Sunday, September 23, 2012

The Cotswolds: Walking nine to five - what a way to make a living

The English countryside - so different from 'our' side of the channel

One of the perks of being ‘workless’ is that I don’t have to worry about booking annual leave when Harri is offered a well-paid but very last-minute outdoor writing commission.

This one was particularly exciting as we were venturing over the border and the work was being offered by none other than the mighty Automobile Association (I write this in full to avoid any confusion about the nature of our work). The timescale was extremely tight but once you’ve said ‘yes’, there’s nothing for it but to get the miles walked.

To be fair, compared to our usual terrain, hiking in the Cotswolds is a walk in the park; the ‘hills’ are small and paths are well-maintained, so well-maintained, in fact, that Harri experienced continual bouts of ‘footpath envy’ throughout our three visits.

Bradford on Avon is definitely worth visiting
From the dry nature of the majority of footpaths, we could only conclude that rainfall is far less frequent in the Cotswolds than in sunny south east Wales.

Our task was straightforward enough. The AA is updating several of its hiking guides, including one called 50 Walks in The Cotswolds, and its editors have commissioned freelance writers to do the groundwork.  Harri’s brief was to check 13 existing walks, making sure they were still walkable, that the number of stiles was unchanged, parking remained available, toilets open and eating places were correctly named (and were still open). It sounds simple – and mostly it was – but quite a few times the directions were confusing and we ended up retracing our steps, several times having to walk  downhill and start again from the bottom.

Great Chalfield Manor, Holt, was built in 1480
It’s strange but once we crossed the Severn Bridge into England everything felt, well different. It’s hard to put my finger on what  changed exactly, but the whole landscape, the ambience in villages, the architecture... everything felt, well, foreign and unfamiliar.

Harri uses the term ‘gentrified’ to describe the pristine villages, former farmhouses and country pubs/restaurants that we often encounter on our travels but, somehow, it’s more than that. England just feels different from Wales and, with the exception of my beloved west Cornwall, I’ve not always warmed to middle England’s landscape.

Our first walk in the Wiltshire Cotswolds did little to change my view. Holt was a pretty enough village boasting several pubs, the obligatory upmarket (and over-priced) delicatessen and a National Trust manor, but the busy through-road and narrow pavements were not conducive to relaxed strolling. The neighbouring fields with their wheat crops and well-defined footpaths made for pleasant walking but, fresh from our trip to the Gower, there was little about the landscape to impress.

The Kennet and Avon Canal at Avoncliff
Fortunately, things picked up after elevensies when we headed for Bradford on Avon where we had two routes to check. We didn’t park in the town but further along the Kennet and Avon Canal in Avoncliff where it was free (one of the big pluses of Cotswold walking is that the parking is almost always free).

Both afternoon walks were thoroughly delightful and thankfully the ominously named ‘water meadows’ alongside the River Frome were solid underfoot. 

This was the quintessential English countryside, the idealised rural idyll Hollywood producers are convinced is enjoyed by all Brits who don’t live in London (Londoners, we know, live in four-storey, terraced mansions with butlers to answer the door, as portrayed in The Parent Trap, or, if young professionals, in vast, converted Victorian warehouses). And this deluded view of everyday life doesn’t stop with Hollywood producers if the friendly American woman we encountered on the Paris metro a few years ago is typical. Having established we were Welsh, she then asked the eight-year-old Alanna if she bought her school uniform at Harrods! Er excuse me, BHS no less.

While all this annoys me intensely, I couldn’t help getting a little bit excited when I spotted a  gorgeous detached cottage perched halfway up a hill; within minutes, I'd convinced myself that this  was the home of Kate Winslet’s character Iris in the immensely silly but very watchable romantic comedy The Holiday. For most of the film the cottage was covered in snow but I was as sure as anyone could be... until I got home and checked the facts out online. Iris’s cottage isn’t real – a fake exterior was built in two weeks in the middle of an empty field. Worse, the fictional character lived in Surrey and not the Cotswolds at all.

It was all beginning to make sense. I’d always been sceptical about Iris’s daily commute  – travelling from the Cotswolds to central London seemed an awfully long journey to do every day. Then an estate worker (though with that accent, he could have been the owner) confirmed that many people do commute from the Cotswolds, including the Wiltshire villages, and when the proposed super fast Bath to London trains are running, the journey will be reduced to just one hour, 20 minutes each way.

Maybe it’s me, but that still sounds like an awful long time at the beginning and end of each working day!

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