Footloose in the Cotswolds

The Village of Lower Slaughter is much more attractive than its name lets on. Footpaths around Cotswold are well-signed, but it can be easy to get lost.

Pat Snider
The Village of Lower Slaughter is much more attractive than its name lets on. Footpaths around Cotswold are well-signed, but it can be easy to get lost.

Humorist and author Bill Bryson has been sharing his observations and opinions about Britain for several decades in a series of popular books.

In his latest, “The Road to Little Dribbling,” he writes emphatically, “Nothing — and I mean really, absolutely nothing — is more extraordinary in Britain than the beauty of the countryside.” He might have added that no place in Britain demonstrates that better than the Cotswolds.

This region, located about an hour and a half northwest of London, encompasses 80 square miles of farmlands, rolling hills, pastures and woodlands. It is England’s largest designated “Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.”

Augmenting the charming landscape is a series of historic hamlets and small towns with welcoming pubs, impressive parish churches, and twee cottages surrounded by flowers and gardens. Honey-colored building stones bind it together, and give the region its distinct appearance.

During the 14th century, great wealth came to the Cotswolds thanks to a breed of sheep known as the Cotswold Lion. Their long and strong, yet soft fleece produced what was then considered the best wool in Europe. Wealthy wool merchants funneled their money into grand churches and manor homes, building attractive market towns to accommodate the livestock trade.

But, with the Industrial Revolution and rise of cotton fabric, the wool industry began to collapse, and the area drifted into a new existence as a sleepy backwater.

Decades passed, and time seemed suspended. It wasn’t until the development of the automobile that people “rediscovered” the region.

Today, it is a second-home escape for moneyed Londoners, and its villages are a popular destination for motorcoach day trips from the city.

There are many ways to enjoy the charms of the Cotswolds, but on foot is the best way to experience the bucolic farmlands, delightful vistas, and small towns.

Considered one of the best areas for walking in England, the Cotswolds are crisscrossed by miles of well-used and well-signed footpaths. It should be noted that the Brits have a much different attitude about private property than we Americans.

Developed over time and based on tradition and culture, Right to Roam permits the general public to access certain privately-owned property for exercise and recreational reasons.

In 1949, maps were drawn up to show all the rights of way, and private land owners still must comply. Therefore, it is not unusual to find a wide swath of unplanted crop running through the middle of a wheat field. In fact, most of the footpaths in the Cotswolds traverse farm fields, pasture land, and other private property.

With over 3,000 miles of footpaths in the region, the choices and combinations seem endless. One possibility is to choose a single, long-distance trail such as the Cotswolds Way, which stretches 100 miles from Bath to Chipping Camden, with plenty of villages (and accommodations) along the way.

Another option is to base in one central town such as Winchcombe or Broadway and do day hikes from there. However, most visitors prefer circular walks which offer a variety of scenery and villages.

Planning such a trip from abroad would be a daunting task, but numerous organizing companies, both British- and American-based, make it easy. They arrange all the accommodations from B&Bs and small hotels, to upscale, historic inns. They also organize taxi transfers of luggage so only a light day pack with water, snacks, and rain gear is required.

The following companies offer self-guided walking arrangements, and there are many others as well.

British based: cotswoldwalks.com, cotswoldjourneys.com, inntravel.ltd

American based: countrywalkers.com, backroads.com.

Cutline/photo credits

Photos by Pat Snider

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