I don't know if pints of Bob have magical healing powers, or whether the lovely bed and breakfast cottage at the Dog Inn scared the walking gremlins away, but I woke up this morning in a totally different mood to yesterday's self-pitying grump. I spent last night writing furiously in a cosy corner of the pub, hoping that it would have the usual cathartic effect, and this morning the sun shone, the breakfast tasted great, and for the first time since I started out from Bath, walking the Cotswold Way seemed like a good idea.
There was one surprise that nearly spoiled things, especially as it was obvious it was going to be a hot day. During the night I'd been irritated by the allergic reaction the countryside had brought on in my lower legs – at one point I was woken up by a rather too-vivid dream involving nettles, thistles and heat-seeking bird shit – but when I woke up and took a closer look at the state of my calves, I realised I'd got it wrong. Sure, there were a few nettle stings and the odd bramble scratch, but it seems my legs aren't actually allergic to the countryside; instead, they're allergic to the sun.
When you're walking north and the sun is merrily shining in the southern half of the sky, then it's your back that gets hit by the sun. The back of my neck is protected by my bush hat and my arms are already quite brown, but nobody warned the backs of my legs about the effects of ultraviolet, and below the knees my legs are the colour of lightly poached lobster. The knees themselves are covered by supports and my shorts cover most of the top half of my legs, but I now have sunburnt calves and the only solution is to wear long trousers until they're better.
So the only remotely negative thought I had as I left Old Sodbury was that I'd probably get really hot in my tracksuit trousers, which compared to the previous few days was hardly a negative thought at all. Happily, when you're in a good mood and the weather is co-operating, the Cotswold escarpment is a glorious place. As I've mentioned before, the Cotswold Way skirts the western edge of the Cotswolds, so the views to the west are impressive, even when they're shrouded in the kind of hazy humidity that I'm currently enjoying. My photos of the area look pretty uninspiring – they're like snapshots of postcards hidden behind net curtains – but walking through the fields, stirring up the lazy air in clouds of pollen, is an extremely pleasant way to spend the day.
With a huge sigh of relief I noticed my blisters were a little better, though they were still irritating, and it struck me early on that my brain has not only stopped brooding, it's most definitely chilling out. Tonight I'm meeting Peta, who's coming over from London for the weekend, and of course that might have had something to do with my much-improved mood today, but I think it goes deeper than that. I think I've just managed to ride out a storm, and I'm in that precious lull when the anger has boiled off, the bile has been flushed out, and even though the energy levels are still depleted, the bad bit's over. Today I chilled out on the Cotswold Way, and it felt good.
Monument to Monument
Today's walk was typical of the Cotswold Way in that it combined hills, forests, fields, villages and some extremely steep sections. Those expecting the Cotswold Way to be a sleepy afternoon stroll through village greens and country pubs are in for a shock (and I have to admit I was one of them); the Cotswold Way isn't a walk through the Cotswolds, it's a walk along the escarpment, and as such it seeks the high ground for the best views... and that means you have to climb up and down a considerable amount. It's not for the faint-hearted.
The rewards are there, though, as the Way has been designed to take in all the views and all the sights along the way. It makes a point of walking past National Trust properties – today's example was Horton Court, of which only a lovely church tower and some extravagant-looking Cotswold architecture is visible from the Way – and it also weaves past any monuments it can find. The first on today's leg was the Somerset Monument, which dates from 1846 and looks like a cross between Cleopatra's Needle and a mediaeval lighthouse. It sits in the middle of nowhere on the top of a high hill, silently commemorating General Lord Somerset, who served under Wellington at Waterloo and who no doubt would have preferred a monument where people might get to see it... but it's there, it's tall and it's a hugely useful navigational aid for walkers.
It helped me find my way across the fields and through countless piles of huge black bin-liner bags, stuffed with slowly fermenting silage and looking for all the world like droppings from a nuclear hamster. It's a strange thing, the countryside, and it's amazing how little I really know about it, but I'm getting quite involved now. Some farmers are starting to gather the hay and I'm slowly piecing together the different stages, from mowing the grass and raking it up, to baling and, if it's for silage, wrapping it in black plastic.
My knowledge of the countryside is still appalling, though; I naively assumed that apart from the odd stench at muck-spreading time, the countryside would smell gorgeous. Well, it doesn't, and for most of my trip through Somerset and Gloucestershire I've been dogged by the smell of cheese and onion crisps. I've been told that this smell is down to wood garlic, which grows in woods and on shady banks, but I haven't managed to identify the specific plant that smells, because it's so strong it seems to come from everywhere at once; whatever the truth, an awful lot of the countryside at this time of year smells like bad breath. Sometimes the smell is less like an E-number and more like organic Cheddar cheese and freshly chopped chive-flavoured kettle potato chips, but even fancy marketing can't hide the fact that on a hot day in May, the countryside has halitosis. The one good side effect is that it makes me feel far less guilty for smelling like a sumo wrestler's jockstrap, but when I finally work out which plant it is that stinks so bad, it's going to be showtime.
Up and Down
Yes, it's a lovely thing, walking through the countryside in the sun, wandering through the fields and forests, enjoying the views and rural beauty of the Cotswold escarpment... but the next thing you know the path decides to head straight up that evil-looking hill ahead, and you can't quite believe it. This is where a knowledge of contour lines comes in handy; reading a map is one thing, but knowing what those little brown squiggles actually mean is essential, and the Cotswold Way sure likes to cram them in.
It's at times like this that I wonder at the wisdom of creating a long-distance walk that weaves around so much. In its quest to conquer practically every single hump and bump between Bath and Chipping Camden, the Cotswold Way zigzags around like a graph of the stock market, and at times it's just as depressing. The way into Wotton-under-Edge is particularly strange; it approaches the village from the south, jumps east, doubles back on itself and finally winds down towards the high street along the steepest climb I've seen in a long time. What looks on the map like a pleasant jaunt into town turns into a knee-shattering struggle against gravity, and even with trekking sticks my legs complained and my muscles strained against the escarpment. It hurt, and I found myself wondering whether walking along the Cotswold Way is such a great idea, given that I'm trying to get to John o'Groats in one piece. I promised myself I'd look at the maps when I got to my destination and sat down for a sandwich and some shade in the middle of Wotton.
Of course, I got lost in Wotton, which didn't put me in a very good mood to climb up the equally steep section out of town to Wotton Hill. By this time I'd got the hang of things, and I knew that from the top I'd have a lovely view of hazy fields, some distant and unidentifiable towns and the escarpment heading north and south... and I wasn't disappointed. Except I was; the huge effort in dragging me and my pack up these near-vertical paths was getting to me in the heat, and I genuinely felt that in this haze, if I've seen one view I've seen them all. The Cotswold Way must be incredible in ultra-clear weather, but in the foggy skies of a humid May afternoon the views are only interesting the first couple of times.
Still, the escarpment holds plenty of surprises, not least that the local council thought it would be sensible to paint way-markers on the trees in Westridge Wood, a good decision were it not for the fact that trees grow and the arrows get distorted into amorphous blobs that don't actually point anywhere. I survived this unexpected diversion by following my compass rather than the blobs, but by the time I got to Nibley Knoll I was almost too exasperated to enjoy the second monument of the day. The Tyndale Monument looks uncannily like the Somerset Monument, but despite being erected in 1866, 20 years after Lord Somerset's memorial, it commemorates a very different man. William Tyndale was the first man to translate the New Testament into English (the venerable Bede had already translated some of the Old Testament) and for his pains he was burned at the stake in Flanders on , only a few years before Henry VIII would commission the first official English Bible (and which itself would be heavily based on Tyndale's work). The reason for the monument? Tyndale was born in North Nibley, the small village at the bottom of the hill on which his memorial now stands.
Did I say 'hill'? I sure did, and from Tyndale's monument the steps head straight down to the village, a pleasant spot that I couldn't help but shoot through with all the momentum I'd built up on the descent. Luckily this momentum got me halfway up Stinchcombe Hill before things started hurting, and it was at this point that I decided that the Cotswold Way, which I'd been following faithfully since Bath, could take a running jump.
Imagine putting your palm flat down on a table with your fingers spread out evenly, and you've got the shape of Stinchcombe Hill to a tee. The Cotswold Way approaches the hill from the west (the left side of your wrist) and it then weaves clockwise round the outside of the hill until it finally reaches a point just a few hundred metres from where it started (so it follows the outside of your fingers until it reaches the right side of your wrist). Apparently this is so you can take in the wonderful views from the hill, but by this stage I really couldn't be bothered with another hazy landscape, and after a swift shortcut across the wrist and over the fairways of the hill's beautifully located golf course, I arrived in Cam, the suburb to the north of Dursley where Peta had booked a great little bed and breakfast for the weekend.
A Book of Stamps
There was only one more thing left to do. As I've been doing this walk I've been getting a form stamped at each of my destinations to prove I've been there; it might be a Youth Hostel stamp, a receipt from a B&B or a Post Office stamp, but as long as it's something to prove I've arrived, it's enough. Luckily Cam has its own little Post Office, so I wandered in, unshouldered my pack into the corner, whipped out my form and joined the queue, steam rising gently from my shoulders.
I love doing this at Post Offices. Hostels and B&Bs are fairly used to people doing long walks, but most Post Office employees are totally spun out by my story. The conversation always goes the same way.
'Gosh, Land's End to John o'Groats?' says the woman behind the counter. 'Let's have a look.'
'All you need to do is stamp in the next box,' I prod helpfully.
'Is that OK?' I ask.
'Oh yes, sorry, I was miles away,' she says. 'I was just seeing where else you've been. Here, Vera, this gentleman's walking from Land's End to John o'Groats.'
'Oh really?' says Vera. 'Good for you – you've come a long way.'
'Thanks,' I say. 'Still a long way to go, though.'
'Well, good luck,' says the first woman as she stamps the form. 'And well done!'
Ah yes, I love Post Offices. They make me feel as if I've made their day with my grotty little form and my stinking T-shirt, and at the end of a hard day's slog up and down the bloody escarpment, that's a real tonic.