a patch of stinging nettles? Our having beds to sleep in tonight depends on guessing correctly.
But the most surprising thing about walking in England, really, is how easy it is. That’s partly due to the footpaths but also to how compact the entire country is. Over the course of our first day, we pass through four different villages, each one charming and beautiful, and—bonus!—each with its own centuries-old pub waiting to greet you with local beer and food that is several tiers higher than the perfunctory chicken-fingers-and-Molson I’m used to back at home.
We arrive in Chipping Campden, village four of four, late that afternoon. This is one of the best-preserved towns in the Cotswolds, boasting more than 200 buildings on the National Heritage List, many of which are built out of the iconic limestone tiles that are harvested, still, from a series of local quarries. The word “Chipping” itself comes from the Old English word for “market,” and our B and B turns out to be conveniently located across the high street from the town’s many-arched Market Hall (built in 1627). It’s a relic, to be sure, but it doesn’t look out of place. Take away the cars on the road and you would need a few seconds to be absolutely sure what century you’re in. We sit down on the hotel beds and our feet refuse to let us back up again.
The next morning, the weather gods return, insistent: rain is coming. And yet we are forced to burn our first potential walking hour at a nearby playground because (a) we walked past it earlier, (b) there wasn’t time for the kids to play on it before bed and (c) it has a zipline. All important considerations when travelling with young children.
In fact, by the time we’re truly on the road again, Kate and I have come up with a makeshift list of ways to keep the kids on their feet and moving. The main one is to drop any expectation that they will appreciate the same details we do. We start the morning with a 45-minute hike to the top of Dover’s Hill, home of the charmingly insane Cotswold Olimpick Games (past events include shin kicking and piano smashing), and our five-year-old is still more smitten with a gross bit of sheep’s wool he found on the ground than the panoramic views. Sure. Whatever works. Also, you know those long, excruciatingly detailed conversations kids always want to have about the Harry Potterverse or the top 50 things they love about baby elephants? Now is the time to have those conversations. On a walking tour, all you have is time. It is a beautiful thing.
Our real secret weapon, though, is turning the tour company’s instructions into a kind of real-life treasure hunt. We read each step of the directions out loud and then let the kids lead the way, giving them landmarks and telltale church spires to look out for as clues. Plus, at the end of each section, we all enjoy a peanut M&M–based reward. (This should go without saying, but all backpacks should have a pocket or two reserved for break-in-case-of-emergency treats.)
The landmark we’re looking for today, however, is particularly easy to spot: the Broadway Tower, a 20-metre folly tower on top of a beacon hill with, well, not much around it. The tower was built in 1798 and has been many things over the ensuing centuries, from a holiday retreat for the Arts and Crafts movement to a working farm to a lookout for the Royal Observer Corps during both world wars. The Cotswold Way takes you right to its door, and the view from the top of the tower is superb. Not that the kids would know, as they were more focused on getting toasted teacakes with jam at the adjacent café—see the aforementioned tips for success.
From here, it’s only an hour-long walk down the hill into the village of Broadway. But as soon as we get up from our table, the rain is finally upon us. Most of the other visitors outside are hastily retreating to their cars. But we’ve got no choice, breathable footwear be damned. With the rain falling in buckets, the four of us sprint through a series of hills and gates, pausing only briefly under tree cover next to some very startled-looking sheep, completely forgetting about the flimsy ponchos in our backpacks all the way into Broadway proper. We’ve made such good time on this last leg that our room at historic Cowley House isn’t even ready yet; but as luck would have it, the Crown and Trumpet pub across the road has all the crisps and pints needed to make the time pass more smoothly.
How Far We’ve Come
Our final day is the shortest and easiest of the bunch: a leisurely four-mile walk into the town of Winchcombe, starting with a quick taxi ride—the walking company’s idea—to the estate village of Stanway. From there, it’s another rain-soaked journey through a series of increasingly hilly sheep enclosures. Luckily, each B and B we’ve stayed in has been well accustomed to walking-tour clientele like us, and every radiator you walk past is draped in soggy socks and boots left to dry overnight. We grab our own newly warmed gear off one of the Cowley House heaters and press on.
By the time we make it to Hailes Abbey, a ruined 13th-century Cistercian building that was once home to a supposed vial of Christ’s blood, the mood has subtly changed. With more of the journey now behind us than in front, a sense of accomplishment begins to dawn on us. Sure, if you were to look at a map of the terrain we’ve covered together, it would look both skimpy and wildly inefficient. (The all- seeing Google suggests we could’ve done the whole trip by car in a mere 28 minutes.) But over these three days we have gotten to know the countryside in ways that cannot be felt from the inside of a Mini Cooper. It’s a throwback way of travel that perfectly matches the feel of the land itself. We leave the abbey in much the same way its original users would have: leisurely, through a field, in search of the next village.
The final stage of our tour puts us back on the well-trod Cotswold Way footpath, and when the rain returns, with a vengeance, this time we’re ready. Up go the hoods. Out come the ponchos. Down go the M&Ms. As my five-year-old and I sprint across one last hill, hand in hand, yelling theatrically in the face of the downpour, I think about how far we’ve come in the past 72 hours, physically and metaphorically. Watching us now, from a big enough distance, you might even think we’ve done this before.