Postcard: rolling Cotswold hills. Photo: Getty Images
The best way to enjoy the Cotswolds is on foot, writes Michael Gebicki.
When I emerge from my lunch of pan-fried Loch Duart salmon at The Slaughters Inn, it's into a scene that promises chaos. A painter sitting at his easel on the inn's lawn, capturing the watery course of the River Eye in Monet-like stipples, has been beset by a rambunctious poodle. While the poodle leaps and paws the air, tongue lolling and requesting play, the painter arcs backwards, but with a brush in one hand, a palette in the other and a wet canvas to protect, he's defenceless, threatening to topple from his chair. Eventually the dog's breathless owner catches hold of its collar and drags the pooch away; the poodle backwards-walks as it is marched away to a scolding.
In the polite confines of this hushed and pretty Cotswold village, ill-mannered canine behaviour on this scale is scandalous, roughly equivalent to a mass shooting rampage in Texas.
Winchcombe's high street. Photo: Alamy
I'm walking a weaving variation on the Cotswold Way, the 160-kilometre hiking trail that stretches from the market town of Chipping Campden, north-west of London, to Bath. Zigzagging along the eastern escarpment of the Severn River Valley, this is one of Britain's loveliest long-distance walks, winding through beech woods and open pastures, between yew hedges, past Roman ruins and Iron Age forts in a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
It's postcard Britain at its sugar-coated best: gurgling brooks, mediaeval churches, mill houses, thatched cottages and villages of honey-coloured limestone where the names - Wotton-under-Edge, Hawkesbury Upton, Cold Ashton, Stow-on-the-Wold - come straight from nursery-rhyme England.
If you're looking for mellow, heart-rendingly gorgeous British countryside, you could not find a more attractive backdrop than the Cotswolds.
A Cotswold cottage. Photo: Getty Images
Better still, it's spring, the tail end of a hard winter and the coldest March for 50 years. The climb out of Mickleton takes me up Baker's Hill, across a carpet of bluebells and into a shadowy woodland where a robin sings its up-tempo spring song; the fields below are bristly with the infant shoots of wheat and barley.
For the most part the villages of the Cotswolds are set low down, lying slumberous in the crotch of dipping green hills. Unlike the mediaeval villages of Italy and France, where the necessities of defence dictated walled villages sited on hilltops, these came from peaceful times, growing fat on the wool trade that was founded on the shaggy Cotswold lion sheep. In the Middle Ages, half of England's income came from wool and this was its heartland.
Stately manor houses dot the landscape and church spires rise against bosomy green hills. Tithe barns are a feature of some of the larger villages, where farmers would donate a tenth of their produce to the church. Whether it's an almshouse or a mansion, the unifying factor of every building in this landscape is Cotswold stone, a Jurassic limestone that ages to a soft honey colour.
Cotswolds sheep keep a wary eye on passers-by. Photo: Getty Images
Come the industrial revolution of the late 1700s, the woollen industry and much of the working population shifted north and the Cotswolds fell on hard times. The trough lasted until the first half of the 20th century, but poverty and rural depopulation snap-froze the Cotswold landscape in the past, preserving it from housing estates and double-glazing window salesmen. Today, the architectural integrity of its honey-toned villages is kept intact by strict heritage orders that dictate the kind of roof you must have on your house and what kind of windows, right down to the illumination the local pub can use for its signage.
Famous people and their houses have long been a feature of the landscape. The family seat of the Mitford sisters is in Batsford, near Moreton-in-Marsh. Jeremy Clarkson lives near Chipping Campden and Hugh Grant is another of the region's celebrated residents. Princess Anne can sometimes be seen catching the train to London from ... well, I'm sworn to secrecy, but trust me.
Most visitors will take in the Cotswolds on a driving tour. A couple of hours in Stow-on-the-Wold, a cream tea in Broadway, a walk to the watermill in Lower Slaughter and off to Bath for the night. For those who walk, it's a more intimate version. I am caught up in the fine craftsmanship of dry-stone walls and the earthy smells of wet leaves and mud.
Every market town I pass through has tour groups from the US and Japan, but these hills belong to the locals. On the outskirts of every town there are Labrador owners on the trail, kitted out with green gumboots.
Emerging from woods above Bourton-on-the Hill, I pass through a creaking kissing gate and surprise a small red deer. I also get lost and blunder across fields searching for a gap in the hedgerows, rip my gaiters on a barbed wire fence and take the wrong path through woodlands.
On the way to Bourton-on-the-Water I have to cross a river on a split-rail fence and pick my way through a farmyard guarded by a terrifying hound, but it all works out, and at the end of every day I end up where I am supposed to be.
At times the Cotswolds can feel like a theme park, an elaborate working model of an outdated England, yet the scrupulous maintenance of these villages gives life to thatching, dry-stone wall building and other rural crafts and skills that have been lost to modern Britain.
On the outskirts of Blockley I stop to watch tilers at work on a roof. Made from split limestone, the tiles come in 30 different lengths, the longest at the eaves, decreasing in size as they go higher, with names according to their size. The final course the tilers lay are the farewells, because then they're off to the next job.
For the most part I'm walking through countryside, across fields, along hedgerows, through woods and along bridleways. The ancient British right-of-way system ensures free passage even through private property.
I am never more than an hour or so from a village pub. Pub food was once one of the lesser attractions of country walking, but you can't help thinking that Jamie Oliver, Gordon Ramsay and Heston Blumenthal have wrought a small revolution. I dine on caramelised onion soup with truffle oil and farmhouse bread, followed by a chump of Cotswold lamb with pickled red cabbage, pureed Jerusalem artichoke and sauteed potatoes, and finish it off with lemon and raspberry crumble, and never spend more than $35.
Choreographing this walk is Utracks, which specialises in self-guided tours on foot, bike and barge throughout Europe. This walk, A Week in the Cotswolds, begins in Stratford-upon-Avon and finishes in Winchcombe, about five kilometres from Cheltenham.
It's hiking lite. Apart from maps, a water bottle and a camera, I am unburdened. The longest day's march is just more than 20 kilometres, and at the end of every day there's a bed and breakfast with an aproned woman welcoming me into the parlour and plying me with tea and cakes.
Every day, after I have departed my previous night's accommodation, a man with a van will collect my suitcase and deliver it to the next night's lodging along the route.
Before I leave Lower Slaughter, I'm dallying by the watermill, waiting for the sun to shine to snap a photo. There are a dozen Chinese twentysomethings taking group photos of themselves in front of everything - the mill, the river, on the tiny bridge, in front of daffodils.
I ask them what they think of the gingerbread village. "Oh! So beautiful," they say, "yes, very beautiful. Sorry, we have no words." And though I might have a few more words, I, too, am at a loss.
The writer travelled as a guest of Utracks and Visit Britain.
Stratford-upon-Avon and Moreton-in-Marsh are connected by train with Oxford and London Paddington. Timetable information can be found ojp.nationalrail.co.uk.
The region is well supplied with hotels, inns and small bed and breakfast establishments, at a range of prices. For options, see Visit Cotswolds, the official visitor website, visitcotswolds.co.uk.
By far the best way to get around is in a hire car, or on foot.
FIVE MUST SEES ON THE COTSWOLD WAY
The work of the great 18th-century landscape designer, "Capability" Brown. William Morris, the designer and artist, lived here with his wife, Jane, while she pursued a passionate affair with Gabriel Rossetti, the Pre-Raphaelite painter. Morris eventually left them to it and abdicated to Iceland, but the couple reunited.
Impressive 15th-century castle once inhabited by Katherine Parr, the last of the six wives of Henry VIII, subsequently married to Thomas Seymour. Princess Elizabeth, later to become Elizabeth I, lived here for a while until Seymour's inappropriate displays of affection caused Parr to banish her. Destroyed during the English Civil War, the castle was rebuilt during the Victorian era.
Picture-perfect village with a rich architectural heritage from its 300 years of prosperity as a cloth and wool centre.
Official start point of the Cotswold Way, this handsome market town has houses dating to 1380, an outstanding example of a "wool" church, a fine Market Hall and a row of 17th-century almshouses.
Now an atmospheric ruin, this 13th-century Cistercian abbey was once a major pilgrimage site, where the Holy Blood of Hailes was rumoured to be a vial of Christ's blood.