Article by Drew Gough originally published in the Atmosphere magazine. Read the latest edition here.
The horse doesn’t look especially friendly. After clambering over a low fence and spotting the sign saying “Charlbury, 3/4 mile,” with a vaguely reassuring yellow arrow pointing vaguely south-west, we realize that this portion of the path isn’t just for humans. The horse is about 50 feet away; it rears, stares, then trots off to another corner of the field and begins contentedly chomping on the grass.
This is standard fare during a day of walking in the Cotswolds, a highly recommended day trip when you’re looking for things to do in Birmingham, England. We’re in the rolling hills around Chadlington, a quiet little town not far from the bigger Cotswold draws of Chipping Norton and Bourton-on-the-Water. All three towns are about an hour’s drive away from Birmingham. Our walk from Chadlington to Charlbury, where the train connects to Oxford, has taken about an hour and ushered us through the idyllic rural farmland along something quite unfamiliar to Canadians: public footpaths.
Yes, Canada has the odd hiking trail or long-distance walk, all on public land. Not so in the U.K., where all land is public, as far as walking goes. The U.K. is crisscrossed with a latticework of public walking paths that have existed for hundreds (sometimes thousands) of years, and then entered into the protection of the crown in the 19th century. To call the resulting paths quaint would be an understatement: the trail from Chadlington to Charlbury, part of our self-guided Cotswolds walking tour, begins in someone’s backyard, with a hand-painted sign saying “We have cats, so please keep your dogs on a lead.”
From back garden to back garden, through farms and fields, the footpaths connect some of England’s prettiest towns. The trails are more-or-less marked at gates and fences, with an arrow pointing off toward the next gate or fence, but generally you just follow the trodden grass or the packed dirt through beautiful countryside reminiscent of a Romantic ode.
The Short Walk: Bourton-on-the-Water and Surroundings
Bourton-on-the-Water must be the most picturesque of all of the picturesque Cotswold villages. Its hyphenated name is typical of a region with towns called Stow-on-the-Wold, Clapton-on-the-Hill, and (seriously) Milton-under-Wychwood, Shipton-under-Wychwood, and Ascott-under-Wychwood. As a general rule, the more hyphens in the name of a British village, the quainter it’s likely to be.
Bourton-on-the-Water pays for its quaintness by being overrun with tourists during the summer months, but it’s a great hub for Cotswold walking tours. From there, Stow-on-the-Wold is an easy 10 km walk across the rolling hills, passing through the villages of Wyck Rissington and Icomb. Stow is known for its expensive real estate, its market square with the 12th century St. Edward’s parish church and its disproportionate number of overpriced antique shops.
If overpriced antique shops aren’t your scene, head 10 km south from Bourton-on-the-Water to stunning Burford, which has affordable antique shops in equal proportion to cozy pubs with open courtyards. Burford is a great town to end your walk in, as most pubs serve a happy-hour “pint-and-pie” for a low fixed price. Or mix it up and start in Burford, where on weekends pubs dole out expansive full English breakfasts, the perfect fuel for a day’s wandering.
The Long Walk: The Cotswold Way
And then there’s the ultimate Cotswolds walking tour: the entire Cotswolds. Long-distance walkers with a week or more to spare can trace the entire length of the 100-mile (160-km) Cotswold Way, a well-marked national trail starting in Chipping Campden (an hour’s drive from downtown Birmingham) and finishing quite a ways south in the spa town of Bath. The route is marked the entire way with an acorn symbol, and is well-populated with small towns offering basic accommodation in hotels or B&Bs.
As the Cotswold Way is an official national trail, you’ll find no shortage of information about the route, including side-trips, on the National Trails website.
Lost and Found
You’re not going to get lost on a Cotswolds walking tour. Not only are the trails well marked, but walking is such a widespread hobby in the U.K. that you can find maps online for just about any path in the country, especially in the Cotswolds. WalkingWorld has over 6,500 downloadable maps, with a few dozen Oxfordshire Cotswolds maps downloadable in PDF format (though you can also output to a Google map or get GPS coordinates for a walking app on your phone). Escape to the Cotswolds has highly detailed Cotswold maps that print cleanly and are worth exploring; these are especially helpful for the car-less traveller, as they include public transport directions for the start/end point of most of the walks. You should download or print as many of these maps as you can in Birmingham before venturing out into the Cotswolds.