IT IS often said that you never get round to appreciating the beauty on your own doorstep. And thus — despite having flicked through brochures promising sunny Mediterranean climes and “Grand Tour” locations favoured by Romantic poets in need of recuperation — we are heading for the Cotswolds; less than an hour from home.
As the largest Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty in England, the Cotswolds is special at any time of year, but late spring/early summer is one of the best: wild flowers smother the commons and calcareous grasslands for which the region is renowned, and its ancient woodlands erupt with fresh green newborn leaves.
Exercise, fresh air, and nature have been in short supply recently. My mother lost a breast to cancer last summer; by Christmas, halfway through three weeks of radiotherapy, she had also lost my father.
Six months on, she says that she is fine. And yet she cannot understand why tears flow at the tiniest of details, why the radio is little comfort, and why her skin itches.
Our retreat among the gentle hills of the Cotswolds, its ancient towns and villages hewn from the honey-coloured limestone that delineates the Cotswolds’ borders in no less than six English counties (Warwickshire, Worcestershire, Oxfordshire, Gloucestershire, Wiltshire, and Somerset), starts at Minchinhampton Common.
With a cerulean ceiling and choral skylarks heralding the days of summer, mother is soon on her knees. She is not praying. Instead, minutes into our retreat she has returned to childhood, overjoyed at the multitude of wild flowers that take her back to nature walks with her grandmother.
Bird’s-foot-trefoil, yellow rattle, early purple orchids, field scabious, and the last of the cowslips, they’re all here; and, for a while, mother — eyes to the ground in search of the next floral jewel — barely sees the unadulterated views of the Stroud Valleys, or the Adonis Blue butterfly accompanying our every step.
Later, passing through the gentle villages of Amberley and Box, with their soothing Cotswold-stone dwellings, we reach the town of Minchinhampton itself. It is an alluring, unassuming market town, whose high-street collection of Cotswold gables and Georgian façades would sit well in a period drama.
With a sensuous slice of Tunisian orange cake to re-energise, at Minchinhampton Kitchen, we take the few steps to Holy Trinity. Regarded as the most striking of Minchinhampton’s buildings, its cone-shaped tower is topped with a coronet.
For a nominal contribution, visitors to the church are welcome to make rubbings of the numerous brasses displayed here. I unravel a roll of black paper and a fistful of metallic crayons from my rucksack, and once more my mother — who, as a teenager, would go on brass-rubbing tours across England — returns to her youth. As she holds the paper aloft, pressed against the outline of a well-dressed figure, a little lady soon appears, robed in gleaming gold.
The following days proceed in like-minded restorative fashion. At Woodchester Park, a lost 19th-century landscape that lines one of the Cotswold’s most tortuous valleys, we take a gentle hike among the beech woods, scented with pungent ramsons, or wild garlic, before emerging into various suntrap meadows. Owned by the National Trust, the park includes a string of lakes, with writhing fish of mythical proportions. Here, away from the world’s gaze, we sit and munch on sandwiches amid vibrant yellow iris.
At Uley Bury, hugging the edge of the Cotswold escarpment, we circumnavigate the mile-long ramparts of the Iron Age hillfort to gain the most remarkable views over the River Severn, and, turning a corner, the sight of ox-eye daisies — a classic limestone-loving flower — quietly swaying across the Ewelme Valley.
Tracking north, we come first to Coaley Peak, which offers views extending to the Welsh mountains and Malvern Hills, and then Selsley Common, which affords handsome views of Stroud, together with the Painswick and Slad Valleys.
At the foot of the Common is All Saints’, whose saddleback tower catches an iridescent sunlight when the surrounding hills are in shadow. The stained glass here was one of the first significant commissions for the designer and social activist William Morris. He and his Pre-Raphaelite friends, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Edward Burne-Jones, each designed one of the three triptychs on the south side of the nave, while the rose window, above the west door, is the work of Morris himself.
Each viewpoint provides us with a bite-sized walk, interspersed with a short drive for mother to rest, although the three are connected by the magnificent Cotswold Way: a 102-mile National Trail between the picturesque town of Chipping Campden, in the north Cotswolds, and the city of Bath, to the south.
The next day we are back in nature’s healing hands, walking through Buckholt Wood, a part of the Cotswold Commons and Beechwoods National Nature Reserve. Leaf-trodden paths draw us ever deeper into the woods, and cathedral-like trees with arched roofs and a canopy of dappled beech leaves like leopard spots shelter us from a strenuous sun. Appearing at the top of Cooper’s Hill to stare in awe at the magnificence of the Cotswold escarpment, and studying the delicate petals of the wild orchids, one could forget, just for a while, that cancer even exists, or that husbands are not waiting at home.
But all things must come to an end. Notifications of medical check-ups remain unopened for one last day, however, in deference to a favoured Cotswold location of mine. The conjoined villages of Eastleach Turville and Eastleach Martin lie on the River Leach, a tiny tributary of the Thames. An equally small ancient clapper bridge, Keble’s Bridge, crosses the river here, beside which is a bench and grassy patch lined with wild mint. In an oasis of peace, here we stretch out our picnic rug for breakfast, before removing socks to plunge our toes into the awakening, cool water. It is a long time since my mother last paddled.
As another mother attempts to rally her brood of entertainingly uncooperative ducklings, we visit the two parish churches, the width of the river apart. Of the two, the tiny church of St Michael and St Martin, in Eastleach Martin, is the more striking, in an understated way, with its meadow-like riverside churchyard. Now maintained by the Churches Conservation Trust, the church was once under the care of the priest and poet John Keble (of Keble College, Oxford, fame). It is used just twice a year now, including Keble evensong in mid-May, when choristers from the Oxford college visit.
By late afternoon, we are celebrating all things beautiful with afternoon tea in the grounds of Kelmscott Manor. William Morris’s retreat from the exertions of his interior-design business, the manor house brims with his artistic work, and that of his family and friends.
Morris helped to restore the village church, where he and his family are buried. His fabric is used on the altar, and kneelers are derived from his “Strawberry thief” pattern. The gardens of the manor house and the surrounding countryside, adjoining the River Thames, are clearly evident within his designs, and the entire estate inspires.
By the end of our therapeutic visit to the Cotswolds, it is evident that the landscape has worked its magic on my mother. I was once told that “beauty heals.” It can’t patch up a missing breast, or return a husband from the grave, but it can help to mend the soul. The beauty of the Cotswolds certainly does that.
Caroline Mills is the author of Slow Travel: The Cotswolds (Bradt). The second edition will be published at the beginning of February.
Access to Minchinhampton and the Stroud Valleys is via Junction 13 of the M5 and the A419 from the north, south, and west; or, from the east, Cirencester and the A419. Selsley Common and Woodchester Park are located on the B4066, two and four miles respectively south of Stroud. Uley Bury is accessed from the same road, half a mile north of Uley. Buckholt Woods are accessed from the A46 north of Stroud. A walkers’ car park is situated west of Cranham, before entering the village. The Eastleach villages can be approached from the west, via Bibury, or the north-east, off the A361, four miles from Burford. Kelmscott is four miles east of Lechlade-on-Thames. For more details on the Cotswolds and accommodation, visit www.cotswolds.com. To find out more about the Cotswolds Area of Outstanding Beauty, visit www.cotswoldsaonb.org.uk.