A driving tour of the Cotswolds: Chickens, sheep, and dry-stone walls as long as the Great Wall of China
Freda Lewis-Stempel sets out to explore one of the Cotswolds’ most alluring and oldest attributes: the 4,000-mile soft dry stone walls.
A horse’s tail moves over the wall of Minchinhampton Common as the car crawls past in the evening sun. The speed limit of 48 km / h lets the evening graze non-stop. My windows are down and at this quiet pace the sounds of the sheep and chickens hiding behind the walls of their escape are exaggerated, as if to emphasize their agricultural necessity.
Driving in the Cotswolds is one of the greatest joys of the English countryside, for a quiet spring of extraordinary beauty, quietly sitting between the hills and towns, the villages and the views, accompanies me: 4,000 miles of dry stone walls, the length of the Great Wall of China. They may date from the Stone Age, but it was the farmers of the 18th and 19th centuries who used the abundance of natural material in the area to build the walls we see today.
Minchinhampton’s common hill sets the backdrop for the high Cotswolds landscape. A quiet city made of soft, blond stone, which leads to a wide grassland with a view of the surrounding valleys. The stone wanders in color from white gold to ash-brown speckled, some pieces fat and ragged, others centimeter-thin and smooth to the touch. The common room courtyard walls are done in a rooster-and-hen style, with the stones placed vertically on top, while the garden walls often have flat stone surfaces or even smooth cement caps.
Minchinhampton’s Church looms over the other side of the parish, a distant continuation of the walls. In the shade of the trees and walls, a donkey enjoys being petted and petted by a family. As the community expands, traffic jams pile up as cows leisurely stroll out onto the street and onto the literally greener grass on the other side. For the animals lucky enough to graze this part, the walls only act as a calming presence in the distance, never as a boundary; The barriers are neither high nor strong enough to hold up even the laziest refugee. These walls are the darkest gray of weathered stone.
South of Minchinhampton, the snake boundaries are increasing, signaling the shift from deep country to village and town. The hedge and wall are locked in a tug of war alongside the road, with the blackberries and nettles masking the gradual increase in houses.
A man stands on a low garden wall and cuts off his hedge. Suddenly the flag of a main street crosses over the roof of the car when a yellow columned market house from 1655 greets me in the flourishing wool town of Tetbury. With its trading houses still looking like they did 300 years ago, and its chipping steps where workers gathered to find work at mop fairs, it has that bewildering perfection that can only be found in a honey-colored Cotswold limestone town is.
I continue my drive through this Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, where the city and the countryside are connected by the thread of a stone wall. Regardless of the speed as you drive past, the light always picks up the newer stones mixed with the old ones. This is a comforting sign that someone has cared enough about this legacy.
Thirty minutes from Tetbury, on the road through Tomarton, Nick Tanner, a professional member of the Dry Stone Walling Association, is rebuilding a tall garden wall on one of the sprawling badminton farms. He carefully selects each stone. The deep walls narrow from bottom to top to form a “dough”; smaller stones in the middle of the two outer sides are held together by large bond stones that are spaced apart.
“I can salvage about 20% of the stone from a collapsed wall for reuse,” he notes. “I find pieces of history from the time the wall was built. Bottles, an old Feldtor flask – you can date the wall of whatever you find. I always make sure to put them back into the wall to keep the stories in place. ‘The wildlife that lives among the stones also adds to the narrative. “I create spaces in the walls in which newts, frogs and insects can be accommodated.”
I drive past meandering walls and implicitly thank Mr Tanner and his dry stone colleagues for carefully preserving the oldest identifier in the Cotswolds. From a motorist’s point of view, there is no greater thank you for that thank you than driving the A429 from Cirencester to Stow-on-the-Wold. This central section of the Fosse Way, the car-lover’s Roman road, is a stone and wood highway lined with blinkers. The walls rise from small to high, some stones are so thin that they are almost made of slate and are packed tightly like sliced bread. Others, round and rough, are collapsed and covered in ivy, with just enough stones poking through to keep the spirit alive.
The Broadway Tower leads me north to Worcestershire and rises on its beacon, three Saxon towers with an irrepressible English spirit. Steps from the road, the ‘tallest little castle in the Cotswolds’ has had many lives.
Built in 1798 by architect James Wyatt for the Earl of Coventry, the tower was home to Sir Thomas Philipps’ printing works, a country retreat for William Morris and other members of the Arts and Crafts movement, and served as a First World lookout point of the War Royal Observers Corps and a Cold War nuclear bunker. As I climb the 65-foot building on a completely cloudless day, all 16 surrounding counties are calling in the distance, and their 1,000 farm walls like snakes shed stone scales behind them as they slide down the valleys.
A couple of winding miles across the border into Gloucestershire, a sparkling perfume fills the car. Immediately above the village of Snowshill, fields of lavender grow in low rows parallel to the walls. The morning sun lifts a purple calm over the rough stone, while the crickets and bees harmonize in the heat. The salty, burning taste of the limestone attracts the murmuring flies.
Embraced in the arms of the valley, the warmth that this village has built sings from the walls of the huts, and the sloping ceilings rise with the slope of the hill. The village is a lofty circle of flower and hut walls around St. Barnabas Church and the Snowshill Arms Pub.
An alley with falling walls and broken asphalt catches the eye as an adventurous route to find the other side of Snowshill. 30 minutes later, with no wonderful discoveries and increasingly battered hangings, the walls seem to have finally let me down.
As soon as this thought collects, the gaps between the trees widen and the ridge opens to reveal acres of wildflower meadows. A thickness of green nettles and waist-high scorched grass, bushy purple thistles sown with gingham blue millet and royal red poppies extends to the heaped furrows of straw fields below.
On a whim, I turn left. The wandering walls and overgrown edges lead me deeper into the quiet of the lowland afternoon. A doll’s villa rises above the flat fields – a perfect symmetry of neoclassical architecture that meets buttery Cotswold limestone. This is the Lodge Park Grandstand, part of the Sherborne Estate built by Sir John ‘Crump’ Dutton for the pleasure of family and friends in the 1630s. They played out their worries and watched as deer ran along the miles of dry stone walls. For guests lucky enough to be invited, this 40 mile race would be the fastest they would see in their lives.
The stone leans over the roof balustrade, still chatting with the screams and chatter of days gone by when a man could look at the local agricultural barriers behind which his cattle safely grazed, and had the fantasy of turning those stones into a sports haven . “
The idyllic picture of cottages covered in blooming wisteria on a Cotswold stone wall. These houses are in the village of Broadway, but there are many other options for those looking to relocate to the Cotswolds. Credit: Robert Harding / Alamy
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