Seasonal walking is a practical issue as well as a way of connecting with the cycle of the seasons. It’s something I’ve been exploring for a while. One of my personal traditions is to walk to my mother’s house at Christmas, with my husband and son. The first few times we did this, we were walking up from the canal (low, flat ground) into the hills. It wasn’t a charming route – the necessity of crossing a motorway and the scarcity of places to do this meant mostly road walking, although on Christmas morning there’s never much traffic. One year we did this in heavy snow, and had the odd experience of someone passing over us in a hot air balloon!
The last three Christmases, we’ve walked over the hills from Stroud to Dursley, taking in several barrows as we go. On a few occasions, this year included, we’ve done it in less than ideal weather. Last year was exquisite, with light and colours that you don’t often see at any time of year, but especially not the middle of winter. The Severn River tends to be grey, or muddy browns when you look down on her from these hills, but for that one walk, with the fields shining in greens, the river was the kind of blue that children paint rivers. It was unreal in many ways, and wondrous.
This year we had to modify the route, because there’s a small pair of hills we can come in over – again the views on a good day are stunning, and there’s something exciting about finishing the walk with these final hills, separate from the Cotswold edge, taking in the views and coming down into the small town feeling triumphant. However, the hill is steep and in wet weather, too slippery to be faced. We took the lanes, an old holloway, weaving between hills and farms, past the hill that homed a small pox isolation hospital. The ruins of that were still visible when my great grandmother was a child. On maps, the hill bears the bland name of ‘Downham’ but to local people it is Smallpox Hill. In mist it is an eerie place.
We paused to talk to some friendly sheep, saw a retirement home for old horses, and were charmed by a sleeping goat. These are the kinds of experience that you can only have when moving through a landscape at a human pace. We also got cold and wet.
One of the highpoints of the walk for me, came as we were moving over the top of the Cotswold hills in driving wind and heavy rain. It wasn’t easy walking, we were all starting to feel tired by this point and the battering by the elements wasn’t easy to bear. My son expressed his enthusiasm for what we were doing, because it was real; an immediate encounter with the reality of the land and weather. He put it more bluntly but I can’t recall the exact phrasing. It was a moment of pride for me. I don’t want to be at the raw edge of existence all the time, I doubt my son does either, but to be willing to go there, to experience discomfort so as to meet the season and the land – that’s powerful.
Walking through a landscape with history, folklore and tradition is an opportunity to talk about it, and to pass down knowledge. Walking past Smallpox Hill created time to tell my son the stories of the hill – the history of the hospital, and the mystery of the bumps. There are two large, rectangular constructions on one side of the hill. Local myth has it that these are mass graves from the hospital. The more likely version is that these are mediaeval rabbit warrens. It’s an interesting example of how we make intelligible stories out of landscape features when we don’t know what’s going on.