I will be the first to admit I have a habit of propagating the concept of Twee Cotswoldia. My version of this part of rural England is all idyll and no ills. I have anthropomorphized every tree and animal within a ten-mile radius of our cottage to within an inch of its non-human life. You can always tell when I’m here because my tweets turn into a feed of hardcore dry-stone-wall porn.
This narrative of the countryside suits me—an outsider who comes here to relax—but of course I know this is a curated concept of these hills. I was reminded of this truth last weekend at the local wine bar when, for some reason, the origin of the name “Helen’s Ditch” came up. I had known it for the decade we’ve been coming here as the way everyone refers to a footpath that runs across the top of a field on the southern edge of town. I always thought someone named Helen owned the land behind it or loved walking there and therefore became its namesake, but it turns out Helen’s Ditch is called that because it’s where her body was found sometime in the 1980s. I wondered if someone was pulling my urban-rube-of-a-leg, but the story was corroborated by one of the more sensible patrons of the wine bar. There is no happy ending here. Nobody knew, or at least remembered, who killed Helen, and her legacy was the most prosaic of landscape features.
Today I went out alone on a walk and was halfway along Helen’s Ditch when I remembered the story. I wasn’t scared as much as morose: somehow Helen’s Ditch seemed a fitting metaphor for the current hurricane season with its combination of benign names of elderly people and deadly consequences. My parents, who live in South Florida, had thus far refused to evacuate ahead of Irma, and I was feeling more furious at them than scared for them. I made it to the end of the ditch path and headed down a dead-end road I had never explored—one of the boons of the Cotswolds is its never-ending supply of new forks in the road. At the end was a gate into a field and the ever-welcome badge-on-a-post indicating it was a public path.
I walked through long grass that soaked my feet through my running shoes, while nettles scraped my ankles. I walked alongside a pond and turned right before turning around to take the route that would lead me into a wood where I would startle a fawn and watch it pogo away. Soon I was at a large pheasant pen, a sort of ginormous chicken coop with tunnel-like entrances fashioned out of chicken wire and metal grates every twenty feet or so. A dozen of these skittish birds had made their way into an adjoining field and were lined up along the fence like they were waiting to face a firing squad, which, sooner or later they would (pheasant season here opens October 1st).
From here there was no way to get into the hamlet I had been aiming for, and so I walked back down the hill around the pen, slipping in mud and scattering pheasants as I went. I fashioned a path through a copse to avoid another particularly treacherous patch of nettles, emerging in a farmyard off a road at the far end of the hamlet. I was happy and out of breath and had forgotten about the world and its ills for an hour, reminding me my narrative of the countryside isn’t so naïve after all.