If you want to truly experience the English countryside, do it on foot!
In early May 1999, when our daughter Kelly was five, our family spent ten days in England. It was our first visit to the Cotswolds and our first experience walking in the English countryside. We stayed in a converted pig sty in the tiny village of Lower Swell. The owner of the inn suggested we could walk to the larger town at the top of the hill, with the delightful name of Stow-in-the-Wold. He gave us a little booklet with a map and directions told us we could take a “footpath” that started just down the narrow road.
We saw a footpath sign, opened a gate, and found ourselves on someone’s farm… in a field of sheep! Using the directions, we followed the clear path through the field, into the woods, and eventually reached the outskirts of Stow. On our two-mile walk, we climbed over a stile, crossed a little river, passed by a big manor house, and admired beautiful wildflowers.
This walk was a highlight of our ten-day trip, a look at the Cotswolds we would never have seen from the window of our car… a real experience. Kelly had a close encounter with a sheep, and Charley mastered climbing over a stile!
During the next few days I noticed many green signs along the country lanes indicating “Public Footpath.” It seemed there was a network of paths through the countryside, connecting all the quaint stone villages. Back at home I did more research and learned about the system of footpaths across all of Great Britain… actually across all of Europe. Three years later we returned to the Cotswolds for a 50-mile self-guided walking tour, the first of ten long-distance walking trips we’ve now completed in Europe. (This fall we’re headed off on number eleven, also in England: 100 miles on the Southwest Coast Path in Cornwall.)
Most people probably won’t pursue a multi-day walking trip in Europe, whether it’s 50 miles or 192 miles (the distance of the Coast-to-Coast trail across England, a walk Charley and I have done twice). But if you visit the English countryside—or the countryside in most other parts of Europe, I encourage you to take some sort of walk away from the villages, towns and cities. When you slow down and walk in the countryside, you’re surrounded by nature. You notice the small details and see how people live. Your mind is free to wander… I’ve had some of my best ideas while walking, and also some great conversations with my husband and walking companions. And of course it’s great exercise! to me, walking is the ultimate in “slow travel,” a chance to see an area up close and in slow motion.
Most of our European Experiences trips include an option for a walk of one to four miles. (We always have another activity for those who prefer not to walk.) For example, during our Luberon Experience week we offer a walk from our village of Bonnieux to the neighboring village of Lacoste, a gentle hike in the Cedar Forest on the top of the Petit Luberon mountain, and a more strenuous hike up into the ruins of the ancient Fort de Buoux and its ruined village.
But back to the Cotswolds, the area where my love of countryside walking began. Of course we have to include a walk or two in our Cotswolds Experience week! One of my favorite walks stretches about four miles on the famous Cotswold Way, a 102-mile national trail. After our group’s picnic at Fish Hill and a visit to Broadway Tower, our travelers have the option to walk from the tower back to our base village of Chipping Campden– or they can ride back in our vans and enjoy a final few hours in the village.
Although four miles may sound far, this walk is do-able for most people—even those who aren’t really walkers—because it’s level or downhill all the way. And this stretch of the Cotswold Way offers some of the most beautiful scenery along the entire 102 mile stretch. We do this walk with our groups on Friday afternoon, a fitting grand finale for our week. Depending on your pace and the number of stops you make to admire the scenery or take photos, this walk takes an hour and a half to two hours.
Join us as we walk this stretch of the Cotswolds Way…
Our walk begins at the Broadway Tower, the second highest point in the Cotswolds, with wide views across the Vale of Evesham and the surrounding countryside. On a clear day you might see over 60 miles! The 65-foot high tower was completed in 1798 for the Earl of Coventry; it’s a “folly,” just built for pleasure and decoration, not any defensive purpose. Looking toward the east, you can see the Cotswold Way trail heading off along the adjacent hillside.
Many of these photos are from one of our 2016 groups, when 10 enthusiastic group members joined me for the walk. It was a bit overcast on July 29, but a perfect day for walking.
As far back as the Middle Ages, the Cotswolds were known throughout Europe as the source of top-quality wool. The wool trade brought a lot of wealth to the area, resulting in many fine manor houses, churches and villages. Today there are still over 250,000 sheep in the Cotswolds, raised both for meat (lamb) and wool. Many of the footpaths pass through fields of grazing sheep.
The “countryside code” requires that you not interfere with the farm animals, keep your dog on a leash, and leave any gates as you found them. I enjoy walking in the pastures, especially among the sheep. (I don’t really like walking through a field of cows.)
As a national trail, the Cotswold Way is very well marked, including these wooden signposts. You can also look for an “acorn” symbol. We’ve now reached the picnic area at Fish Hill (where our group had lunch earlier in the afternoon). There are also public restrooms here!
This section of the trail passed through a few large field of wheat and other crops.
Finally we reached Dovers Hill (755 feet)… more sheep and more beautiful views. Dovers Hill is a natural amphitheater and there are traces of Roman activity here. This is also the site of the “Cotswold Olimpicks,” an annual celebration held here since the 1600’s and continuing today. The Olimpicks include unique events such as shin-kicking, morris dancing and tug-of-war. The games were founded by Robert Dover, a local attorney. Today the property is owned and managed by the National Trust. It’s a beautiful spot!
Finally, below us, we see the village of Chipping Campden. And then we spot the signpost, pointing the way to a narrow path. It’s downhill now, on a path, then a paved farm track, and then houses of golden stone on the outskirts of the village.
The walk continues now along the High Street until we reach the marker stone near the old market hall. Some people begin the 100 mile walk in Chipping Campden and travel south to Bath. Others begin in Bath and travel north to Chipping Campden. So the sign says “Cotswold Way. The beginning and the end.” The market hall is an appropriate landmark to finish our walk. Built in 1627 by Sir Baptist Hicks, it provided shelter for traders.
So when you visit to the Cotswolds, go for a walk in the countryside! Perhaps after your first walk– like our family– you’ll return to walk more in the Cotswolds. We walked 50 miles in 1999, the entire 102 miles of the Cotswold Way in 2013, and many shorter walks like the ones we include in our Cotswold Experience week. I’m excited to be back in the Cotswolds again this summer for the gardens, the history, the great food, the welcoming people… and I’m especially excited to walk again in the glorious countryside.
Charley and I want to extend special thanks to the Cotswold wardens, a group of over 350 volunteers who do so much to keep the Cotswolds special. They maintain the footpaths, repair drystone walls, install kissing gates, coordinate with farmers, and much more.