Rustling like riffled pages, the leaves skim my shoulders as Nicky and I follow a narrow trail through the thicket. When we emerge, there are stiles to climb, fields to cross, skeptical cows, and a vanishing path. We’re in the Cotswolds, the landscape Tolkien inscribed into his Shire. We have a book of guided walks but the instructions are more like clues to a scavenger hunt. At an unsigned intersection we take what we hope is the right right.
“Let’s see if what it says in the book comes true,” says Nicky.
Otherwise we will have to write our own ending.
The path is a meandering line of text, scrawled over pastureland and meadow, through village and valley. The landscape is punctuated by horses, sleek and black as apostrophes in wet ink. Place-names suggest stories not included in this book: Potlicker’s Lane, Dead Man’s Copse. From a ridge, I can see several chapters ahead, but as I skim their contents, they point towards a dozen different endings: Foss Cross, Northleach, Harnhill, Coln St. Aldwyns.
After the pollarded ash trees but before the fir plantation, we watch a murder of crows plotting in a shallow valley. In a single body, they recoil and writhe. Then a battalion of shadows sweeps through the valley, outriders for an army of clouds. We watch the shadows trample over the grass, leaving it grey in their wake. In the stiff wind, the crows blow away like the ashes of a treacherous letter. A quarter of an hour later, I look back and see crow-dust scattered across the far hilltop.
Whole chapters of our walk are catalogues of green. Green isn’t a color: it’s a family of characters: coy nettles, wily ivy, bashful blackberry, gentleman beech, snobbish hawthorn, and urbane ash. Then comes the cast of wildflowers. Nicky introduces us by name. She lives just a shire away and she knows these neighbors. We greet English daisies, melting buttercups, ultrablue foxglove, yolk-yellow poppies, sultry clematis, cow’s parsley, Queen Anne’s lace, bristling teasel, and clusters of speedwell twinkling across the meadow like blue fairy-lights.
After inventing an imaginative detour, we finish the walk where the book says we should: in the dangerously adorable village of Bibury. We’ve made the book come true. Meanwhile, Bibury is quickly falling victim to its own fairytale glamour. The village could well be Bilbo’s Shire, so visitors come hunting hobbits or innocence, not knowing that the hobbits packed up for the Grey Havens chapters ago, or is it that they won’t arrive until the sequel?
The village isn’t sure either. It rambles up and down the valley of the river Coln, out of someone’s past and into someone else’s future, all its crossroads intersecting at unbelievable angles. Cygnets stroke down the stream, flaunting their silvery down. They’ve read ahead. They know they’re not ugly ducklings.
An ancient prologue laid the foundations of these cottages. Their stones look like seashells from a long lost sea, stone tinged with the gold of a dead sun. With sloping spines and grey slate shingles, the roofs resemble the scaly old trout that dally down the Coln. Gable windows crane out from under the eaves, as if the cottages are curious enough to keep an eye on the visitors.
These cottages have belonged to the story from before the beginning, long enough to have grown into complex characters, with names like Lupine Cottage, Primrose, The Farriers, Beehive, Tannery, and Troutbeck. Bearded in moss or braided with vines, they have the same candid grace as my grandmothers. Their gardeners must be scions of Samwise Gamgee because the flowers have been brought up as tenderly as children. Nourished on love and Gloucestershire rain, rose and foxglove and iris grow brighter and lankier than their city cousins.
The story has come true after all. We have arrived in Bibury and can close the book. Then again, as Frodo would say:
Still round the corner there may wait
A new road or a secret gate,
And though we pass them by today,
Tomorrow we may come this way
—J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring