Stanton to Long Marston. 18.6 miles. Miles to date: 398.
“There must be something in the air,” said the cashier at Blandford Books in Broadway, with something close to a conspirational wink.
She was right. It wasn’t just that the sun finally came out, and stayed out; nor that the wind that's been blasting the escarpment for the past week lost its bite; nor that the day's walk offered a fine – and fitting – farewell to the Cotswolds; nor that I discovered a boiled sweet in my pocket that I thought had been eaten – and it was purple; nor even that I ended up saying hello to more than 400 runners. It was more the fact that everyone seemed to be in a slightly better mood than usual.
When I say everyone, I mean the kind of people you meet on long-distance walks, who – more often than not – tend to be left-leaning sorts. The more horsey types that I passed trotted past with what appeared to be marginally scowlier scowls.
I wondered what the pervading mood was down the road in Chipping Norton. Would Dave and Sam Cam be drowning their sorrows - and forgetting about the kids - at the local? Or would the ex-main-man have locked himself in his new shed for a session of introverted chillaxing (with or without the legendary pig's head)?
There were a couple of showers early on, then sunshine for the rest of the day. After a week of wind, rain and cold it made a big difference to the walk.
These guys were transporting a huge, beautifully carved piece of wooden furniture using a tractor. I asked what they were doing. "Some woman up the hill commissioned this bench a couple of months back," they said. "It's got the words 'Strong and Stable' carved into it. She doesn't want it any more and has donated it to the village bonfire night." Actually that didn't happen. I've no idea what they are doing with it but it was gorgeous, and obviously very heavy.
The truth is that one of the nicest things about this walk has been losing touch with politics. Not in an enduring way, I imagine, but it’s hard, even for a news junkie, to keep abreast of Westminster happenings when the amount of free time you get each day is measured in minutes.
Because the walk is only part of it. Then you’ve got to eat - and eat seriously - to keep your energy levels up. There’s photos to edit, the blog to write, the ever-changing route to plan and accommodation to book – all while trying to keep on top of at least a little work.
Before I set out I’d had visions of sunny evenings in country pubs, savouring memories from the day before settling into a warm bath. If only. Instead my LeJog has morphed into what feels like a full-time day job supplemented by after-hours casual labour on a zero-hours contract before I pretty much pass out at 11.
I’m not complaining. It’s a nice enough way to live, concerns distilled down to the essentials: where I’ll sleep, what path looks best, which Hungry Horse to eat in and which nettle thicket will result in the fewest stings - that kind of thing.
Back to politics for a final moment, though. It's striking to note that every constituency I've walked through on my trail north – 22 in all – is blue, except for the little urban pockets of Bath and Stroud. Even the hippy hangout of Glastonbury has remained blue.
Dropping down into Broadway.
St. Michaels Church, Broadway.
Hare - one of many on the Cotswold Hare Trail.
Was once called 'Strong and Stables'. OK, enough politics.
Today’s walk was about saying goodbye to the Cotswolds Way, the long distance path that has delivered me safely and kindly from Bath to Chipping Campden in just under a week. In that respect, I’m pleased the day served up sunshine (after a few early showers) and some of the sweetest villages of all. Because in the end the Way worked its gentle charms on me. For the wow factor, the Cotswold Way can’t compete with the breathtaking South West Coast Path. It is, as the American walker I met yesterday noted, great if you like green.
But it’s more than that. It’s old trees. It’s big vistas. It’s patchwork meadows. It’s hidden valleys. It’s quirky monuments and ancient barrows. Best of all - in my eyes at least - it’s some of the finest villages in the country.
If there was a walk plotted to celebrate Jerusalem’s Green and Pleasant Land this would surely be it. It’s even got a few immaculately maintained cricket pitches en route.
The criticisms I have of it - too much escarpment, too many woods - are minor, and the quality of paths and waymarking is superlative. It is a path that would be enjoyed more, I think, given time – with the kind of lazy schedule that would allow a pot of tea and scone in each village, maybe a pint in each pub.
To say goodbye properly I did something I’ve rarely done on the trail so far; I revised my day’s plan on the hoof. I had expected to leave the Way at beautiful Broadway to cut off a final uphill dogleg to its hilltop Tower and on to Chipping Campden.
But in the gentle sunshine quitting the trail that had carried me north for the best part of 90 miles so near the end seemed churlish. So I climbed up the escarpment for a final time, took my photos of the Tower, wondered how I’d got bored of the view over Evesham Vale, then ambled down The Mile Drive to the trail's start/end point in Chipping Campden.
Broadway Tower. A Capability Brown folly with views of 16 counties. It is the highest castle in the Cotswolds.
Picnic spot at the top of The Mile Drive.
There were quite a few walkers out today.
The start/end of the Cotswold Way. And a feet selfie. I think young people call this kind of photo a 'Booty call'.
Chipping Campden is probably the prettiest village in Britain.
If someone in Carlsberg’s marketing department decided they wanted antiques-loving octogenarians to start buying lager, Chipping Campden is the village that would feature while the voiceover said: If Carlsberg did villages...
Chipping Campden manages something amazing: it makes even the bad bits look good.
Scratch that; there are no bad bits. There are beautiful bits. And lovely bits. And that’s it. Even new-build houses are made of Cotswold stone, all with a rose or a wysteria or a honeysuckle draped over the door. It’s as if Prince Charles has a seat on the local planning board and has personally signed off every application himself – after tinkering with it a bit, naturally.
Nor is the village a museum piece: sure, there are a dozen tea shops, a half-dozen pubs, and a handful of high class delis, but there’s also a library, swimming pool and school. The only village that has come anywhere close to rivalling it on my walk to date was Clovelly, way back in North Devon. But that was lovely in a Village of the Damned kind of way. You wouldn’t want to be locked up there for a week with the locals just in case.
I’d happily be snowed into Chipping Campden for a month, though. I’d eat all their scones. Wander round the perfect wintry streets. I’d drink in a different olde worlde pub each night in front of blazing log fires. And if I got bored of eating and drinking I could simply head to the library and read all the recipe books for scones and the planning manuals that advise on how to avoid nasty-looking buildings taking over your village (author P. Charles).
Then things took a turn that resulted in my inadvertent - and unwanted - involvement with a 100-mile run.
Before today, I hadn't realised such events existed. But they do, apparently. This particular one advertises itself thus: "Run 100 miles over four days along the beautiful Cotswold Way Trail, staying each night in our runners villages." It's an event for runners at the more extreme end of the sport, or, I suppose, for people who really like seeing nature in fast forward. (Though for completeness I should say that my own journey along the trail has only taken five days, and I didn't have to pay £299 to do it, or wear silly clothes - other, of course, than the relatively silly clothes I do wear).
Anyway, here's what happened: I made the mistake of saying hello to the first runner who passed me.
They said hello back.
The next runner said hello to me.
And I gave them a smile and said hello back.
I then realised that these were not just a few isolated joggers out to enjoy the sunshine. Runner after runner after runner appeared over the horizon and each of them, almost without exception, said hello.
Now I've no idea how many entrants the 100 Mile Run gets. I lost count at 380, every one of which I said hello to.
Then things got even more complicated.
Because the 100 Mile Run was sharing the same route as mine – just in reverse – an inevitable quandary formed when I reached a gate.
I was dreading this moment, and it was as awkward as I had predicted.
For as soon as I was holding the gate open for one runner I couldn't in good faith close it in the face of the next – or the next – or the next. So I held the gate open until around 50 grateful runners, all now saying hello, and thank you, had passed.
There was only one reasonable thing left to do at this point: quit the trail until the main body of runners had passed.
But even then there was no respite. Here, well off the beaten track, I discovered lost runners. Who needed directions: "Hi mate; are we on the Cotswold Way?"
I wondered briefly if it was worth sending them the wrong way. Into Chipping Norton, say, where they could have asked directions from a chillaxed ex-PM, who would likely have welcomed a clueless runner's distraction from thoughts brooding on Theresa May and pig's heads.
But I'm better than that. So I pointed one after another lost soul back onto the Way as I became an inadvertent steward on the 100 Mile Run.
Meadows on the Heart of England Way. The paths started off good.
On the Heart of England Way just outside Chipping Campden there is a row of ancient beech trees in Baker's Hill Wood with inscriptions on them. One of the oldest is this, which was accompanied by a little plaque telling its story. It was carved by a Belgian soldier wounded during WWI in tribute to a fallen comrade who, like him, had been treated at the Norton Hall hospital for wounded soldiers. There's more info and an additional story from a Cotswold Warden here.
I was also touched by this carving. The same person coming back to the same tree every few years, most recently, in 2014, with a partner for the first time. A kind of arboreal 7-Up TV.
Bus shelter, Mickleton.
Whoever was drawing the menu boards had serious artistic chops.
With Chipping Campden behind me I took my first tentative steps time on the Heart of England Way, a long-distance trail linking the Cotswolds to Cannock Chase.
The first few miles offered fine walking – woodland fringes, field edges, quiet country lanes – and with the sun catching the wheat and throwing dapples under the canopy life felt good.
Into Mickleton, last bastion of Cotswold Stone loveliness before the villages turned normal.
And the Quintons - Upper and Lower - with their oversized village green, terrible playground and identikit new-builds.
Then the trail became patchy in a way it hadn't for days. Unwalked paths. Nettled channels. Cloddy fields. And, by way of partial explanation, there on the stile a familiar waymark: the sticker of the dreaded Monarch's Way, which winds through these parts, often joining the Heart of England Way - and with which I have history.
The Monarch's Way: Off with its head! (Though to be fair, it was on more established paths, and far better waymarked than when I was last on it).
As the route abandoned joyous hillsides to become a flat, arable treadmill, scratching through overgrown thickets and tracing a laborious path around what felt like the world's' largest sewage treatment facility, my mind returned to the original Monarch's flight, which shaped the current Way.
"Ye Guards," the humiliated King Charles II may or may not have said. "In what may be my last tour of Englande, please show me ye worst of it! Ye brambley bushes and thorn-ed thickets. Ye arable farmland across which no paths lie. Ye bull in fielde! Ye nettles and ye stinky poo ponds! Show me them all in a meandering, pointless way ere I reach ye France!"
The return of frustrating footpaths helped me make a critical route-making decision I should have made a few days earlier. Instead of heading west of Birmingham to Cannock Chase, or east via Arden, I'm going into Birmingham on the canals. I loved my last stretch of canal walking. It was quick, easy and there was interest everywhere. For the time being I'm done with England's green and pleasant land. I'm fed up with ye nettles, ye pollen and ye hostile farmland. Besides, there are only so many photos of crops a man can take.
So it's all change over the next few days as I head into, and cross, Britain's second city.
Bring it on.
Upper Quinton. It had the biggest village green I've ever seen.
One for Paul.
As the miles slipped by, the countryside got flatter.
A LeJog first: strange hybrid between a bridge and a climbing frame. It was harder to cross than it looks.
Any fete that offers a 'BAR in Jim & Tanya's Caravan' and 'Name the Spaniel Dog' (Spaniel McDogface?) is one for the diary. The Shipston Police Car will also be on hand - in case things get out of hand at Jim and Tanya's?
Next: Day 27 – Long Marston to Knowle.
Previous: Day 25 – Birdlip to Stanton.