What you don't see is the strength of the wall.

England Travel Blog

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My dad!
What a Difference a Walk Makes.

Veterans of long distance walks across the Commonwealth, my father and I completed the renowned 240-mile, coast-to-coast trek across Northern England's rugged terrain in 1996. Two years later, shortly after dad endured open-heart and back surgery, we tackled Offa's Dyke, an immense, 180-mile barrier built to keep the Welsh out of England which eventually became the Wales/England border. On our third walk across Britain, my father, then 76, and I rambled the width of England's Cotswolds region" a country paradise defined by enchanting drystone walls dating back hundreds of years. There are three versions of how the Cotswolds a 20-by-20-mile slab of undulating oolitic limestone-derived its name. A self-proclaimed scholar swore the Saxon description translates as the hills of the sheepcotes.
Another textbook type united ‘cots’, which means sheep pens and ‘wolds’, which means hills. A less romantic cynic insisted that ‘Cots’ was derived from a Mr. Codd, who owned many sheep pens. Either way, the region has a wool-driven history and is picture postcard perfect uncanny considering it’s only 90 minutes east of London. The Romans laid out this part of the world in ten-acre plots. Don't dare suggest it was the French! Today, these plots have matured into countless showcases of a fading way of life. Our week-long, horseshoe-shaped route arched over the northern cap of the Cotswolds and three counties. These mild river valleys of sheep pens on soft rolling hillsides with limestone buildings and outcroppings remain out of harm's way from developers, and geographic circumstances ensure their preservation.
Although Neolithic man, Romans, and medieval wool merchants influenced the region, today, it remains a haven for trout streams, quaint stone hamlets, galloping horse country, farms and stone wall/fences.

We set off with a map, Dad's flora identification computer, and an established legacy of ‘booming’ (our family term for inspired, aimless wandering.) Unfolding our map and our sense of humor ensured that we had a grand time losing our bearings never a long way from a stonewall or a friendly character. Our route from Burford to Stow-on-the-Wold started on a forgotten, car-less single-lane road that visited woods, clear rivers, farms, intermittent, flower-adorned cottages, tiny medieval stone villages, bounteous wildflowers and rare fellow walkers.
Roaming 10 to 20 miles per day, sort of with a plan, we slept in archetypal English inns that made New England's historic buildings seem like new construction. Predictably, these inns were made of stone, with low-overhead medieval doorways. Hot and cold water faucets were separate, the stairs creaked and the twin single beds were so short that anyone taller than 5'10" had to pitch a leg off the mattress. On the trail, the magnificent finds were many. As my ears adjusted from urban chaos, we stopped to admire long-wool sheep and lambs in fields bordered by full-blooming flora. The footpath broke into farms divided by stiles, which allow humans to pass but not livestock. Dad had no trouble covering our daily distances, but the older stiles slowed him down a bit.
Newer stiles are revolving door-type gates, but the older ones provide only a step up to hurdle a five-foot fence.

Minutes before sunset one evening, as we walked beside a stonewall, we encountered the man working to preserve it. Today's stonewall builders preserve an ancient tradition that both pays the bills and safeguards the Isles' uncommon landscape. The hardworking stonemason we encountered a man with meaty hands, massive forearms and steady character assured us his art form couldn’t be mechanized. A "dry" stonewall uses no mortar just limestones, gravity, friction and a talent for made-to-last jigsaw puzzles. A point of national pride, inheriting this craft earns prestige; wall building is to Britain what gourmet cooking is to France. Dry stonewall architects are obsessive about their materials, describing shades of limestone as passionately as an interior designer might rhapsodize about skylights.
They wax eloquent about subtle hues from specific quarries, renowned builders who left unmistakable signatures, and how an able mason can dismantle and rebuild stone by stone an identical wall. Like radiance passing through a prism, stone walls share their ancestry and imagination. As the sun set behind us, the wall chap grinned, "The last ramblers passing this way asked me what I made building walls. I told them I made people smile."

Dad asked about optimum stone sizes and which position in the wall was vital for strength. The Englishman rested a hand on the wall, looked at the ground, and then slowly raised his head to trace his eyes along a mile of accomplished stonework behind him. Turning his glance my way, but gesturing significantly in the direction of my father, he winked, "Just don’t pull that card…or the whole thing collapses!" After a chuckle, my dad and I trekked on.

On our final day, we strolled through the vicinity of the Stanway House, a retired nobleman's digs with miles of hilly lawns, well-spaced, immense chestnuts and 800-year-old oaks. Many trees had Sequoia-like trunks with 24-foot circumferences. In Stanway Village, we paused at a 13th-century water mill, and agreed that we were in a boundless outdoor museum. In the final mile, we climbed a steep mountain near the two-house settlement of Stumps Cross. A ridge winds past friendly miniature ponies, another hundred sheep and leads to a bench set on the high point of the ridge. I sat on the bench and watched as my dad walked slowly, and with a slight limp, along the steep path toward me. He was puffing a bit, but after all, he was scaling the same mountain Alexander Cromwell once climbed.
I thought again about the drystone wall builder who’d said, in speaking about his wall but also, I think in retrospect, about my dad, "What you don't see is the strength of the wall." It was then that I vowed to keep discovering the charms of life with my dad the vital card in my familial deck and a stone wall of love one walk at a time.
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My dad!
My dad!
Funny animals huh?
Funny animals huh?
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