The Cotswolds is a place of great natural beauty just a few hours out of London. I caught the Great Western train from Paddington station around 7pm, and from the sheer numbers of people waiting on the platform, you’d have no reason to believe there was as calm a place as this in the UK.
I told Harvey I wanted to stay at a BnB. “Think ‘Escape to the Country’,” I said. (For the uninitiated, this reality TV show was my only reference point for England for many years. It involves city-weary Londoners who contemplate rural living, get shown around three or four fancy properties with dark wooden beams, but no one actually moves [because why would you leave London?!])
We ended up staying at Garniche, which is not, as the name implies, a sprig of parsley, but a rather quaint, refurbished inn smack bang on the A40 (just enough traffic to remind you of home). Funnily enough, the local farmers still refer to it by its old coaching name, Puesdown Inn, which used to be a coffee pitstop for passing lorry drivers. I assume the rebranding was an attempt to attract a new kind of clientele as I didn’t see many tradies while we were there.
Julie and Paul, our BnB hosts, were absolutely charming and very helpful. We arrived rather late and were immediately presented with a pint and elderflower presse (you be the judge of who drank what). Julie also gave us her only copy of the official walking guide. She referred to it as the Ordnance Survey, which after years of working with the military, made me think of explosions and not a leisurely stroll through cornfields.
The next morning we set off at an enthusiastic pace towards Cold Aston (6.9 miles away). We only had to stop for directions once and had a great yarn with the owner of Lower Farm (pronounced Low-wuhhh Farrrrhm). The farmer explained that the land was formerly owned by the gentry before being gifted to his father, who had attended to it before him. He was quite surprised by our interest in walking all the way. His sheepdog, whom I will henceforth refer to as ‘Slobbery dog’, licked me quite profusely and left a rather unfortunate stain on my pants – I’d only brought one pair as I hate overpacking. C’est la vie.
After the hustle and bustle of the city, I was energised by the stretches of green around me. Words I’d only read about in Enid Blyton novels – clover, hillock, heather – were suddenly the best means of describing the gentleness of the fields we walked through. I wanted to Instagram everything, from the tufts of moss tucked in between the dry stone walls that separated plots, to the unruly clumps of grass and even nettles! (More on my first sting later). The villages we passed en-route, Hazleton (not a typo) and Turkdean, were parish-like in their silence with well-manicured front gardens and perfect, weed free brickwork.
In equal distinction to the terrain, was the pungent smell of animal droppings. Our surroundings were a minefield of turds, in all shades and consistencies, waiting for an unsuspecting sole to tread. As far as kill-joys go, I’ll take the English countryside with turds and nettles over bushwalking with king brown snakes and leeches any day.
Cold Aston looked like a veritable city on the map. The Plough Inn, where we had lunch, is considered a trendy pub (presumably because it doesn’t smell like urine and you can see through the windows). The Ploughman’s board was an excellent choice for lunch, and I even met a fellow Australian behind the bar. He had been living in the area for a few months with his English girlfriend, whom he had moved halfway across the world to be with. Crazy right?
By the time we’d reached Cold Aston, we weren’t satisfied with our walking quota and so continued onwards to Bourton on the Water, so named after the thin stream that passes through the village. The path there was less straightforward, involving multiple wall jumps and wading through chest-high grasses. Luckily our spirits were lifted by lunch and Bourton on the Water is a fun town full of antique and wool shops, though I imagine it would get very busy in the peak of the tourist season. Julie later admitted that it’s practically dead in winter.
After a ten-minute visit to the Model Village (which, as most people would infer is a Gulliveresque teeny tiny replica, rather than as Harvey supposed, an idealised recreation of an English hamlet), we decided to return home.
“There’s a bus in 4 minutes,” I said, as we slumped against a church bench.
“Oh, looking at the Ordnance map, we can cut through Northgate-,” Harvey mutters. I’m not sure he heard me, or even if he did, that he understood we didn’t have much time to execute the non-walk home plan.
At this point, I should say that what happened for the next few hours was as much my fault as anyone else’s.
So we spend more minutes thinking, before Harvey admits he’s exhausted. Then, in the most brutally poetic way, we see the brown and cream lettering of a Pullhams Coach to Hazleton drive past.
I decide that if we wanted to get back to the inn by the time we’d advised (7:30pm), we needed to get cracking. For some reason, that didn’t happen and we lost another hour walking back and forth between bus stops to confirm if we had really missed the last bus home (we definitely had).
In front of us loomed a 2.5 hour walk. Instead of even thinking about modern technology (ie Uber, taxis) we resigned ourselves to our fate. But instead of being logical and going back the way we came, we thought it’d be easier if we followed a random trail that seemed like it would get us home quicker. I should also mention that at that point I was down to 10% battery.
You can already see how this story goes. We walked for about an hour and a half when Googlemaps assured us that we hadn’t gone much further than half a mile from Bourton on the Water. Also, the trail we were taking had a huge river winding through it so there was no way to cut back to Turkdean or Hazleton. On top of that, I got stung by a nettle, which was ridiculously painful. Instead of stabbing each other however, Harvey and I had a collective brainwave, walked to the nearest road (we were actually one town further north than Bourton!) and ordered a taxi.
That’s how we met Bobby, the Bulgarian Briton with an Oxfordshire accent (his claims, not ours). Bobby rescued us and gave a great rundown of the area: “Rich, old money – I know a young guy, he’s unemployed, used to be earning 600,000 pounds as a banker, has a house in London and here – we go to the pub together.” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing – the richest person I knew earned $300,000 max – $1.2million a year at my age was beyond my comprehension. “But people like it here – it’s nice for families, they are happy to commute.”
Bobby told us how difficult it was to bring up his daughter in the Cotswolds as all the other kids were from privileged backgrounds and everything costed a pretty penny to match the demographic. Regardless, he seemed to be in the loop and had even attended the recent wedding of a Lord’s daughter (as the designated chaffeur).
If it wasn’t for Bobby, my dehydrated body would have been lying in a field being plucked at by pheasants. Kidding! We ended up making it to dinner on time, had a big bottle of wine to celebrate our 15-mile excursion, and I will never look at cattle gates the same way again.