Visiting England via Cotswolds, narrowboats
My husband and I had two goals for our trip to England – rent a cottage in the Cotswolds to explore on the public footpaths and then repeat a previous trip on a canal boat on the Four Counties loop. We invited another couple to join us and made arrangements for late spring, when the weather might be reasonable.
The Cotswolds cover about 100 by 50 miles in the west of England, almost to the Welsh border.
These rolling hills were once the center of England’s wool industry. “Cote” is a sheep pen and “wolds” are rolling hills, thus Cotswolds. Country manors and charming villages still dot the countryside, often little changed over the years.
Almost every Cotswold village sounds interesting and we had trouble deciding, but we finally picked a cottage in Bourton-on-the-Water, which seemed a good base for exploring as it was the starting point for several walks. Nearby villages included Moreton-in-Marsh, Chipping Campden, Stow-on-the-Wold and Clapton-on-the-Hill.
England is honeycombed with public footpaths that go through farmyards, fields and cow lots, down driveways, around homes, over stiles or through kissing gates. Residents are used to strangers walking through their property and greet them as they pass.
English spring weather, or any time, for that matter, is unpredictable, and we had a combination from rain to beautiful sun. Each morning, after a discussion of various routes, we set off on foot with our maps. Some paths are well-marked, some not; some were good walking; some were extremely muddy and crossing through an active cow lot was interesting.
Birds sang in full chorus and flowers, shrubs and trees were blooming everywhere. Hawthorn bushes, hedgerows or trees were spectacular, as were the wildflowers.
Hedgerows or stone fences divided the rolling green fields where black and white cattle or white sheep grazed. Occasionally, the green was interrupted by the almost iridescent yellow of a rape (rapeseed is used to make canola oil) field.
Our walks took us through tiny villages with churches dating to the 11th or 12th century and included charming homes. The water wheel in Lower Slaughter still turns in the stream, but the mill is no longer working. Local people use the footpaths frequently, often with one or several dogs.
Bourton-on-the-Water attracts many visitors, especially on weekend tour buses, but we left before they arrived and returned after they left. Mornings and evenings, the quiet village felt like it was “our” village. Each day we shopped in the market with a “savings card,” just like here at home.
Some walks were long enough for us to return by bus. One day we rode to Shakespeare’s home at Stratford-on-Avon. The bus took us through more charming villages with thatched roofs.
Too soon, the train took us to Stone in Staffordshire to our narrowboat, the Alice Elizabeth. We were assisted through the first two locks, then on our own.
Canal boats are 7 feet wide and ours was 44 feet long. These are completely equipped except for food, like renting a motor home, and you drive. Most canals are wide enough for boats to pass easily, but the locks only have about a foot extra on each side.
Carle was our able helmsman who smoothly passed tied-up or oncoming boats, threaded under narrow bridges, crossed aqueducts, maneuvered through locks, and made sharp turns from one canal into another. The rest of us were the crew.
On a single day, we might go through as many as 26 locks or as few as one, each needing to be opened, filled or emptied, and closed to raise or lower the boat to a different water level. Approaching a lock, the crew jumped to shore with their lock keys while the boat waited to see if the water was up or down, and whether there is a boat in the lock or approaching. The right of way goes to the boat at the same level as the water in the lock, and alternating boats up and down is ideal, but not always possible.
Locks are usually 6 to 8 feet deep, with some up to to 12. The crew uses the lock key to open or close valves – letting water in or out – then to push the big gates open for the boat to enter. Once the gates are again closed, the process is reversed to let water in or out to the next level. If more than one boat is at a lock at the same time, crews help each other. We met interesting English people and one German couple, but no other Americans.
Waterfowl were numerous and frequently in the water, maybe with as many as 16 babies for one mallard family, or nesting on the bank. There were big blue and white herons, some pheasants, Canada geese and coots. Swans were frequent companions that liked to swim alongside the narrowboat or nest on the shore. In one pasture, we counted more than 40 of them and that night at dinner, a swan put its head in our window to be fed. The next morning, he knocked on the window for breakfast.
Some English villages are market towns; one day each week they are filled with stands selling vegetables, fruit, clothing, hardware and more. Some have continued for more than 400 years, with people coming from nearby villages to shop and have a merry time. Often we were at a town the day before or day after market, but we managed to see some.
At one point the canal went through a 1.6-mile tunnel; later we visited some potteries where English bone china is made, including real bone. Finally, after 110 miles and 96 locks, we came to the end and turned the Alice Elizabeth in to be readied for her next “owners.” England has over 2,000 miles of canals, so we left much unseen.
Dorothy Peavy is a Nevada City resident who enjoys traveling.
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