This spring I walked the Cotswold Way, a whole one hundred miles through outstanding natural beauty. For me it was a journey of rediscovery. I had thought this landscape familiar me, having spent all of my childhood years nestled happily within it, and yet every day brought new discoveries of old paths, emerging spring flowers, buildings and houses I had forgotten and old stories new to me.
Ivor Gurney, a Gloucestershire-born poet, once wrote that ‘the gathered loveliness’ of the Cotswolds would appear to hover eternally. He was not wrong. There is a quality here; perhaps it is the depth of the green and the brightness of the stone; perhaps it is more elusive, that of a quiet contentment that rests at the heart of these hills. This contentment is, I believe, what June Lewis describes as an enduring ‘communion of man with nature’. Traditions and practices have evolved over the centuries and millennia, and yet many still share the same commitment to the land and its practical protective use, such as the skill of dry stone walling in these hills, practiced today and by Neolithic people over 6000 years ago. ‘I wonder as I wander’; not aimlessly but with the intention of taking in the landscape and the history contained within it.
The one hundred mile walk traces escarpment of Jurassic oolitic limestone - the Cotswold's distinctive foundation - laid down while dinosaurs roamed the land. The Way is unusual, traversing the rolling green hills from Chipping Camden in the North to Bath in the South, winding and twisting through market towns and secluded villages. The inclusion of these built up areas rather than their avoidance acknowledges the link between the limestone in the ground, the sheep in the field and the beautiful buildings made of that same stone, with the wealth of the wool to build them. There are many easily missed ‘lumps and bumps’ tucked away in the corners of fields and hidden in woods. They are the oldest permanent monuments to man’s existence; burial chambers of the very first settlers to this land that lend incredible insights into the lives of the tribes, as much as into their death rituals and rites. Equally grown over are the many forts that crest the peaks of these hills. They tell a history of later larger settlement, from the Iron-age Dobunni, to the invasion by the Romans and their adaptation of these strategic defensive locations, imprinting their occupation through their ruler-straight roads. The scarp edge is punctuated with the remains of people throughout the ages, providing a catalogue of life: Lives glimpsed in snapshot through imprints and etchings in the land itself.
This is not a comprehensive or chronological history, many writers have quite literally covered this ground- and well! Instead, I cover odd snippets of the ground I tread: stitching together fragments past and present to create a patchwork tapestry along tracks and hedges, through high up fields and meadows overlooking villages, down into the valleys, over the days, through the ages.