It’s never guaranteed, and it can flip your world when you least expect it. It develops, reinforces, challenges, and isn’t meant to be easy. But it does come for free…
When I was younger the Cotswolds was just here, there, where I usually happened to be at any one time. It was never a destination for me. It was home, and I didn’t attach too much to that word. Now it’s where I mean to be. Now I’m proud to be here: Home.
It’s amazing how little it takes to change a whole world view; values, meaning and purpose. Often, the things we’re most used to, we’re blind to, no matter how special those things are. When familiarity creeps in, we run the risk of failing to see all that’s before us, all that deserves our attention, appreciation and love.
I’d just hit my twenties, freshly graduated, full of Romanticism and itching to seek out “the poetry of the earth” wherever and whenever I could. For me, that meant the decision to walk a section of the Cotswold Way, and that meant it was time to gear up.
Stroud was buzzing with tourists and locals going about their day. From every shop and cafe came the hum of summer intent: long, lazy brunches, farmers’ market sampling, charity-shop browsing and casual conversations from park bench to bus stop to sub-room steps.
And if you happened to be at the top of town on this bright Saturday morning, you’d have seen me briskly exiting the Millets with new waterproofs, an 80L rucksack, a wind-up LED lantern and some other last-minute essentials. I was ready.
It was an integral part of my introduction to a side of the Cotswolds I’d never before experienced.
I was dropped off by the side of the road, said my goodbyes, headed towards the green and didn’t look back. I had everything I needed: some thick boots on my feet, waterproof trousers and jacket, a phone, a first aid kit, a tent, sleeping bag, food and other essentials – and the hunger to find something out there. Something that would lend me clarity; some truth, thought, exercise, peace of mind and simple, clean happiness.
Almost all of what I’d read up to this point quietly and perfectly argued the case for valuing these things above almost all else, and finding them in nature. I had copies of poems by Keats, Wordsworth and others in my bag. They kept me company then and still do to this day.
To this day when I take the time to walk out into nature and I have the luxury of being alone with my thoughts, they’re pleasantly filled with impressions that have been made on individuals for countless generations. These are some of the most powerful impressions we’ve known and which all of us can share. We have only to go out to claim them.
A day and a night
The day unfolded in the best way I know: over long hours beneath the sun and a few white clouds, with the path always before me. I didn’t look back. Why would I? I’d eaten up the miles, not even trying to absorb all that I experienced. Instead, I simply let it wash over me. By sundown I was ready for a small solo meal over my portable gas stove, followed by some reading, writing and an early night with nothing between myself and the stars but a tent. How do I give you that 24 hours in words? I can’t.
Next morning, after some biscuits, nuts and fruit, I was off again, making my way at dawn over lush long grass freshly beaded with dew. There was a town up ahead and that was where I was getting off. Getting off the Cotswold Way, which, if one were to follow it further (and I certainly mean to), it would take you north as far as Chipping Campden.
Something that stays with me to this day is the memory of how I was feeling at this time. I remember clearly just how blown away I was by the sheer abundance of natural beauty all around me, the simplicity and complexity of it all. When I wasn’t briefly passing through some small town or other, I was seemingly the last person in the world, fully immersed in all that my route through the Cotswolds had to meet me with.
Through dappled woods, over babbling brooks and round every sturdy way-marker stood up to point me in the right direction – over miles and miles of land rich in the sounds and sights of all the life of summer – from hedgerows thick with birdsong to every rolling hill drawing me onwards. There were feelings, and they were the sort that is best captured – maybe can only be captured – with poetry:
There is a pleasure in the pathless woods,
There is a rapture on the lonely shore,
There is society where none intrudes,
By the deep Sea, and music in its roar:
I love not Man the less, but Nature more,
From these our interviews, in which I steal
From all I may be, or have been before,
To mingle with the Universe, and feel
What I can ne’er express, yet cannot all conceal.