From Kings Head Inn to Bath Abbey: Our last days on the Cotswold Way

It is around 8.00 pm on August 22nd. The evening air is warm and still. The sun is low in the sky shining though a hazy veil of clouds, but the sky is not overcast. We are strolling the streets of Kings Stanley, a village on the Cotswold Way not far from Gloucester. It is not really an historic village. Most houses are relatively new and they are not particularly unique or beautiful. Yet pride shines from every one of them. Many are individually named, and the names project a certain vision of country England: Walnut Tree Cottage, Rose Nook, Clover Cottage, The Laurels, Woodland View, Jackdaw Cottage, Sunbeams, Field House, Greenfields, Manor View, The Brush (with a fading image of a brush-tailed fox beside the name).

Horses in the streets of Kings Stanley.

The village is built around a village green with a cricket strip in the middle. As we pass we hear the muffled shouts of young men playing soccer: playing without much skill but with seriousness and energy. The referee is clad in the officialdom of a referee’s jersey and he uses his whistle a lot. A coach bawls a stream of advice and instructions. Some excited children are running up and down the sideline.

We have just eaten dinner in the upstairs restaurant of the Kings Head Inn, right beside the village green. When we arrived, just short of 7.00 pm, the restaurant was unlit and unattended. The young man behind the downstairs bar thought he knew why.

“The chef’s gone out for a few minutes – down to the next pub, I think. He’s not allowed to drink here. I’ll get the owner. She’s just next door.”

Are they soup tureens, or…?

A few minutes later the owner bustles in full of apology. She switches on the lights and calls the chef on her mobile. We look down the long narrow room. On shelves at the far end there is a display of painted porcelain platters and, hanging from hooks, a row of what look like large chamber pots. Emmy doesn’t believe that chamber pots – however antique they may be – could be used as decorations in a restaurant. They must be soup tureens, she says. Reader, I leave you to judge (see picture).

When the chef turns up – a young man wearing the white jacket and checked cotton trousers of a chef – he prepares a meal that is unexpectedly delicious. I have fish and chips (to be reviewed in a later post) and Emmy demolishes a big dish of nachos. The chef fusses over us as we eat, checking that we have salt and pepper, adjusting the level of the background music and asking if the meal is to our taste.

As we walk slowly back to our accommodation at the Valley Views B&B the sky has cleared and the sunlight is retreating from the hills below the village. Trees stand in ranks that criss-cross the slopes, each tree split into a half of golden light and a half of darkness, throwing a long, tapering, dark-green shadow into the lime green of the fields. There is quiet poetry in the evening of a long day. We will sleep well tonight in our garret room.

****

The warning has come too late… we have to continue walking.

On Tuesday August 23rd we walked from Kings Stanley to the small town of Wotton-under-Edge, a distance of 25 kilometres. It was a long stretch but most of the path took us through cool woodland and we were walking on soft surfaces. Several times I stopped to listen to the silence of the woods. The Australian bush had taught me to expect a certain amount of noise: cackling and chirping and screeching. I had learned to eavesdrop on scratchy chatter and peer up into treetops full of mad laughter. I knew how to filter out the deafening sawing of summer cicadas and brush away the static of flies. But here in England… where were the birds? Where were the insects? Where was the companionship of wild voices? England’s woodlands seemed eerily empty.

The beautiful and silent woodlands of the Cotswold Way.

On the other hand there were plenty of wildflowers to admire: daisies and dandelions, buttercups and bluebells, brilliant red poppies, thick banks of tall purple flowers (rosebay?) and carpets of clover. There were blackberries (edible but tart) and rowan berries, stinging nettles and bloated thistles.

Walking between banks of rosebay.

Wild poppies…

… and daisies.

Rowan berries…

… obese thistles…

… and stinging nettles.

A slow-worm crosses our path (slowly).

Occasionally there were signs of wild fauna. We saw grey squirrels and rabbits, but they were too quick and timid to photograph. Just out of Kings Stanley we were halted for a few minutes by a slow-worm on the path. The slow-worm is kind of legless lizard that looks like a snake. True to its name it slid very slowly across the path, a tiny tongue flicking from its mouth.

English roadkill.

Much of the walk was over pasture where we often had to push our way through crowds of sheep and cows. There were several encounters with horses, intelligent creatures that seemed especially curious about Emmy.

Emmy is harassed by a horse (I think it smells food in her backpack).

Courage, Emmy, courage.

And needless to say we met other walkers. Near Wotton-under-Edge I was labouring up a steep hill, puffing heavily, my heartbeat thumping in my ears, sweat stinging my eyes, when a young woman – maybe 20 years old – came gliding down the slope. She was carrying a huge backpack but had no walking poles to steady her and help her down the hill. Yet she was walking rapidly and easily as if she was on a city street hurrying to the office. I rasped out a greeting.

“Hi. Where are you heading?”

She was rosy with good health and her teeth braces glinted in the sun.

“I’m on my way to John o’Groats.”

“What!? John o’Groats at the top of Scotland?”

“Yes. I started from Lands End three weeks ago.”

“And you’re on your own?”

“Yes, but…” she added modestly “I’m doing it in stages. I’ll be taking break for a few days in the midlands. And I might stop for a day or two in Edinburgh, especially if the weather is cold.”

I dug my walking poles into the earth and levered myself up another step. Above me, on the summit of the hill, Emmy – who is older than me – was waiting and getting impatient. Suddenly the hill seemed steeper and I felt my age.

For the second half of the Cotswold walk we enjoyed the intermittent company of a Dutch couple, Ronald and Francis from Enschede, who stayed each night in the same accommodation as us. They were very fit, very focussed walkers who invariably overtook us, then fell behind again as they took detours and explored places that our speed and stamina did not allow us to reach. Apart from meeting over breakfast our paths also criss-crossed during the day: These encounters were always a pleasure. Their cheery faces are now indistinguishable in my memory from the exotic and quaint places where we met and chatted: Parsonage Street in Dursley, the Dog Inn in Old Sodbury, the Falcon Inn in Wotton-under-Edge, the Major’s Retreat in Tormarton.

With Ronald and Francis in the front bar of the Falcon Inn, Wotton-under-Edge.

****

August 25th was the last day of the walk. After a big hit of calories and cholesterol courtesy of the legendary “full English breakfast” (marmalade on buttered toast accompanied by bacon, eggs, sausage, half a tomato, sliced mushrooms – all fried – plus baked beans) Emmy and I headed out into the cool of the morning. I took deep breaths of champagne air as we opened gates into easy walking over dew-laden fields. The euphoria didn’t last long. It had rained the previous night and the “easy” paths were slick with mud. Within minutes big pancakes of clay had formed on the soles of our boots. We skidded and slipped, and had to walk lifting our knees like flamingos, stopping from time to time to scrape the clay away. We graduated to narrow incisions between banks of grass. Hidden in the grass there were nettles easily able to deliver a sting through the thin cloth of our pants as we brushed past.

As we walked the sky slowly darkened. Around 1.00 pm we reached the high, wind-blown fields of Lansdown where royalist and parliamentarian forces clashed in 1643. The stone walls where soldiers had crouched were still intact, and the positions and movements of troops were indicated with metal flags and information displays. But nothing else remained of the battle.

The English Civil War was probably the first time in human history that an attempt was made to establish the authority of a representative parliament by force of arms. The success of Oliver Cromwell’s parliamentarians was not immediate or perfect, but its impact has rippled across the world. As I stood in the empty fields of Lansdown they dissolved into desert, the jagged stone walls acquired a plaster veneer, the sky cleared and a hot sun beat down. In my imagination I was in Libya where, three hundred and sixty-eight years after the Battle of Lansdown, the forces of parliamentary democracy were still locked in battle with the forces of dictatorship. As in 17th century England, in Libya too there would be no quick and decisive outcome. Only rarely does history instantly dismantle a worn-out order and replace it with something wholly new. In Libya the dictator Gaddafi will fall, as Charles the First did, and the supremacy of parliament will be instituted, as it was in 17th century England. But Libya now faces a testing period of transition that may, for a time, produce a “lesser” or “transitional” dictatorship, as happened in 17th century England under Cromwell and is currently happening in Egypt.

Suddenly the sky unfurled veils of heavy rain. We made a run for trees at the edge of the battlefield. Water was streaming off the leaves of the canopy as we struggled into our wet weather gear. At Lansdown the Cotswold Way forks. The official “scenic” route curls five kilometres through high hills and farmland before dropping down into Bath. The “unofficial” route is a little shorter and takes the walker directly down an asphalt highway into the city. With cold water trickling down our backs we wimped out and chose the latter.

Our endpoint at Bath Abbey.

Streetscape in Bath. Our hotel was in the row of buildings on the left.

At 4.00 pm we were standing in the streets of Bath looking up at the soft grey stonework of its Regency buildings. We gave Bath Abbey – the official endpoint of the Cotswold Way – a quick salute and hurried to our accommodation in the comfort of the small Kennard Hotel. Since July 14th – a period of six weeks – we had walked the Camino’s Via Portugues, the Cumbria Way and the Cotswold Way, a total of 500 kilometres.

It was time to kick off our boots and relax.

Taking in the sights of Bath: the ancient Roman baths.

[Next up: My ranking of fish-and-chip meals in England]

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Of hymns and history and dogs: The first half of the Cotswold Way

The Cotswold Way is a long distance walk running for around 170 km through southwest England from Chipping Campden at its northern end to Bath in the south. Most of the walk lies within the county of Gloucestershire. Emmy and I completed it in nine days, each one-day stage averaging around 20 km in length, with a one-day rest in Painswick halfway along the trail.

The main street of Broadway, half a day into the Cotswold Way walk.

The Cotswold Way is not a difficult walk. There are no mountains or stretches of wilderness, and only a small part of it piggy-backs on highways or runs through urban areas. Most of the terrain is undulating countryside. There are several long steep climbs that will get you puffing hard, and because you walk five or six hours a day it demands a reasonable level of fitness. It is well way-marked but it is nevertheless possible to lose your bearings, as we did a couple of times. A good map and guidebook – better still, a GPS device – are essential. Some parts of the walk run through areas that are about as distant from services as it is possible to get in densely populated England, yet every night we slept comfortably in small guest houses or B&Bs and we ate well, mostly in village pubs. We used Macs Adventure, a Glasgow based company (http://www.macsadventure.com/cotswold-way/overview.php), to arrange our accommodation and transport our heavy luggage from stopping-point to stopping-point. They did an excellent job.

The Cotswold Way is no ordinary walk. It is more like a hymn sung by the feet in the great cathedral of the English countryside. This metaphor is way way over-the-top, I know, but in the after-glow of completing the walk, I like it. The contours of the hills, the rise and fall of the path, the beat of hedgerows, gates and farmsteads, the refrain of stone villages, and above all the grand melodic sweep of the panoramas, all come together in a beautiful fugue that commands the walker to join in. Like a musical composition, the Cotswold Way is wholly artificial and mannered. Its pastures and hedgerows, its cobbled villages, its stone towns sliced by narrow streets, even its woodlands and streams – everything is man-made. Centuries of cultivation have stamped and moulded every hedgerow, every copse has been manicured to its present shape, every meadow laid down by human hand. Every wall, no matter how mossy and “natural”, has been assembled stone by stone, every building has been cut and crafted and re-crafted often over many generations.

A typical rural panorama along the Cotswold Way.

Postlip Hall, a rural mansion near Winchcombe.

Walking through woodland.

In short, on the Cotswold Way you will not be alone. When you walk it you join an invisible crowd. Like a stadium or cathedral, the Cotswolds are a giant, echoing amphitheatre whose seats are filled with the ghosts of countless human lives. You walk as an act of homage. Each day your steps sing a quiet day-long paean of admiration and gratitude to those who made the spectacular beauty you can now enjoy.

Chipping Campden’s old livestock market. Its rough floor still smells of sheep and cows.

If you are walking from north to south (it is equally possible to walk the Cotswold Way from south to north) you start in the old livestock market in the centre of Chipping Campden. Peering out past the building’s columns and arches you take in the remarkable kilometre-long double rank of honey-coloured stone houses that line the main street. They haven’t changed much in the centuries since they were built. Even the roughly cobbled floor of the market building is still exactly as it was 200 years ago. In fact, although the livestock market has not been used as a market for at least a century, if you kneel down (as I did to take a photograph) you inhale the faint acrid odour of animal urine and dung still sweating from the stones. To me, it felt like Thomas Hardy’s home ground, where (in my mind’s eye) Michael Henchard, the mayor of Casterbridge, might once have cut deals in corn and hay and sheep.

The remarkable main street of Chipping Campden.

It was the production and export of wool in the 17th and 18th centuries that created Chipping Campden’s prosperity. When that trade declined in the 19thcentury it froze the town, and other nearby towns, in the time capsule that we see today. History ambushes you at every stage of the walk, from Belas Knap prehistoric burial mound, to the extravagances of Regency architecture (1790 – 1830), to aristocratic follies like Broadway Tower (1799), to the lonely memorial that commemorates the life of William Tynedale (1494-1536), the brave man who first translated substantial portions of the Bible into English for the general public, and whom a grateful and merciful Church executed by strangulation and burning at the stake. Gloucestershire was a major theatre of combat during the first English Civil War (1642 – 1646) changing hands several times. In Chipping Campden a large manor house abandonned by a royalist supporter still stands derelict 350 years after it was scuttled by its owner. Further south the walk passes across the quiet fields of Lansdown where a bloody but inconclusive battle was fought between royalist and parliamentarian forces in 1643.

Broadway Tower, built for no special reason by a dotty aristocrat. Today it is a tourist attraction and a welcome stopping point for tired walkers.

Emmy and I headed out of Chipping Campden on the fresh, warm morning of August 17th. The first day gave us a synopsis of the route to come: pasture, wooded hills, hedgerows, gates, and vast, faintly whispering vistas of England’s park-like countryside. It was a world of green, punctuated by villages and small towns clustered around church spires, their glowing stone houses embedded in bright flowers. We stopped for a lunch of pumpkin soup and scones in a traditional tearoom in the town of Broadway and we slept a peaceful night in the wonderfully welcoming Shenberrow Hill B&B under huge trees in the picturesque stillness of Stanton village.

A house in the village of Stanton. Thatched roofs are becoming rare, but the honey-coloured stone is the most common building material in this part of the Cotswolds.

The following two days took us along the escarpment that skirts the eastern extremities of Cheltenham, a major city that we could see laid out below us in the distance. Here, on a Saturday morning, we had to wade into a strong current of dogs. On day-release from high-walled back yards and dark cells in their city apartments, they had dragged their owners up the escarpment and on to the Cotswold Way. Tiny hair balls on four legs yipped along beside drooling monsters with flapping jowls and turkey necks. The dogs washed around us with remarkable politeness. We met two young women surrounded by a slobbering, panting mini-tribe.

“You are out walking nine dogs?”

“Yes. My friend has four dogs and I have five.”

“I can see only eight.”

“Oh, it’s Madge. She got left behind again. Madge! MADGE!!”

Special bins for the disposal of dog poo. Notice… not one bin, but three. How many dogs does it take to fill three bins with poo? Go figure.

Madge – a yellow, long haired labrador – slunk guiltily out of the bushes and headed for what looked like a row of three rubbish bins. We had seen these at several points along the Cotswold Way. They were special receptacles for dog waste. Madge started pawing the grass beside them. Her owner produced a plastic supermarket bag and waited fondly as Madge revolved in circles sniffing the ground.

“Good GIRL Madge! See… she knows where to go when she has to go. She’s such a well-mannered dog.”

She was indeed a very well-mannered dog. For the most part, the English have taught their dogs to be as polite and ordered and friendly as the human population is. But always, in one way or another, the essential dogness of dogs will overrule efforts to fully humanise their behaviour.

When we arrived at our B&B accommodation in Painswick – an atmospheric and comfortably lived-in 17th century townhouse – we found two large dogs stalking the stone floors. They were short hair, blue-grey dogs, thin, gaunt and perfectly polite. Their main interest in life was scheming to get out of the house. As soon as they realised we could not help them they stopped trying to ingratiate themselves with us and disapppeared.

The next morning as we sat down to breakfast our hostess was apologetic.

“I’m so sorry,” she said, “I had some beautiful local cheese for you but I put it on the kitchen window sill. The window was open and the dogs were in the back yard. They grabbed the cheese and ate it.”

The two dogs were sitting by the front door hoping their crime would get them expelled from the house. Our hostess called to her daughter.

“Would you take the dogs out for a walk, darling?”

Instantly the two dogs thumped their tails on the floor. Success!

Just south of Painswick we reach the Cotswold Way’s halfway point, 55 miles or 88 km into the walk.

[Next up: The “Soggy Chip” award for bad food, and Quinn’s report card on English fish and chips.]

Stopover in Stratford-upon-Avon… with a modern nightmare on the margins of a Tudor dream

In August, Stratford-upon-Avon is an ants nest of tourists. They swarm through town drawn (as we were) by advertising that emphasises the mystique of Stratford-upon-Avon as Shakespeare’s birth place. Actually, Stratford doesn’t need the help of advertising. It is genuinely and attractively exotic, especially thanks to its architecture. Shakespeare’s reputation has thrown a protective cover over its historic buildings – buildings that in any other town would have succumbed to shifts of fashion or been erased by developers.

A bit warped by the passage of 500 years, a mostly wooden Tudor house still stands in a Stratford street.

The many Tudor houses that stand warped and wonky across the centre of town are especially fascinating. Most were built around a frame of rough-hewn, time-darkened oak beams. The spaces between beams were filled with latticework made from woven switches of wattle and other woody plants, and this latticework was filled in with a daub made of clay and chopped straw. When the panels hardened they were coated with a whitewash that, in combination with the oak beams, gave Tudor houses their characteristic black and white appearance. Although the panels are hard, even today they still need to be replaced, repaired or re-coated regularly.

The ground floor was layered with smooth flagstones and the houses were roofed with thick thatch. The Tudors did not have the technology to make large panes of glass so windows were assembled from small square panes held in place by lead and were protected from winter cold by wooden shutters. In Tudor times many houses did not have ceilings or chimneys. Smoke from domestic fires simply filtered out through the roof thatch. In the course of time chimneys and upper floors appeared, with bricks replacing the wattle and daub panels on the lower floors, and tiles replacing the thatch.

Tudor-style houses have proved they can defy time. For more than a century the two-storey house where William Shakespeare was born in 1564 has been a tourist attraction. Today, thousands of visitors shuffle through it every day, yet the house appears to be as creakily solid as (presumably) it was when it was built over 500 years ago. Until late in the 19th century descendants of Shakespeare’s sister, Joan Hart, occupied the house, and today vestiges of its evolution over the centuries since the playwright’s death have been preserved. Although some of the rooms appear as they were in Shakepeare’s time the house is not 100% a reconstruction of some Tudor “original”. Additions and artefacts from later times, especially from the nineteenth century, can also be seen. It is good that the official guardians of heritage have resisted the temptation to strip away the normal accretions of time, and as a result the evolution of the house as a lived-in dwelling can be appreciated.

The house where William Shakespeare was born: Stratford-upon-Avon’s big tourist attraction

A few kilometres from the centre of town stands the house of Anne Hathaway, Shakespeare’s wife. It too is not exactly as it originally was, but it can nevertheless be enjoyed as a beautiful, surprisingly roomy house surrounded by a garden fragrant with the scent of sweet peas. This is the house that, in modern times, has come to represent the model Tudor house, an iconic embodiment of perfect Englishness.

Ann Hathaway’s beautifully preserved house with its beautiful garden on the outskirts of Stratford-upon-Avon.

The tourist industry tends to seize on one or two key features of a person, place or event and invest them with mythic authority, transforming them into simple, saleable tags that are easily advertised and stand for something far more complex. So we found that William Wordsworth is daffodils, and Jane Austen (we visited the Jane Austen Centre in Bath) is the handsome but dopey Mr Darcy. The gift shops of Stratford are filled with Shakespearean neck ruffs, sonnets and insults. On tee-shirts, in plaster busts of various sizes, and in fridge magnets you have the balding guy with a goatee beard and a lace ruff around his neck. You also have “The Sonnets” on tea towels and in sugary special editions many of which highlight iconic snippets (“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” “Let me not to the marriage of true minds…”). And you have desk calendars and coffee mugs that quote Shakespeare insults (“Thou clay-brained guts, thou knotty-pated fool, thou whoreson obscene greasy tallow-catch!”).

Give your wife or girlfriend a little bit of yourself to put on her lips. Mr Darcy lip balm on sale at the Jane Austen Centre in Bath.

How do you know which wash room is for gentlemen at the Jane Austen Centre in Bath? Why the one with a picture of the smouldering Mr Darcy (you) on it, of course.

So, like the religious devotees of former times, today you can buy your own mass-produced but much degraded relic of a super-human figure. But it was gratifying to discover that Shakespeare’s complexity and subtlety have proved difficult to reduce. No single motif dominates. And while it is easy to speak disparagingly of all this commercial dross, I have an uneasy feeling that, if he were alive today, Shakespeare himself might be delighted at his sales profile. He was, after all, a theatrical entrepreneur, a businessman in pursuit of profit.

Four Shakespeare mini-dolls for just five pounds? That’s value!

As you stroll the streets of Stratford-upon-Avon you can munch on Shakespeare gingerbread. They’re yummy.

Get your Shakespeare bust here, and while you’re about it buy a new hand-made, traditional toilet brush (right below Shakespeare)

On the night of August 16th – close to the traditional time of mid-summer – Emmy and I headed for the brand-new Royal Shakespeare Company theatre for a long anticipated performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The new theatre is a modern incarnation of Shakespeare’s Globe in London where, a month before, we had seen Hamlet. Like The Globe, it is “theatre in the round”. It has no proscenium arch framing a “window-on-the-world” stage that appears when the curtain rises. Rather, the stage juts into the audience and the upper galleries of seating look down directly on to it. We sat in the stalls almost close enough to reach out and touch the actors.

In the middle of the stage stood a pudgy modern sofa, and to one side a café table with wooden chairs around it. As the audience took their seats, the actors also strolled one by one onto the stage. They were wearing modern clothes. One actress was even wearing spangled hot pants. They stood in small groups chatting and drinking from wine glasses.

Suddenly the lights went out. A group of actors appeared, indistinct in the dimness but wearing what appeared to be miners’ overalls and carrying flashlights. One of them lifted a trapdoor in the centre of the stage and, jostling against one another with flashlight beams criss-crossing around them, they disappeared underground pulling the trapdoor shut behind them.

My heart sank. I have always disliked productions of plays from distant times that are presented in modern settings. The themes of these old plays are invariably relevant – sometimes shockingly relevant – to modern times, but there is a distracting, jarring disconnect between the modern milieu and costumes, and the pre-modern language of the play. The modern setting seems gimmicky and lazy.

But I needn’t have worried. On this night we were in good hands. I was about to be taught a lesson in theatrical craftsmanship. As Shakespeare intended, we were in a dream world and the action moved easily between different dreams. The overalls and hot pants, the over-stuffed sofa and long-stemmed wine glasses, all the consumer goods and the elegant style icons of contemporary life were as insubstantial, ephemeral and downright weird as the play’s forest fairies and Athenean aristocrats.

What really surprised me (having never seen – or even read – A Midsummer Night’s Dream before) was the belly-laugh humour of the play. It was a slapstick riot, but it was also a smorgasbord of jokes that seemed undimmed by their archaic language. Quince in a horse-trainer’s cloth cap, Bottom in high-heel workers boots, Puck in a trim jacket and tie: somehow it seemed to work. Even when the actors were weaving among dozens of kitchen chairs suspended from ropes just above the stage floor I put aside my instinctive resistance to avant-garde obscurity and had a good laugh, along with the rest of the audience.

During the intermission Emmy and I sauntered on to the terrace outside the theatre. The sun had set but the sky was filled with muted light and the air was warm. To our right the River Avon, now empty of tourist boats but still dotted with ducks and swans, flowed quietly under its medieval stone bridge. To our left stood the compact centre of Stratford stamped here and there with the black and white imprint of Tudor houses. Incredibly, in the park between town and river a group of men happened to be rehearsing a morris dance. With jingling anklets they zig-zagged amongst one another lifting their knees high and flapping their handkerchiefs to the accompaniment of music from a tape player.

The idyllic River Avon. On its banks there is an ugly reality that refuses to go away.

Not far from them, directly in front of us in the park, a more sinister scene was being played out. A group of six or eight young people, all drunk, stood pushing at each other and arguing in shrill voices. A girl with spiky blond hair wearing torn black stockings below a mini-skirt screeched and shoved at a teenage boy. The boy’s hair had been shorn from one side of his head but left hanging in dreadlocks on the other, and he kept tugging at his greasy jeans loosely strapped low around his thighs. Suddenly the boy turned towards the theatre terrace and raised his middle finger in our direction. With his other hand he raised a bottle of booze and shook it over himself.

Earlier in the day I had read a disturbing newspaper report about a young single mother of two who lived in Stratford-upon-Avon. To help make ends meet she had taken in a lodger, another young woman with whom she was on friendly terms. The second woman had gone to Birmingham when rioting broke out there on August 8th and had returned to her lodgings in Stratford-upon-Avon with a small quantity of looted clothing. She gave a pair of stolen shorts to her “landlady” friend who had been asleep at home with her children when the looting took place. The police arrested the young landlady and charged her with receiving stolen goods. The court hearing was swift. Within days the shocked woman had been convicted and sentenced to five months imprisonment.

Behind the idyll of Stratford-upon-Avon there is a hidden world of deprivation and frustration. It is a world that, when it comes to the attention of England’s elite (which doesn’t happen often), is judged in purely moral terms and dealt with harshly. In the 19th century you could be transported to the penal colonies for stealing a loaf of bread. Today you can be dumped in jail for five months for receiving a pair of stolen shorts.

England is still a divided society. We glimpsed it for an instant – like a small nightmare breaking into an expansive, comfortable dream – during the intermission in a performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

[Written in Talybont-on-Usk in the Brecon Beacons National Park, Wales. Pictures added in Canberra. Next up: The Cotswold Way]

We arrive in Bath

Between heavy showers of rain Emmy and I pose in front of Pulteney Bridge in Bath having walked 175 km south from Chipping Campden over nine days, including one rest day in Painswick. In all, we managed to hit our target of 500 km (we may even have exceeded it a little) over the six weeks we spent walking the Camino, the Cumbria Way and the Cotswold Way.

I apologise to readers of this blog for the sporadic character of my posts. Partly this has been due to the very slow and unreliable – sometimes non-existent – internet connections in the remote locations where we stayed in rural England, but mostly it has been because at the end of a long day of walking I have been too stuffed to do anything other than keel over and sleep. But over the next two weeks I will try to “back fill” with two or three reports on the Cotswold Way, plus one or two additional thoughts on our two previous walks and on the walking experience in general. Stay tuned.