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Over Hill and Dale in Cotswolds

THE WANDER YEAR / WEEK 30: ENGLAND * A yearlong series following one couple's journey around the world.

September 03, 2000|MIKE McINTYRE

BATH, England — Three horses blocked our path through the gate, ignoring my stomping, waving and bellowing. I pulled out the miniature key-ring harmonica I'd recently bought in Ireland. I'm no musician, so it was by accident that I blew a sweet and lonesome cowboy tune, only piquing the horses' interest and drawing them nearer. My lips raced over the tiny harp until they locked onto a screeching note, sending the horses trotting in another direction, leaving us to continue our hike.

Andrea and I had negotiated the latest obstacle along the Cotswold Way, a 104-mile trail in western England that runs roughly north to south, from the engaging town of Chipping Campden to the historic city of Bath. The route combines footpaths, bridle ways and minor roads to carry the hiker along the western edge of the Cotswolds, a belt of limestone hills overlooking the Evesham and Severn valleys and the distant rolling land of Wales. The trail wends across green pastures, wooded hollows and wind-swept plateaus, frequently dipping into quaint hamlets studded with buildings of Cotswold stone, a creamy yellow rock that glows on even the cloudiest of days. It's a demanding walk, but in the week it took us to finish, we were rewarded with some of the most glorious scenery the English countryside has to offer.

We trekked 10 to 20 miles per day, staying at B&Bs along the way. We were in Singapore when we decided to take the walk, so we paid $85 to the Internet site to book our lodgings. For $105 more, the site arranged to transport our bags daily to our next stop. Most nights, we ate in pubs near our bed-and-breakfasts, and on days when we wouldn't pass a restaurant by noon, our hosts sent us off with sack lunches.

We had already taken challenging hikes in New Zealand and Nepal earlier on this journey, and we weren't expecting much of a test from the Cotswolds. I thought hiking is to England what skiing is to Nebraska, but the Cotswold Way is deceiving. Although the hills barely rise above 1,000 feet, the trail goes down and up so much that the aggregate climb is close to 13,000 feet. The path is often muddy and cut by horse hoofs. It's also dotted by 225 stiles, most requiring the hiker to step up and over fences, so you soon feel like a contestant in a grueling steeplechase. We didn't trudge into the first night's stop of Winchcombe until after dark, and I nearly cried when the B&B owner told us our room was upstairs.

No matter how sore we woke each morning, the idyllic route usually returned the spring to our step. The trail would meander by grazing sheep, lead us across a churchyard, guide us through a forest of beech and deposit us next to a field of poppies so red it looked like it was afire. As dusk fell on the hamlet of Hailes one day, we passed crumbling cloister arches, all that remain of the 13th century Hailes Abbey. The next day, the path took us by the Neolithic burial mound of Belas Knap.

England's traditional rights of way meant we were often crossing private property, traipsing through crop fields and driveways. In Little Sodbury, the trail spit us out into someone's backyard. Family members paid no notice, continuing to tend their gnome-flanked garden.

We were mostly pleased with our lodgings. In Chipping Campden, Weston Park Farm's one and only room is an entire wing of a centuries-old, ivy-covered stone farmhouse. Out one window, we watched Zodiac, the family's pet peacock, and out another, we glimpsed a red fox. At Langett B&B, outside the city of Cheltenham, we played on the floor with the owners' four Jack Russell terriers--Biff, Becka, Blossom and Freddie. In the village of Old Sodbury, we slept at Dornden Guest House, a former vicarage where we enjoyed a game of croquet, too pooped to use the grass tennis court.

Although it's summer, we ran into few people on the trail. One day, an older farmer fixing a stone fence on his land offered a hearty "Jolly good!" when we told him we were hiking the whole route. A few days later, we crossed paths with a man walking two Labs. During a half-hour discourse, he touched on no fewer than 20 topics, including British military aviation, the American Civil War, forensic science, Libya, the Los Angeles River and Rock Hudson. We gradually edged away. Undaunted but apparently out of segues, the man extended his arm at chest level and called after us, "The Queen Mother is only this tall!"

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