Homing Instinct: Finding Comfort in the Cotswolds
Returning to the Cotswolds where she grew up, our writer cherishes familiar territory as lockdown descends.
25 August, 2020
London was already feeling claustrophobic. The numbers of cases of the coronavirus on home soil were mounting as we watched other countries around the globe going into or remaining in lockdown. Meanwhile, my relationship with London has always been a tricky one. Growing up in a village, I tend to treat London the same; I live in Hackney, not London. Nonetheless, even Hackney felt overcrowded as whispers of pandemic floated along the pavements, weaving between crowds, following people home. Knowing that my work would be very much on hold the moment that the government chose to roll up the pavements, I decided to head back to my parents in Gloucestershire.
It feels like the month-long holidays between terms at university, albeit with darker undertones. Not keen on staying in Birmingham without classes, I'd always come home for the duration. During Easter break I used to arrive to a garden filled with bare trees which, when the time came to return, would be green with vibrant, fresh leaves. Rather than time racing by as I pedal about from job to coffee to yoga to bed, now it's marked by the subtle lengthening of the days, the changing flowers in the garden and how high Venus sits in the sky as I lie in bed, curtains open. I don't know how long I'll be home for, but it feels like the right place to be.
Mum has driven Dad and me to Wotton-under-Edge along with our faithful hound, Bertie Doggins. He's a particularly eccentric and excitable golden retriever, but given his name, it's hard to blame him. I have a grand plan that while I'm home the three of us can check off different segments of the Cotswold Way, of which, as is often the case with things on your doorstep, we have explored shockingly little. This track draws the masses to our corner of the south west. Summers filled with ramblers, answering "yes, very well thank you" when you nod and murmur "alright" at them, more of a salutation than a question. Dad has packed a rucksack, insisting that if we're going on an adventure we must have something to drink, a compass, a guidebook and, most importantly of all, chocolate.
We get out of the car by the community cinema and make our way down the high street, which is still filled with a pleasingly high number of independent shops. I remember how when I was at school many still displayed posters emblazoned with W.O.W (we're open Wednesdays) proudly in their windows. This first section of our mission will take us the six miles home. The walk starts from the churchyard at the bottom of town, forking off down a narrow row of mismatched houses to a footpath along a stream. Still swollen from the winter's rain, it quickly engulfs the path and Dad teeters along a small wooden divider in his walking boots while I splash gleefully through the water in my wellingtons. My walking boots are stowed in the bottom of our utility cupboard in London, too bulky to be packed into my indefinite bag of essentials. I've often thought about how the boom in the outdoors industry has in many ways made getting into nature harder. By touting specific walking boots, trousers and fleecy headbands, it's felt increasingly like there's an entrance fee to exploration, however small. I've always walked in jeans and wellies and I've been just fine.
The lane takes us round to the left through a tiny village and then up a bridle path that climbs sharply up, up, up. Dad takes a rest on a fallen tree and almost slides down it; I decide not to bring up his smoking habit. Instead I happily remark that this will probably lead us up onto the ridgeline and out of the valley, and maybe it'll be the only great incline of the walk. Dad is sceptical. We reach the top, panting a little. Behind us lies a familiar view from a different angle: the Severn Valley, patched with sun and fast-moving clouds, the same scene we can see from the end of the garden. Two women with dogs walk past us - one has a strange mutt which she confirms to be a long- legged sausage dog - and we're alone again.
As we walk, not really talking, I idly wonder why I never decided to take this route home from school. The school served the town and a mass of villages surrounding it, so most of us had to take a coach in and out. Very rarely a coach didn't turn up, leaving a village's worth of kids kicking stones around outside the maths block. There would always be a few boys who called it early and decided to just walk home, underestimating, I think, how long the 20-minute ride would take on foot. The guidebook tells us that from the path we're walking, we should be able to look north to see the Tyndale Monument. Since the book was published a thick wood of pine trees has grown tall, eclipsing all but the pointed roof of the tower. Making our way to the end of a field, the way-marker points vaguely down across a terrace, bisected by an electric fence. Dad offers that the path must go under the fence. Deciding that's quite unlikely, I suggest we go along the slope, picking out a narrow sheep track in the grass. Vindicated, another way-marker appears, half swallowed by an industrious hawthorn decorated with pale buds that are fit to burst.
Entering a wood, we notice signs of spring: small green buds pushing through, dogwood violets emerging along the banks of the ditches, and the unmistakable, slightly acrid scent of wild garlic mingling with the dead leaves blanketing the path. We start to descend and Dad sighs a long breath that feels like it masks the word "liar" - we'll have to climb back up onto the ridge once more to get home. The path becomes soft limestone, washed clean by what was almost certainly an emergency stream, as even the hills became waterlogged in the recent, stormy months. Now dried up, it's easy underfoot and our way is sheltered by the new leaves above us and tall banks beside us. We pass a young family and walk in the shadow of a vast old oak felled by strong winds, creating an almost torii gate-like structure.
Spring lambs run away from us and their mothers baa loudly, warning us to maintain a safe distance and keep Bertie on his lead. Rounding a corner, a waterfall flows. Never did I think I'd see a waterfall so close to home. It's only a metre or so tall, but it's enough for me. In a place where all the water I've known is in ornamental ponds or glistening shards of the Severn far away on the horizon, this moss-lined fall feels all the more precious. Up past the private school where we used to go to watch the fireworks, the signs lead us down a road we've driven past many times but never taken. To our left is a small vineyard, something else we'd never have seen otherwise.
From here on in, we're back on fairly well-trodden paths. To our right runs the Coombes, a place where we used to take more adventurous walks when my sister and I were younger. Its deep, narrow valley is prone to boggy ground and claimed a welly more than once, requiring a piggyback home. I know that when we reach the big house with the tennis court, we'll have to turn off the lane and up the hill. All the houses look the same, I'm getting tired and the sun is getting low. Finally, the house appears through the dusk. Two deer stare back at us. We don't usually see many deer; they must feel emboldened by the lack of cars on the roads. Stopping for a chocolate break, we check our watches - it's not long until sundown.
This last section is the part of the Cotswold Way that I grew up walking. We used to call it Mudbath Lane owing to the five-metre long puddles that stretch along it in winter, each begging to be leapt into. A few years ago - or probably more like a decade ago - it was resurfaced, and it's never had quite the same charm. Now it's much easier to walk along without waterproofing up to the knees, but it also means it's much easier to drive along and for farmers to police the walkways angrily. The path runs neat and straight, chalky and pale against the muted hedgerow and furrows not quite awakened from their winter slumber.
In an uncertain world, these last steps of the walk feel certain. There's a sense, quite literally, of coming home. We moved to this house and this village when I was four. When I tell people that I grew up in the Cotswolds, they always reel off a load of chocolate-box villages in the north of Gloucestershire, looking like the wind has been knocked out of their sails when I tell them no, the south of the Cotswolds actually. Near Badminton? Nothing registers unless the person has a keen interest in horses and the international three-day riding event which takes place every May bank holiday.
Later in the evening, lockdown is announced. Since I've been home the first daffodils have wilted, the bluebells have begun to fill the dappled woodlands and the wood anemones have started spreading like constellations across the verges of the lanes. The apple tree's leaves are small now, but within the next ten days will have unfurled; meanwhile the bees and butterflies have begun their dances and, as I type in the sunshine pushing the WiFi to its limit, I spot three proud buttercups, faces pushing towards the sun. In a recent Instagram Live video, Tom Kay, founder of the brand Finisterre, spoke about the return of swallows to the UK following their winters in South Africa. He remembers a nest at his mum's house where they would return year on year after their 8,000- mile journey. He speaks of resilience, but I can only think of comfort. How comforting it is to have come so far and to still have a little space to nestle into, fundamentally unchanged in its rhythm and patterns. Nature makes the bleakest of times familiar and beautiful: you just need to slow down and look closely to notice how.