What you don't see is the strength of the wall.
England Travel Blog› entry 1 of 1 › view all entries
January 5th, 2010 – by: americandetour
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.
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.
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.
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.
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