Back in the Cotswolds, and with another beautiful day ahead, it's a good day to walk!
Thursday is the only day that there is a bus going to Cheltenham. The bus only seats 25 people, and by the time it got to Blockley the bus was half-filled with the "blue rinse crowd". The bus driver was not any younger, and when I announced that I was going to Winchcombe (another village along the way) he had to consult his bus fare chart to calculate the price for a return ticket. I sure hope that he is far-sighted, as I had to help him read the chart! But I decided that he had probably taken the drive so many times (albeit just once a week), and everyone else had survived previous trips, so I just sat at the back and hung on!
I had selected a walk outlined in one of my guidebooks. I really like the walk guides by Clive Holmes and this walk proved to be a quintessential Cotswolds walk -- a bit of everything that you would hope to see in the area.
The 5-mile walk began near the Winchcombe Abbey. Since the bus would be returning less than 4 hours later, I decided to start out immediately rather than taking time to tour the Abbey. So off I went down Vineyard Street (which used to be called Duck Street). The small river I passed over used to be the place where they dunked people accused of being witches. From there it was a short walk at the edge of a field filled with grazing cows, then down a side road until I got to a sheep farm. This is where the uphill climb started. The next mile was right up the middle of a field of sheep. I'm sure that they are very used to walkers by now, but that didn't stop them from bleeting at me and trying their best to look ferocious (protecting their babies). Thank goodness that you could sort of see the path and that there was a signpost in the middle of the field to show you the way up the hill.
At the end of the field was a kissing gate. On every walk you encounter different types of gates, sometimes a regular gate with a small side pedestrian gate, or possibly a short wooden fence with stiles that you have to climb over. Most of the older gates are kissing gates. The purpose of the kissing gate is to enclose livestock without having to rely on people having the presence of mind to close the gate behind them. The term derives from the fact that the gate "kisses" the stops at the two extremes of its swing. Of course, the romantics will tell you that the term comes from the fact that, when courting couples would take a walk together, the man would swing the gate forward for his lady, whereupon she would enter the perimeter, move around the swing gate, push it back, and return his favour with a kiss. A nice story that undoubtedly produced a few kisses along the way. Hmmm, maybe I should be waiting for a gentleman to come along and go through the gate. Then again, I could be waiting a while -- I haven't seen a soul on this walk yet!
The walk continued to get more and more steep, and I almost considered turning around. But I knew that I had to pay for having that chocolate croissant the other day (and the English and Irish breakfasts and ...) so on I trudged. The sign for Belas Knap gave me hope that I was heading somewhere, and the views back down to the valley, although still somewhat hazy, were spectacular. Finally at the top of the hill (300 metres), and over a wooden stile, the path turned into a lovely walk covered with budding trees and flowing hawthorns (known as mayflowers in England, but I still like calling them fairy trees). I finally saw two people on this path -- runners! Never expected to see that, especially up here in the middle of nowhere. I wonder where they were coming from and going to?
Just another kilometre or so along the path, and my hard work was rewarded with Belas Knap. Belas Knap is known as one of the finest neolithic long barrows in Gloucestershire. Like the other 70 odd long barrows known to be in the county, it is built just below the crest of the slope so that when it was first built it would have only been visible as a bump outlined against the sky from the valley below. Built about 3000 BC, the barrow is 178 feet long, 60 feet wide, and nearly 14 feet in height. It is a chambered barrow with a false entrance at the larger northern end. When the site was excavated, the remains of about 40 burials were found in the side chambers. The name Belas Knap is believed to come from the Latin word for beautiful (bellus) and the Old English for top or crest of a hill.
Unlike when I visited Stonehenge in the 1980s and was prevented from getting anywhere near the site (in fact, a picture postcard is the only decent picture you could get of the site), I could walk on the barrow, around the barrow, and walk up to the entrances. Not only that, but I felt that I was alone on the top of the world.
I didn't have a lot of time to kill here, as I wasn't sure what the next part of my walk would hold. And with that one bus per day, I sure couldn't miss that! (Later when I was looking up some details about Belas Knap on the Internet, I read about ghost and UFO sightings around Belas Knap. Probably good that I didn't know about these beforehand -- I may have gotten a bit freaked out what with being so totally alone in this place.)
The walk back down towards Winchcombe was MUCH easier! :) And instead of concentrating on the rising hill ahead of me, I was able to enjoy the views of the valley below. I could tell that I was going the correct way because I just headed towards Sudeley Castle, which lays on the outskirts of the town.
Sudeley Castle was mainly built in 1441 and, as happened in those times, it was confiscated (officially it was "gifted", although under duress) by various royals until Henry VIII (when we was with Anne Boleyn). After Henry died, his sixth wife, Catherine Parr, lived in the castle until her death a year later. The castle passed hands several times over the years -- the current owners are Lord and Lady Ashcombe. Celebrity followers will recall that Elizabeth Hurley, a long-time friend of Lord Ashcombe, was recently married at Sudeley Castle.
The castle is known for its extensive gardens and revolving art exhibits. However, once again the time factor came into play and I had to leave a castle visit for another time. Instead I left time to walk through the Anglo-Saxon town of Winchcombe. It is a lovely mixture of the honey-coloured Cotswold stone and half-timbered buildings.
Just time enough to walk a couple of streets and nip into a pub for a bit of lunch. Then it was back to the bus stop. I was 10 minutes early, as was the bus! He said that he would have waited for me, which I'm sure he would have. I had been the only person getting off at Winchcombe, the rest obviously going into Cheltenham (the terminus) for a day of shopping at Marks & Spencers, as evidenced by the bags and "show & tell" going on. The return trip to Blockley seemed to be quicker than the morning ride(why does that always happen?).
I made dinner for Patricia and her sister, Kate, who came up to visit from Rugby. Kate will be going with Patricia and I to France next week -- it will be a triple celebration; Patricia's birthday is the 18th, mine is the 24th, and Kate's is the 28th. We spent the evening in front of the fire (always have to have a fire!), drinking wine and talking about our favourite subject -- the lack of available men!