Hiking hidden footpaths in England and Wales
It’s been about 19 years since I went on my first walking tour of England and Wales…it was 1996, to be exact. The month was September, and the weather could not have been more perfect, the countryside more beautiful. If anything motivated me to begin hiking, it was this trip. Of course, not every hike is perfect…weather, nervousness about driving on the left hand side of the road (and the roundabouts!), finding a good place to stay. Nonetheless, the two weeks spent here were an eye-opener. Who knew these out of the way places existed? Some of the towns and countryside looked as if they had never moved into the 20th century…and still retained the innocence of an earlier time. So…on to London.
Arriving at Gatwick I found a porter who whisked me onto the Airport Express train to Victoria Station – somehow missing the customs melee. “There’s no-one there – no problem!” (You could tell this was pre-9/11.) On the train into London, I spied a fox slinking into the underbrush, its bushy red tail waving in the breeze.
Once in London, I grabbed a taxi to the Covent Garden Hotel. I was meeting Lee here later – and the suite wasn’t going to be ready for hours – so I settled in the library sitting room to read and drink a cup of tea with real cream (three pounds!) The hotel is a former French hospital which had become a delightful four-story retreat, small and intimate, and splashed with chintz. The library offers deep sofas and chairs, The London Times and Observer, and London Vogue.
Lee arrived at 10AM, and off we went to see London. We sat atop a sightseeing bus in the open air – bloody cold! Disembarking constantly, we rambled around Sloane Square and down St. James Street, around Leicester Square and Covent Garden, where we looked for -and found – 84 Charing Cross Road and the site of that lovely old bookstore. If you haven’t read the book by Helene Hanff, do so…it is terrific (and the follow-up, The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street, while you’re at it.)
Back at the hotel, our suite was ready. Padded yellow rose chintz coats the windows, bed and loveseat. Beautiful more-than-full-size feather beds sit high, high up, with immense feather pillows. An equally immense bathroom holds a deep soaking tub with a separate shower.
That night, we moseyed once again around Covent Garden and Leicester Square, where the crowds were really overpowering – there was hardly room to move. After a light dinner, it was back to the hotel to prepare to take off early in the morning.
The weather this first day has been just great – although cold, the sun is shining and the sky blue. A great omen.
Broad Chalke, Wiltshire
Surprise: we overslept! We had barely enough time for breakfast before our car was delivered. At 9:45 AM, a sharp-looking little red Rover rolled up to the front door. As designated driver, I immediately smashed the left hand rearview mirror while trying to negotiate the tiny, tiny one-way streets of London.
We managed to get out of London – but it was an absolutely wild trip, as I had never driven a “left-handed car” and kept driving into the curb. And the roundabouts! It took me days to get used to them. Finally, we got out of London, stopping in the tiny town of Weybridge for coffee and a look through a bookshop; then on to our first bed and breakfast – Stoke Farm in Broad Chalke.
The roads leading to Broad Chalke are through Wiltshire. The deeper in-country we drove, the more ye olde England it became. The deep hedgerows, the farmlands, the woods –the England of legend. The sun shone intermittently; parts of the day were overcast – but by afternoon, it was hot.
Keeping a very sharp eye out, we were lucky to spot a miniature sign saying “Stoke Farm” hidden in a hedge. It was 6PM, still daylight. Jan, the proprietor, was a charming woman who was so busy she hadn’t much time to do anything but show us the bedroom and bathroom, and ask us to write down our breakfast requests.
Our first view of the farmhouse looked like something from a Jane Austen novel. Converted to a bed and breakfast, it is built of old and beautiful stone, nestling in the Wiltshire countryside. It lies at the bottom of a hill (which we climb that night after dinner.) Baskets of flowers hang from every window, and the front lawn is surrounded by evergreens and flowering plants. Cows and horses lingered in the surrounding fields. Two dogs ran around the yard.
The entryway held a big Welsh dresser, with blue and white platters and china covering the shelves. The cozy dining room was papered with brown patterned wallpaper, and had a big fireplace, and an old dining table and sideboard.
The only other guests were a very attractive Belgian couple, who nodded and smiled and basically said not a word to us as they only spoke Belgian…conversation was limited to good mornings.
Our bedroom was, of course, charming – all chintz and prints – as was our bathroom across the hall. I leaned from my bedroom window to look across hills and dales and farmland, as far as the eye could see.
Just down the road is Broad Chalke itself – a few cottages, a couple of manor houses, and an old pub at the crossroads, where we had dinner. The dessert of apple pie crumble with real cream was heavenly – makes me hungry just to think about it!
We loved Stoke Farm. It was so peaceful and quiet, quiet, quiet. Walking up the low-lying hill that night, the silence was like balm to the soul. The sky was clear as a bell, and the stars, magnificent, blanketing the sky.
Wiltshire – Broad Chalke, Fovant, Stonehenge and Old Sarum
Again, we overslept: breakfast is between eight and nine, and we woke at ten to nine. Breakfast: haddock in scrambled eggs, toast and broiled tomatoes. The hot tea hit the spot. Once all that was under our belts, we planned our itinerary: to Stonehenge, and then to Old Sarum. On the way, fascinating chalk figures carved into a hill just outside the town of Fovant caught our attention. Quickly parking the car, we climbed to more closely view these figures carved by airmen in World War I.
From Fovant, we wended our way to Stonehenge – mysterious and fascinating. The sky was overcast, the day gray and windy- what better for Stonehenge? The monoliths are visible from a great distance, and seas of grass stretch for miles around…all is emptiness, except for a few tourists and the monolithic stones.
Old Sarum was our next stop, another strange and wonderful place. We climbed the hill to the castle remains, crossing a drawbridge across a great dry moat. The crumbling, immensely thick stone walls of the castle and the remains of “old” Salisbury Cathedral stood out against the greenest of green grass and fields. Wandering these ruins was a truly mystical experience.
On the drive back to Stoke Farm, we stopped for dinner at a quaint old inn down a twisty, winding, hilly and hidden country lane. Navigating these lanes by car, so narrow with the highest of hedgerows, was an adventure by day; a real challenge by night. The lanes turn and twist, with often only room for one (very small) car to navigate through. So far, we’ve been lucky – only one or two minor scrapes (the side of our little car looked as though it had been in the wars.)
Dinner tonight started with pate with hot toast, and finished with apple pie and cream (munching our way through England – thank goodness for all that walking.)
On the road to Lyme Regis
From the heart of England, we drove to Lyme Regis, through rolling English countryside – going like a bat out of hell. English drivers are truly another breed: if you aren’t driving quickly enough, the kinder, gentler blokes behind the wheel blink their lights, the aggressive honk madly until you move over!
We stopped for a little “smack of something” on our way down the I-30. The tea shop had great coffee. As a matter of fact, the coffee is usually excellent; of course, the tea was terrific, piping hot.
Back on the road, we pulled over halfway to Lyme Regis for a long walk down a country lane, over neon-green fields. In a sheltered corner, we stopped to eat our lunch, bought at the tea shop. In my pack is “homemade bread pudding” with raisins – half of which is eaten by Lee, who had formerly announced she does not like raisins.
Onward to Lyme Regis through the little town of Uplyme – very pretty with pastel-painted houses. Lyme Regis lies just beyond, and at first glance seemed very touristy, not at all what we had in mind. But after finding a small white hotel with two small rooms – about 20 pounds apiece – we headed for the beach, walking through the center of town to reach the boardwalk. We clambered over concrete “sand dividers” to reach a deserted stretch of sand that was both pebbly and seaweedy and rather forbidding.
The cliffs of solid sand are high and dangerous, but climbing was forbidden because of the constant erosion. Then the beach suddenly opened up and stretched literally for miles, and the late afternoon sunlight played on the cliff face. For the first time, I felt “I’m here!” It was so beautiful and lonely and we could have walked for miles, but the tide comes in rapidly, so we had to turn back sooner than we wished.
Next on the agenda was food! We ate in the courtyard of a rather charming small hotel – fish and chips for me, fisherman’s platter for Lee, and it was quite a picture: two major fish complete with heads, tails and eyes. While we were eating, what seemed to be the largest seagull in the world perched on a ridgepole, cawing and squawking plaintively. I threw chips in the air for him – seemed to be the right thing to do, and he caught them as if he hadn’t eaten for days.
We were in the parking lot at Lyme Regis, trying to find our way out. After several turns around the maze-like lot, we finally gave it up as a bad job, and asked the parking attendant to direct us to the gate – which happened to be straight ahead. The look on his face was indescribable.
Now we were on the road to Cornwall. Driving at 80 mph, and cars passing me by. I whizzed by a sign which says “Pork and Rice,” realizing shortly afterwards that it really says “Park and Ride” but who the heck could figure it out since we were going at the speed of light! Traffic signs were everywhere bearing such legends as “Traffic calming ahead.”
Halfway to our destination, we pulled off the road to take a brief hike over a ferny footpath, then back in the car to head for Ednovean House, our B&B in Perranuthnoe. By the end of the day, we were extremely punchy, having driven 180 miles. But for the life of us we can’t find Perranuthnoe.
Disconcertingly, several people stared blankly at us when we ask directions, but even though some gave directions such as “you can’t miss it, only two miles down the road”, or “plenty of signs to it, dear, just keep going straight” we seemed to travel in circles. Only when we were told “turn right at Bertie Wooster’s Restaurant” did we finally reach our destination.
And here we are at Ednovean House – except for the fact we arrived a day early! Apparently really screwed up, having booked our room for Friday and Saturday nights; no rooms are available tonight! Once again, we’re back in the car, on the road for Marazion, a small town two miles away.
Just about to drop from exhaustion, we found a small hotel in Marazion with two single rooms. We dumped our luggage and walked downhill to a tiny, adorable restaurant for a delicious dinner of crevettes in sauce, mushrooms in garlic, and delicious chewy bread. Dessert is English sherry trifle!
Perranuthnoe, the cliff walks
The food at our hotel in Marazion was terrific. Breakfast included poached eggs on toast – the yolks bright yellow – English bacon, sausages and fried tomatoes. A note: these tomatoes are the best I’ve tasted anywhere.
After a short walk along the beach, we discovered that this is where we will walk the causeway to St. Michael’s Mount…
Back to Perranuthnoe, leaving our car in a park by the sea and immediately began a wonderful hike over the cliffs. This was the best and most fabulous walk so far, and was my favorite of the entire trip. Up, up a winding footpath through lanes lined with tiny pastel-colored houses; up, and up through farmyards and into lanes with high, high hedgerows. Over stiles, into far-ranging fields of grass and new-mown hay. Crossing fields full of cows.
The sea is visible at a distance, and then: bang! We’re on the cliffs of some of the most spectacular scenery in the world – looking down, down – waves crashing on the rocks, the sea crystal-blue-green, like glass. We clambered over the cliffs, across rocks and boulders, finding winding footpaths down, through blackberry brambles full of ripening berries, through fern and nettle.
The wind gusted across the cliffs, the sun was brilliant, the day warm and glorious. We rested on the rocks below, taking in the fabulous beauty before returning to the cliff top – and feeling fabulously alive. This was an incredibly magnificent site…we were both in awe of the majesty of the vistas surrounding us.
At the end of the day, we finally ensconced ourselves in Ednovean House. The view from our window was amazing: across emerald green fields, you see the sea, a clear, deep blue, mirroring the sky above. Set against this glamour are the storied island and castle of St. Michael’s Mount, which floats in the bay like some fabled “casement in faery lands forlorn.” Backed by the gold of the setting sun, it could be the Isle of Avalon come to life. The air is crystal clear and the view was/is perfection.
We had cocktails on the lawn in the late day sunshine; St. Michael’s Mount was our backdrop. A magic moment. Lee and I both lifted a glass to this wonderful memory-in-the-making.
Val and Arthur, the proprietors, serve a yummy dinner: steak and kidney pudding with the crust made from scratch, fresh crisp green beans, carrots, and zucchini, and zesty crispy potatoes. Dessert is brandy pudding with clotted cream. Too good to pass up, but I am glad, glad, glad we are walking and hiking as much as we are!
St. Michael’s Mount, Mousehole and Land’s End
Up at 6:30AM, we returned to Marazion to begin our adventure, and fulfill one of my childhood dreams: to walk the pebble causeway to St. Michael’s Mount. Only twice a day (early morning and midnight) is the causeway accessible, the tide being at the full at all other times.
We were the only people on the causeway, except for one solitary man. The tide was out, and had left fishing boats beached in the sandy cove. Unfortunately, we were unable to actually enter the castle, as it is too early in the morning, but we were able to walk the outside grounds.
Yet although this is a tiny island, small houses are built around the castle’s outer walls. All is gray stone…castle, houses, walkway, a perfect backdrop for the flowers, which are a painter’s dream of color: one wall drips with immense hydrangeas in all colors. Another wall is muralled with a history of St. Michael’s, painted in delicate detail. The morning is clear and the sky takes on the colors of the sea…it is a perfect, peaceful place.
The tide turned, and the causeway was awash, so back to Ednovean House in time for breakfast…then we were off to Mousehole, a tiny fishing village that was home to my grandmother and grandfather many years past. Mousehole is built on a hill, its tiny grassy paths leading to backs of houses, and uphill to glorious views of the bay. Its tiny harbor is filled with fishing boats, and many, many people wander its winding cobbled streets.
The sun shone brilliantly, and the day was balmy. September is a holiday month, and with this glorious weather, every last person was out enjoying it.
After a brief halt for tea, we were again back in the car, driving up the winding lanes to the cliffs of Land’s End. At first glance, Land’s End is not appealing, as it is fronted by a huge whitewashed “castle” backed by booths, rides and whatnot. We ignored all this, and walked to the headland, covered in purple heather and yellow gorse.
The view was spectacular. A narrow footpath took us to the cliff’s edge, and in some places, the drop was sheer. We walked about four miles along the cliffs, which look far, far out to sea. The sea was tipped with silver in the sunlight, and crashed in mighty waves over the rocks below. Incredibly beautiful.
Back to Perranuthnoe, for dinner at Victoria Inn in the village. Perranuthnoe is a village forgotten by time: tiny and tinier, it houses several bed and breakfasts, old stone houses covered in ivy and hung with baskets of flowers, and the church. It is banked by the sea, and absolutely massed with flowers all in bloom. The colors! The flowers! Nasturtiums, sunflowers, daisies, hydrangeas, huge pots of massed orange and red geraniums. All houses are decorated with flowers…pots and hanging baskets are everywhere we look. The hedges along the roadsides are starred with all manner of tiny wildflowers. It is a delightful spot.
St. Kew and Crackington Haven
Up at eight, we had breakfast of coffee, juice, muesli and tomatoes on toast with toast. Hmm! Now packing up ready to leave for Crackington Haven and Tintagel.
On the road, manicured, pristine farm country surrounds us. About ten miles from our destination, we pulled onto a tiny side lane, parked and set off in the direction of St. Kew. A green field uninhabited by cows called to us, so we picnicked in the sunshine, with sandwiches, chips, blackberries from the bush, and a half-melted Aero bar.
Afterwards, we rambled awhile in the general direction of St. Kew. It is tremendously exhilarating to just be able to walk without being bothered by people, cars or signs saying “no trespassing”. The narrow road leads through the high green hedgerows and tiny villages, past old stone houses with slate or thatched roofs which are hung with baskets filled with nasturtiums and daisies; past manor houses set back in green fields, surrounded by immense bushes of blue and multicolored hydrangeas.
We came to St. Kew, a tiny, tiny village with a wonderful old church and tiny graveyard, with gravestones so old we are unable to read them. We stop at an inn for coffee, then turn back to the car. Up the lane, we notice a manor house for sale, set back from the road with a long drive bound by rhododendrons. I pretended I lived there just for a moment…can’t imagine how magical that would be.
It was so quiet. Tiny birds were singing, but no other sound was heard. We were really in deep country; although hard to believe, it does still exist, unspoilt, fresh, and utterly satisfying. The air is clean; we’re still having beautiful weather, and the breeze was brisk and evergreen-scented.
We drove on to Crackington Haven…not far, actually. The road to Crackington Haven, which is situated high atop a hill overlooking the sea, winds up, up and up. We turned down the short grassy lane to Manor Farm, which, we were told, is listed in the Domesday Book. It is very, very old, and very, very beautiful.
The grounds, looking as if they are clipped daily with nail scissors, were splashed hydrangea bushes at every possible turn, all blooming in glorious colors.
The house itself had stone flagged floors. Our bedroom had twin beds covered with rose flowered chintz covers and frilled pillowcases. The room – as are all the rooms -was whitewashed, with dark oak Tudor beams, and a very low ceiling. The bathroom also had oak beams, on which I had already knocked my head, and a step-down, which had sent Lee crashing into the tub. (Expletives here.) The room had two low, low, low diamond-paned dormer windows with inset window seats. Another smaller window faced the beds.
Muriel, the proprietor, took us through the sitting room with large windows looking onto green lawns, and on into the dining room where a highly polished table was set for six, with place cards. Uh-oh. Our trip has been very casual, as far as clothes are concerned. We have come up against it here; when we ask Muriel if we dress for dinner, she answers “Ectually….yes!” in no uncertain terms.
I had to wear what I have, the best of it being a cashmere sweater and khakis. Lee had on jeans and black socks: “Black socks make any outfit, my dear!”
We were told to be back from our walk by 5:30 to do the wash; drinks in the bar are at 6:30 sharp; dinner is at 7; and breakfast is at 8:30AM. This is about all the regimentation I can take. We’re glad that we plan to be out all day Monday, and must find our own dinner Monday night!
After an hour-long walk, we took our dirty clothes to be washed at the requested 5:30 PM. Cleaned up, we ran back downstairs for cocktails at 6:30. (Our clothes are given the once-over, then ignored.) Dinner, where we met two young couples staying at the Manor, was turkey steaks with mustard sauce, fig pie with raspberry sauce and clotted cream, cheese and biscuits, and wine. Coffee is served afterwards in the drawing room.
We log in another five miles today!
Crackington Haven, Bude, Tintagel, and Boscastle
Out on the road for a quick walk at 7AM, we zoomed back for breakfast at 8:30 sharp. Muriel, a former schoolteacher, rings a little bell to remind us that breakfast is served.
We have a full breakfast of orange juice, sausage, bacon, eggs, fried bread, tomato, toast and coffee. And are requested not to leave anything on the plate, or not to order anything that we won’t eat. Gee, where’s the joy in that?!
Then we took off to explore. First on our list was Bude and a walk over the cliffs. Bude is not a pretty place. The sand on the beach was churned up in giant mud flats, and the day was overcast and dreary. We decided to move on to Tintagel. And what a disappointment it was (to me, anyway)! The town is very gimmicky and full of tourists, and the headland itself was blocked by King Arthur’s Castle Hotel, a ghastly lump of red brick with absolutely no redeeming architectural value. We were shocked, and needless to say, did not stop. In retrospect, that was a mistake, as there’s always something hidden behind the touristy buildings that makes a visit worthwhile. Nonetheless, we plowed on to Boscastle.
It’s not far to Boscastle, a harbor town built down the side of a mountain. Steep, steep, steep little roads led to a walled village over which the mountain cast its immense shadow. We met a bus head-on, and the roads are so narrow, our lives flashed before our eyes! The houses and buildings here are very old, with gray slate roofs, and pots of bright flowers hanging from walls and dotting the small gardens. The trees lining the road are strung with ivy; dry stone walls support the soaring mountain forest at every turn; lichen and moss cover every possible rock, crack and crevice, and a wide variety of delicate flowers poke their heads from the hedgerows.
After a fish and chip lunch, we returned to Crackington Haven, to hike over the cliffs. Our path gave us spectacular views of the great Atlantic Ocean, the waves tipped with silver and pearl. We are so high up, we feel as if we’re walking on the roof of the world. As we look back to the footpaths we’ve climbed, it’s hard to believe we actually climbed them!
Carpeted in purple heather and yellow gorse, the cliffs stretch as far as the eye could see. By this time, the sun had begun to emerge, which gives the entire day a different perspective (it is certainly cooler here than in Perranuthnoe, which, we find out, is part of what is known as the English Riviera.)
We hiked past The Strangles, that silver, wild, wind-whipped part of the ocean below. Looking for seals among the waves, we missed the return footpath across the fields. Many a cow-laden field is crossed, and we eventually find a path leading through a wooded ravine. After crossing small bridges across limpid, pebble-lined streams, we were finally back at Crackington Haven Cove at the base of the cliff, where a hot cup of tea at a small tea shop revived us. That, plus sitting in the sun, and afterward, walking across the pebbled beach to the receding tide. We heard the sound of the pebbles being sucked back into the sea…”that melancholy, long-withdrawing roar.”
The undertow was terrifically strong. Earlier, under a gray sky we had seen bathers in the water, which to our touch is icy. Yikes!
We logged in ten miles or so from our hike, and as dinner was not being served at the manor that night, decided to go out for a picnic dinner. Flinging a long scarf around my neck, dressed in khaki green jacket and boots and looking like a WWI pilot, according to Lee, we sneaked into the bar to pick up some lager. This, together with tomatoes, pasties, apples and cheese, was our dinner. We set out for a small field around the corner to eat and relax. There is something so out of time about this: sitting in an English field far, far from all we have known, in the late twilight, surrounded by deep English country…an indescribable experience, albeit somewhat damp.
The Wye Valley, Tintern Abbey, Swansea and Mumbles
Early this morning we hiked for twenty minutes, making sure we are back in time for the breakfast bell. Two new couples joined us at the breakfast table, one from Chepstow in the Wye Valley, and one from New Jersey. Another hearty breakfast is consumed (both of us too nervous about Muriel to leave anything on our plates), and then we were out the door and off.
The couple from Chepstow spoke so glowingly of the Wye Valley, we turned onto the road to Tintern Abbey. The Abbey is a beautiful ruin, the gray stone as fragile as lace, set on a green grassy sward, at the base of a towering mountain.
A quick lunch, and we’re back on the road to Wales, and Mumbles, Swansea.
What a drive: we logged 240 miles, I wondered if we’d ever arrive. When we did, belching fumes and smoke from various pipestacks met our eyes – this is not the Swansea I remember from childhood, but I guess all things must pass.
We finally reach Mumbles, where I spent much of my childhood. It has become a tourist mecca, and is thronged with people. Every road and pathway is built up. I wondered if Thistleboone Gardens was still there….not only is it still there, it looked just the same as it did when I was a child. But… we were no longer able to walk from the Gardens over the cliffs; built over with subdivisions, the land has become too valuable to stay wild.
As we hadn’t booked into a B&B or hotel, we had a difficult time finding somewhere to stay. Finally we found a rather primitive B&B – only one toilet, and NO soap! Our proprietors, however, were delightful (and the food is good, always a plus.) We toted our luggage upstairs, then left for a walk along the front to the old pier. The castle still brooded on the hilltop. The boardwalk was filled with tiny booths and video games. The population was out in full force, as the weather was balmy. But it is true: you can’t go home again. It was difficult to see this place of my childhood so clogged with shops, houses, cars, and people. In retrospect, I realize that perhaps I set my sights too high. The years had made a difference.
A quick dinner of fish and chips, and then back up the hill to our B&B. We are so exhausted, we crawl into our beds and are out like lights.
Langland and Bracelet Bays, The Brecon Beacons and the Great Malverns
After a good night’s sleep and a good breakfast, we packed and locked the car, then left for a couple of hours of walking across the cliffs to Langland and Bracelet Bays. What a glorious, glorious walk. The weather continued to be fabulous. The sun broke through the mist, and it was a beautiful day, and very warm.
Langland itself is now a retirement community. A few people from the settlement were walking on the footpath over the cliffs, taking in the clean morning air. The cliff walk was exactly as I remembered it, right up to and including the 1930’s style bathing huts lining the cliff top.
Past Langland to Bracelet, and I clambered down the cliffs to the sand – a little nervewracking, as the drop is steeper than it seemed when I began! Bracelet Bay is also exactly as I remember it when I was a child…a wide curve of smooth yellow untrammeled sand, surrounded by cliffs covered in yellow gorse and purple heather. Blackberry bushes abound, berries ripening in the sun…. The flowers were rioting color – orange nasturtiums, yellow gorse, purple heather, hot pink petunias, white daisies, orange-red geraniums, purple-white freesias, white and purple lilac, smelling like heaven. The grass was green, green, green. We passed a red currant bush full of currants, shining like jewels on the branches. Talk about yummy!
After a two-hour walk, onwards to Mumbles to pick up some supplies and cash checks (these were the days before ATMs – medieval times). I walked across the boardwalk to the sea, which has receded to leave fishing boats beached like whitefish across the exposed reaches of sand. Some things haven’t changed one iota.
Eventually we left Mumbles to drive through the Brecon Beacons, to Herefordshire and the Great Malverns. The route is tortuous, as we got lost trying to find our way out of Swansea, but finally, we were on the open road again.
BACK INTO ENGLAND
The Great Malverns and Herefordshire
The Brecon Beacons took us through wild, empty country showcasing secluded dales and valleys. What views! Sheep roamed freely across mountain tops and stony outcrops. Some rambled across the roads, some rested or grazed. For endless miles, the land stretched out isolated and lonely except for the sheep. It is a fascinating, desolate, eerie place, so different from all we have seen so far.
Driving on, we passed the town of Haye-on-Wye, otherwise known as “Full of Books.” We arrived at the town of Brecon, and turned toward Herefordshire, stopping for a picnic in a green field off a little stony lane. Sausage rolls, a tuna sandwich, apples, most of a black currant tart topped with whipped cream, a scone filled with clotted cream and jam, and custard pie: we now thought of this as a light lunch. We have come far since first beginning this journey…
Cowleigh Park Farm is situated in Malvern, Worcestershire (right on the Herefordshire border). We arrived in late afternoon, and were immediately impressed: what a beautiful place! An old half-timbered manor house, it was originally built in 1200 in a deer park about 100 yards away from where it presently stands. The house fell into disrepair, and in the 1600s was dismantled, and rebuilt in its new location. It is enveloped by farms, hills and orchards. Everywhere, immense clumps of fragrant lavendar meet the eye and fill the nose with fragrance.
Chris, the proprietor and owner, ran the B&B with his wife Sue. He handled all maintenance and also ran a renovation business on the side, while remaining active in the Royal Marine Reserves (he served during the Falklands War.) He is a busy, and – in his words – happy, man.
He booked us into the Red Lion pub for dinner, where we had chicken filets in lime and brandy with broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, new potatoes, and fresh rolls. Lager accompanied this repast. For dessert, we had rhubarb crumble with whipped cream and coffee. I am still trying to figure out why I didn’t end up looking like Shamu the Whale: we never seem to stop eating!
After the first night, we moved – to a room across the hall. Our new room had board and latch doors, with a bathroom containing an immense bath, deep, new and dark blue, and built very high up. When I stood up in the bath, my head almost touched the low-hung ceiling. Blue and white tiles surrounded the tub. The tiny-paned window was hung with print curtains. The sink was set into a wall-to-wall vanity, which was lined with blue and white bowls and pitchers. The room was whitewashed, with natural oak beams.
In the bedroom were wonderfully comfortable beds which faced a window opening onto the garden. The green wall-to-wall carpet, the pink-striped bedspreads and green velvet wing chair by a potted plant and huge wardrobe all made the room comfortable and inviting. A corner table housed a coffee maker and teakettle.
I loved this house…indeed it is one of the most splendid B&Bs we stayed in. We met more of the family: Sue, Chris’s wife, brown-haired, petite, pretty; and Lucky, her three-legged cat, who slept in a black puddle of fur at the top of the stairs.
This morning, after a hearty breakfast (is there any other?) we set off for the Great Malverns. We walked to the top of the highest hill – not so very high at 1300 feet but with a fantastic all-round view. The springiness of the turf was like walking on green velvet. We looked down into the beautiful valleys surrounding us, dotted with tiny villages and isolated cottages, set in the greenest of green fields, or amid trees on gentle hilly slopes. The sun was drawing moisture up into the clouds, and the sky was silver.
The weather continued warm and clear, and the winds, fresh. Although some mornings had been overcast, we never seemed to get a single drop of rain.
The walk to the highest Malvern peak and back down again took us approximately two and a half hours. These hills were thick with flowers: yellow gorse and tall purple loosestrife, cowslips, buttercups, celandines, dandelions … Blackberries, thick on bramble bushes, were in every lane. Stinging nettles were also everywhere; Lee, thinking these were mint, rubbed some casually between her fingers, a big mistake! (Dock leaves take out the sting…)
Sheep ran freely over the hills. Every once in a while, one became separated from its mates, and the plaintive baaaa-ing was constant. Back in town, we strolled to the pub for lunch and ginger beer, which Lee swears tastes like mouthwash. Then a ramble around the village, which had some of the prettiest gardens ever. The most beautiful deep blue hydrangea bush hung over a garden wall. Another small garden was filled with huge yellow sunflowers. Dry stone walls everywhere. The scent of lilac was unbelievably fragrant.
We left this idyll to drive into town for some shopping and a newspaper, then back to Cowleigh Park for another long walk up the Worcestershire Way.The Worcestershire Way winds through farmlands over untamed fields high with unmown waving grass; through fields of mown hay and bright yellow rapeseed; past a small signpost with the legend “Badger’s Wood”; through a huge apple orchard, the trees bent to the ground and loaded with apples. It continued through fields filled with cows -and one black bull seemingly somewhat annoyed with our presence. As he jogs towards us, we nimbly leapt into a small fenced pen, obviously there for just this reason. Across more fields, down wooded lanes past geese and sheep, we rambled: the sun is out, and the warmth of it is full on our faces.
After an hour or two, we turn back to Cowleigh Park, a brief rest, then back to the Red Lion for dinner.
From Cowleigh Park Farm back to London
Time to go home (sob). After breakfast, up and away on the M-40, on the road back to London. A quick lunch at a service center halfway to London took us from the sublime to the ridiculous. We eat quickly, and are glad to be back in the car.
Back in London…
On our arrival, the nightmare of trying to find our hotel in the morass of one-way streets begins. The traffic! The noise! The crush of it all! Between the U-turns and reverses in the heavy traffic, we are ready to leave the car in the middle of the road and simply walk to Covent Garden! Finally, in desperation, I parked in a no-parking zone, and Lee walked to our hotel to fetch the concierge who drove us directly to our hotel, no worries. I will never drive in London again!
After dropping our luggage at the hotel, we walked to Trafalgar Square and Piccadilly Circus, down Charing Cross Road, and to Fortnum & Mason.
Then it was back to the hotel, where I looked forward to a bath in the immense tub, surrounded by pristine white tiles, and where half a dozen thick white towels were hanging from a gleaming chrome towel warmer. Two extra-thick terry cloth robes hung behind the door. There is something to be said for a little luxury!
I must confess, I did not care for London on this particular trip. Too big, too impersonal, too busy, too many cars, too many people. It had its moments, but discovering the countryside did it for me. In the deep heart of England and Wales, I found exactly what I was looking for: unspoiled country, beautiful, and timeless. It has all been wonderful.
Now on our way to Gatwick, we passed – unbelievably – a fox slinking into the brush, rounding off a perfectly satisfying adventure into the hidden countryside of England and Wales.