Last we saw the intrepid walkers, they were high on a Cotswoldian ridge overlooking--Wales. Now three in the afternoon of a winter's day, the sun dropping down in the sky, they consider their options.
They examine the map. As usual, they are doing a walk backwards. Left-handed and left brained, this is not a problem for him. She has to hold the map upside down, roll it and shake it, squint a little and crumple it back to him. Here, you look. Calmly, he irons out the map with his hand. If they take this first bridleway after those woods, and along that fence which keeps the shee p there and the walkers here, it should lead them to the fields which eventually end in lane, and the Ford Road.
He pauses for effect. They can of course not take the bridleway, opt for the longer route and follow this ridge to its eventual dip--and the Ford Road. She says bridleway (she has this thing for hoof prints) and he obliges. They wallow through two miles of mucky path which makes them rethink the wisdom of sharing the road with thousand pound creatures who have twice as many legs. Trudging on, they are mindful (ouch) of the prickly hedges and brambles, only partially pruned by the wan efforts of a volunteer citizenry who have made some (but not much) inroad on keeping the path open. She stops to pull an impossibly heavy tree branch from the path as a gesture of country code good will and he lets her struggle until she finally asks for help. It's a really big branch.
Arriving at a small lane, he thinks this must be where they go left to the road. She has her eye on the horse racing stable the lane runs by, allows as how this actually doesn't look like the path on the map, but eagerly agrees to explore it in hopes of equine sitings. The aggressive stable lad whose aggressive dog growlingly keeps the walkers at bay, advises them that the trail they are looking for is not here; it is over there, although he does not actually ask them which trail they are looking for. They retreat. She pats some ponies, they rejoin the bridleway until they reach the right farm, the right lane, and, eventually the next choice. This trail follows soft winter pastures lined by gentle woods, few farms, many sheep and no humans. The medieval Campden Lane brings them back to the Ford road.
Faced with four simultaneous signs: This Way(local footpath), That Way (Cotswold Way), Over There (Gloucestershire Way)or Follow the Road, they choose This W ay (local footpath) as one of them is always in favor of offroad shortcuts. He reminds her that this nearly always gets them lost, but she's already out of earshot. They climb a stile into a field of nervous, skittery sheep who scatter as they approach, like lambs before wolves. Their long shadows must look like stalking giants. The path, obliterated by sheep tracks (only sheep and wolves follow sheep tracks) is not even remotely evident. These walkers have learned (due to much experience and numerous arguments involving stupidly circumnavigating fenced fields) to look ahead for the next stile, which usually appears in some sort of break in the trees or fence. Aha, there it is at the top of the field, a long climb up. Sheep baa, they hike, here's the stile and whoops, just past this copse, there's another one just down there, a much easier route. Ha.
Another climb across golden stone harrowed fields, they reach the perfect little farm high on a hill overlooking everything. It's late on a winter's day and the house's chimney trickles smoke as its inhabitants settle down to an early tea. The walkers know this because they are horribly nosy Americans and have walked quietly along the hill, and watched. Passing the house, its view and its sheep, they open the gate and gain the tiny lane to the ridge which harbors bucolic North Farmcote.
Rejoining the Cotswold Way which now travels an ancient cobblestoned drovers' path, they are on the home stretch; a good thing, as the light is leaving the sky-fast. Just before the Way dips into the darker woods, they stop to see shepherds and collies sort out the sheep high on the hills above them. Whoops, nips, hallos, and a few invectives guide one group of hotfooting sheep into a new field and replace them with what looks like an identical set. The shepherds on their quad bikes and their sheep- sneering collies glare at the walkers long
enough to hustle our duo on their long darkening descent through the forest.
The drovers' path sits below the woods, worn down by a thousand years of wagons and two and four legged feet. Trees have reclaimed any effort to farm these hectares. Private Keep Out signs along the wood warn walkers to--keep out. The Cotswold Way is clearly suffered by locals and not necessarily embraced as a bucolic right to roam. Past the fruit farm, along the slippery cobbles, they emerge victoriously back at Haile's Abbey very grateful to find their car where they left it, and that they have not (this time) lost the car keys.
The sun sets over the little twelfth century church, its light softening the air, sending rosy rays to warm the moment to idyllic. Smiling, walking back to look over the gate where this day began, one of them wonders if the other has eaten all of his "hikers" chocolate bar. Breaking the last bit into two pieces, he hands her one. Life is good.