|The Heart Of England Way in pictures|
Day 1 - We found the first marker of the Heart Of England Way attached to a post at the top of a flight of rustic steps leading into woodland. As if on cue the rain began to fall and we were forced to pull on waterproofs before we set off.
Day 1 - We emerged from under the trees onto more open ground which provided great views across rugged heathland, criss-crossed with wide bridleways and studded with stands of Birch and Rowan.
Day 1 - The dark mass of the departing weather-front along with the sudden bright sunshine created a rather amazing effect, turning the spring green leaves of distant trees into glowing emeralds, thrown into stark relief against the cobalt blue of the storm-clouds.
Day 1 - We came across a black marble edifice called the Katyn Monument, which bore evidence to the murder of many Polish citizens at the hands of the Bolsheviks in 1940.
Day 1 - Passing by the strange Gentleshaw water pumping facility, with its quasi-gothic pumping stations and sculpted mounds and slopes all covered in neat turf, we were reminded Telly Tubby Land.
Day 2 - Shortly after starting off we came across these logs of wood stood on-end outside the office of a campsite, and atop each one was the reclining form of a leopard, or a tiger, or some other species of big cat. At first I took them to be finely carved wooden sculptures, hand painted and fixed to the logs, but on closer inspection they looked more like stuffed toys, stained and matted by exposure to the elements.
Day 2 - We passed an attractive pub called the Nelson Inn, perched on the side of a quiet country road, which we decided we would visit before we headed of home later in the day.
Day 2 - After just a few miles of field walking the distinctive spires of Lichfield Cathedral, known as the Ladies Of The Vale, poked up above the tree-line
Day 2 - Weaving our way around the narrow streets of Lichfield we found ourselves standing before the impressive West Front of Lichfield Cathedral.
Day 2 - It is thanks to the Victorian gentleman Sir George Gilbert Scott that we now enjoy the fully restored West Front, complete with re-created statues based on original carvings. I was amazed by the skill and intricacy of the carvings on the West Front; not just the statues, which were of course magnificent, but also the details running around door lintels and columns.
Day 2 - Although extensive restoration was required after the English Civil War, it took over two centuries before the cathedral was fully restored, with the eighteenth century being largely a time of neglect for the old building,
Day 2 - Leaving Lichfield.
Day 2 - Knox’s Grave turned out to be just a name for a lane rather than anything more substantial (apparently Mr. Knox was a notorious highwayman of the eighteenth century and met his end via the hangman before being buried locally) and was a pretty section of the work despite its grim name.
Day 2 - We had to climb Gorsey Hill, and we took a path along a wide grassy valley which swooped upwards for a few hundred feet. It was hot work under the sun and we all arrived at the hill's crest a little breathless, but the reward was the 180 degree view the vantage point gave us. Behind us the land rolled away to where the spires of Lichfield Cathedral dreamed in the heat haze, barely discernible on the horizon. Before us lay the Tame valley – flat fields marching away into the blue with the white buildings of the Kingsbury Oil distribution facility standing out like tiny teeth away to the south.
Day 2 - We crossed the A453 to turn into Drayton Lane and our last section of the walk. Although this was a trek of no more than a mile and a half it was at the end of the day and we were all looking forward to sitting down with a pint of something cold. As a result the road just seemed to go on and on ...
Day 3 - Drayton Basset village centre consisted of a nice collection of cottages, a shop, and a village church but was still asleep on this fine morning and we didn’t encounter a soul as we passed the church, walking out of the village via a narrow hedged lane.
Day 3 - The Birmingham-Fazeley canal was crossed via a most unusual footbridge. Two whitewashed pillars stood at each end, resembling the crenelated towers of a castle
Day 3 - The sun was by now high in the sky and it was pleasant to walk under the dappled shade of the trees that lined the canal's tow path, offering some cool relief from the heat of the day.
Day 3 - We passed through Kingsbury Water Park via its adventure playgrounds, a pen where donkey rides were on offer, and the main station for the Echills Wood miniature railway whose narrow gauge trains carry people on a series of circuits through the park and whose existence is maintained by a group of dedicated and enthusiastic volunteers
Day 3 - Finally we took a path out of the park and away from the crowds, crossing a meadow and then an old stone bridge over the silently gliding River Tame.
Day 3 - After leaving Kingsbury behind we struck off across the largest field we had have ever seen. It must have been a hundred acres in size and had been ploughed to a fine crumbly tilth. Walking across it was like trekking across a Martian plain
Day 3 - Foul End was briefly visited on the way to Shustoke, an unfortunate name for such a pretty place.
Day 3 - Through the branches of stately poplar trees the white sheen of Shustoke reservoir could be spied, with yachts gliding gracefully across its surface, and we picked our way across the meadow to take a cinder path and a bridge over a railway line.
Day 3 - For a mile or so the route took us parallel to the railway on our left, with a sunken brook and then Shustoke reservoir away to our right. It was getting toward the end of the day and the path was one of those rough foot-ways paved with large stone chippings; not the best surface to force tired feet to plod along.
Day 4 - After just a few fields we were leaving the tiny village of Shustoke behind us, making for a small wood called Dumble Wood, passing through its northern edge via a sunken and secluded little dell where a brook chattered through the greenery and an old tree, keeled over many years before, formed a natural bridge for the wildlife.
Day 4 - It was the time of the year when bluebells carpeted the woodlands, their scent hanging in the air.
Day 4 - Soon we were under the cool eaves of Meriden Shafts Wood, particularly pretty woodland that descends gently towards the village of Meriden.
Day 4 - We passed through and out of the village of Meriden via a flight of steps and alongside the charming St. Lawrence church (reputedly founded by Lady Godiva ) passing the imposing Elizabethan-esque Moat House Farm and a few scattered cottages
Day 4 - Berkswell was the final village of today's walk. A place of quietude and pretty cottages, a village green complete with medieval stocks (it is claimed that these were especially built for a one-legged ex-soldier and his two drinking companions as there are only five leg holes), a restored windmill, and of course an old Church.
Day 5 - Setting out on day five, somewhere near Balsall Common.
Day 5 - Dandelion meadows near the grand old house at Baddesley Clinton.
Day 5 - The Stratford-on-Avon canal isn’t a busy waterway, and never really fulfilled its original purpose, being one of the later canals to be excavated and swiftly falling victim to the emerging dominance of the railways
Day 5 - We had a brief encounter with a small patch of woodland called Bush Wood, where we followed a needle-strewn path that dipped down under the silent boughs of pines, walking along for a short while in a sombre twilight, before the path rose again and led us back out into the sunshine.
Day 5 - After several more paddocks and meadows we started to follow a scrubby path over rougher ground which finally opened up to reveal that we were on a high ridge of grassland looking down on the rooftops of Henley-in-Arden.
Day 5 - Henley is one of those places that I always seem to drive through without ever stopping to visit the place. This is a shame really as it has an interesting mix of buildings along a high street, which is an official conservation area. Famous locally for ice-cream production it also has the dubious distinction of once playing host to a number of private lunatic asylums.
Day 5 - Bannam’s Wood is classed as ancient woodland, meaning that it has existed continually since 1600 or before, and it had a lonely hushed feeling about it. It was a very pretty piece of woodland, profuse with wild flowers and birdsong, which offered us terrific views across rural Warwickshire through breaks in its trees.
Day 6 - The day started by following a series of bridleways that threaded between fields and plantations of saplings.
Day 6 - This farm was set high on a ridge, where a cold wind battered us and hastened our descent into more sheltered countryside.
Day 6 - We paused for a moment to admire the Cotswold escarpment, with its green-grey hills rolling southwards into the distance. By tomorrow we would be in amongst them and would be on the final leg of the trek.
Day 6 - The Heart Of England Way took us into the town of Alcester and Malt Mill Lane, a narrow little street where the eaves of the old houses leaned towards each other overhead and where time seemed to have stood still.
Day 6 - After reaching our destination at Bidford-On-Avon we crossed the stone bridge that dissected the town and reached our end-point at the park overlooking the river.
Day 7 - Soon after leaving Bidford-On-Avon we came upon the tiny village of Barton with its collection of aesthetic cottages.
Day 7 - We skirted the edge of Lower Quinton and passed almost seamlessly into Upper Quinton. In fact if it wasn’t for the twin road signs telling you as much you wouldn’t notice the transition at all.
Day 7 - The view back where we came from after a long climb out of the village of Dorsington.
Day 7 - Eventually the uneven rooftops of Mickleton greeted us from across a paddock of tussocky grass, a place of some 1500 souls and officially the most northerly village in Gloucestershire.
Day 7 - It was hard to ignore Meon Hill on this part of the walk, it wasn’t a particularly large hill nor was there anything visually unusual about it, but it had the skyline all to itself and therefore drew the eye. There is a legend about the Black Dog of Meon Hill which roams its slopes and bestows death upon anyone who should catch sight of it.
Day 7 - Finally we reached Chipping Campden and entered Church Street with the imposing St. Lawrence Church. We had the immediate sense that we were in one of the tourist-traps of the Cotswolds – the place was busy with people and they conversed in many different languages.
Day 8 - We had a short walk across a few fields, the spire of Campden’s old church dwindling into the distance.
Day 8 - The delightful village of Broad Campden and the parish church of St Michael and All Angels, with its peculiar circular tower perched on a gable end.
Day 8 - The approach to Blockley was via a narrow footpath that angled down between the walled gardens of cottages to meet its High Street. It was another stunning little village, full of character and charm, with the almost obligatory ancient parish church raising its spire skywards.
Day 8 - For a while the weather was kind to us, and spring sunshine picked out the vibrant green of the leaves overhead. Then came the rain.
Day 8 - A strange folly, like a house for the vertically challenged, provided a sort of gateway to the Sezincote estate and we picked up the Heart Of England Way as it threaded its way across the estate's sprawling acres.
Day 8 - Sezincote house is an imposing pad, distinctive because of its onion dome and vaguely Indian influences, no great surprise really considering that it was built by a man who had spent many years in Bengal and wanted to re-create a little bit of it back in Blighty.
Day 8 - As we reached the village of Longborough the weather changed again, from Hyde to Jeckyll, offering us patches of blue sky and promising sunshine. The village itself offered us typical Cotswold picturesqueness and, more importantly, a pub – The Coach And Horses.
Day 8 - A tiny hedge-lined lane took us past the gorgeous setting of Donnington Brewery with its fine old farmhouse and outbuildings nestling in the lee of gentle hills and where the River Dickler formed a huge lake at its back.
Day 8 - The end of our journey. Bourton-On-The-Water (or 'The Venice Of The Cotswolds') is a little gem of a place. The River Windrush is only ankle deep as it flows swiftly alongside the High Street but it is wide enough to have warranted the erection of several old stone bridges over the centuries, whose arches span the river gracefully and whose open sides afford great photo opportunities for the constant flow of tourists that wander across them.