I just finished walking the Cotswold Way with a friend, Neil Goodban. We did it on a day-by-day basis over slightly more than a year except for the last two sections which we did in two consecutive days. We started in Chipping Camden and ended in Bath, though it is not just possible but equally natural to do it the other way round as the prevailing wind is lateral. Although the Way is often a bridlepath so that you could ride a horse or a bicycle it is almost equally often just a footpath, prohibiting those options. In fact we never saw any cyclists and the stretches that were meadows or woods were generally too wet to cycle.
Some basic arithmetic: the length of the walk is almost invariably listed as 102 miles (164 kilometers). This figure has to be put against the straight line figure between the middle of Bath and the middle of Chipping Camden which is approximately 52 miles. And compared with that we know we walked for nine days and we thought we walked an average of at least fifteen miles a day, not 11-12, which would suggest a total around 135 miles. The difference is easily explained: if you walk down a track with deep puddles in it, for instance, you find yourself veering left of the one on the right hand side then right of the one on the left hand side, then up a bank to avoid the truly enormous one. In many fields you have to walk two sides of a square rather than a diagonal. It all adds up and can soon account for the difference between 102 and 135.
We had walked long distance paths before, Neil more than me. But even I had completed the Jurassic Coast, the St. Cuthbert’s Way (from Melrose to Lindisfarne) and the incomparable Coast to Coast. All of these had been walked without a break, the first two taking approximately a week and the C2C two weeks. Walking a path nine days out of four hundred and relatively close to home is a very different experience to that and severely reduces the value of comparisons. But there are still useful and important comparisons to be made. On the C2C, for example, you are normally in a near-uninhabited landscape, but you are likely to meet many other walkers doing the same thing as yourself. But on the Cotswold Way you are rarely out of site of habitation, but you meet few other walkers and they are most often dog walkers from nearby villages.
One of the good things about the Cotswold Way is that it is extremely well signposted; in my experience only the Scottish section of St. Cuthbert’s Way is as good and it is a great deal better than the C2C which has a degree of notoriety in this respect. Of course, you should carry maps and guides and a compass, but, mercifully, you don’t need them very often. You can stride from sign to sign and from stile to stile without frustrating periods scratching your head and glaring at a map which shows one path when in reality there seem to be two. And for all the gentle, pastoral image of the Cotswolds there is plenty that will “tek breath out on thee” as my neighbours used to put it in Colne: if you walk the whole distance it is the equivalent of walking from the sea to the summits of the high Alps. Naturally, it is often extremely pretty, especially the villages and the country houses, but you also often find yourself in secluded deep green valleys surrounded by woods. Since the walk mostly follows the western ridge of the Cotswold escarpment there are sometimes wonderful long views of the Severn Valley and into Wales.
But there is also a case against. Although pretty, the Cotswold Way is relatively samey. The C2C offers you new landscapes constantly: coastal cliffs, mountains, lakes, bogs, moors, old mining country, the rich arable fields of the Vale of Mowbray. The Cotswold Way is woods and fields and stone villages. It was mostly extremely muddy, which has to be a rather contingent comment, though I’ve no reason to suppose that ours was an unfair sample. And I personally found the wiggliness annoying. Far too often we seemed to walk four miles in order to be a mile away from where we had started. Or we arrived within sight of our finishing destination for the day only for the Way to haul us back up the ridge to pursue a semi-circular course through yet more muddy woods. It lacked that sense of purpose and pilgrimage which other long distance paths give.
Nowadays one can read assessments of more or less anything and footpaths are no exception. Reviews of the Cotswold Way are mostly very favourable. However – and understandably – the most ecstatic reviews tend to come from overseas visitors rather than from British walkers. For the former the way delivers an “England” they had wanted and imagined. The towns and villages, after all, include Chipping Camden and Broadway at one end and Bath at the other; in between, Winchcombe and Stroud and Wotton-under-Edge are not to be snooked at either. I can only imagine what it is like (it’s too long ago to remember) what it is like to see these places for the first time. We met a psycho-therapist from Munich who had chosen to walk the Cotswold Way as his first ever visit to England and he seemed to regard it as entirely satisfactory.
As we marched along I formulated two alternatives to our current expedition. One was that there should be a complementary Cotswold Way II which would be much straighter and closer the the heart of the Cotswold;d Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. The other was that if I did CW1 again it would be in a much more bucolic fashion, single figures of miles per day, in summer, drinking a lot more and gawping a lot more, and actually enjoying the wiggliness. That would go with the landscape.
Lincoln Allison April 2016