A weeklong walk in England’s Cotswolds | Meanderings by Mindy Stern

Introducing a new travel column for the Mercer Island Reporter by local writer Mindy Stern.

A large snake slithered across the footpath just inches from our boots on our first day walking the Cotswolds, 800 square miles of charming villages and towns in southwest England. Though totally uninterested in us, the snake added drama to the first hour of a weeklong walk. Our guidebook identified it as a nonaggressive, though venomous, rare British Adder. Whew!

The ground was muddy and slippery after a solid week of rain. Gray and purple clouds hovered above. But the threat of showers never happened. We stayed dry as we navigated through sheep and cow pastures, green fields of spring barley and winter wheat, yellow fields of oilseed rape.

My sister lived briefly in England, and described the Costwolds as idyllic. I loved the idea of a walking vacation, and started my research. Metzger Maps, in Pike Place Market, is a treasure trove for travelers. Sure enough, they had a book about the small towns and villages that dot the 800 square miles of the Cotswolds. They all sounded great. But how to figure out what to omit, and what was “must see?”

Dozens of companies specialize in self-guided walking holidays in the United Kingdom. After answering questions like “How many days would you like to walk?” “How many miles a day would be comfortable?” one of them customized an itinerary and booked all of our stays. Lodging was the biggest challenge, so it was a relief to leave it to the experts. They also advised us to book dinners way in advance, and provided a list of local establishments near each night’s inn. The Cotswolds are popular, especially in May, and the towns are truly tiny, so options are quite limited. Another thing the travel company did was arrange luggage transport from one inn to the next. All we had to do was carry small backpacks with water, snacks, lunch, and rain gear. And find our way from town to town.

Since the 16th century, homes, churches, and public buildings in this area have been clad in locally quarried Cotswold Limestone and capped with stone roofs. Buildings may be modernized on the inside, but exteriors must conform to these standards. The stones’ creamy, golden, and honey hues and granular texture add visual uniformity and give the region a distinct look.

In Longborough, a blink-and-you-miss-it hamlet near Moreton-in-Marsh, we met an elderly gentleman who wanted to chat. Hearing we were headed to Stow-on-the-Wold, he warned, “Keep very close eye on your belongings – there’s a gypsy horse fair tomorrow, and they’ll steal anything.” Gypsies? Horse fair? “Do you mean Travellers?” I asked. We’d recently watched Infamy (2023) and The Gentlemen (2024) on Netflix. Both heavily featured itinerant minority ethnic groups called Travellers. “Right you are,” he said, “Same thing. Twice a year, they have a horse fair in Stow. They come in and steal, and break things… All the shops will be closed tomorrow. You’d better do your shopping early.”

Incredulous, we arrived in Stow to discover he was right about the stores. They would either close all day, or open for just a few early hours before shuttering. Chatting with shop owners, we learned that King Henry III granted the Travellers land in 1268. Twice-yearly, they gather from all corners of England, riding in on horse-drawn carriages and carts. “We all hate it,” said one of the shopkeepers said, as a team of police officers swarmed her store to ensure the CC TV was working. “But they own the land, so we can’t stop it.”

Intrigued, we planned to check out the horse fair in the morning, before setting out on our walk. But that night, right below our window, a fight erupted. Teenage Travellers were lifting barricades and smashing cars. “Let’s skip the fair,” we decided.

Our last day of walking took us through Naunton Downs alongside Ben Pauling Racing, a prestigious horse training center. Our path briefly routed us to a road. As cars whizzed past, we heard a slow clip-clop, clip-clop, clip-clop, each hoofbeat accentuated as it made contact with the pavement. An enormous black Arabian with spindly legs approached. Sitting atop was an ancient, weatherworn jockey. Cigarette dangling from his lips, and gripping a short crop as his horse swayed below him, he tilted precariously to the right, nearly tumbling from his perch. A dead ringer for a character from The Triplets of Belleville, just not on a bike.

After a delightful week of walking, we traveled south to Bath by train for two days of pampering in this ancient spa town.

Meanderings is a travel column by Mindy Stern, a Mercer Island resident whose essays can be found at www.mindysternauthor.com.