Dr. V's Blog
05/24/18 - What It Is
It still makes me smile to think about this: after joining the high-school wrestling team as a young athlete, I came to expand my friend group to include some different people. I attended a high school in North Carolina in the late 1960s that was racially integrated – but most of my classes at that time were still predominantly white. The wrestling team was where I came to truly know people of color at my school and to call them friends. Some of the joys of that experience involved the verbal expressions that we used to greet each other on that wrestling team. Instead of “how’s it going?”, or “hey man”, or “hi”, we typically said “what’s going on?”, “what’s happening, brother?”, and my favorite, “what it is”. Now to be honest, I was never quite cool enough to master that last one, so I mostly stuck with “what’s going on?” or “what’s happening?” But “what it is” is such an existential greeting – part question, part answer, partly just an acknowledgment that you and the other person momentarily exist in the same cosmic plane. As I said, it still makes me smile to think about it.
Here’s what brought that nice memory back to mind: I recently finished reading the book “I Heard You Paint Houses” by Charles Brandt. The book chronicles the story of Frank “the Irishman” Sheeran, who claims to have been responsible for the death and disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa. Normally, I’m not much of a fan of “true crime” stories, but my son recommended this book to me, and it was actually quite engaging. In reading the book, we learn a number of expressions used by mob figures: “I hear you paint houses” means “I hear you are available to do contract killings”; “Sending someone to Australia” means killing them, as in sending them “down under”. And I learned a new use for the expression “What it is” – in the book, when Frank Sheeran was asked to kill Jimmy Hoffa, he first gave Hoffa a chance to pull back from activities that were angering the mob – a last chance to save his life. Sheeran was told, “Go see Hoffa, and tell him what it is.” Afterward he was asked if he had done so, and he reported, “I told him what it is. ”But Hoffa apparently believed he was too strong to be touched, and ignored the warning. I’m a little sad about this more sinister use of the phrase “what it is”, but it did at least cause me to re-live the expression’s happier incarnation.
[A quick deviation from my theme: I like to recommend a few books each summer to my faithful blog readers. So in addition to “I Heard You Paint Houses”, let me add two more titles of books I’ve recently devoured: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, and The Hellfire Club by Jake Tapper. Whitehead’s novel earned a Pulitzer Prize for the author – it’s a brilliantly realized historical novel that blends real and imagined stories to tell tales of slaves escaping to freedom in the antebellum South. Jake Tapper, the CNN television anchor, has written a best-selling political thriller set in the 1950s that is a great novel for a history-and-politics nerd like me.]
Returning to my theme: I’d like to add a third usage for “what it is”. As I write this, tomorrow is Commencement Day for the Class of 2018 at Stratford Academy. These remarkable young people are facing one of the most significant transition points of their lives. It will be a day that symbolically marks a triumphant accomplishment, but it will also be a day marked for many with anxieties, hopes and fears as they face the open roads in front of them. They are preparing to truly face “what it is”. I am hopeful for each and every member of the Class of 2018, and I’m hopeful for the future of our nation and our world as these young people prepare to step forward and claim their places. What it is.
2/15/18 - Intersections: Deadly and Non-Deadly (But Dangerous)
News radio this morning was full of talk regarding yesterday’s deadly school shooting in Florida. I’m not sure that I have a great deal to add to the discussion – but as a career school man, I share the grief and anguish of many, and I can’t stop thinking about the increasingly common attacks of this sort. On the program I listened to in the car this morning, a United States Senator was asked his theory of why we seem to be experiencing a spike in deadly gun violence in our country. I thought that his answer made sense. He said (paraphrasing) that we are in the midst of a deadly intersection of two trends in America:a high number of unmet mental health needs, and the easy availability of firearms, particularly firearms with a high lethality. And he added that those two forces can be addressed to some degree by wise legislation.I pray that he is correct, and that this can come to pass.
But I think that we can add a third piece to this puzzle, and make this a three-way intersection. It is undeniable that 21st century Americans, and younger Americans in particular, live a great deal of their lives on social media platforms. Much of this trend is entirely positive – but we’re still learning of ways that excessive time spent on social media can have negative consequences:a decline in civility, the urge for instant celebrity, and collective “venting” about perceived threats to our society which can lead to hurtful actions. I don’t think that it is too much of a stretch to add social media use to the “intersection of trends” that the Senator was discussing this morning on my drive to work.
Recently, here at Stratford Academy, we have had a couple of occasions to counsel our older students about the potential dangers of excessive time spent on social media. We showed a well-made documentary, Screenagers, which chronicled and characterized some individual stories and some current trends. The film was not excessively heavy-handed, in my opinion (it was largely a call for moderation), and yet some of our students, in discussion afterwards, felt that the adults in their lives are over-reacting to their social media use. Maybe we are – and certainly I would be careful not to suggest to my students that I fear them turning into mass murderers. But all the same, if indeed we are experiencing a decline in the quality and quantity of human interactions due to excessive screen time, then that is something to worry about.
I personally addressed this issue in a brief talk with our Upper and Middle School students following a minor incident at our school that involved some inappropriate school-bashing on social media. Here is an excerpt from those remarks:
“The psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg suggested that human beings go through stages of moral and ethical development, just as they go through stages of physical development, and that it is possible to some degree to measure what stage an individual has reached. Children operate at the lower levels – and, when things work the way they’re supposed to, people graduate to higher levels as they get older. Although some never make it. Briefly, the stages are these: level one: how can I avoid punishment? I do what I’m supposed to do for fear of getting caught and punished, no other reason. Level two: conforming to social standards, wanting to maintain a healthy community, and the “golden rule” – behave toward others as you would wish them to behave toward you. Level three: universal ethical principles and social justice. Just this week we honored Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who is regarded as having made his moral and ethical decisions at this level for much of his adult life.
I bring all this up because yesterday was not this community’s finest hour, in terms of moral and ethical behavior. What began at some point yesterday afternoon as collective whining on social media about a school issue soon escalated into a free-for-all of name-calling, insults, and threats. If you were unaware of all of that, I’m glad. If you were aware of what was going on and chose not to participate, good for you. I hope that you refrained from this ugliness because you knew it was wrong, and not because you were afraid of being punished. And if you did participate, shame on you. You should have known better.
We ask all of you to abide by a code of “acceptable use” on the school’s computers and on social media – a large piece of that is that this community has always prided itself on the fact that we are a place where people are good to each other, and support each other – and therefore any form of internet bullying, hazing, threatening, insulting, is outside the bounds of what we should be doing. It is hugely disappointing for this community to take a giant step backwards from lifting each other up, to tearing each other down.Do better.Be better.”
I’m not quite sure how to tie together all of the above. I can only return to the theme of “intersections”. The solution to mass shootings, such as the one in Florida yesterday, is a complicated issue, and involves all three areas: wise gun-control legislation, better treatment of mental-health issues, and, to a lesser extent, a better understanding of the dangers inherent in people stewing in the juices of social media posts. On the educational front, we will work on our piece of the puzzle. I hope that mental health professionals, legislators and others will go after the other pieces. We can all do better, and be better.
11/2/17 - Influencers
In an earlier blog (“Mentors”), I described several individuals who were important to me in my professional development, and who guided and shaped my career in education. Recently, I ran into a former student who had read that blog – she was kind enough to tell me in an email that I had played a similar role for her (thanks, Stef). Her note to me caused me to reflect upon the degree to which all of us who work with young people have the potential to spur them on in both large and small ways. And, quite often, we are never aware of the degree to which we have influenced some of these lives.
When I heard from Stef, she wrote primarily to say that she agreed with my assessment of a mentor we had in common back in the 1980’s. He was my boss and one of her teachers, and he continued to mentor her after graduation, as she herself took up a career in education. To my pleasant surprise, Stef added that I had been more influential in her success than I had realized, in that I had offered support and encouragement, and had also challenged her to work harder and to be better. It brings me joy that all these years later, Stef still calls me “Coach”, as do some of the other women that I coached on Varsity Softball teams at three different schools. (I recently ran into a guy in Atlanta from that same school, also from the 1980’s, and his first reaction was to say “My high school tennis coach!” I was only the assistant coach for tennis, and he was a far better player than I was.I’m sure I taught him zero about tennis, and yet he remembered me as a positive influence in some ways.)
Within a few days after receiving the email from Stef, it turned into a trend – I don’t think I was necessarily stuck in a place where I needed a reminder that teachers influence lives, but I got that reminder all the same. While attending a wedding of a former student in South Carolina just a couple of weeks ago, I saw a number of former students, and I received the following unsolicited but happy reminders that we often leave our imprint when we least expect it or remember it:
- from another former softball player, after I told her that it has bothered me for many years that I screamed at her once during a game in front of all the fans, and that she had not deserved that tongue-lashing: “Coach, you wrote me a note afterward apologizing”. Did I? I didn’t remember that. “Yes, and I still have that note; I’ve saved it.” Wow.
- from a former history student, now in her final year of medical school: “I never would have been able to make it through all the stuff I’ve had to read in my med-school program without the lessons you taught us in your class about how to speed-read, and how to read for main ideas.”
- from a student who was part of a group we took to France as part of an exchange program: “That trip was so important to me in terms of developing my self-confidence.”
To tie a bow around this notion that the work that we do has ripple effects that go far beyond what we know, one final story: Just a few days ago, I was visited in my office by a Stratford graduate from the Class of 2009, my first graduating class from my first year as Head of School. He is working on a community service project in a nearby town, a project that involves trying to improve the local schools in some way while also improving the school system’s image within that community. His idea – his plan – is to create a senior internship program at the local public high school, modeled after the program we have here at Stratford. He remembers our program being so important to him in his own development, and he also remembers that some local businesses came away with positive impressions of our school. He hopes to replicate the same effects in his target school. It is very gratifying that this program left such a strong impression (kudos to Michelle Fleming and to Frank Katz more so than to me, but I’m still willing to bask in the sense that we did something good here.)
It is always amazing to me, when I conduct the senior exit interviews each year, the extent to which the tiniest little thing may stand out in the memories of our 12th graders as they prepare to leave us. When I ask them about their most vivid memories, they sometimes surprise me by citing something which probably seemed trivial to their teacher at the time it happened: a word of correction, or five minutes of “time out”, or a hug on a bad day, or a word of praise for a well-written paper, or time spent after school providing extra help.It’s the little things, as they say, that mean a lot. And that may last long afterward.
9/15/17 - Storm Surge
Like many people, I found myself glued to the television (mainly CNN and the Weather Channel) during the siege of Houston by Hurricane Harvey, and then by our own local worries about Hurricane/Tropical Storm Irma. One of the things that cable television has learned to do very well is to help keep people aware of weather-related danger. On the down side, they seem entirely too obsessed with filming scenes of their reporters being blown sideways by dangerous winds – and, at some point I became tired of hearing the terms “storm surge” and “hunker down.” But I never seemed to get tired of following that news.
Locally, I think that we were somewhat lucky. I spent some years living in a coastal community (Virginia Beach) and I remember the level of damage that can be inflicted on the coast. It is somewhat rare to have to worry about hurricanes this far inland, but worry we did. Before Irma rolled in, my wife and I moved everything outside the house that could become a projectile, made several casseroles, bought extra water, extra ice and an extra tank of propane, and took other precautions. I’ve spoken to others who took similar actions – always better to be prepared than unprepared.
The folks in the Houston area really took it on the chin. The images that we saw on television were heartbreaking: people who had to cut a hole in their roof to escape rising water in the attic, people being rescued by boat or helicopter, people who essentially have lost everything they own and everything they’ve worked for. One of my colleagues remarked, “My wife and I feel guilty complaining that we can’t use our hair dryer or electric razor because we lost power, when we think about what those folks in Texas and Florida have lost.” Amen to that. And I’m proud that people in the Macon community, and the Stratford Academy community, are still making plans to assist in relief efforts for harder hit areas.
For us – my colleagues, my family – we learned some lessons about planning, about dealing with setbacks, and about keeping a sense of perspective and even a sense of humor. I’ve talked with people who took a tree through their roof, some who had damage to their cars or their yards, many who lost power for hours or even days. And yet most of them were still able to make jokes – some of the more common refrains are “I kept turning the light switch on, by reflex”, or “I cooked by candlelight on a camp stove, and then tried to run the electric garbage disposal”, or “we spent more time together as a family than we have in years, and it was actually kind of fun.”
We got through it. My thoughts and prayers go out to all of those, here and in other areas, who are still dealing with the aftereffects. Meanwhile, my thanks go out to the brave first responders, the tree removal crews, and the power company workers who worked 24/7 to help keep life as normal as possible through the storm and its aftermath.
06/12/17 - Put the Phone Down!
I’m not sure that the world needs another “put the phone down” column – in fact, I saw one in this morning’s newspaper, connected to texting while driving – but I’m going to throw one out there anyway.
Last week I noticed an article on my Twitter feed, from an educational site that I follow. The article was entitled “How to Manage Cell Phone Use in Your Classroom.” (Citation: www.theedadvocate.org, Matthew Lynch, March 26, 2017). There is an underlying premise to this piece that might startle many people – i.e., that educators need to understand and to acknowledge that smartphones are now a fact of life in our classrooms, whether we like it or not.
I like it. I have continued, in recent years, to teach the occasional history class at the high school level, and I find that there are enormous advantages to having all of my students logged onto the campus-wide wireless network, with their various devices at the ready. The possibilities are endless – but there do need to be controls. The article that I’ve cited suggests several tips for teachers:
-Engage Your Students with the Technology
-Take the Time to Walk Around the Classroom
-Don’t Be Afraid to Take the Phones Away
-Give Your Students a Tech Break
There is one critical point, I think, regarding this final tip. Quoting the author:“Most students claim to experience anxiety when they’re unable to check their phone for more than 20 minutes. Giving your students three minutes to respond to text messages, look at their notifications, and check social media gives them a chance to get some anxiety out so it’s not distracting them when they should be focusing on learning.”I’m not sure that I’d be willing to do this every day, every class period, as a teacher, but I take the larger point: this generation of young people is attached to their smartphones in ways that my generation does not always quite grasp. And we’re well advised, at least, to acknowledge this.
And all of us – my generation, Gen X, Gen Y, whatever – all of us need to put the doggone phones down some of the time. Even as an old coot, I find that sometimes I just “need” to check my twitter feed or access my text messages, to the detriment of something more important.
So here are a handful of my personal rules for smart phone use (note:I follow most of these, and aspire to follow all of them):
PUT DOWN THE PHONE WHEN…
…you are at the dinner table
…you are in the check-out line at the store
…you are in church
…you are eating at a fancy restaurant (fast-food joints are OK, everyone is on their phone there anyway)
…you are at the theatre
…you are involved in a one-on-one, face-to-face conversation with someone
…you are driving a car!!!!
…you are using a public restroom (a pet peeve of mine, can’t really say why)
…you are being addressed by someone in a position of authority
…you are being addressed by anyone!
Hope everyone is having a relaxing summer.
02/16/17 - Mentors
I’ve been struggling with this blog for many weeks. After attending the funeral of an old friend and colleague back in December, I felt the need to write a tribute of some sort, but could not quite find the way to frame it. Finally, I remembered an exchange that I had with his wife after the funeral service, and that memory struck a chord.
The Reverend Charles Douglas (“Pete”) Cooper died on December 7, 2016. During the entire eleven-year period that I served as Headmaster of Trinity Collegiate School in Darlington, South Carolina, Pete served as the Chaplain of that Episcopal School. Pete was a crusty, opinionated and charismatic priest who had worked in several school communities in his career as well as serving several church congregations. While he was Chaplain of my school, he was also the Rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Florence, South Carolina.Pete and I worked well together, and liked each other, so of course I felt drawn to travel back to Florence for his funeral. Afterward, while going through the family receiving line, I heard myself say to his wife Blair, “Pete was my mentor”.
I had never framed that thought in my mind before. I would have said, had anyone asked, that I’ve had three important mentors in my professional life:
1. Ben Sauers, History Department Chair at Shady Side Academy in Pittsburgh: Ben hired me, had faith in me, shaped my philosophy of teaching history (teaching students to think critically is as important as teaching historical facts), and encouraged me to pursue my doctoral degree.
2. Emerson Johnson, Headmaster at Shady Side Academy: Emerson projected calm, confident leadership – he always made me feel that I was working at the best school in the nation, because he carried himself as if that were true. His leadership style was inclusive and deliberative, with a strong nod to tradition.
3. Dan Richardson, Headmaster at Cape Henry Collegiate School in Virginia Beach: Dan was the opposite of Emerson Johnson, and the contrast in styles taught me a lot. Dan was a ball of fire, constantly in motion, constantly changing things, looking to make things better.His leadership style was energetic, decisive, and forward-looking.
Now I realize that I have added Pete Cooper to this list without ever acknowledging it to myself. I’m glad I acknowledged it to his widow. Here’s what I’d like to say about Pete Cooper, by way of eulogy and by way of explaining how he helped shape my own leadership style. Pete was incredibly student-centered. He blustered, and he yelled, and he pontificated, but at heart his every decision, his every feeling, was illuminated by what was best for the young people that he served. I believe that he had a bigger heart for education than he did for ministry – or maybe more accurately, they were the same thing for him. And this: NOBODY ever loved the school that we served more than Pete. I loved it a great deal. Our students and parents loved it a great deal. But Pete was the school’s biggest cheerleader and supporter. He attended every game in every sport.He served on the Board of Trustees for many years. He supported the school financially, and with his prayers, and in his public statements. As much as I may have liked to think of myself as the face of the school during my time as its Headmaster, it was really “Reverend Cooper”, as the students called him, who was the center of gravity for all of us. I miss him.
10/25/16 - Civil Discourse
With the Presidential election almost upon us, I am looking forward with hope toward the possibility that our national civil discourse can become a bit calmer after all the votes have been counted and an outcome has been determined. In earlier blogs, I have commented on my disappointment at the examples being provided for our children in some of the angry, impolite, and even hostile rhetoric that dominates social media and letters to the editor. My hope for some kind of cooling down may be overly optimistic, but we have to try. Maybe, as we sift through all the “post-game analysis” of the national and local elections, we can also launch a dialogue regarding how we speak to each other.
When this school year started, I shared the following remarks with my faculty in our opening meeting:
“in case you spent the summer on Mars, or in an underground bunker, let me point out that it’s a Presidential election year – the rhetoric is likely to be even hotter than usual, based on what we’ve seen thus far, so I want to ask two things of you in your roles as teachers, coaches, administrators:
a) although I encourage you to exercise all your rights as an American citizen, and to work toward whatever political outcome you desire, as a staff member here you should be neutral; whatever your political views, they are NOT the official views of Stratford Academy, and it is not your job to convince your students to lean toward a particular candidate, political party, or political position
b) that said, it’s great to get our students engaged in talking and thinking about the election and about politics; but let’s do our nation a favor, and teach them the value of polite and respectful political discourse (and insist upon that in your classroom)”
One of my administrators later followed up with some similar thoughts for the teachers in her division:
“Whatever our personal political beliefs, we have to work overtime not to let our personal feelings leak into the classroom. While it's ok to allow a student to know whom you plan to vote for (though I'd suggest that is not appropriate conversation for class), it's NOT ok to make disparaging comments about a candidate or to laugh at the disparaging comments others (in the news, in the school, in the community) have made. And you should guard against allowing hurtful conversations to erupt among the students in your classroom. Civil debate is always ok, but civil debate is difficult, and teenagers are not well trained in the art of dispassionate argument, so you have to be vigilant!”
These thoughts occupy my mind a great deal, even going beyond the question of politics. Can we pass along to the next generation the ability to disagree without demeaning? Can we pass along the ability to engage in difficult conversations without demonizing those who disagree? I am no fan of “political correctness” on either side of the aisle, in the sense that it limits the topics that one is allowed to talk about. It is my hope that our nation, our society, and our children will find ways to find common ground on any topic while still allowing “the other side” to maintain their human dignity.
8/18/16 - Cotswolds Journal, 2016
In the Summer of 2013, my wife Martha and I took a "walking holiday" in northern Scotland, and loved every minute of it (as an earlier blog post will attest). This summer, we decided to try it again, this time in the beautiful Cotswolds region of England. Close to Oxford, and to Stratford-upon-Avon, the Cotswolds area contains literally dozens of beautiful and historic villages, and we passed through many of them. Our hike took us through some bucolic countryside as well. What follows is my journal of our recent hiking vacation.
Sunday, June 26 / Monday, June 27
Day one was mainly a (long) travel day, stretching out over two days and a time-zone switch. Our overseas flight was largely smooth and uneventful, though three words come to mind: "sardines", "cramped", and "tight". They seem to be making airplane seats smaller and smaller. Arrived in London 10:00 a.m. local time. Crowded going through customs - took about an hour - but pretty hassle-free all the same. Easy time catching a shuttle express train to Paddington Station (thanks, Martha for setting that up in advance!), so no worries catching our train from London to Moreton-in-Marsh, our first Cotswold-Village home. That was a smooth, relaxing, pretty train ride - first time during a long travel day where I truly felt "I'm on vacation!" (Or, "I'm on holiday", to use the vernacular.) Moreton-in-Marsh is a gorgeous village, old-stone construction, row buildings along the High Street, lots of history dating back almost a thousand years. We found our B&B after an easy ten-minute walk from the train station, then spent an hour just crashing, freshening up, and getting ourselves organized. Martha and I were both in good spirits as we headed out around 4:30 p.m. to explore the town. We saw some beautiful old churches, the historic market place, and of course a couple of beautiful and historic old pubs, one frequented by J.R.R. Tolkien, and one which had hosted King Charles I in the 1600s! Great local ale in both public houses, The Bell Inn and The White Hart. And a nice pub supper at the Hart. We also walked through the town, past the duck pond, to scout out the starting point for tomorrow's first real hike! Back at the Treetops Inn as I write this (kudos to our genial hosts, Liz and Brian Dean). A full English breakfast awaits in the morning. Can't wait!!
Tuesday, June 28
Day two of the trip (day one of the hike) contained all the elements that make this kind of vacation such a satisfying adventure: several fascinating little villages, numbers of beautiful old Norman-style churches, lovely countryside, some struggles to find the trail at times, and finally "the elements" themselves - our weather today ran the gamut from perfect to miserable. As promised and as expected, a delicious English breakfast awaited us at 8:00 a.m., and we were packed and out the door well before 9:00. The weather was clear, crisp and cool - Martha and I were comfortable in long sleeves, long pants, and a light jacket. We spent a few minutes strolling through a large open-air market in Moreton before hitting the trail. Didn't buy anything except an extra bottle of water, but it was fun to look at all the stuff on display. Then it was back to last night's pretty little duck pond to get onto the trail.With a spring in our step, and gorgeous weather, we proceeded through a number of fields, stiles, footpaths, and gates. After a while we reached the tiny village of Longborough, where there was a wonderful old church, a war memorial in the little town square, and a pretty little pub that was not yet open that early in the day. So we pressed on - more fields, more hedgerows, more stiles, more "kissing gates" before reaching our next little village, Donnington. As we approached Donnington we became briefly confused by some ambiguous directions and got onto the wrong path. Fortunately, as we tried to find our way back we ran into some similarly lost German hikers. They were going to where we had come from - and vice versa - so we were able to help each other out! We got back on track and soon made it to Broadwell, another tiny one-pub town. This time the pub was open, so we stopped in for a half-pint and a chance to rest our feet. After a short break we were back on the path and headed to Stow-on-the-Wold, perhaps the prettiest, most interesting town on a day which featured several contenders. Getting to Stow necessitated navigating more fields, and more ambiguous directions, but we made it. We spent about an hour there, touring the town and grabbing a nice pub lunch. As we left Stow it started to rain, and over the next hour the weather only got worse - and so did the directions. It took a great deal of pluck, ingenuity, maps, compasses and help from strangers to make it to Lower Slaughter, which we did. The rain briefly stopped, affording us a chance to appreciate the natural beauty of this old Cotswolds town, which featured a little river running through a selection of stone houses dating back 500 years, and the largest and most beautiful church of the day. The rain started back up, so we did as well, and it was a fairly easy stretch to our final destination, Bourton-on-the-Water. Bourton is known as the "Venice of the Cotswolds". A river runs through it, just as in Lower Slaughter, and several lovely stone footbridges cross back and forth among a variety of shops, inns, and tourist attractions. We found our B & B, the Windrush View, and crashed for a couple of hours trying to dry out and catch a little nap. Around 6:30 we headed back into town for a stroll and a nice dinner at the Duke of Wellington Inn, then back home to get some sleep. It's expected to be rainy again tomorrow, so we'll see how we do against the elements!
Wednesday, June 29
I'm not sure that I can fully describe today's adventures without making the day sound totally miserable - which it was not. I'm not sure that I can explain why today was so enjoyable for both of us, when it isn't going to sound that way. I am sure that it has a great deal to do with how much Martha and I enjoy each other’s company. And I am sure that to some degree it was a great day just because this is exactly the vacation we signed up for. First of all, we were very wet, pretty much all day. As we walked out the door of Windrush View, our hostess cheerily shouted out "it's just started to rain". No matter - it was a very very light rain, and we were suitably dressed. We headed out through the town square of Bourton-on-the-Water, again pausing to appreciate how lovely the town is, and watching ducks swim lazily down the river that flows right through the center of town. I suppose that those ducks were both omen and metaphor for the day. Second of all, we again faced a number of situations where ambiguous printed directions, combined with poorly waymarked and/or poorly maintained pathways, made it difficult to follow the trail and easy to get lost. That too contained an early omen - as we exited the town center, our directions said to "walk to the end of the road and then take off down the footpath". But when we got there, we found two footpaths, one to our left and one to our right. We stood there scratching our heads for a couple of minutes, when a nice old gent came by with a dog on a leash. He directed us to take the path on the right, which was the first of many lucky (correct) path choices in response to many such dilemmas. And finally, it felt as though we were walking uphill all day long, even though I'm certain that's not really true. So anyway, we took the path on the right and headed out of town. The next set of directions were the same as much of yesterday and most of today: "walk through the field, with the hedge on your right, then go through the stile at the other end. Then go half-left through the next field, with the hedge on your left, then go through the gate at the other end." And so on. And so on. Sometimes the hedge was on the opposite side of us from what we'd been told. Sometimes the stile was a gate - or the gate was a stile. Easy to lose track of which field we were in, even with Martha consulting a map and me poring over the directions. But there was lots of fun stuff to navigate: cow pies (millions of them, and a one point a giant steaming mountain of them); cows (who mostly wouldn't move and just stared us down as we picked our way through them); sheep (who took off running as we neared them, yelling and bleating at us the whole time); and grass, wild wheat or other growth, often up nearly to our knees and soaking wet, as we soon became. Martha and I began to amuse ourselves by taking "Path? What path??" photos showing us plowing through the undergrowth (overgrowth?) or looking for trail markers cleverly hidden behind three years of uncut shrubbery. As I said, I can't explain why all that was so much fun, but it was. Good company plus a tremendous sense of accomplishment - that's the best I can do. After a long, long time of this, we came into the sweet little village of Farmington, where we were greeted by an octagonal covered sitting area on the town square - a perfect opportunity to wring out our clothes and change our socks. Ate a granola bar, drank some water and took off again for Northleach with a renewed spring in our step. It was still raining, but it didn't seem to matter. Most of the rest of the hike was along sidewalks and roadways and now it seemed to be mostly downhill! We got to Northleach shortly after 1:00 (about four hours after taking off) and we were welcomed by the host of a great wine bar that Martha had scouted out in advance. Dried off some more, had a sandwich and a drink (Martha chose a French wine, I chose an English beer). Then we toured the Church of St. Peter and St. Paul, a beautiful Norman (and post-Norman) church that was steeped in the rich regional history of the wool trade, as was the whole town, which is easily among the most beautiful of the towns we've visited. We called our cab to take us back to Bourton (no lodging having been available, or suitable, in Northleach) and while we waited made a great decision to tour the "Museum of Music and Machines", which contained old player pianos, music boxes both large and small, and 19th century proto-juke boxes and phonographs. Fascinating.After the cab ride back, we made a quick change of clothes, then headed into town to watch Wimbledon back at the Duke of Wellington, tour the unique "Model Village" ( a 1/9 replica of the town!), and finally a fantastic dinner at The Croft restaurant, the classiest place we've been in thus far. It was a great day - and tomorrow, it might not rain!
Thursday, June 30
It didn't rain - not very much, anyway, not enough to complain about. And the day contained a number of highlights and one major snafu that we managed to overcome with grit and good humor. Our cheerful cabbie, Sean, drove us back to Northleach and dropped us right at the trail head for today's hike. It didn't look very promising - another big field with long wet grass to traipse across, and again some slightly ambiguous trail directions. And then, magically, things became very easy, and stayed that way for quite a long time - pathways became wider and better maintained, directions became more accurate, and only some muddy terrain slowed us down. We marched into the town of Hampnett in pretty short order. We took off our muddy shoes and visited the little church, then pushed on down the road. We continued to thank our lucky stars that the route was clearly defined and obstacles were few. Our next village soon appeared - Turkdean, which felt like a little Hobbit village - we kept calling it "the Shire". We decided to skip the church there and to push on, knowing that many miles lay ahead, and perhaps some obstacles. That turned out to be a good decision, though little did we know that the big obstacle of the day would be of our own making. We walked along through more fields, past more streams, alongside more fences, through more mud, and through one pretty little wooded area, the "Raspberry Brake". But not before we reached one more lovely little Cotswold village, Nutgrove. There we did go inside the town's lovely Norman church. At that point we were pretty cheerful - some of our hike had been (and would continue to be) along paved roadways and hard-pan paths, in addition to the inevitable treks through fields. We felt very optimistic that we would easily hit our goal of making it to the town of Naunton between 1:00 and 1:30. There we planned to have a nice lunch at a place we had read about, the Black Horse Inn. And then it happened - we somehow managed to lose track of how many farm gates we had gone through. At a critical point, when choosing a straight-ahead path up a hill would have led us to the Black Horse ahead of schedule, we turned to the right. When we finally realized we were on the wrong trail, we backtracked and chose a different wrong trail. And then another. And then a third. I still don't know how both of us kept our equanimity - not only were we going to probably miss lunch entirely, we were actually hopelessly lost. So we put aside the directions, got out the compass, and just headed in the compass direction where we thought Naunton lay. We were right - and were helped by again running into hikers coming from the other direction at a crucial time. We were so happy to be "not lost" that we didn't worry about lunch, but happily we got to the Black Horse at 2:25 pm, and the cheerful barman (Tom) told us that lunch ended in five minutes, but that we should just take our time and order. Yay! A pint of beer and a ploughman's lunch never tasted so good. We stayed until 3:00 then left for the last little stretch to Guiting Power. And our luck continued to be back on the good side, with this last bit being fairly easy, even though we had added two or three miles to the day's hike and expended more energy than planned. But Guiting Power turned out to be absolutely lovely. We met our hosts at the Guiting Guest House, easily our most beautiful inn thus far. After some time to re-charge and freshen up, we checked out the two pubs in town, the Farmer's Arms and the Hollow Bottom. The Farmer's Arms is a traditional old style British pub, and we loved it. We ate supper there. The Hollow Bottom caters to a younger set. Jo, our host at the inn, derisively called it a "gastro pub" - but we still had a nice pint there before heading home to bed. Still not sure exactly how we plan to spend our extra day tomorrow. Glad to have two nights in this excellent inn, but not much else to do in Guiting Power. We have some ideas!
Friday, July 1
We "called an audible" today, and it turned out brilliantly. The plan we had worked out was to hire a cab to take us to Sudeley Castle, which we really wanted to visit - we were scheduled to walk right past it on Saturday's thirteen mile hike, but we worried that with any delays at all, we'd never have time to stop at Sudeley. And delays have become common. But a hitch in the plan occurred when we could not reach the cab company. So we put our boots back on and hiked to Sudeley Castle. It was supposed to be six miles, turned out to be a bit more, but it was a pretty easy hike. A couple of wet and muddy trails through a couple of wooded areas, but mostly more of the wide, well-marked trails we we walking yesterday. We left Guiting about 10:15, and arrived at Sudeley around 12:30. We spent about ninety minutes in that beautiful historic castle, wandered the grounds, and saw the tomb of Catherine Parr, the last wife of Henry VIII. We were told that she is the only English Queen entombed on a private estate, which is what Sudeley is. Great stuff. While there, I was able to reach the taxi company, and we set up to get a ride back to Guiting Power. So - some time to wander around the neighboring village of Winchcombe, where we toured a beautiful cathedral (St. Paul), window shopped a bit, and got a couple of pints (I liked the Lion Inn). Back to our inn by 5:00, and another pub supper at the Farmer's Arms. Tomorrow, our taxi will take us back to where we left off in Winchcombe, and we'll resume the hike from there!
Saturday, July 2
Martha usually attaches a title to each day's journal entry, and I feel certain that she will call today's edition "Almost Too Perfect". Those three words were used in our hiking guide to refer to today's destination, the village of Stanton (correctly, as it turns out - see below), but we could really apply that description to the entire day. In many ways this was the most pleasant and trouble-free hiking day yet. We started by cab for the second time, and suppressed any guilt we might have felt by having the cabbie drop us at the exact point in Winchcombe where we had stopped yesterday. We're congratulating ourselves for walking on our "rest day" yesterday, because somehow the 13-mile hike originally scheduled for today broke down to six miles yesterday, nine miles today (and without getting lost either day!). The walk today was all on the "Cotswold Way" - our eight-day journey takes us down several different designated trails - Martha and I have decided that the Cotswold Way is the best of them. It is better maintained, has better way-marks, and since it's more heavily traveled the path is more worn-down and easier to traverse. Added advantage today: some very pretty countryside and some interesting historical sites. After an easy two hour hike through beautiful farms and forests, we came upon a national monument, the ruins of Hailes Abbey. We spent an hour doing the audio tour and learned a lot about these Benedictine monks and about the English Civil War that turned them out and led to the destruction of their abbey. What remains is striking, and the English government has done a good job of preservation and display. We saw two other old and historic churches along the way today, and also an impressive Jacobean gate in the town of Stanway. Further bonus: we passed a Saturday afternoon wedding, also in Stanway, and spoke to some of the groomsmen as we passed by. Reminded us of a scene from "Four Weddings and a Funeral", complete with black dog. I think that we have ended up passing by a wedding every time we've visited Europe. Anyway, we rolled into Stanton, our destination, by 2:00 - easy and enjoyable hike. We visited the local church, watched some cricket, had a ploughman's lunch and a pint at the Mount Inn, then crashed for a while in our private cottage (the "outbuilding") before returning to the Mount Inn a few hours later for a great dinner. Walked back through the town again before going to bed, just marveling at its beauty, the uniformity of that beauty, the perfectly maintained gardens, the Cotswold stone exteriors, and the rose bushes everywhere. We've determined to get up early tomorrow and take coffee/tea in the garden before breakfast. An almost-too-perfect day!
Sunday, July 3
Stanton to Chipping Campden will no doubt go down in our journals as the best hike of the trip, even though there's one more to go, and even though we have had some great ones! The weather was dead-solid perfect, from the first step to the last. Again today, the route along the Cotswold Way was clearly marked, well-worn, and well-maintained. The scenery was the best we've had - great views looking down over the Gloustershire countryside, lovely villages, and a couple of special attractions. We enjoyed each other's company even more than usual today, and really the only downside was that there were a couple of brutal climbs - but that's how you get those great views! After a great breakfast in our prettiest breakfast room yet, at The Old Post House in Stanton, we set off. Our host, Jo, had said that our hike would start with a bit of a climb, but would be one of our most beautiful walks. On both points she was using understatement. We seemed to be walking straight uphill for the first hour, and some of it was muddy terrain. Yet when we did reach the top of the "scarp", the views were beyond spectacular. After ninety minutes of truly breathtaking walking ("breathtaking" in the much more positive sense than when we were climbing uphill), we finally began our easy descent into the bustling village of Broadway. There was a church on the outskirts of town that we had wanted to visit, but we arrived during the Sunday morning service. Happily, our luck was better about a hundred yards up the road where a charming public house (the Crown and Trumpet) had just opened its doors. We secured a pretty outdoor table, grabbed a couple of pints, then took our boots off and massaged our feet while watching the churchgoers exit. Many of them joined us. After a bit, we strolled all the way through this busy tourist town, doing some people-watching and window-shopping as we got ready to rejoin the trail. Leaving Broadway, we faced our second climb of the day in good spirits. It was a bit daunting, and longer than we bargained for, but what a reward! At the top was the Broadway Tower, a 52-foot "folly" that commanded incredible views. We got a sandwich, another pint, and an ice cream at the shop at the top. Then back onto the Cotswold Way for a gorgeous, largely easy, and beautiful walk down into Chipping Campden, where we are scheduled for a rest day and two nights at the Wold's End B&B. The walk down the High Street of this incredible old village brought an indelible smile to our faces. Lots of history here to be explored, lots of "mellow stone" frontages, and lots of possibilities for a fun couple of days. We found our attractive B&B, took our usual "cool down" spell in the room, then struck out in search of dinner. The restaurant we had read about, the Eight Bells, was hosting a private party, so we tried several others, finding no available tables - a busy Sunday night. Finally, at the far end of the High Street, tucked behind the Volunteer Inn, we found the Maharajah Restaurant, an Indian place that turned out to be excellent! Great atmosphere, helpful wait staff, and excellent food. We returned to the Wold's End stuffed and happy, and ready to have some fun tomorrow on our rest day.
Monday, July 4
We celebrated Independence Day with our first and only true "rest day" of the hike, and it was great! Of course, even on an off day we ended up walking almost nine miles all told, but it was spread all through the day, and in tennis shoes, not hiking boots. We had a great breakfast at Wold's End, and then walked into town with an open agenda. First we spent about ninety minutes touring lovely Chipping Campden. We went inside the historic cathedral, one of the top three "wool churches" in the kingdom. There we saw a 14th century priest's vestment that's been preserved, and a number of other artifacts. We also visited, on the advice of our landlady, a working silversmith shop that has been in the same family in town for five generations - fascinating. Finally we decided to hop on a bus and visit Stratford-upon-Avon, because you just have to do it. It's become way touristy, but the history is thick. We walked through the theatre that is home to the Royal Shakespeare Company, had a pint and a pub lunch at the Garrick Inn, Stratford's oldest inn, then spent an enjoyable hour or so wandering around town before hopping the bus back to Chipping Campden. There, we had a gin and tonic at a warm and cozy wine bar, Huxley's, went home to crash and change clothes, then went back out for dinner. Best restaurant of the trip, no doubt: the Eight Bells Inn. Traditional yet classy, packed with people but not noisy, overworked staff who nonetheless remained cheerful, and outstanding food. Great rest day! Tomorrow: the final day of the hike.
Tuesday, July 5
Sad but happy - in some ways I'm wishing the hike weren't over, but we kept saying to each other today, "the last hiking day should be a good one", and it really was. All our trepidation about spending the final day back on the "Monarch's Way", which on the first day had been far inferior to the "Cotswold Way", were unfounded. Things were smooth and easy (and beautiful) today. Another perfect weather day dawned as we walked out of Chipping Campden (now my favorite of the villages), and we found our exit to the town right in the center of the High Street, through a stone gate that passed right through the back of the Noel Arms Inn. We had two intervening villages on our way today, and they were spaced pretty effectively in terms of breaking up the hike. After a little time of walking through some very pretty Gloucestershire countryside, with well defined and well maintained paths, we reached Broad Campden. In an echo of our first day hike, this village, like Longborough, was a tiny, lovely, one-pub town that we reached before opening time. I snapped a photo of the "Baker's Arms", and we pushed on. Our reward was Blockley, which we reached after about ninety minutes more of very pleasant hiking. This wins the award for "best surprise" among the two dozen or so villages we've passed through. We entered town past a "lawn bowls" club with a pretty clubhouse and an absolutely perfectly rolled green. Past that, a larger-than-expected church (for a village this size), and that was where we encountered a very unexpected surprise: a film crew crawling over the grounds. It turns out that they were filming an episode of the "Father Brown Mysteries" - the Blockley Church is the site for much of the "location" shooting for this series. Because it's an Anglican Church, and "Father Brown" is Roman Catholic, a crew was making some changes: adding statuary, a confessional, and the Stations of the Cross. We could see that they were filming in the house next to the church, and Martha caught a glimpse of Father Brown himself (Mr. Weasley from the Harry Potter films) as he dashed in. We walked through the village, which was a typical Cotswolds village but in some ways more charming than most, before finding our way to the Great Western Inn for an excellent pint and a pub lunch. Fortified, we headed out of town on the final leg (uphill, on a full stomach - ugh). Just before we reached the outskirts of Moreton-in-Marsh, we passed by the Batsford Arboretum, and decided to spend a little time walking the grounds. We really didn't need any additional walking at that point, but the arboretum was fantastic, and well worth the effort. Finally, we did the last half mile or so back "home", and rewarded ourselves with a victory-lap gin and tonic at the Bell Inn. Another reward awaited - when we checked in at the Treetops Inn, we found that the landlady had upgraded our room in order to accommodate two single hikers who wanted rooms next door to each other. We got a "superior" room, which was essentially a suite: huge, with a private outdoor patio. Hooray! We enjoyed the heck out of it - both before and after our walk back into town for the final hiking dinner at the Swan Inn. Great stuff! Tomorrow: London!