Racing sunshine on Cotswold walls

Country Life UK|July 01, 2020

Racing sunshine on Cotswold walls
Freda Lewis-Stempel takes to the road to explore one of the most alluring and ancient attributes of the Cotswolds–its 4,000 miles of mellow, dry-stone walls
Freda Lewis-Stempel

A HORSE’S tail flicks above the wall of Minchinhampton Common as the car crawls by in the evening sun, the speed restriction of 30mph leaving the evening grazing uninterrupted. My windows are down and, at this quiet pace, the sounds of the sheep and chickens hidden behind the walls of the common escape over the top, as if to emphasise their agricultural necessity.

Driving the Cotswolds is one of the greatest pleasures of the English countryside because, sitting silently in among the hills and towns, the villages and views, a constant source of outstanding beauty is keeping me company—4,000 miles of dry-stone walls. They may date back to the Stone Age, but it was the farmers of the 18th and 19th centuries who used the area’s abundance of natural material to build the walls we see today.

Minchinhampton’s hilltop common sets the scene for the landscape of the high Cotswolds; a quiet town of mellow, blonde stone leading out onto a vast grassland with views over the surrounding valleys. The stone journeys in colour from white gold to dappled ashen brown, some pieces fat and ragged, others inch-thin and sleek to touch. The farm walls on the common are finished in cock-and-hen style, with stones placed vertically on top, whereas garden walls often have flat stone finishes or even smooth cement caps.

Minchinhampton’s church rises across the far side of the common, a far-away continuation of the walls. In the shade of the trees and walls, a donkey is enjoying being petted by a family out for a stroll. As the common widens, traffic jams pile up as cows amble leisurely into the road, crossing to the literally greener grass on the other side. For the animals lucky enough to graze this part, the walls act only as a reassuring presence in the distance, never as a confinement; the barriers are neither tall nor strong enough to stop even the laziest escapee. These walls are the darkest grey of weathered stone.

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July 01, 2020