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OFF THE BEATEN TRACK IN THE UK:
THE COTSWOLD CAPER
By Chris Millikan
(For Travel Writers' Tales)

Our Cotswold walking holiday begins in little known Monkton Combe, eight-kilometers from Bath. Settled at the village inn, we examine pre-booked custom itinerary, maps, trail-cards and even transportation vouchers, everything needed for our self-guided explorations. And shouldering daypacks filled with directions, hats, jackets, water, sunscreen and snacks, we take our first walk.

The village, we discover, dates to Saxon times. Lands granted to Bath Abbey provided monks a refuge in this verdant, steep-sided valley. Names like Monks Retreat and Monkswold are still etched on some stone houses.

Along a quiet lane, we pass the site of Fulling and Tucking Mills, closed since 1931. Our trail-cards describe water driven stocks that degreased and, adding fuller's earth, felted cloth for dying. Nearby stands the ivy-covered home of William Smith, Father of Modern Geology…and Bath's saviour! In 1810, the renowned geo-thermal spring mysteriously dried-up. Discovering it had diverted, Smith re-established its original channel.

Sturdy boots and walking poles help us climb a near-vertical pathway to neighbouring Combe Down's community park, once a quarry supplying honey-brown limestone for building Bath and Buckingham Palace. Before descending again, we gaze over our sleepy village below, population 356. Roast lamb and Yorkshire pudding back in the friendly pub rewards our successful reconnoiter.

A comfortable rhythm overtakes our next six days. Hearty English breakfasts with French press coffees kick off excursions averaging 5 hours daily, over hill and dale. Mid-way, pub lunches re-charge us for return loops through the pastoral countryside to our lodgings. And relaxing over dinner, we trade stories with fellow walkers and the regulars.

Meandering from Monkton Combe to Dundas Wharf, we sight triple-arched Dundas Aqueduct built in 1798, the earlier of two spanning the Avon valley. These engineering marvels kept the Avon canal level without using locks, which enabled barging 100,000 tons of coal to London annually, until 1898. Sleek canal boats now ply this waterway for pleasure.

Some footpaths prove easy; others test our stamina. Straining up one rugged path, we reach Cromwell's Rest. "Cromwell took breaks between battles just there," a local points to one of several stone cottages. "His soldiers poisoned all area wells…except here!"

Resting ourselves in a tavern beyond, the ordnance map shows us between Bath and Bradford-on-Avon, where a large 3rd century villa was discovered. Such farms supplied foods and wine to Roman legions stationed in Bath; agriculture flourished then throughout this sheltered valley.

Crossing farmlands today requires scrambling over stiles or through self-closing kissing gates, permitting our access without letting livestock out. Cutting through the grassed fields and flower-filled meadows, walking poles help us fend off stinging nettle 'bites'. Up one hill, down another and zigzagging under treed canopies, one trail emerges on Limpley Stoke's common. Like most villages we encounter, Stoke boasts a long history… dating to 961AD.

Along a picturesque lane, dog walkers explain prominent Save our Packhorse posters: "Sadly, new owners closed our beloved 17th century pub." Brightening, they grin, "But our parish church is worth a stop!" An exquisite Norman doorway highlights this 12th century gem.

Scrawled notices on fences alert us to nervous mamas protecting calves. Instead, curious black bullocks trot straight for us! Resisting impulses to flee, we face 'em down. Stepping firmly forward halts them abruptly. Hurrying up the hillside, we snatch celebratory smooches and escape through another kissing gate. That afternoon, a taxi transfers us to Cockleford, a hamlet deeper in the Cotswolds.

For another three days, we explore the Churn valley. From one farmland ridge, blue-sky scenery leaves us awestruck. Hedgerows border rippling blue-green wheat and pale-green bearded barley; scarlet poppies splash distant fields of bright-yellow canola.

'Dry stone' walls crisscross gentle hillsides. Built without cement in the 18th and 19th centuries, farmers still enclose sheep behind these low, conserved walls. During medieval times, the Cotswold sheep's long golden fleeces commanded high prices throughout Europe. Massive profits built elaborate farmhouses and 'wool churches' dotting the landscapes.

We visit stone villages located along old Roman roads and trudge a demanding forested ridge. We join the Cotswold Way, an extensive National Trail popular with hardy hikers, including early monks on pilgrimage to Bath Abbey. We enjoy tranquil National Nature Preserve parklands, ramble in beech woodlands where Henry VIII and Ann Boleyn hunted, pop into atmospheric churches and discover where Lord Mayor of London Dick Whittington likely spent his wretched boyhood on one of several estates owned by influential 13th century land barons.

Walking the Cotswold's less traveled pathways shows us rural England's beauty and charm.

IF YOU GO:

" Plan a walking holiday www.foottrails.co.uk

" Monkton Combe's historic inn www.wheelwrightsarms.co.uk

" Cockleford's charming 17th century inn www.green-dragon-inn.co.uk/

" Cotswolds Tourism: www.cotswolds.com

" Cotswolds www.the-cotswolds.org.

" Oxfordshire Cotswolds www.oxfordshirecotswolds.org

PHOTOS by Chris & Rick Millikan

(1a) (1b) Monkton Combe, a small village 8km from Bath, was once a sanctuary for monks from Bath Abbey.

(2a) (2b) Many atmospheric early churches in the Cotswolds are worth a visit.

(3a) (3b) Country pubs and inns provide walkers with tasty food and local brews.

(4a) (4b) (4c) In walking throughout the Cotswolds, surrounding countryside proves pastoral and beautiful.

(5a) Most Cotswold paths and laneways lead us through beautiful stone villages and hamlets with long histories.

(6a) (6b) (6c) Walking trails and pathways in the Cotswolds offer endless, ever changing landscapes.

Travel Writers' Tales is an independent travel article syndicate that offers professionally written travel articles to newspaper editors and publishers. To check out more, visit www.travelwriterstales.com

 


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