Homing Instinct: Finding Comfort in the Cotswolds

Homing Instinct: Finding Comfort in the Cotswolds

Returning to the Cotswolds where she grew up, our writer cherishes familiar territory as lockdown descends.

This article appears in Vol. 31: The Freedom Issue.

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,

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
, spoke about the return of swallows to the UK
following their winters in South
. 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.

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