|The Heart Of England Way|
Terrible wind trouble …
Our destination for the start of a day’s walking was getting ever further away from home, and driving the extra mileage to leave a car at journeys end was starting to impact on our walking time, so we decided that we would go back to using taxis to take us back to our car at the end of the day. Absurdly confident in our availability to hail a cab - Wall Street style - wherever we might end up, we sallied forth, arriving at Bidford-On-Avon in pretty much the same weather as we had left it (my abiding memory of the place will be an annoyingly persistent wind and dull grimy cloud cover). I leaned into the stiff breeze and took a shot of the river, standing pretty much where I had stood the previous evening, and warbled away about the day in store and what we might expect from it. I later discovered that much of this dialogue, and also yesterdays filming, would be marred by the windy conditions. The audio sounds like I’m capturing allied advances across the Somme circa 1917, with the wind slamming and buffeting the microphone like mortar shells and with only an occasional intelligible word made out against the din. I think the model of camcorder I am using is vulnerable to wind-noise – something I’ll need to work on before the next hike.
To the Cotswolds with the rural knocking shops and the rampant bulls …
We left Bidford-On-Avon behind us almost immediately, following the River Avon upstream, passing an impressive set of cataracts spanning the river and some less impressive workmen digging a hole for no obvious reason. Very quickly we came upon the tiny village of Barton with its collection of aesthetic cottages and a restaurant called the Cottage Of Content. Colin pointed the place out to me because he has a restaurant in his part of the world that goes by the very same name. I don’t know why, but the name ‘Cottage Of Content’ throws up two images of wildly differing undertone in my mind. The first one is that of a plump Hobbit seated in a little chair before his front door, chuffing a pipe and beaming out across his garden; the other offers a more salacious meaning behind the title, in which women of a certain profession ply their trade behind the roses and the chintz curtains. I mused on this for a while and then suggested to Colin that these ‘Cottages Of Content’ were actually a chain of establishments scattered throughout rural Britain - the countryside equivalent of inner city ‘massage’ parlours. This elicited nothing more than an odd look from my brother (understandably so, really).
Barton was a tiny place and we were leaving it behind almost immediately, hithering and thithering across fields and climbing up to higher ground, picking up bridleways that wound around more tree plantations planted by the ubiquitous Mr. Felix Dennis.
The next village along was Dorsington – another little cluster of homely cottages, thatch, and the unmistakable whiff of money – and here we had our first taste of what was to become a familiar pattern for the remainder of the walk. That is to say; we cut through the village rather than along it and then enjoyed a long bracing climb to get away from it, often ending up on top of a high hill looking back down onto its distant rooftops.
A quaint cottage, Barton, Warwickshire
“I got a couple of good pictures but he followed us along for a while back there,“ he informed me. “Seeing us off his turf.” Colin then suggested that I go back and capture the bull on video and I made a counter suggestion which involved the camcorder and a dark place of his anatomy.
Just two hundred yards further on we were forced to stop and apply sun cream – a totally unexpected duty – as the sun finally chased the clouds away and the day became fair. I have many memories of walking the Cotswolds, and in nearly all of them the days are one such as this; bright sun, high billowy clouds, and a cooling breeze. It’s what I call my Cotswold Weather and it hardly ever lets me down.
To the Quintons with the revisited bench ….
We crossed more meadows, thankfully devoid of livestock, and made a transverse visit through the village of crossing the B4632 and walking parallel to Long Marston airfield, unseen behind a hedge to our left. The airfield was a wartime training ground but is now host to a variety of activities including Drag Racing, Microlite flying, an air school, and a plane graveyard, as well as being the venue for several festivals and biker gatherings, the being the most well-known (and in which I once participated, way back when my hair was long and my years were few).
Overlooking the western edge of the airfield was Lower Quinton with its neat rows of modern houses and bungalows and their enviable views. We skirted the edge of Lower Quinton and passed almost seamlessly into In fact if it wasn’t for the twin road signs telling you as much you wouldn’t notice the transition at all. Upper Quinton is where I had completed the Centenary Way walk
A row of thatched cottages at Dorsington, Warwickshire
To Mickleton with the haunted hill and the tattooed trees …
We crossed another series of fields and farm tracks, passing Clopton Orchard Farm and (according to Google Maps) the intriguingly named Hoody World which is not, as it turns out, a theme park for disaffected youths but a place where you can have personalised hoodies produced, and made our way towards, and then around, Meon Hill.
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. People have lived on the hill since the Stone Age, and it once boasted an Iron Age fort. 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, and there are other murky legends about the area concerning witchcraft and hauntings; most notably the 'witchcraft' murder of Charles Walton in 1945. It is also believed that Meon Hill provided inspiration for Tolkien's 'Weathertop' from The Lord of the Rings. It is geographically separated from its Cotswold brethren, a little stand-offish and aloof, and perhaps its isolation has contrived to give it such a dark reputation. I knew nothing of this history as we walked around the foot of its slopes, and to me, with the sun shining out of a blue sky, Meon Hill just looked rather lovely with its mature trees and downy covering of turf.
Perhaps a mile or so passed by as we threaded our way through the pleasant Gloucestershire countryside, hearing the bleating of new born lambs born in meadows behind tall hedgerows, and passing by a large flock of sheep as they were being herded back out to the pastures by the farmer. The farmer held the gate open for us and wished us a good day - he had a ruddy complexion that radiated wholesomeness and good cheer. It was all very Enid Blyton.
Wool, of course, is what made this part of the world so vastly wealthy
Walking towards Chipping Campden through horse pastures, Gloucestershire
Eventually the uneven rooftops of greeted us from across a paddock of tussocky grass, a place of some 1500 souls and officially the most northerly village in Gloucestershire. It is typical of the area, with houses of the honey coloured stone called from which most of the northern Cotswolds dwellings are built, and which mellows to a warm golden brown over the course of many centuries. I knew the village well enough, having driven through it countless times over the years, and I pointed out some of the charms of the place to Colin as we walked along a street full of terraced cottages and small shops realising, eventually, that we were in fact off route. We worked our way back to Ye Olde Butchere Shoppe (which I can honestly say makes the best game pie you will ever taste) and then picked up the correct route, squeezing down a narrow alley between cottages and crossing the churchyard of St. Lawrence church. From here we left Mickleton behind via a sunlit glade of young birches, crossing Baker’s Hill lane and climbing steadily upwards across a series of fields and picking up a high track running along the flank of Baker’s Hill woods. This was a narrow strip of woodland on the edge of a steep slope and it offered superb views across Gloucestershire and Worcestershire from between the boughs of its old trees. There were some fine specimens of ancient Beech on this rise, their smooth clean-limbed trunks rising high above our heads. The silvery grey bark of many of these trees had graffiti carved into them. They somewhat resembled tattoos, and were inscribed from ground level up to about six feet in height. If the dates were to be believed then some had been engraved as long ago as the early sixties. There was nothing obscene or malevolent about the words carved into these giants; just names and dates. A popular lovers meeting place maybe?
To Chipping Campden with the excess of tourists and the paucity of taxis …
Baker’s Hill Woods terminated at Furze Lane along which we walked for a short time before taking a left down a long tree-lined farm track. It was by now a beautifully mellow afternoon and we strode down this track with horse paddocks on either side of us and with the spring sunshine dappling down through the branches overhead. I felt like I could walk like this until the sun set and I experienced a minor happy attack as Colin and I shared conversations that ran over many topics and the green world glided by on either side. This was what I enjoyed about walking, moments like this that for no particular reason lift the spirits and make you realise that you wouldn’t want to be anywhere else in the world.
Presently the lane came to an end at the courtyard of a large complex of farm buildings. There were people milling about in the courtyard and for the brief few seconds that we passed them by I saw an odd little collection of emotions written across their faces. The central character was a youth of perhaps twenty who was standing somewhat away from the others and was shuffling around abstractedly, looking either angry or upset. The other people were an assortment of adults who either looked concerned or displeased. It was hard to decipher what was going on and I may have misread the entire scene of course, but it looked odd. I don’t even know if Colin saw it all as we passed by.
After the farm track we started to walk around the edge of an open field that rose upwards before us to a skyline where broken farm buildings stood stark against the clouds; they would have made a great location for a disaster movie. As we climbed the hedge to the right of this peculiar collection of ruins we met a couple of walkers coming in the opposite direction. Meeting walkers of any sort of this trail had been a rarity so we stopped to say hello. They were American tourists, out for a short local stroll, and they asked us where we were heading. We told them Chipping Campden and they smiled broadly.
“Well it’s right there, around that hedge!”
And indeed it was.
Our journey to the centre of Chipping Campden took us around the perimeter of the large School Academy which at this time of the afternoon was still busy with students, both inside the classrooms and milling around the complex. As we walked along the boundary fence we could see the occasional lesson in session and the odd face turned out towards us, looking at the world outside and not at the tutor at the front of the class. Many times when I was at school I had done the same thing, drifting away from the monotony of physics or the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk and instead letting my attention turn to the world beyond the window and the school. I would watch people going about their business and wish that I were like them, footloose and free, able to do whatever ones fancy decided, rather than bolted to some dull academic treadmill. Perhaps the pale faces that stared at us as we passed by regarded us with the same envy; perhaps the urge to escape through the classroom window is something which will never change.
We left the academy behind and entered Church Street with the imposing St. Lawrence Church and 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. They had plenty to converse about as really is a gem of a place, with many wonderful and historic buildings that demand to be photographed and streets that probably haven’t changed much for centuries.
Walking into Chipping Campden, Gloucestershire
We found a bench overlooking the high street and rested our legs just as the clouds came back and a light rain began to fall. Never mind, we had completed the days walking and all we had to do now was hop in a cab and be whisked off back to Bidford. Easy? Well yes we thought so. The problem was that we hadn’t seen a taxi rank, or even a single taxi, anywhere in Chipping Campden. As we sat and pondered this a couple of private cabs did come by, but they were loaded with passengers and seemed to be merely passing the through the town rather than being based in it. We had noticed an attractive looking pub called the on a small side street so we made our way back there, ordered a beer, and asked the lady tending the bar if she could find us a taxi. She was as helpful as she could be (I can’t recommend the place highly enough for that), and produced a long list of local cabs, proceeding to phone each one in turn on our behalf. They were all fully booked for the school run which was just about to begin. It seemed like we were stranded. Beer always helps, so we ordered another pint and considered our options. We hadn’t really thought about a Plan B because we were so convinced that we would pick up a cab so easily. Twenty minutes of fruitless pondering later and the bar lady came over to tell us that she had managed to find a cab for us if we didn’t mind waiting forty minutes or so. It would have taken a lot longer to walk back to Bidford so we readily agreed and nursed our second pint through another 30 minutes, waiting outside in the drizzle for the last ten minutes rather than risk losing the cab ride. The cab duly arrived, driven by a lady who easily won the award for ‘Cabbie With Poshest Voice’. She was clearly well-to-do but obviously enjoyed her work and chatted about the area as she drove us back to Bidford-On-Avon. Most usefully, when she learned that we would be parking in Chipping Campden the next day, she gave us directions to find a free all-day car park. She dropped us off back at dear old Bidford-On-Avon, still looking miserable under lowering clouds and drizzly rain - I’m sure she looks far better in full sunshine but I’ll never know for sure.
We got back home to Birmingham later than usual, having that much further to travel, and faced the task of replacing the cover on the poly-tunnel before we could think about dinner, and a few beers. We were going to complete the last day of the Heart Of England way tomorrow and as usual it had all flown by so quickly. When starting out on a week’s walking eight days seems like you have forever stretching out before you, but it’s rarely long enough in the end.
Sheldon Takeaway Treat: I have no idea. My memory fails me.
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