Cotswold Way - Day 1 - 18.4 miles - 'U-turn'
[Note that I walked the Cotswold Way as part of a longer walk from Land's End to John o'Groats, the full account of which can be found here.]
Today was a tale of two long distance footpaths; one a pleasure to follow and packed with interest, the other a right royal pain. It was a costly error, therefore, to leave the former for the latter – a mistake I won't be repeating any time soon.
Things got off to a promising start in front of Bath's towering Abbey at the stone plaque marking the beginning of the Cotswold Way.
Like the South West Coast Path, the Cotswold Way is a recognised National Trail, featuring what it's marketing department describe as "just over 100 miles of magical walking, with long distance views from the Cotswold escarpment, and journeys through picturesque villages and past famous ancient sites."
From the Abbey, the trail passed through Bath's vibrant shopping streets where buskers were singing, acrobats entertaining and between-job actors offering city tours in fancy dress. We then climbed steadily through the city, passing John Wood's impressive Georgian Circus and the dazzling Royal Crescent, with its panoramic views.
From Bath the trail upped and downed, heading towards Dean then Kelston Round Hill on the northwest city limits, where views extended to Bristol, its Channel, the Mendips, the Welsh mountains and, more importantly, Noel Edmonds' one-time manor house. The trail was off to a good start, clear waymarks – not easy through a city centre – and a path you'd struggle to lose.
Shortly after saying goodbye to Mark, my walking companion for the past two days, I reached the viewpoint of Prospect Stile and Bath Race Course, where I made a decision that would shape the rest of the day.
A common complaint about the Cotswold Way among LeJogers is that, while a decent trail through pleasant countryside, if your goal is a swift north–south journey it is a dubious ally. Because the route showcases the best of the Cotswolds it meanders around, striking east here and west there as it makes its ponderous way northeast, crossing off points of interest as it goes.
With this in mind, and keen to cross off the miles before the rain began, I sat with my maps for a few minutes (too few minutes), and noticed a long distant trail I'd not noticed before: The Monarch's Way.
At face value it seemed a LeJoger's dream come true: a near-as-damnit direct route to my stopping point for the day, Old Sudbury.
I was feeling pretty good about myself as I left the ponderous Cotswold Way and made my first steps into the unknown.
Although it would take at least another hour for me to wholly regret my moment of Monarch madness, things didn't get off to a promising start.
First there was rain - a torrential downpour that turned the distant views cloud white. Then, shortly after, I took a wrong turn and ended up adding two miles to my journey by striking out along the wrong lane. I'd love to blame my error on the weather, but it was down to a good ol' map reading screwup. As such, tramping through rivers of runoff streaming down steep lanes, I can't say I was feeling particularly good about myself.
To pass the time I played a little game to reinforce my lazy Cotswold stereotypes. It went like this: if a vehicle's driver waved to thank me as I lumbered up onto the soggy, overgrown lane bank to let them pass then they got points. The bigger the car, the more points earned. So a Fiat Uno earned two points, while one of many oversized SUVs tearing down the lanes, spraying me with puddle-water, got the full 10.
My game was generating a healthily smug sense of satisfaction when, having given way to, and been ignored by, a dozen vehicles, the points tally was a woeful four (thank you that Fiat owner).
Then a tractor driver not only stopped, but pulled over to chat about the weather. The rules of my game demanded that walker-hating farmers instantly got 20 points for acknowledging this roadside walker; and I couldn't really not give the man a few bonus points for stopping in the now-teeming rain for a few kind words. My points tally rose instantly to 34, my stereotyping thwarted. So I stopped playing the game.
At the low-lying village of Wick, I reached the Monarch's Way.
I must prelude anything I have to say about the Monarch's Way with this: I have nothing but respect for the people who design and maintain long distance footpaths. These trails demand vast amounts of commitment and - typically - sizeable teams of passionate people to waymark and upkeep them - which is all before what I assume must be the arduous process of arguing for inclusion on OS Maps. National Trail designation ups the ante further.
You only have to look at the ongoing efforts of the team working on the John o'Groats Trail - who face new challenges every month - to know that the creation of these ambitious trails can be a Herculeun task.
In addition, all rights of way have been hard won and are too easily lost. Anything that gets people onto them and into the countryside is a good thing.
The Monarch's Way was simply not good enough.
The first - and overriding problem - was that it felt like I was the only person to have graced the section of the trail I was on this summer, maybe even this year.
I walked meadows where not a single blade of brass had been bent by human boot. I crossed cloddy cropped fields with not a mark in the mud. I fought through nettled stiles that hadn't been chopped to size since this summer's growth began. And I very soon lost the limited remnants of patience I had.
So poorly waymarked and used was the path in places that I felt like it was me forging the trail for the first time - which is very much not the point of picking an established trail for one's route.
Where there were waymarks (which was not often) they weren't the clear carved signs of the Cotwolds Way, but - bizarrely - paper stickers. And while I don't consider myself an expert on waymarking footpaths, I know a thing or two about printing stickers. And in a country not unknown for its rainfall I would argue that adhesive paper is no way to mark a footpath at all.
Nor was it just the nature of the waymarks; it was how infrequently they turned up - and where. While, to give the Trail some credit, some sections were pretty easy to follow, others were a complete mystery. Kids would surely have enjoyed the challenge of seeking out each tiny sticker ("Look! It's on a branch of the tree, just under the newly grown foliage!"; "There it is! On the cow's behind!)". I didn't.
As I walked, I stewed. It felt like I had swapped a faithful, consistent companion for a quick-and-easy affair and was paying the price. I walked into an electric fence. I had to chop down half a field of nettles with my map case (it took a while). I lost the trail a dozen times only to rediscover it emerging in unexpected places. At one point - a LeJog first - I found myself funelled up some kind of odd metal cage, from which the only escape was a 500 metre retreat. When I was forced to rely on beer cans hanging in trees to point the way I lost the last of my faith in the Monarch.
And it was still chucking it down.
What the hell was the Monarch's Way anyway?, I started wondering - something I probably should have checked before opting to follow it.
Given its apparently random route over the least interesting fields in Gloucestershire I wondered if it had been conceived by a fan of Monarch Airlines, who had traced their favourite flightpath onto the ground and somehow managed to convince Ordnance Survey to include their work.
But no, it is in fact a 615 mile trail that follows the path taken by Prince Charles II as he fled to France following the defeat of his army at the Battle of Worcester in 1651. It starts - obviously - in Worcester and ends in Shoreham-by-Sea.
This explained two things.
Firstly, why it seemed to be a perfect blend of chaos and boredom (Charles II would have had more important things on his mind while fleeing Cromwell than whether his frantic trail might one day make an interesting day's ramble).
Secondly, why the trail seemed so little used, for though I claim no particular knowledge into the appeal of long-distance footpaths, it struck me that if you were to craft a Venn diagram with walkers in one circle and those with a keen interest in the path taken by Charles II as he fled to France in another, I would imagine there not being hordes in the intersect. A footpath to be filed under 'minority interest', for sure.
Not that this lightbulb moment helped me find the next peeling waymark sticker any quicker. ("Oh, there it is, on a pebble in the swelling river!")
The extended misery of the Monarch's Way ended when i finally admitted the same defeat that Charles II did all those years ago and left it for country backroads that I could reasonably guess wouldn't disappear under metre-high meadow grass, or run through three fields of cows in a row, and immediately the rain stopped. Come on back, the Cotswold Way whispered on the comforting breeze, your lapse is forgiven.
By the time I reached Old Sodbury, and its pretty village green, the world felt a kinder place. A party was sat outside the pub drinking in the evening sun. The light was turning a copper beech vibrant red. Best of all, there was the wooden waymark for the Cotswold Way, on which I have now decided to stay, however much it meanders, until its terminus in Chipping Camden.