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«il to 27th June 1998 88 days i The planning stage of this journey encompassed a period of 12 months. Fitness We set ourselves a fitness program to ...»

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After reaching a hilltop monument, framed by its own little park and trying unsuccessfully to determine its purpose, we divert from the Cotswold Way to find accommodation at Hillersley. It is downhill all the way and the Fleece Inn is a 17th century public house which has retained the character and tranquillity of a typical local village pub. Inside we find a jolly customers and a cosy atmosphere. Philip has a sore bottom (he refers to it as “blazing arse”) and goes to soak in the bath. I think it is his waterproofs causing the problem. The persistent rain means we hardly take them off and they make you sweat. This room is a friendly room, blue and yellow like a sunny day.

Day 23 Hillersley to Uley

Free, I feel so free.

I wake to more grey skies but the feeling of freedom surmounts any dismal thoughts trying to creep through the cracks of my happiness. We have nothing to consider but how far we will walk, what we will eat and where we will stay. The weather is a secondary consideration and its changes only add to the adventure.

Mud, so much mud. So much that your feet stick and each step is a suction pop. We walk from Hillersley to Alderley and then up through a spring green budding leaved 32 wood which clings to Wortley Hill like bristles to a brush. The bluebells growing beneath the trees cast a misty blue-purple haze across the forest floor and every day it seems more leaves are beginning to show their new green to the sun. The bluebells are my favourite spring wild flower. They shine only when they grow in profusion, each reflecting her neighbour’s blueness until that blueness becomes electric shifting and dancing between the bells. In life most of us are like those bells, shining because of each other. Few can stand alone.

Seem to be some steep climbs today but each is rewarded with a fabulous view. The sky is heavy and soft rain falls veiling the view to a muted emerald and softening the outlines.

We have something to eat at Wotton Under Edge which for me does not live up to the poetry of its name. I somehow expected to see Toadhall and a storybook scene. Then more woods, more mud along Nibley Knoll to North Nibley. We meet a man and his wife walking in the opposite direction “There’s a baaaastard of a field up ahead, thick mud and a steep slope, a real bastard of a field”, he warns. When we reach this field we find it mild to what we have come through and wonder how he is feeling stuck in the mud further back along the Way.

We take a short cut to avoid the golf course and at Dursley buy some food for dinner. A wee bit footsore we trudge on, this is a long day and heavy underfoot. Lots of climbing but the steepest and highest is yet to come. We climb what feels like stile 999999 and look up. Oh my, a sudden interruption to the landscape in the form of a steep grassy peak fills our vision. It is Cam Peak. One step in front of the other, we daren’t look down. We really need our hiking sticks here as it is like walking up an oiled slippery dip. The path is narrow and worn smooth as glass by the fall of many feet. The green grass is eaten almost to the roots allowing the mud to show through offering no firm hold to our boots.

Grass is resolute, no matter how downtrodden it grows again to stand tall under the sun.

A bit like the human race, really. I push my stick firmly into the earth, leaning heavily on it as I pull up the hill. Eventually we gain the rather small flat summit expecting an equally steep descent but the path slopes away gently and then rises again over Cam Longdown. We walk along the ridge and are stunned by the isolation, the ancient beauty and the fabulous view.

Out in the valley civilisation clusters and sprawls but upon the ridge the land is old and time weathered and the scene could equally be the stage for many stories of history. We breathe deeply of the cold air. Philip exhales saying “this is fabulous, we will come back here one day when the sun is shining and have a picnic”. I smile. We might be old then.

The way down to Hodgecombe Farm is steep and again slippery but what a beautiful room and a wonderful welcome awaits us in a traditional Cotswold stone farmhouse owned by Katherine and Geoff. “Come up to the barn and we’ll hose off that mud” says Geoff. It is a group effort as the mud is copious. As we stand hosing and scrubbing Geoff recounts the story of another couple who came this way one rainy night, not long ago. “They knocked on the door and asked to sleep in the barn” he said “they were a young fellow and a lass and they were drenched”. So into the barn they went and as the evening progressed the sky threw more rain at the earth and the wind came up. It was cold. “We invited them

–  –  –

What a surprise, it is raining again!Delicious breakfast, happy conversation with our hosts and homemade jam, made by Geoff. We say goodbye and set off climbing steeply out of the valley through a young wood, the usual glutinous mud underfoot. Thank goodness for our walking sticks!

We pass Uleybury, strategically sited at the south end of a steep sided spur commanding far and wide views. Uleybury, one of the finest examples of a promontory fort in Britain, was built in the iron age and shelters a 32 acre rectangular sanctuary. As we make our way along the path on the side of a steep hill a small herd of curious soft eyed cows plod along behind us and we slog on ahead of them through mud, urine and green cow dung all mixed to divine disgust by the ever present rain. The cows follow us to the stile where their great bodies mill and bump. I wonder how long they will stand there before one turns and the others follow. And they say sheep are mindless!

More climbing to Coaley Peak and another magnificent view. It goes forever, we are kings of the world, we are flying even though we have our feet firmly anchored in the mud.

“With brains in your head and feet in your shoes, you can go anywhere”.

The rain is sweeping in and it is too wet to stop and make tea. “I’ve got that bloody blazing arse again” Philip says wriggling in discomfort. I giggle. “Sorry” I say.

Every day adds to our amazement. After the ancient fort we pass a couple of Neolithic barrows but the rain drives us on. An unbelievable amount of mud today. “We must be mad”, Philip keeps saying “We must be bloody mad.” The Way takes us through some delightful woodland and we stop for tea in a town, which has not proved to be memorable, in the tea shop of a gardening centre. Two pots of tea and two big plates of baked beans on toast. Always so hungry. After our break the clouds begin to thin and the sun breaks through and what is that? Blue cellophane sky, wonderful!! The temperature changes with the weather and it turns warm and we are down to our t-shirts. We stop on a hillside to change. So much of our time is taken up by taking our clothes on and off. Sometimes this happens at 15 minute intervals. It seems we encounter a different climate over every hill. Now Philip feels more comfortable as the air can circulate. We definitely don’t like our waterproof trousers.

More steep climbing and the woods atop the hill are full of bluebells. Neat stone walls criss cross and wind without symmetry over the hilltops through Three Bears Wood and into

–  –  –

We pass more fortifications. This is Ring Hill camp which encloses 10 acres and may have been used as a Roman signal station.

We are thinking we will not find the camping place but a neat little sign on the path shows the outline of a tent and points to the right. Haresfield Dyke Camp, once a sanctuary from a wild world, is now an untidy field which shows evidence of old campfires. The retired caretaker comes by and laments the state of the place and how it has been ruined by young larrikins. We have the field to ourselves, however and so up goes the tent.

Dinner is cooked and eaten in record time for the day is shrinking to night and has become cold and unwelcoming. Outside the chilly shadows flit but we are warm in our sleeping bags sheltered from the wind that still blows coldly from the north. What a surprise!! Let’s hope it stays fine.

Day 25 Standish Wood to Coopers Hill

Mist lies over the woods like a bride’s veil, hinting beauty and full of promise which is soon fulfilled when the sun breaks through revealing blue sky. We break camp and set off through the woods, the day stays fine but we are still rather tired. We take a bit of a shortcut and find our way through another wood back to the Way at a road which we cross to old Scottsquar Hill Quarry. The ravaged earth of beige and brown is like a rough scar on the land and gives stunning contrast to the beautiful valley beyond. The coarse, rough and barren quarry leads the eye to a valley so green and picturesque. Cotswold honey coloured oolitic limestone farmhouses with colourful patchwork fields both bright and soft in shade surround and spread into the distance. More of the Cotswold stone buildings of varying size and shape and the 15th century St. Mary’s church with an imposing spire cluster high on the hill between two valleys and stray from its edges.

A gipsy in bright but grubby garb with wild tangled hair driving a horse drawn Romany caravan appears out of the quarry but his countenance is surly and he turns his horse away from us and clatters off down the lane. Another world, another layer, this one clearly in the present but likely wishing to be elsewhere.

The distant village is Painswick and we buy lunch there in a tea shop. The food is good, but expensive and I don’t think walkers are particularly welcome there but the place is virtually empty so perhaps no one is particularly welcome. Painswick is, to me, the quintessential Cotswold village, wealthy and proud, streets with an eye for the tourist.

The beautiful old St. Mary’s Church stands in the centre surrounded, according to tradition, by almost 99 ornamentally clipped 200 year old yew trees (there are supposed to

–  –  –

More food purchases in the tiny village shop amid local discussions of the funeral of a friend held that morning. A group of more than middle aged women discuss the service in an open and friendly banter that completely fills the spaces between the groceries and fresh produce. “What hymns were sung?” questions one of the ladies. The response is a sudden burst of song, loud, long and tuneful, encompassing full verse of the hymns from the service. This is a marvellous acceptance of mortality and the celebration of life.

These women belong to life and eye its limitations with candid care. I am intrigued.

Tonight, loaded with provisions of a very English nature, we will make for Birdlip.

We leave Painswick and walk over the hills to the ‘cheese rolling’ hill which is a protected area and walking is prohibited. They don’t need to forbid me from going down, I should think the only way you could go down there would be head over heels. On this treacherous slope every Spring Bank Holiday Monday some crazy people race or maybe hurtle down the grassy slope chasing a rapidly rolling Double Gloucester cheese. I guarantee there would be many a sore head at the end of that day but whether from the race or the celebration afterwards, I am not sure.

Cheese Rolling at Cooper’s Hill

The origins of ‘cheese rolling’ are hazy. One notion is that it began as part of a pagan festival to celebrate the onset of summer. Other theories are that it was part of fertility rites, the anticipation of a successful harvest or as a safeguard of commoners’ rights for the inhabitants of Cooper’s Hill.

It is a dangerous and crazy event. On the last Monday in May, contestants stand at the top of the precipitous 250 meter hill that has a gradient of two in one. The Master of Ceremonies counts them down.

'One to be ready Two to be steady Three to prepare', at which time an invited guest launches the chunk of cheese on its downward pilgrimage, then 'Four to be off.' The participants (up to twenty mad people per heat) hurtle down the hill in pursuit of the rapidly rolling round of cheese. They tumble, somersault, bump and bruise their way down, as though they have also been hurled randomly down the hill like so many floppy dolls. But of course, the cheese wins. It is impossible for contestants to keep to their feet resulting in many broken bones, sprains and bruises.

Four races are held on the day, including an event for the ladies. The prize for winning? You get to keep the cheese!

The path leads us via a small wood to Cooper’s Hill and the Haven Tea Gardens, a rather untidy little timber house which perches on the edge of the hillside below the path. Its English cottage style garden, a mix of flowers and vegetables, tumbles down the hill and geese honk a warning at the bottom end in the field. The views are splendid. We enquire about B & B and all is OK. This is Rosie’s place, Rosie being a very quaint elderly lady whose odds and ends tea room is available, mostly to walkers. The place is ramshackle and untidy but has an eccentric charm in spite of the rusting water tank and posies of

–  –  –

The room holds an ancient double bed with a saggy mattress and faded bedspread crammed in beside a set of bunks, a dressing table and a wardrobe. The wardrobe is piled high with junk and every drawer is crammed. Cat hair covers your clothes wherever you sit. Now Rosie is a charming character but the fur of cats makes me unwell. I can not sleep in this room so Rosie very kindly allows us to camp in her garden and we sleep the sleep of the exhausted, blissfully unaware of the falling rain until we awake the next morning. Oh the fresh air is such a relief.

Another positive thing is that Philip’s bottom is better.

–  –  –

Tiny rivulets of rain run down the outside of the tent and we are loath to meet the day.

However, meet the day we do and gentle, grey haired Rosie makes us tea which we drink before setting off once again. The rain dissipates to a light mist and a mile or two down the track we stop in the ancient and semi natural woodland of Witcombe Wood and cook ourselves some scrambled eggs and tomatoes for breakfast. This we eat with great chunks of thickly buttered bread washed down with more steaming tea. Very Famous Five!!

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