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Cotswold Way

Books Cotswolds Walking

Laurie Lee and me and the Cotswold Way

For evening entertainment while walking the Cotswold Way, I packed a slim paperback of Laurie Lee’s Cotswold memoir, Cider with Rosie. The book has a firm place in the twentieth-century British literary canon although it remains somewhat unknown in America—at least it did to me before I lived in the Cotswolds. Capturing Lee’s boyhood and an age of lost rural innocence between World War I and the mid-1930s, I can’t think of an obvious American comparison. Little House on the Prairie crossed my mind, but its era (late 19th century) and prose style are different, and the Lark Rise to Candleford trilogy is its more obvious British soulmate.

In any case, Cider with Rosie had been resident on my bookshelf for the past few years—I must have bought it in the publicity surrounding the 2014 centenary of Lee’s birth—but I had never gotten around to reading it. Ten days of immersion in the countryside Lee was so fond of seemed like the perfect excuse to finally crack it open.

On the second night of our journey we stayed near Winchcombe with friends. We were still more than 20 miles north of Lee’s home territory in the Stroud Valleys, but Cider with Rosie would prove itself an eerily relevant literary companion that evening. One half of the couple who were hosting us is a shepherd and earlier he had brought 30 sheep into the garden to address the problem of a broken lawn mower. While we dined on a supper of takeout curry, I looked up from the table to see the flock gathered ominously at the kitchen window, their collective glare seemingly indicating their disapproval of the lamb rogan josh that lay steaming on the table (this menu selection, I note, was the shepherd’s idea). I tried to put them out of my mind as I dipped into the chicken tikka masala, but later, reading the local ghost stories Lee recounts early in the book, it seemed they were destined to haunt my dreams.

There is little remarkable about a two-headed sheep, except that this one was old and talked English. It lived alone among the Catswood Larches, and was only visible during flashes of lightning. It could sing harmoniously in a double voice and cross-question itself for hours; many travelers had heard it while passing that wood, but few, naturally enough, had seen it. Should a thunderstorm ever have confronted you with it, and had you had the presence of mind to inquire, it would have told you the date and nature of your death—at least so people said. 

The next morning I awoke with a start to the 5am wake-up call of the bleating flock, one final act of revenge.

The lawnmower brigade

The lawnmower brigade before the lamb rogan josh incident

Three days of walking later we arrived in Painswick, the closest point on the Cotswold Way to the village where Lee was raised, Slad. Here there were signs to nearby Bulls Cross, but on the advice of Lee, we gave it a miss: At this no man’s crossing, in the days of foot-pads and horses, travellers would meet in suspicion, or lie in wait to do violence on each other, to rob or rape or murder.

In Painswick, Lee’s legacy started to be audible. Sitting in a coffee shop, I overheard a lively local whose father, also a poet like Lee, had apparently known the author and found him a tad arrogant. Our hostess for the next evening had aunts and uncles who had been classmates of Lee at the village school on which he lavishes an entire chapter, a taste of which is here:

Our village school was poor and crowded, but in the end I relished it. It had a lively reek of steaming life: boys’ boots, girls’ hair, stoves and sweat, blue ink, white chalk, and shavings. We learnt nothing abstract or tenuous there—just simple patterns of facts and letters, portable tricks of calculation, no more than was needed to measure a shed, write out a bill, read a swine-disease warning.

From our B&B in Middleyard, we arranged a taxi to take us up to the Woolpack Inn, Laurie Lee’s local pub. The bar is adorned with some pictures of Lee, but the real thing to see is the view from the deck overlooking the Slad Valley. We lingered on the patio while I caught up on my reading before sitting down at a table inside for dinner. Despite its fame from its association with Lee, the Woolpack remains a down-to-earth and lively local, with good real ales and a kitchen punching above its weight.

That evening I was introduced to my favorite chapter of the book, Grannies in the Wainscot, in which Laurie Lee marks himself out as the Alan Bennett of the south of England. The chapter is devoted to the two old ladies who lived in the “top-stroke” of the T-shaped house that Lee grew up in.

Grannie Trill and Granny Wallon were rival ancients and lived on each other’s nerves, and their perpetual enmity was like mice in the walls and absorbed so much of my early days. With their sickle-bent bodies, pale pink eyes, and wild wisps of hedgerow hair they looked to me the very images of witches and they were also much alike. In their time as such close neighbours they never exchanged a word. They communicated instead by means of boots and broomsjumping on floors and knocking on ceilings. They referred to each other as “Er-Down-Under” and “Er-Up-Atop, the Varmint”; for each to the other was an airy nothing, a local habitation not fit to be named.

In the days of walking that followed we left Lee’s patch of England for Wotton-under-Edge and Tormarton, but the scenery remained as beautiful as Lee’s prose, like this description of his beloved mother, a voracious gardener:

While Mother went creeping around the wilderness, pausing to tap some odd bloom on the head, as indulgent, gracious, amiable and inquisitive as a queen at an orphanage. 

On our second-to-last day of the walk we crossed the M4, a major motorway and milestone on the Cotswold Way. While technically still within the boundaries of the Cotswold Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, this part of the Cotswold Way begins to feel foreign for those who hail from north of the border. Both soil color and accents change. At our bed and breakfast in the unfortunately named hamlet of Nimlet, our hostess was particularly disinterested, making it all too easy for us to label this unfamiliar territory as unfriendly. The impression was not helped by the price gouging of a local taxi firm who charged us £25 for a 3-mile journey from the nearest pub, where we had been served a dinner seemingly fashioned out of cement.

Cider with Rosie once again echoed our journey. In the chapter called Outings and Festivals, Lee writes about an Annual Slad Choir Outing to Weston-super-Mare, a 50-mile journey in five charabancs that felt as foreign as going abroad. Their impulses as they entered “stranger’s country” were similar to our own:

So we settled down, and opened our sandwiches, and began to criticize the farming we passed through. The flatness of the Severn Valley now seemed dull after our swooping hills, the salmon-red sandstone of the Clifton Gorges too florid compared with our chalk. Everything began to appear strange and comic, we hooted at the shapes of the hayricks, laughed at the pitiful condition of the cattle…

Once arriving in Weston, members of Lee’s entourage also had gripes about the refreshments: Mrs. Jones was complaining about Weston tea: ‘It’s made from the drains, I reckon.’

The Cotswold Way finishes at the grand doors to Bath Abbey, and Lee also writes about church, albeit an altogether humbler affair, in the final chapter of Cider with Rosie. His lament for the loss of community life seems as poignant today as it must have been when the book was first published in 1959.

This morning service was also something else. It was a return to the Ark of all our species in the face of the ever-threatening flood. We are free of that need now and when the flood does come shall drown proud and alone, no doubt. As it was, the lion knelt down with the lamb, the dove perched on the neck of the hawk, sheep nuzzled wolf, we drew warmth from each other and knew ourselves beasts of one kingdom…

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To end here would be to give the wrong impression of walking the Cotswold Way with the companionship of Lee, which was a joy. Rather I’ll leave you with this gem of a line from Lee’s description of his boyhood summers, my own memories of the summer of 2016 juicily fossilized with Lee’s prose and the paths of the Cotswold Way:

We carried cut hay from the heart of the rick, packed tight as tobacco flake, with grass and wild flowers juicily fossilized within—a whole summer embalmed in our arms. 

Cotswolds Walking

Where to sleep, eat, and drink on the Cotswold Way: The best of life off the trail

It’s been a little more than a week since we arrived in Bath, shattered but giddy over completing the Cotswold Way. Two days later I was stricken—and I do mean all the grandiosity and fervor that word implies—with a nasty stomach flu and, between that and going back to work, haven’t had time to write much about the experience. Spoiler alert: it was awesome.

While I assimilate all 102 miles of the Way and try to figure out how I’m going to get it down in words (I’ve got your pictures here), I thought I’d pass along some of the more prosaic but nonetheless important details now: the best places we slept, ate, and drank along the walk. Because nature aside, the beautiful thing about the Cotswold Way is your never far away from a bed, a pint, and a pie.

Best B&Bs
The Cotswold Way is more B&B than tent, although there are a few fields in which to erect one if you insist. Personally, I prefer a room with freestanding tub, like the one that greeted us at the end of our first day at Shenberrow Hill in Stanton. Wifi is dodgy in the whole village in the early evening, but this was the only shortcoming of an otherwise perfect stay hosted by a British Joan Didion lookalike and her Jack Russell puppy. Five-star full English breakfast.

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Just south of Stroud in Middleyard we stayed at Valley Views, a bungalow B&B owned by the genial Pam. She not only came out into the street to track us down when we somehow veered off the path, she also booked us a taxi to nearby Slad to eat dinner at the legendary Woolpack pub (more on this later). Pam’s accommodation was sparkling clean, with decent wifi and a bath thoughtfully stocked with a variety of bubble and foam potions to soak our weary legs. Five-star full English breakfast.

In Tormarton, just north of the M4, yet another proprietor had to come into a field to find us and lead us back to their B&B, in this case The Little Smithy. Our digs were an entire elegant little cottage, complete with sitting room, kitchen, and, yes, a bathroom with a tub. There’s no wifi, but the accommodation was so comfortable we almost didn’t mind. Three-star full English breakfast, but only because it was doll-house sized. (Having eaten eight consecutive full English breakfasts prior to this one, my arteries thank the hostess for the portion size.)

All these B&Bs are part of the hosts’ home, not a hotel trying to be cute with its name. Mercifully all are directly on the Cotswold Way so, assuming you have a better sense of direction than us, there’s no extra foot mileage involved. All cost under £90 for two.

Best Pubs
After a few days of hiking, it became clear that wild garlic (ramsons) was going to be the official scent of the journey. Covering every woodland floor, these delicate white flowers conspired to keep food on my mind for much of the walk. While others may have been admiring the scenery, I spent most of my time thinking about how I could really go for a nice risotto. Luckily there were excellent pubs en route to keep my thirst and hunger at bay. I even managed to eat some of that wild garlic in a rather cement-like falafel dish. Needless to say, that pub didn’t make this cut.

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Top of the list is the Woolpack Inn in Slad, technically not on the Cotswold Way but worth every cent of a short taxi ride when you’re in the Painswick area of the walk. Famous for being Cotswold writer Laurie Lee’s local, the Woolpack may just be the best pub in the region. Somehow it manages to combine boozer and foodie havens into one glorious setup with nary an ounce of pretension. We spent a luxurious couple hours drinking real ale on the patio before settling down to the meal of the trip: a tomato salad as pretty as any meadow we had walked through, wild asparagus (a delicious first for me) with roasted asparagus and courgette fritters, and a glorious Eton mess.

We didn’t stay the night in Dursley, but I liked what I saw of the town when we walked through somewhere around day 7. While the villages of the north Cotswolds are stunning, their beauty feels a bit like a precious piece of china locked away in your grandmother’s curio cabinet. Dursley in the south Cotswolds feels the opposite: a place where real people live and work, including a rather spectacular newish-looking public library. We had occasion to meet some of the locals when we stopped for an excellent Sunday roast at the vibrant Old Spot Inn. Here we made the acquaintance of Fly, an Italian greyhound, and his human, both of whom were very nice to us despite the fact that I had inadvertently taken Fly’s normal seat in the booth by the bar.

In Hawkesbury Upton, it’s worth taking the teensiest of detours to lunch at the Beaufort Arms, a big, friendly place filled with locals and serving the kind of plentiful stodge you can happily justify on a 16-mile day. In a mega carbo-load, I downed cheese and onion potato cakes with a shared bowl of cheesy chips while the petite Belgian couple who had passed us earlier in the day nibbled their granary bread sandwiches. Needless to say that was the last time we saw them on the Way.

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Finally, I’d be remiss not to mention the Mount Inn in Stanton, overseen by the ever-lovely Pippa who long ago ran the Plough in Cold Aston near our Cotswold home. The Mount Inn is more restaurant than pub, whose excellent food is complimented by the westward-facing vista from their hilltop position. They open at 6PM, but if the weather’s good I recommend arriving a few minutes earlier to nab the bench on the outside deck for some pre-dinner drinks with a view.

Best Bit of Luxury
Conveniently spaced at the nearly halfway and end (or beginning, depending on the direction you walk) points of the Cotswold Way are two opportunities to indulge in a bit of pampering. And let’s face it, walking 10+ miles a day is an excellent excuse for a bit of indulgence. In Painswick, the recently opened and imaginatively named The Painswick, offers a stylish restaurant and hotel. We didn’t stay overnight, but we did have a glass of wine on their wisteria-strewn veranda overlooking the valley followed by a rather posh dinner. I’ll definitely be back, even if my ibérico ham and truffle pizza was served on a tree.

The Painswick

We ended our journey in grand style with a night at the Gainsborough Bath Spa. Arriving in mud-caked boots and waterproof trousers we didn’t exactly fit in with the rest of the clientele, but the gentleman who checked us in treated us like royalty, right down to the bottle of champagne delivered to the room. I like to think it was a congratulatory gift for walking the Cotswold Way, but it turns out they “give” (yes, yes, I know we paid for it in the room price) a bottle to everyone who books direct with the hotel.

Of course the real reason for staying at the Gainsborough is access to Bath’s famed thermal hot springs, which is free to hotel guests in the evenings and early morning. I couldn’t wait that long to take the waters, so I paid the day spa fee and spent several hours relaxing in the various pools, each with slightly different temperatures. In between dips I drank shots of warm chocolate from a slurpee-like dispenser—not the most obvious spa amenity, but I’m a fan—and snapped surreptitious shots of other ridiculousness, like a lion head that barfed lavender ice and came with instructions to scoop handfuls to rub on your entire body. It was entirely divine, as was the whole walk. We’re already talking about doing it again, this time from south to north, but I won’t wait for that to revisit these spots.

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The Details

Shenberrow Hill B&B
Worcestershire WR12 7NE
Tel: +44 (0) 1386 584468

Valley Views B&B
12 Orchard Close
King’s Stanley
Gloucestershire GL10 3QA
Tel: +44 (0) 1453 827458

The Little Smithy B&B 
Smithy House
South Gloucestershire GL9 1HU
Tel: + 44 (0) 1454 218412

The Woolpack Inn
Slad Road
Gloucestershire GL6 7QA
Tel: +44 (0) 1452 813429

The Old Spot Inn
Hill Road
Gloucestershire GL11 4JQ
+44 (0) 1453 542870

Beaufort Arms
High Street
Hawkesbury Upton
Gloucestershire GL9 1AU
+44 (0) 1454 238217

The Mount Inn
Nr Broadway
Worcestershire WR12 7NE
+44 (0)1386 584316

The Painswick
Kemps Lane
Gloucestershire GL6 6YB
+44 (0) 1452 813688

The Gainsborough Bath Spa
Beau Street
Bath BA1 1QY
+44 (0) 1225 358888

Cotswolds Walking

The Cotswold Way: A glutton’s guide to rambling


Photo by Richard Cocks, licensed under https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

Today at 8AM sharp we set off on our nine-day walk along the Cotswold Way, 102-miles of British National Trail from the market town of Chipping Campden to the Georgian city of Bath along a Jurassic-era escarpment. I have wanted to walk it ever since I learned of its existence, both because I am incessant box-ticker—the sort who risks perverting experiences into acts of consumption—and because I know a long walk is one of the few things that can release my mind from my incessant box-ticking.

While it promises breathtaking landscapes and acres of mud, the Cotswold Way is not exactly the deep wilderness one associates with famed American trails like the Appalachian or Pacific Crest. I’m assured there haven’t been any bears in England since medieval times, which means the most aggressive animal we’re likely to encounter is a frolicking lamb or grazing cow. At any given time we won’t be much farther than an hour from a pub, so dehydration is unlikely, too. Indeed, one of the things I’m most looking forward to is kicking off the boots at the end of a long day of tramping through fields and downing a guilt-free pint or three.

Mercifully, camping along the trail is discouraged and we’ll be spending almost every night safely ensconced in a B&B. When on our last day we reach the end of the trail at Bath Abbey, we’ll check into a proper hotel, complete with thermal hot springs from the city’s famed waters in which to soothe our by-then aching muscles. All of this to say it’s the perfect walking holiday for gluttons of both scenery and gastronomy—just enough miles, hills, and pounds hefted in our packs to feel righteous as we rock up to the pub for supper each night. At least that’s the plan. Not in the plan but undoubtedly on the horizon: blisters, lumpy beds, and umpteen fights over directions. And if I’m lucky, somewhere around day five the box-ticking will stop and box and its ticker will briefly become one. Let the rambling begin.