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A walk in an ‘Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty’

By on December 24, 2018 in Travel with 1 Comment

The Gloucester Morris Men dance and wave their hankies.

By Lee Martin

I love most things British: their history, their pubs, their humor, and their authors.

While I had been to the United Kingdom several times in my lifetime, I had never really considered hiking through the countryside.

Then I read Bill Bryson’s Notes from a Small Island about his experience hiking through the English countryside. I was inspired and when I mentioned this to my daughter Grace, she said “Let’s plan a trip.”

It turned that the other members of the family wanted to go, so there would be five of us: Grace and her husband Nathan, and my daughter Hannah and my son Kendall. We booked our tickets and started planning.

When you hike the trails in England, you’re walking on public as well as private land. You have a right to trespass on private land. This is because of the Countryside and Rights-of-Way Act of 2000 that legalized trespassing on certain designated paths.

We would hike between 10-15 miles per day in an area called the Cotswolds and stay at a different town each night with names like Cheltenham, Cirencester, and Northleach. They gave us a 50-page manual with step-by-step directions so we wouldn’t get lost.

Signposts show the way through the Cotswolds, even if it’s private land.

Here is an excerpt from one of the manuals: “At Bellis Nap cross the stile and leave via the stile. On the opposite side turn left to the kissing gate and follow the path ahead keeping the stone wall and woods on your right. Go to a kissing gate and follow the path downhill to the bottom of the field, the path turns left and follows the field boundary to a kissing gate.”

The Cotswolds are part of what is called “Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty” or “AONB” for short. The British love to use superlatives to describe anything they have. We have the United States, they have the United Kingdom, we have the First Lady, they have the Queen, and we have the National Parks and they have the “AONB.”

At the end of a long day of hiking, we entered a picturesque village called Painswick. As it happened, that evening England was to play Croatia in the World Cup.

If you want to see the English in their native habitat go to a pub to watch a soccer game. And not just any soccer game but their beloved country in the World Cup. It’s their Super Bowl to be sure.

We ended up in a pub sitting in an old medieval courtyard jam-packed with locals, drinking their ale, straining to get a good view of the match on a big screen TV, and finally getting their dreams dashed as England lost.

One of the locals I was watching the game with turned out to be a mason.

I asked him about the unique material from the area called Jurassic limestone used to build these villages. He told me the houses were all required to keep to this standard and you had to get a special exemption from the local authorities to vary from this style. It appeared there were few rebels.

My friend had also told me he had moved to California and then back. Why would anyone want to leave the AONB?

I was about to find out the next morning when we had a typical English breakfast with our hostess. Except we asked for English pancakes that are thinner and more like Swedish pancakes. This odd fact will have relevance in a minute.

Our amiable English hostess shocked me though when she said she wanted to move to America. She and her husband we going to sell their quaint cottage and move to the Southwest. She loved our national parks and the immensity of our country to explore. I couldn’t imagine anyone wanting to leave the AONB.

And then she said the thing that probably shocked me even more: “Oh, my husband loves your pancakes and that’s one of the reasons we want to move to the U.S.”

I was wondering what kind of pancake would compel an amiable (and I assumed sane) English couple to pull up roots from here. She continued to explain: “We love those roadside diners that you have that make great thick and fluffy pancakes. You might have heard of them: they are called Denny’s.”

I almost fell over in my chair. I thought, “YOU’RE MOVING TO THE U.S. FOR DENNY’S????” Just so you know, I was a good tourist and nodded in agreement as if I agreed they were THAT good!

Another evening after a long day in Cirencester, we came upon some entertainers about to perform in the town square.

As it turned out, they were the Gloucester Morris Men. The men were dancers, in age from 60s to 80s. It’s a form of dancing common to the Cotswolds that dates to the 15th Century or so.

Village buildings, composed of the unique limestone of the area, provide a welcome respite while hiking.

The men were dressed in all white and wore bells on theirs shins, waved hankies, and carried sticks like swords.

The dancing’s original purpose apparently was to ward off evil spirits and encourage crops to grow. Now its purpose was to keep up the tradition. I think its purpose has always been to amuse.

The dancing went for 45 minutes and on breaks I took up conversation with Dave, one of the actual Morris Men. He tried to fill me in on what was going on. I could tell that most people — especially my adult children — found it amusing, bordering on comical.

Apparently, they were not alone.

Dave told me that they had performed on TV, and that the media regularly made quite a bit of fun of them. He said, “I am getting very tired of them (media) making fun of us.” Then he turned and joined his hankie waiving, stick carrying comrades.

I didn’t have the heart to tell him that maybe if he stopped dancing with a hankie, that would help with the media’s abuse.

After they were done, we got pictures taken and were planning on leaving when he invited us to their next performance at the local pub. I could see in my kids’ eyes that they had seen enough. But Dave and the other Morris Men kept insisting.

Have you ever tried to resist the Morris Men? I think not, so don’t judge me because I said yes. This is after all why I travel — to get engaged in the culture. Also, they mentioned the word “pub.”

We all walked to the pub to get refreshed and then they walked onto the cobbled street to perform again. We couldn’t really tell the difference between the two performances except for the pint of ale. This did help, I must admit.

However, we were rewarded at the end of the performance where, as a sort of encore, they invited us to join them in their dance. So, there we were in a medieval town, in front of a pub, waving hankies with old British gents, warding off evil spirits.

You know, I think it worked because we have been smiling ever since thinking about them. Dave, I’m not laughing at you, but smiling with you.

Lee Martin has lived in Leavenworth since 1995 where he and his wife raised their kids. He has a financial planning practice for his day job.

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