|The Heart Of England Way|
By Mark Walford
Route: Chipping Campden to Bourton-on-the-Water
Date: Saturday May 11th 2013
Distance: 16m (26km)
Elevation: 430ft (131m) to 866ft (264m)
Climbing (ascent and descent): 1516ft (462m) and 1558ft (475m)
Chipping Campden and the Polish link …
So the last day of our long walk through the Midlands dawned, if not brightly, then at least calmly. There was no capricious wind romping through my garden, kicking my potted plants around like footballs, and a weak but strengthening sun tried its best to stare through billowing clouds. For the last time we went through our morning routine, honed to perfection by now, and we were so unobtrusive that Mrs W hardly noticed us as we slipped out of the house and headed for Chipping Campden, the longest journey yet to reach a start point of the walk. By the time we rolled into the town an hour and a half later the morning had developed a sunny aspect which enhanced the rich gold stone of Campden’s houses and shops. Remembering what the Posh Lady Cabbie had told us yesterday we scouted about the eastern end of the high street, searching for the free car park which we eventually discovered hidden behind rows of rustic cottages. It was indeed free to park all day and even had a sign informing us that this was THE place to park if we were walking the Cotswolds Way. Well, we weren’t on that particular long distance path but nonetheless it was going to save us a fair few quid in parking fees so, thank you Posh Lady Cabbie.
I mooched about while Colin got himself ready and poked my head over a low wall that topped an embankment just behind the car park. I was surprised to find myself looking down onto a cemetery where uniform crosses were arrayed in precise rows, surrounded by a green border of manicured shrubs. It was nothing like the ramshackle disorder of an average parish church and it put me in mind of the many war cemeteries dotted across Europe; neat orderly and well-tended. I have researched since and I think I found the where many displaced Polish citizens – refugees of WWII – found their final resting place. This hushed and secretive graveyard completed a circuit of sorts, a connection which started all the way back on the first day of the walk a hundred miles away, when I had stood beneath the trees of the Forest Of Dean and pondered over the Katyn memorial; dedicated to Polish citizens slain by the Bolsheviks during this turbulent period of history.
Broad Campden with the Americans and the Odd Odours …
Straps tightened, boots laced, and woggles slackened we made our way down and then along historic old High Street, passing the 17th century market hall and a newsagents housed within a 16th century building where I stopped to buy some 21st century sweeties. By Heart Of England Way standards this was quite a lengthy visit and we wandered down the high street a fair way before we followed a sign sharp right and promptly exited Chipping Campden via a hotel courtyard. We had a short walk across a few fields, the spire of Campden’s old church dwindling into the distance, before we found ourselves in the delightful village of We entered the place by filing along a narrow passage between cottages which brought us out before the parish church of St Michael and All Angels, with its peculiar circular tower perched on a gable end. A huge flowering cherry stood next to the church, a million white blossoms cascading down over our heads; a perfect foil for the clusters of impossibly charming terraced cottages that rambled around the church perimeters. Add the backdrop of the rolling Cotswold Hills and Broad Campden instantly became a strong contender for the prettiest place on the walk. We took many pictures and nodded many approving nods before moving on through the village leaving it via a stile which took us onto wilder scrubby pastures, carrying us steadily upwards on an uneven and narrow path.
As we topped a rise that lifted us above the tree-line we bumped into a retired couple who were taking a breather, consulting their map and admiring the fine view of the Cotswold Hills surrounding us. We fell into conversation with them and discovered that they were from Vermont and were touring the Cotswolds with friends, completing some walks along the way. They wanted to know all about the Heart Of England Way, and the other walks we had completed over the years, as they were very much a walking family and had relatives
Church at Broad Campden, Gloucestershire
We left them behind and continued along the narrow track, following the contours of one side of a narrow valley, the floor of which was hidden beneath lush green tree tops. It was a track that canted at an angle and as a result made for uncomfortable walking, along with hazards such as loose stones and hidden tree roots. With a startled ‘ooof’ I tripped a couple of times but managed to stumble forwards rather than sideways and so escaped an uncontrolled gambol into the trees below. We continued along this path until we reached a small cluster of farm buildings where we took a wrong turn and spent a short but frustrating amount of time setting out in all directions but the right one and having to return to the farm buildings to try and orientate ourselves. It’s amazing how one can get lost even with a guidebook, signposts, and a GPS but we managed it well enough. Eventually we found the trail again which, as always, seemed pretty obvious once we had worked it out. We left the farm buildings behind, passing by the great gaping pit of a stone quarry from which emanated the most oddest of smells, reminding me of the chemistry lab at my old school. It was unpleasant and left a coating on the tongue so we were glad to reach a t-junction, turning left along a tiny metalled track and leaving the quarry and its odd aroma behind us.
Blockley with the wayward lambs and the wayward paths …
A few yards along this lane we passed a gate leading to a sheep pasture. It was lambing time and there were dozens of the youngsters in the field, closely chaperoned by anxious mothers. The gate was firmly locked and yet somehow a pair of lambs had managed to escape the field and were now standing in the lane in front of us, confused and anxious to re-join their flock. At the sight of us they panicked and ran towards the gate, head-butting it in their desperation to escape. I moved towards them to see if I could open the gate, or at least pick them up and deposit them back in the field but this only prompted them to run past me and back to the lane, were they turned left and galloped away bleating. The last we saw of them were their fluffy rear ends disappearing around a corner. We had no choice but to carry on, however I did worry about them for quite a while afterwards, hoping that they managed to find their way back to their mum. Sadly I’ll never know.
We experienced a light rainfall as we continued down the road, a forerunner of what was to come later, but just as we were debating about pulling on waterproofs it dried up again and the sun broke out, illuminating a large field of lush grass ahead of us and the two distant figures of our American friends who must have overtaken us as we dithered amongst the farm buildings earlier. We caught up with them as the large field of grass led to a steep sided valley which we descended, seeing ahead of us the rather steep climb back up again. We admitted to them that we had taken a wrong turn and they expressed surprise that we had managed to get back on route without bickering.
“In fact,” concluded the husband, “it’s a credit to you both that as brothers you have managed to walk a whole week together without murder being done.”
I’d never considered this before but had time to do so as I laboured back up the steep grassy slope on the other side of the valley. Colin and I had walked several long trails together and I couldn’t recall a single instance where we had fallen out. There had been times
We emerged from the grassy valley and struck off along an obvious path across a large field towards the edge of Blockley village, reaching it only to confirm that we were off-route once again. The Americans had faithfully followed us – after all it was our country so we ought to know where we were going – and we had to give them the good news that they were now also officially lost. I dug out my iPhone and fired up the GPS app, which fascinated the husband.
“That’s some classy little gadget you got there,”
We retraced our steps to pick up the not-so-obvious path across the field that took us to a far corner were another arrow-straight track shepherded us across a ploughed field and towards the edge of the village. We lost sight of our American friends at this point and never saw them again.
The approach to 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.
“Grand, eh?” observed Colin.
However we were on the Heart Of England Way and that meant we passed through the village through its narrowest part, leaving it behind in the blink of an eye to enjoy a long slow climb up a grassy hillside. Panting, we reached a point where we could look down upon the rooftops of Blockley from on high and beyond over the rolling expanse of the Gloucester countryside. It was reward enough and once we had our breath back we turned to continue across a series of fields which offered, if not spectacular walking, then at least flat and easy walking. After the fields there followed a pleasant section in which we walked along a path that wound its way beneath the canopy of mature trees, offering cool shade and dappled sunshine. I was calculating our progress and realised that we were making excellent time despite a small detour or two and I contemplated an earlier than anticipated end to the walk. This sort of optimism is always going to court trouble and we didn’t have to wait long for it to arrive.
Sezingcote with the lost hour and the red cows …
We reached a small road leading to Batsford Manor and its famous (I visited the arboretum once during a sunny autumn and I can thoroughly recommend it) and crossed over it, following the Heart Of England Way signs. The signs seemed to indicate that we should follow a track along the edge of a series of rough meadows, which we duly did. Alarm bells rang when, after the third or fourth such meadow, we lost the signs for the Heart Of England Way - they had been replaced by other, entirely different way-markers, inviting us to follow paths we had no desire to be on. We were off route again. Puzzled, we retraced our steps across the meadows and almost back to the Batsford lane. It was all very confusing as the GPS seemed to be pointing back along the way we had already tried. We struck off again across the meadow, this time diagonally, keeping an eye on the GPS and hoping our location marker would eventually re-join the Heart Of England Way line on the map - and yet somehow it never did. This pantomime continued for the best part of an hour as we criss-crossed meadows, followed hedges, climbed fences and always (infuriatingly) ended up back at Batsford lane. With set expressions and limited brain capacity we tried to work it out logically. By careful retracing of our steps we eventually found a point, halfway across the first meadow, where a sign-post was fenced off by barbed wire, making any of the tiny disc-markers on the post indecipherable. One of those discs, had we been able to read it, pointed out a path that almost doubled back on itself, leading to a far corner of the meadow where the Heart Of England Way met the junction of Batsford lane and the A44. So there were the culprits; a needless detour and an inaccessible sign-post. Trudging back along the correct path we lapsed into a spot of cursing. We cursed the people who had fenced off the sign post with barbed wire, we cursed the owners of Batsford lane who forced walkers to make a needless triangular detour rather than simply walk down their precious little road, and most of all we cursed the weather which suddenly turned ugly and hammered us with a nasty squall as we made for the road junction. We pulled on waterproofs when we reached the junction but by then we were already soaked to the skin so it was largely a symbolic gesture.
We had to follow the A44 uphill and into the village of Bourton-On-The-Hill and of course this is where the rain became particularly heavy, hitting us twice – once from the skies and a second time from the spray of passing traffic. Just as we reached the summit of the hill at the centre of the village the rain stopped abruptly, the clouds rolled away, and the sun smiled down on us as if it the rainstorm
Soon we were on the trail that would lead us into the grounds of the Sezingcote estate but not before another brief squall hurried overhead and pelted us with rain (we were to spend the rest of the day with one eye to the west, where all the bad weather was coming in from). A strange folly, like a house for the vertically challenged, provided a sort of gateway to the estate and we picked up the Heart Of England Way as it threaded its way across the estates vast acreage, following the line of a barbed wire fence. I was quite glad of the fence as Sezincotes great passion seemed to be cows and there were herds of them all over the place, along with a decent crop of young calves. The fence was meant to keep walkers and cattle apart and there would be no argument from me.
“Unusual colour for cows,” mused Colin as he admired the deep red richness of their coats.
“They’re Red Polls,” I informed him.
“How do you know that?” he asked, genuinely surprised that a city-bred oik should have such knowledge.
In truth I had no idea how I knew, I just did. It was one of those useless factoids that the human brain stores away in case it might come in useful one day.
“I watch Country File,” I replied for want of a better explanation. It was meant half seriously but Colin found it entirely amusing. Presently the great house itself came into view across yet another cow pasture. 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. The house is of late 18th century origin and sits proudly looking out across its large collection of Red Polls, framed by a small forest of dark pines. As we admired the house and wondered how many bathrooms it had and whether you could get a decent broadband connection a large group of walkers passed us by. They were an assorted bunch, ranging from elderly gentlemen to toddlers, lithe young women to matronly grandmothers, and they were all impeccably dressed and rather well spoken. They nodded and said many a hello as they filed past us and I wondered if perhaps they were connected to the great house and were out for a stroll amongst their meadows. Perhaps the present owner, the living descendant of the founder of this great estate had just wished me a good day – and I had missed the chance to ask him about that broad band….
Longborough with the unplanned lunch and the missing Slaughter …
After we left the estate we continued along the edge of four large fields that rose upwards to our right and towards a skyline that grew ever more threatening as we progressed. There was another big squall heading our way but we were now on open and exposed ground and there was nowhere to hide. With a certain resignation we pulled on our waterproofs – I had forgone the option of carrying over-trousers so at least half of me was going to get a good soaking. Sure enough, about midway through the third field, a cold wind suddenly whooshed over the hill and a bracing rain began to pelt us. It was coming in at an acute angle from the west and it was cold and intense, so that before we reached any sort of shelter we had water running down our legs and into our boots. It was, to say the least, refreshing. After the fourth field there was a line of a hedge behind which a knot of people sheltered with wilted summer clothing and dripping dogs. We passed them by, dripping in sympathy, and continued on into the downpour deciding that shelter was by now largely irrelevant. As we reached the village of 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 – - where we decided we would stop to have a drink and dry out as much as possible. The beer arrived and was so good that we reached a decision to have a proper lunch instead of cold sandwiches and enjoyed a plateful of good honest food – steak and ale pie with chips.
Dry and well fed we set off again, passing through the quiet lanes and quaint terraces of Longborough to strike out across fields once more, now golden mellow under an afternoon sun that beamed from a blue sky. A little section of lane walking followed, which was a pleasant change from field boundaries
The lane (plus a short hop or two across fields) took us first to Upper Swell where we walked one of the busier roads of the day along a series of hairpin bends and whose cottages butted out almost into the road itself and then to Lower Swell which boasted yet more chocolate-box dwellings. In fact we had almost become immune to the charms of the villages we now walked through, having seen so many of them over the last two days. I still anticipated the visit to Upper Slaughter though, as I had been there before and I knew that even in an area crammed full of beautiful villages it stood head and shoulders above most of them. I had told Colin all about Upper Slaughter and he too looked forward to passing through the place. However there was still some mileage to make and as we left the Swells behind the clouds gathered once more and the golden afternoon became as grey as a dishcloth, and very soon as wet. There followed a series of marshy pastures each one looking very much like the last and we began to plod, a persistent drizzle added to the general feeling of ennui and for the first time in the whole week I began to grow impatient for a change of scenery. There were a few cows gathered together in morose clumps but they didn’t do much to enliven the scene. This uninspiring section didn’t last long however as we drew near to the twin villages of the Slaughters, passing through the playing field of the Slaughters United Cricket Club – a sinister name for such a gentlemanly sport. If the slaughters have a rugby team then by name alone they must set fear into the hearts of the opposition. We passed the old church of and continued on to the banks of the gentle River Eye, running barely ankle deep and with waters so clear that it looked drinkable.
To our disappointment the Heart Of England Way turned its back on the Slaughters at this point, foregoing the chance to wander into Upper Slaughter, all the anticipation about visiting the place evaporating with a single sign-post taking us in the opposite direction. I don’t know why the architects of the Heart Of England Way decided to omit such a jewel because there are enough public paths to take you there and then onto Bourton but, alas, it was not to be. Upper Slaughter really is a lovely place though and if you want to see what I mean, follow
Bourton-On-The-Water with the end that doesn’t end …
Leaving Lower Slaughter we followed a wide track that at first followed the banks of the Eye before striking off determinedly across fields towards the outskirts of Bourton-On-The-Water, now clearly visible ahead of us. It was obviously a well-trodden route for tourists based at Bourton who wanted to visit the Slaughters and most of the pedestrian traffic was passing us in the opposite direction. I don’t believe I heard a British accent amongst them. Italian, French, American, the Cotswolds really is a Mecca for overseas visitors. I heard a young American lad complain loudly to his dad when he found out how far it was from Bourton to Lower Slaughter …
“Two miles? Like, TWO MILES?!”
Try sixteen kid.
After crossing the dangerously busy A429 we entered the back-streets of Bourton and began to thread our way through them towards the finishing post. Rather like the prelude to Inverness on the Great Glen Way the final route into Bourton appeared to take the most indirect route possible, allowing us to admire the large business park on the edge of town and its many fine petrol stations. After what seemed like a rather silly amount of time, possibly exaggerated by tired feet, we at last entered narrower lanes and passed houses of obvious antiquity, following the swelling crowds towards the High Street and journeys end. But now the question begged; where exactly was the end? Unlike all the other walks we had completed over the years this long distance path didn’t appear to own an official landmark to signal its completion. There was no cheap wooden hoarding (West Highland Way) no lumpen boulder complete with plaque (Offa’s Dyke) and certainly no lavish wafer of sculptured sandstone (Great Glen Way). As far as we could see, there was no identifiable end to the Heart Of England Way which, after a hike of over a hundred miles seemed a bit of an anti-climax and scant reward (even the Centenary Way had managed a bench for Pete’s sake). Eventually we gave up the search and after weaving through throngs of day-trippers and finding nothing but tourist information boards and ornate litter bins we came to a bench sited on the banks of the River Windrush and declared this to be the end of our journey.
Like the conclusion of a Victorian cricket match we shook hands, rather formally.
And then we took photographs of ourselves reclining on our bench, after which we sat gratefully for a while, people-watching and resting tired legs. (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. Flotillas of ducks, probably knowing that they are onto a good thing, cruise up and down the banks, gratefully accepting the morsels of food flung to them by young children when their parents attentions are elsewhere. In addition to its obvious charms there is also a motor museum, and a perfumery, and even a model village. It is indeed the most photogenic of places and is regarded as one of the major Cotswold Tourist Traps, along with and
We had originally intended to stop overnight at Bourton so that we could celebrate the completion of the walk in the time-honoured tradition of much beer and merriment, however, finances eventually dictated otherwise and so our enjoyment of Bourton was going to be brief. After a while we rose stiffly and went off in search of a bar and a telephone (and hopefully as a result – a taxi). We drank our cold beers at the Old Manse Hotel,
Colin and the end of the route at Bourton-on-the-Water, Gloucestershire
Mother: “What was THAT?”
Boy: (sincerely) “I’m sorry.” (pause, and then genuine question) “What did I do?”
As we finished our beers the clouds gathered once more and a chill wind began to whip up, so we were very grateful to see our cab arrive before the rain returned. Within a minute of leaving Bourton the heavens opened and we drove through the worst downpour of the day, with the wind threshing through the trees and the sky turning as black as a miners thumb. The rain was a deluge and for ten minutes or more visibility was down to a matter of yards. Colin and I exchanged grins – we could have easily been caught out in that one on a less fortunate day. The cabbie was from the north and had walked the Coast To Coast path which Colin as tackling later in the year so they discussed the pros and cons of this challenging route as I sat in the back of the cab and surreptitiously finished off my stash of sweeties.
The worst of the weather had blown away by the time we were deposited back at Chipping Campden and we stowed our damp and travel-worn gear away for the very last time before heading off home. Our celebrations that night were, in comparison to previous years, rather low-key. No late night revelry in a local hostelry, just several glasses of wine in the lounge of Chez Walford and, as a final Sheldon take-Away Treat, I believe we went full circle and ordered fish and chips again. A sign of getting older? Possibly. Or perhaps it was consideration for Mrs W (who always retires early) and our congenitally catatonic greyhound, Frankie.
So that was the Heart Of England Way completed, another hundred miles of wonderful walking, with wonderful company and many happy memories to take away. There’s a strange mixture of sadness and pride when a long distance walk is completed, not to mention a degree of quiet relief that come the morning ones legs would not be forced into another 12 mile slog. It will take a few months for the feet to start itching again but I know that come September, just as Colin strides off across the Lake District, I would be poring over maps and deciding where my wanderings might lead me next. I’m guessing that it will be the Midlands Millennium Way but that, as they say, is another story.
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