'If you ever need reminding how odd the English can be, take a trip to Swinbrook," urged a British travel blog I read just before leaving for a fall walking tour of the Cotswolds, that glorious, unspoiled region in south-central England, bounded roughly by Oxford, Bath, and Stratford-upon-Avon.
I'm always up for any reminder of how odd the English can be, so I considered myself lucky that our group's walks indeed would lead to Swinbrook, which lies on one of the most fascinating of hundreds of public footpaths through the golden limestone villages and sheep pastures that are so evocative of the wool trade that built the region six centuries ago.
The oddities we discovered at Swinbrook, a small village only about 20 miles west of Oxford, are found at its medieval stone church, with its 17th-century effigies of the Fettiplace family lining a wall of the sanctuary. The Fettiplace men, who once ruled large parts of Oxfordshire, lie propped up on their elbows one atop another, carved in white marble in their knights' armor, facing visitors in floor-to-ceiling horizontal stacks set in tall marble niches, as if frozen in the midst of Pilates class.
My husband Dave, and I were in a group of eight Americans and a British guide on a six-day trip that offered small-group walking tours. The two-mile Windrush Valley walk to Swinbrook from our base in the town of Burford is one of many named trails found throughout the Cotswolds, whose length, degree of challenge, and twists and turns are detailed in walking-tour guidebooks and online. (The Cotswolds just marked its 50th anniversary as a protected area, known as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB). There are 3,000 miles of walking routes within that area.)
The Windrush Valley walk goes along the slow Windrush River, across the wooden stiles that go over fences and past curious cows and sheep, whose deposits present the only real obstacles to a walker. Midway is the tiny, 11th-century St. Oswald's Church, stranded in a grassy field. Just before we reached it, I paused to talk to the only human we had encountered, a woman who looked well past her 70s, striding over an ancient, narrow bridge where the Windrush passed by her stone farmhouse. I wanted to know what she thought of all of us walking through the fields and pastures. She told me that the paths "evolved" because people used them to go from home to work over centuries, like the man she saw for many years carrying his scythe through her family's fields on his daily journey. I asked her name. She said I could just call her "Mrs. Buxton." A few minutes later when we crossed the pasture to St. Oswald's, walked over two mossy stone markers on the ground just outside the threshold, and saw the family that they memorialized: Buxton.
St. Oswald's is known because it was the church serving a vanished medieval village. Only by walking there can you make out the faint outlines of foundations and streets of the settlement wiped out by the famine of 1315 and then the plague of 1348. Inside, through a creaking, short wooden door (a hand-lettered index card reminds visitors to shut it to keep out birds) are ancient pews and remnants of medieval wall paintings. In a recent excavation, a Roman villa's mosaic from about A.D. 200 was found under the floor, but it has been covered for protection.
As with the other walks we took during our Cotswolds stay, which were almost entirely through level or gently sloping fields, the one along the Windrush Valley trail was remote. Besides Mrs. Buxton, the only others we passed were a pair of young women - with the dogs that seem to accompany all Britons at all times and in all places - who told me they had driven 20 miles from Cirencester for an afternoon ramble of their own. They grew up walking the footpaths with their grandparents, they said, before trail markers pointed the way.
Though we decided to join a group - there are many companies, American and British, that offer Cotswolds walking tours of various lengths - it is also possible to do it yourself by choosing one or more villages to stay in and setting out from there with your trail maps. Thirty years ago, NBC News anchor John Chancellor wrote about his love of walking from one Cotswolds village inn to the next, where he would bed down for the night and continue the following morning. He described in colorful detail the stiles and landmarks of one route, which started in Moreton-in-Marsh, ran through Blockley, and finished at Chipping Campden. My husband and I used some free time to retrace the Chancellor route to see how it had changed, and found that, while he wrote that it was largely unmarked, today the path - like all in the Cotswolds - is clearly signed with fixed wooden Monarch's Way and Heart of England Way markers at twists and turns, and guidebooks to take you step-by-step. ("Take the stile on the left, followed by another immediately on the left, followed by one immediately on the right crossing a field to a gap in the trees," reads one typical portion.)
I asked voluntary warden Rosemary Wilson, one of several hundred who help maintain the signs and stiles and also organize free walks, whether there are parts of the footpath network where directions can be challenging. Apparently, that was a softball for her. "You only just have to keep your wits about you," she said. In fact, in our five days of following paths, we found there were few points at which the route wasn't clear.
The beauty of walking is what you see right in front of your nose that you couldn't catch in a drive-by. There were the faint outlines of that disappeared village at the stranded church of St. Oswald's in the middle of pastures and nowhere near any road. Another day, we came over a rise between fields and could make out on a green hillside the lines that were the remnants of ridge-and-furrow plowing abandoned after the population was decimated in the 14th century and the farming economy transitioned from agriculture to livestock. On another walk, this time along the small River Coln to the National Trust property at the excavation of a Roman villa at Chedworth, we found a most unusual Roman remnant we never would have seen except on foot. One of our group, Judy Landau of Chevy Chase, Md., spied one of the very large Roman snails still found around the villa, descendants of ones the Romans are known to have imported as delicacies.
Our tour included a three-mile walk into Stonehenge - which lies south of the Cotswolds - a route that indispensably allows you to see how that monument from 2500 B.C. is just one part of a complex array of other henges and barrows and ancient "avenues" to Stonehenge itself.
Among the more than 50 trails in guidebooks, there are some "bread-and-butter" Cotswolds walking routes, a group of voluntary wardens told me when I sat down with them in Burford. One is that Windrush Valley walk to Swinbrook. Another is the Cotswold Way National Trail, which runs all the way from Chipping Campden in the north down to Bath, a total of 102 miles, and which some group tours walk from end to end in segments over differing lengths of time, from one to two weeks. Cotswolds trail guides lay out both "circular" walks that take you back to your base village or inn, and others where you arrange a pickup, or hire one of the services that will forward your bags to a new base.
On a beautiful late afternoon, we walked one short segment of the Cotswold Way that starts where a path climbs from Chipping Campden to the region's second-highest point, above the lovely town of Broadway, where a 1799 "folly" - the limestone Broadway Tower erected for the fun of it - affords views as far as Wales. (It was at the tower that 19th-century design master William Morris vacationed for a few years.) The one-mile ramble down to Broadway from the tower is one of the famous Cotswolds trails. At the bottom, I chatted up a taciturn Brit who was just behind us. He shrugged when I asked him about his countrymen's devotion to walking their land. He dismissed me with this: "In America, don't you just have things called 'sidewalks'?"
Another morning's walk started at a fascinating National Trust property at Chastleton, a 1600 wool-merchant's estate. The Trust took it over when descendants of the original owners had to give it up after 400 years of increasingly failed maintenance. The Trust has decided that Chastleton will stand as a monument to the rise and fall of properties owned by the once-wealthy. "We are leaving the boarded-up windows, the wasps' nests. We dust around the cobwebs, and we don't pull as many weeds as we might," said Rosy Sutton, a Trust conservator.
From Chastleton, and across stiles and through sloping pastures where, once again, it was just us and the horses and sheep, we wound our way to the village of Adlestrop. We stood at a vantage point in its churchyard that overlooks the yellow limestone home where Jane Austen used to visit relatives when it was a parsonage. In the church, a note to visitors says: "A self-proclaimed 'desperate walker,' Jane Austen more than likely walked the pleasant lanes from Adlestrop, which she describes in 'Mansfield Park' as 'a retired little village between gently rising hills.' "
How cool it was to realize that we had just descended the very same.