Cotswold Way: Possibly England’s most English walking trail
The images above are a pretty good advertisement for setting off on one of Britain's most celebrated walking routes but read on for even more reasons to do it.
You’ll be wowed by the beauty of the English countryside -- really
Even people who generally associate the countryside with manure and things that make you itch risk being won over by the Cotswold Way.
In spring and summer, the wildflowers achieve a kind of hallucinogenic intensity.
Poppies produce floods of red in the fields. Wild angelica grows along the length of the route, and buttercups and geranium add contrasting splashes of yellow and blue.
And you’ll even come across the odd animal.
When I recently walked the trail I saw red kites riding the thermals. At one point a buzzard hovered and dived for prey over a field of freshly cut hay.
At dusk, there’s every chance you’ll spot an owl setting off on a hunting trip.
You’ll eat proper pub food and discover that English ale can actually taste nice
“Hearty” is one word that sums up traditional English pub food.
“Microwaved” is another, but you’ll find fewer examples of this culinary shortcut than you now, sadly, often get at city pubs.
Classic pub dishes -- and excellent walking fodder -- such as steak-and-kidney pie, fish and chips and bangers and mash are available at most pubs along the Way.
You’ll also be glad the route is as long as it is if you’re not already well acquainted with every proud Englishman’s (and woman’s) favorite liquid refreshment -- ale.
This isn’t fizzy beer or lager but only mildly bubbling stuff that the citizenry have been guzzling for centuries, often in preference to water when the latter was more likely to poison you.
Foreign folk often compare the taste of ale with dishwater and there’s certainly a resemblance. But slake enough of this stuff after stomping miles underfoot each day and its subtle charms -- and the subtle differences between ales -- might win you over.
The Snowshill Arms (Snowshill, nr Broadway; +44 (0)1386 852 653) has a particularly good selection of ales and delicious scampi and chips.
The 500-year-old Dog Inn at Old Sodbury (+44 1454 312 006) is noted not only for that classic English place name but for top-shelf conviviality.
At The Major’s Retreat (High St, Tormarton +44 1454 218 263), the landlord, Roy, willingly offers advice on the next day’s walk section.
And you won’t get lost
Even after one or two of those ales at lunch.
The signposts along the Cotswold Way are so good you could follow the route without a map.
The only time I struggled was in the final two miles as the trail entered Bath, where wooden markers make way for rather feeble stickers left on lampposts.
In the morning, plug into a full English breakfast
B&Bs (generally private homes, offering bed and breakfast accommodation) sprout like mushrooms along the Cotswold Way.
Any self-respecting such establishment will serve a “full English” -- a breakfast of eggs, generally fried; sausages, ideally with a dusting of charcoal; hash browns (not what you might think) and a slurry of baked beans, all sluiced down with a mug of tea and served with complete disregard for any supposedly adverse health consequences.
If it doesn't set you up for a full day of walking, a full English risks rendering you immobile for much of it -- but either way it will probably taste good so the risk's worth taking.
The breakfast at the Old Hundred Coach House (One Hundred Lane; +44 1454 218420) in Tomarton was so filling I suspected some lazy fellow walker had slipped an extra load into my day pack for the first hour or so along the trail, but soon the power boost from all that protein kicked in.
If you’re staying in Bath at the end of the walk (and you should visit this beautiful old Roman town, named after what the Romans spent a lot of time doing there), Bodhi House B&B (31A Englishcombe Lane; +44 (0)1225 461 990) is hard to beat for its service and breakfasts that daringly stray beyond just the full English.
Explore thousands of years of bloody English history on the way
The Cotswold Way is not for people in a hurry, often diverting from straight paths to take in a site of interest -- but there’s a lot of interest for people keen on a little mental time travel.
Much of English history involves the different social classes hacking at each other on bits of the beautiful countryside.
Lansdown is one particularly atmospheric such location along the Way, where loyalists and parliamentarians fought a bloody battle in 1643, to no great effect.
In the northern part of the trail, Belas Knap is a Neolithic long barrow that hints at how the English lived 6,000 years ago, before afternoon tea, pub food and probably even ale.
Broadway Tower is a narrow, graceful tower like something out of a Brothers Grimm fairytale and with a proprietorial 75-kilometer view over the countryside.
You don’t need to play the mule
Some people think no long-distance trail is authentic unless you lug your gear from one sleeping post to another, slipping disks as you go.
Thankfully, this view is not obligatory.
Carryabag (+44 (0)1242 250 642) is a helpful service that moves your bags between each overnight stop on the Cotswold Way.
It lets you bring as much luggage as you want on the trip and so each day you can carry only food, drink and rain gear -- almost essential on any English walk.
Kneel at the temple of afternoon tea
Just because you’ve had a substantial breakfast and dinner, doesn’t mean you won’t get hungry along the way.
Hyphenated, Lord of the Rings-esque names abound among the well-preserved market towns and villages along the Cotswold Way, where afternoon tea remains a ritual.
In one of these resting spots, Wotton-under-Edge, The Singing Teapot (47 Long Street; +44 (0)7889 865 079), is a fine example of that still plentiful beast, the traditional English tea shop.
You can have afternoon tea here with home-made cakes in an atmosphere that’s welcoming rather than cloyingly genteel.
Across the road, The Edge (44 Long Street, Wotton-under-Edge; +44 1453 844108) is an updated version of the tea shop, where the smoothies and fresh pastries come served with a mellow blues soundtrack.
Both places have a take-out service for walkers who want a picnic for the road. Wotton is also a good overnight stop.
You can complete the Cotswold Way in as few as six days, but you’ll take in far more -- and get used to the taste of ale -- in eight or so. If you’re coming from London (many walkers will be) it makes sense to travel by train to the start of the trail, rather than having to arrange to pick up your car at the other end.
First Great Western trains run from London Paddington to both Cheltenham and Moreton-in-Marsh, with buses and taxis from either station to Chipping Campden, where the trail starts.
From the end of the trail it’s a short walk to Bath Spa station -- and from there a regular rail service (+44 (0)1709 849 244) runs back to London.