31 August 2012

The Cotswold Way

This August, my wife and I took a week with two friends who live in London to walk the Cotswold Way. The Cotswold Way is a 102 mile ramble through some of the most quintessentially English countryside there is. Sheep, churchyards, villages, and quaint pubs. There's a decent amount of information out there about it, but it was still quite a bit of work getting the trip together. We decided for several reasons to hike the Way from south to north rather than north to south, which is the usual way people do it. The most compelling of these reasons was that the southern end is 2 hours from Heathrow airport, not 2:45, and we were going to be coming into Heathrow late.

You can see the other couple's blog post, including pictures here. The pictures don't do it justice. It's just fields and sheep, but it's stunningly beautiful up there. I just wanted to get down some of my thoughts about the trip. I planned it down to some very small details, including which pubs we'd be stopping at. We researched and bought a lot of new equipment. Here's some things I learned:

1.) Under Armour compression shorts, silk sock liners, Gore-Tex, wicking shirts - These were my ammunition to be able to walk/hike long distances. I'm a big guy, but I'll get up and down the hills eventually. What really has taken me out of a lot of hikes is moisture management. I know that sounds gross, but chafing and blisters are the biggest nuisances for me in hiking. We were lucky with the weather. Very little rain and right around 60F the whole time (in August!).

I also loved my Merrel trail runner with Superfeet Blue Insoles. The plantar fasciitis I've been battling all summer barely raised its head!

2.) Twelve miles a day is fun. Sixteen feels like a job. - We had a range of fitness levels and body sizes on the trip, but we're all pretty active. All of us started getting sore feet at mile 12 every day. Anything over 12 felt like a slog. Also, the amount of time you have for other things, like sitting in the grass, gets squeezed. That extra hour and a half of walking is when you could otherwise be relaxing with a book in the pub, or taking a nap, or soaking in a bath. We loved the walking. By the end of the week, we all agreed we'd love to keep going, all had a new thought about a walk we could take in other countries. But the schedule was just a little too aggressive.

2a.) 12x7 < 102 - You'll see all over the place that most people take 6 to 15 days to finish the Way, and that the average is 7. Don't worry about that. If you're going to do it, take longer. Because of the spacing of villages, especially in the middle section, you might have to walk 16 or 18 miles one day. But otherwise keep it to 12 or so and just take some more time. A down-day in the middle would have been heaven, too. Especially if we'd been able to swing a massage.

3.) Pubs close from 3-6 - And they're often the only business in some of these villages, so if you're going to be walking through a village like Stanton or Tormarton at 4pm, there's nowhere to stop for a snack or a drink. Best to just stop in a field with a nice view.

4.) Stay in B&B's and Hotels, not Pubs - The pub food was middling all along the Way. The pubs were great, and it was nice to eat dinner, have a couple of pints, and stumble upstairs at 9pm. But the bed that awaited you might be small and lumpy, in a loud room that smelled of fryer oil. We loved the charm of the Crown & Trumpet in Broadway, but would gladly have spent the extra few pounds to stay at the Lygon Arms. Valley Views B&B in Middle Yard was a standout. Pam was amazing.

The restaurant meals we had were really good. We loved our fancy restaurant dinners at 5 North Street in Winchcombe and Russell's in Broadway. The Falcon Inn in Painswick was also a really nice lunch in a classy pub-like atmosphere.

5.) I don't get tired of full English breakfasts. - That is all.

6.) There is a Stratford in Canada. - It has something called the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. If you go to Stratford-On-Avon and try to attend one of Stratford, ON's plays, they will be very confused. This will all turn out fine in the end, though.

7.) I didn't like the beer as much I thought I would - This was a surprise. My benchmark was the Bow Bar in Edinburgh (i.e., The Greatest Bar in the World), though, so I might have come in with some high expectations.

I've been brewing for three years now and had been rather enthralled with English ales. I've made Old Ale, Mild, Best Bitter, and a bunch of others, with a variety of yeasts. I was excited to try a bunch of different cask ales over the course of the trip. But even the best places had only one style on offer. They had three or four different kinds of bitter. No milds, no stouts. A bit disappointing.

But these places are listed in the CAMRA Good Beer Guide! They are the standard bearers for classic English beer. This is a dying art. It has as many rules as Dogme 95! How can it not be good?

Well, it was good-ish, but they weren't all that different from each other. The craziness of the American beer scene can get exasperating, with people trying to outdo each other using crazy amounts of hops, but it at least has a lot of variety, taste-wise. I'm not saying that one cannot be a casked English bitter aficionado. I'm just saying that I will never be one.

There were a few blonde bitters which were moderately interesting, and a couple of experimental ones made with New Zealand hops. I really enjoyed those... probably because they had some of that New World hop flavor.

I really appreciate what CAMRA is doing, but English beer is just not for me. Good to know.

Cider, on the other hand, was amazing. We found a lot of different types. Ashton Press won the prize among them. Stowford Press from Weston was a distant second.

8.) I want do to more of these!

Overall, it was a great trip, with some excellent conversation with great friends, lots of good times, lots of great views and nice moments. Lots of meditative walking, a little bit of exertion, and just a lot of fun.

I was worried about spending a full week walking with another couple, but strolling along and chatting is actually very easy. It helped that they're really easy to talk to.

I'd do another long-distance walk in the UK in a heartbeat. In fact, now that I know how to plan one, I'm practically required to use that knowledge to make the next one awesome!

A gentleman we met on the Cotswold Way spoke very highly of the Coast to Coast Path, which goes through the Welsh Lakes District, the Yorkshire Dales, and the North English Moors. Sounds amazing.


Josh said...

This is awesome!! Can't wait to hear more, Rich. I've always wanted to do a long "Way" hike in the British Isles. That's MY kind of hiking: farm-copse-hedgerow-stile-sheep-copse-pub-hedgerow-OMG bronze age burial mound!-sheep-stile-1,000 year old church-pub. But yeah, I remember the beer situation. When I was headed to Oxford for six months (as a townie, not a student), I thought I'd be entering the promised land. So bummed. I think part of it is that most of the pubs are either owned by or somehow partnered with big beer conglomerates, so they are not allowed to offer competing brews...

Rich said...

There were plenty of local brewers, but they all made the same style of beer, and it all tasted the same. Your only other options were cider, crappy lager, and Guinness. Not terrible, but would have appreciated finding at least one mild among the bunch. There were a few "blonde" cask ales, and we found one very interesting IPA at the Beaufort Arms in Hawksbury Upton (best pub ever). The thing I learned, though, is that I should not be trying to brew English bitters or ESBs. I don't like them as much as many other styles.

Ben Keene said...

A nice wrap up with some helpful tips for other aspiring "Way" walkers. Devon and Cornwall could be fun (http://www.southwestcoastpath.com/day-walks/pub-walks/) but I'll be curious to hear about whether a Coast to Coast Path plan takes shape next year...

The Ramblers said...

Hi Rich,

We really enjoyed this post about your adventure on the Cotswold Way and think that our followers on Twitter and Facebook would enjoy it as well. May we share it with them?

We are also currently running a Campaign For National Trails, such as the Cotswold Way, to secure their future. More on the Campaign can be found here: http://www.ramblers.org.uk/Campaigns+Policy/nationaltrails.

Many Thanks,

The Ramblers

Rich said...

Absolutely! Thanks for the link to the campaign. It's really amazing what the National Trails authority has been able to accomplish. These long distance footpaths are fast growing into national treasures for the UK. People should know about them!

The Ramblers said...

Hi Rich,

Thanks for getting back to us and for giving us permission to share your post!

We heartily concur that National Trails are becoming national treasures, both for walkers and for the local businesses that benefit from the increased tourism. If you are interested we are also circulating a petition in support of our campaign:

Thanks again for permission to share your post--we will Tweet and Facebook a link to it within the next week or so.


The Ramblers

Annydoyle said...

I walked the Cotswold Way a few years back, and enjoyed it too. I think you might find the Coast to Coast walk harder, as the Lake District through which it passes at the start, if you walk from west to east, is much hillier. Likewise the SW Coast path has some very challenging sections, but the sea views are gorgeous and more than make up for this. I think the secret, as you suggest is not to try to cover too many miles each day.

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Unknown said...

Thanks for the post. We did the coast to coast two years ago, and are yearning to get back to the English countryside. I found your blog by googling: which is harder coast to coast or cotswold way?

We did the C2C in 12 days, and I wish we would've taken 2 days off just to explore towns and take a few side trips. I was trying to decide whether to do the entire CW or just part of it, but you answered my question. I think the entire CW with 10-12 mile day segments and at least one day in the middle and a massage at the end is the ticket.

Thanks again for the post. I hope you try the C2C someday, also.

Rich said...

Yes, there was a section in the middle there, Birdlip to Cleeve Hil, that was long (17mi) and without towns or pubs or really B&B's (back then when we did it). The plan, as I have it, was to have a picnic at Dowdeswell Reservoir. Nowadays, there's an Indian restaurant right there on the A40 near Dowdeswell. I would do a slow start and easy day from Birdlip to there (9.5 miles), then take a taxi into Cheltenham for a massage and a proper hotel bed. (We did get tired of lumpy B&B beds.)