Wednesday morning dawned, as forecast, dazzlingly clear and fiercely frosty. The garden was frozen solid and so I reasoned that there was nothing (apart from a long and boring To Do list) to prevent me from jumping in the car and going to explore the shimmering countryside. I had to stop now and then to admire bejewelled trees and seed-heads, or the ridge-and furrow fields looking extra-curvaceous with a thick coat of frost, so by the time I got to Stow-on-the-Wold the sun was already melting the frost on east-facing slopes. I drove up and westwards over the hills, in the hopes of seeing a bit more glitter.
It was glorious – a pastel scene in the soft greens and blues of Scandi-style interior decor, warmed by patches of still-hanging oak and beech leaves, and accessorised with clusters of golden Cotswold stone buildings. Smoke drifted from cottage chimneys. I envied the lads and lasses on the racing stable gallops further up the smooth valley (but I didn’t envy them the brutally early starts, mandatory weight loss and endless mucking out).
I could see on the map that there were plenty of footpaths around Guiting Power, so I parked in the village and set off between some rather grand houses along a path which forms part of The Diamond Way. Apt for a sparkly day, don’t you think? Of course I immediately got a Diamonds Are Forever earworm – which didn’t bother me too much as I like to annoy my sons with a Shirley Bassey impression if diamonds are trumps when we play cards, so it made me smile to myself.
As usual I was being a bit of a nosey parker, gardenwise. One smart house had a selection of crisp topiaries lining its tennis court, a great way to reduce the ugliness quotient, but just imagine how infuriating it must be to watch your wayward tennis ball plop into one of those cones. Just as well they aren’t holly.
The path wasn’t exactly exciting to walk along. To my right, bland pastures stretched up hill, while on my left the wooded land dropped tantalisingly out of sight. A sign informed me that this was a “post-glacial limestone gorge formed by the River Windrush” but I couldn’t see it. The Rivers Windrush and Evenlode seem to have everything round here carved up between them. There was evidence of coppicing and of hedge restoration, which was cheering to see.
Fieldfares squirted, chattering, out of the hedgerows and tree tops. I wish fieldfares would just calm down a bit. They are handsome birds and I’d like to get non-blurry photographs of them, but they sound the alarm when you’re within 100 feet and push off, leaving discarded berries and copious poo. Perhaps they think that if we catch them we’ll make them tidy up after themselves.
In the woodland on my left hidden pixies were panicking and running off through the crunchy leaf litter. Sorry, not pixies, pheasants. Pheasants are not built for stealth. They can’t tiptoe and they can’t fly without announcing themselves with a ridiculous squawk and a noise like one of those elastic-band-powered propellers being released from an envelope. As the path turned through the corner of the woodland towards the road one of them tried to launch itself so ineptly from the middle of a hawthorn that I could have reached up and grabbed the daft bird before it managed to break free.
“You’re all DOOMED”, I muttered. At this point I had to join a road, but as a lorry hurtled past me with four inches to spare I comforted myself with the fact that after the village of Ford I could join the Gloucestershire Way for a bit more peace and quiet. This was not to be.
After a short stretch of bridlepath I turned right, along a minor road, heading for the footpath. I noticed tweedy men, labradors and springer spaniels gathering in a field next to the road. “Told you!” I inwardly warned the pheasants. My heart sank as I reached the signpost for the Gloucestershire Way and saw there were guns positioned on both sides of the footpath. Weirdly enough it isn’t illegal to shoot across a major footpath but walkers are supposed to have the right to pass, and it would have been nice if someone had come to say “Sorry, we’ve just started beating and it really isn’t practical”, or even if, admittedly less likely, the men had broken their shotguns and let me through. I stood for a couple of minutes, pointedly looking at my map and looking at the tweedy men. I was ignored. I could hear beaters coming over the hill and I wasn’t about to argue with men with guns, so I turned and trudged back towards Temple Guiting along the road.
Shots began as I turned. I was expecting them but they still made me jump. As long as it’s legal, I can’t tell people how to earn a living, but I find pheasant shooting deeply unpleasant. Thousands of intensively-reared non-native birds are released into our countryside and have an impact on both ecology and road safety. Even if I ignore the fact that killing animals for fun seems indefensible to me, I just can’t see the “sport” in blasting what is essentially a chicken in fancy dress out of the air as it struggles incompetently to rise more than about 50ft. I am told that most of the birds don’t even get eaten but end up in landfill. I’ve no idea how true that last bit is, but if there’s any truth in it it just makes the whole exercise even more pointless.
I calmed myself with a mooch around the village church – the interior held little interest but churchyards always have the best views in the village. And I’m fond of gargoyles.
I was still peeved about the shooters, so I walked up to the brand new and spankingly smart village shop/café and had a very good coffee, and a little chat with the friendly Scottish lady on duty there. There’s not much inner turmoil that can’t be fixed with coffee and a chat. A pistachio swirl helps too, I find. It was peaceful and soothing and when I came out the frost had almost succumbed to the bright, bright sunshine.
As I walked back to the car I heard little footsteps running through the leaves.