Jo Ward / Cotswolds.com (m0kurupd20120328164102/600 )
Reporting from Bath, England — On the high street of the lovely Cotswold village of Chipping Campden, just next to the 12th century stone marketplace, sits an unobtrusive but intimidating sign. "Cotswold Way, the beginning and the end," it reads. "Bath 100 m." The "m" stands for miles.
The sign marked the starting point of our 10-day walk through the Cotswolds, along a trail that loosely follows the route that monks in ancient times walked each year to pay tribute to Bath Abbey. My husband, Carl, and I had been planning the trip for months, but as we set off on an overcast day in late April, we were both nervous. Were we really up to 10 consecutive days of hilly walking?
We had chosen the Cotswold Way, one of Britain's well-maintained National Trails, because the region of rolling hills and charming villages has been designated an "area of outstanding beauty" and because it has an excellent infrastructure for walkers. Towns are spaced walking-distance apart, with an abundance of restaurants and lodgings. Most important: I'd found a luggage service that would take our bags from town to town so that we had to carry only what we needed for the day.
England has an extensive network of well-marked footpaths and bridle ways, many of them dating back centuries, and the public has the right to travel them even when they cross private land. Much of the Cotswold Way is on these trails, and our first day's walk, a short five miles up and over the Cotswold escarpment to the picturesque village of Broadway, got us accustomed to the stiles and kissing gates that allow humans access but keep livestock from escaping.
We also got our first taste of the Cotswolds' many joys — well-tended fields of bright-yellow rapeseed, newborn lambs frolicking in verdant pastures, abundant bird life, hardwood forests carpeted with bluebells and vistas that seemed to stretch forever. By the time we got to Broadway, we were feeling far more confident about the trip.
Over the days that followed, we fell into a pleasant rhythm. Up at 7, a hearty breakfast by 7:30, packed and on the trail by 8:30. One of the joys of a long-distance walk is that every step is new territory: There's no retracing your steps. And we quickly embraced the zeitgeist of the Cotswold Way, putting one foot in front of the other and seeing where that took us.
Because the villages tend to be at the bottoms of hills, while the Cotswold Way runs largely along the ridges, most days started with a climb. If we saw a monument on a distant hillside, we knew we would be standing next to it at some point. If there was an ancient burial mound, an Iron Age hill fort, a particularly scenic overlook, our route was sure to include it. We walked through pastures with cows by the dozens (including a bull or two) and sheep by the hundreds, following frequent way-markers that made getting lost nearly impossible. We were fortunate in the weather, with no rain to speak of, and never during 10 days of five- to seven-hour walks was there a morning we wished we could beg off, never a moment along the trail when we wished we were doing something else.
Each day brought some unexpected pleasure. In the town of Dursley, we had a delicious lunch of homemade soup and bread just out of the oven at the Old Spot Inn, namedBritain'spub of the year in 2007 . In a cemetery in the town of Horton, I found dozens of headstones bearing my family name. In the tranquil village of Painswick, we walked in the churchyard among its 99 topiary yew trees, each of which has been adopted by one of the town's residents.
We had daily conversations with locals who lived along the trail or were out walking dogs or picking wildflowers. And we answered the same questions again and again: Had we trained for the walk? (Yes, by going for regular long walks on weekends, building to a couple of 13-milers just to make sure we weren't getting into something we'd regret.) Did we have blisters? (No, but only because we'd broken in our boots well before we left home, and because on the trail we were careful to stop any time we felt the slightest twinge and put on blister pads.) Were we sore? (Only for the first couple of days.)
On the steepest climb of the trip, to the top of Cleeve Hill, we met a British couple who were also walking to Bath and knew all sorts of local lore. They told us how the Cotswolds grew wealthy during the Middle Ages from the wool trade, and how, when competition from Italy began infringing on profits, the wealthy wool merchants got a law passed requiring that England's dead be buried in wool shrouds.
You can book Cotswold Way tours that arrange lodgings for you. But I had been determined to plan the trip myself, and the National Trails website had made that relatively easy. Still, we were never sure what kind of place we'd find ourselves in at the end of the day.