A Day in the Cotswold Hills of England

by Joseph King

Maggie pointed to a place on the map where we were likely to be and my doubts were erased. There was a cut over to our planned route that I would take while she would stay the course up the rest of a steep 400 foot climb. Suddenly she exclaimed, "Out of the way, here comes a bus!" With that we climbed up the bank on the side of the road pulling ourselves and our bikes to safety. The road was too narrow for both bus and bikes and the buses here don't seem to ever slow down. Fortunately for us, that would be the first and last bus we'd see in the Cotswolds today.

This is my first time biking in England. I'm joined by Maggie Smith who lived here for six months in the hazy past. Our jobs called us to England and we have only a single day to bike. Kevin Woods suggested biking in the Cotswold Hills which are about an hours drive west of Oxford, England where he lives and works. He told us it would be hilly and more interesting biking than the Themes valley of Oxfordshire. The ride turned out to be more interesting than I could have possibly imagined.

We started out the ride be getting lost in Cheltenham which is how we managed to end the ride as well. In between we would walk through a castle, crash a party, intrude on an English gentleman for a tour of his county estate and bike over pastures of cows, sheep, and fowl.

Pub food was on my mind the moment we managed to escape the residential area around Chelteham. A few wrong turns and lots of traffic combined to make me feel a bit tense. Besides it was past noon and I was ready to eat. During our week of working in Oxford and living in Dorchester we discovered a well known fact of English life that the public house or pub is the center of life in town. As an American I at first mistook these pubs for bars but the similarity is purely superficial. You can rely on the town pub to provide full meals and drink but more importantly the public house is the social center of the community. It simply must be experienced to be understood.

It was a short and pleasant ride from the pub in Gotherington to Sudeley Castle. Rolling pastures clung tightly to the hedge row at the side of the narrow road. The castle is just outside of the town of Winchcombe where we dismounted the bikes so that we could take it all in. We stopped for a pastry and watched trucks, cars, bikes, and pedestrians navigate the narrow passages of this medieval town. The road from town to Sudeley Castle was short and lined with parked cars. We paid our admission fee, locked our bikes and started up the path toward the castle which was no where is sight.

Sudeley Castle is surrounded by gardens and steeped in history. Henry the VIII's wife Queen Katherine Parr once called this her palace. She's still there in fact. They have her tooth and her hair on display. The rest of her remains were entombed in the Castle Chapel in the year 1548. This must of frustrated Sir Thomas Seymour who pursued her before her marriage to Henry and married her only six weeks after his death in 1547. Apparently Sir Thomas expressed his frustration by making an attempt to take the crown. Which failed and for which he was killed.

The Castle was established during the English civil war by Prince Rupert of Rhine. He was the nephew of Charles I and used the Castle as his garrison headquarters. The Castle underwent an 180 year period of neglect but has been restored in recent times. Consequently, there are both wonderful gardens and ruins on the grounds. The dungeons, regrettably, are not open to the public.

Returning to the bikes we examine the map. The map we were using was created for cyclists and it indicated all the best routes. When leaving the castle grounds we noticed a road that was not indicated on the map as a cycling route yet it would seem to allow us to continue our journey without having to backtrack into town. After taking it we soon found ourselves on a 8 to 10 percent grade for about a mile and one half. The rented bikes seemed to gain weight with each crank of the pedals and it soon became clear why this route is not recommended for cyclists. I noticed several cyclists ahead are walking their bikes whilst I continue to work hard even in the bikes lowest of 21 gears. At the top we are rewarded with an incredible vista and even more interesting cycling ahead in the Cotswolds.

The sign said "unsuitable for motors" and it was referring to the road I just turned down. The road became so narrow that a single car would take up the entire road. The pavement of road would breakup and small streams would run over it. This route would yield a trip through a pasture, clear views of some birds, and a trip though a deep dark wood. Most of the area is pasture or cultivated and there are very few deep woods but near the bottom of a fast descent on a rough bit of the slender road I'm plunged from the bright sunshine and into a murkwoodesque darkness. The trip through the wood was a short one but it left a lasting impression.

We would soon find ourselves in some trouble. We failed to replenish our water bottles at Sudeley castle and we have run out of water completely. While we search for likely places to get water on our map, parasailers drift in from above. They are elevated by a line and a wench until they are hundreds of feet directly above the wench then they drop the line and it falls back to earth on its own parachute. The parasailer is then free to explore the Cotswolds from the sky.

We decide to head toward Brockhampton in search of water. There is a pub there but it is closed. When we turned down the road to the pub a sign indicated that there was no outlet but our map disagrees so we press on. Further on a brewery appears that is also closed as is the road to further travel. With the help of some locals we find a footpath that should lead in our chosen direction. The path takes us over hill and dale and through pastures of sheep, cow, and fowl. We workout two methods that allow us to get our bikes through the gates and into the church yard beyond. The grave stones aren't ancient nor easy to read. I have serious doubts as to whether or not these stones will last as many years as those buried had lived.

Still without water we spot a party to crash. My first thought was that it was a pub but it turned out to be a private party instead. When we biked past, one of the guests was standing at the end of the drive sipping champagne. We greeted him and he us and we would have left it at that but he asked, "would you like some champagne?" Ignoring his jest I replied that we would like some water for our bottles and without missing a beat he said, "right, I'll get some organized." During our week in England we were often overwhelmed by how helpful and friendly the people we encountered were and today was different.

After making yet another wrong turn we found ourselves at the doorstep of an old English manor called Whittington Court. It was an old stone house complete with servants' quarters, stable, church, garden, and a mote. Only the house and the church remain in use. One of the more outstanding features of the manor was it's history. We discovered in our visit that this house was connected to historical events not just in England but in the United State as well. The crest of the house acquired the Washington family symbols through marriage. Those symbols included stars, stripes and an eagle thus implying that the model for Betsy Ross's creation was George Washington's family crest. With ties to the royal family, the house was visited by royals including Queen Katherine of Sudeley Castle who stayed there on several occasions. We were lucky to see it, not just because of our chance turn but because the owner opens the manor to the public for only a few weeks a year. We were graciously shown around the house and given its various histories some of which date back to Anglo-Saxon times.

From Whittington Court to where we rented the bikes in Cheltenham we have a short and relatively easy ride. We would of course add another five miles to our trip by getting off track near the city but that's OK. Just then biking in England was all right by me.

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