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On foot through the beckoning English countryside.

Wedding bells pealed as we strolled into Grasmere in the English Lake District. At the country church where William Wordsworth is buried, we watched as newlyweds dashed from the doors in a hail of confetti.

Minutes later, down the lane in a small park, we joined townspeople applauding a troupe of folk musicians. Then after lunch at the pub, we walked over heathered hills and through birch woods to a bed and breakfast in the next village.

It was a rewarding day for a Sunset editor, his wife, and six-year-old daughter. For a month last year, they wandered the English countryside on foot, from the coves and headlands of Cornwall to the rolling green uplands of Sussex, through honey-colored stone villages in the Costswolds and castle ruins in Yorkshire.

You can include impromptu walking in any kind of visit, but a long-distance village-to-village ramble requires careful advance planning. Character of the countryside

"Footpath" covers everything from a narrow path through the woods to a 30-foot-wide swatch across a meadow. Sometimes stretches of a roadway even link sections of the trails.

We were surprised at how rugged trails could be even where gradients were gentle. The South Downs Way is studded with sharp flintstones, the Pennine Way pocked with muddy bogs, Offa's Dyke riddled with roots and rocks.

Walking is a serious business one minute, comedy the next. Footpaths, some dating to Roman times, are protected by law. But a trail that's well marked for miles can suddenly disappear in a farmer's field; while public rights-of-way are sacrosanct, they're occasionally plowed and planted. Or a clear path may split into a confused maze of tracks. You can't depend on signposts, since way-marking is intermittent.

Detailed guidebooks and maps are the best reference, and English walkers are a great help. We found them extraordinarily welcoming, full of accurate trail (and pub) information.

On the other hand, don't expect much solitude. With Britain's population of 56 million eager to join you on the footpaths, you'll rarely be walking alone.

And don't listen for the hushed silence of American wilderness. Paths through even the most idyllic countryside are rarely out of sight and sound of roads and traffic, farm machinery, stone barns, settlement. Although wildlife is not abundant, great numbers of birds thrive in hedgerows and woods. Sheep and cattle seem to occupy every acre of ground (signs admonish you not to "worry" the sheep). Livestock fences quilt the landscape, presenting stiles, ladders, and gates to cross.

In all, an appealing landscape. "To a looks so kind," observed Thackeray, "it seems to shake hands with you as you pass through it." Gearing up for unpredictable weather and rugged trails

"We don't have weather, we have samples," an elderly hiker told us. Right she was. We walked through hailstorms, driving rain, cold wind, fog, and balmy days in the 70s. Summer weather is unpredictable. Bring warm apparel, including reliable raingear, along with lighter clothes and shoes for evenings in the village.

Your rucksack should be big enough to hold it all, plus maps, guidebooks, personal items, sunglasses, first-aid kit, camera.

Sturdy waterproof boots are most important; anything less is inadequate for serious walking. Sunday walks to long-distance rambles

With more than 100,000 miles of footpaths crisscrossing an island smaller than Oregon, finding a trail isn't hard. But how do you choose just the right one?

Tourist information centers can offer suggestions and supply inexpensive leaflets covering local walks, as well as more detailed maps and regional guidebooks. (If you'd rather pay someone else to organize your walking tour, several groups--both in Britain and the U.S.--offer outings; ask your travel agent or look in outdoor and wilderness publications.)

Frequently, you'll be directed to one of the thousands of town and county paths. Normally less than 5 miles long, these undemanding ways often connect villages, allowing you to stop for an inexpensive pub lunch ($1.50 to 3) or pint of bitter, then ride a bus or train back.

Or seek out a recreational path. There are about 80 of these major routes, 6 to 200 miles long, with published guides. A few are classic long walks like the 95-mile Cotswold Way. But most are fairly short and easy.

Long-distance footpaths first appeared in 1965. There are a dozen now and more are planned. Supervised by the Countryside Commission, these "hikers' highways" are usually a hundred or more miles long and link existing footpaths into one continuous route.

Some follow easygoing contours and can easily be sampled in an afternoon. Others traverse relatively wild and inaccessible country and require experience, good equipment, more time. Map and compass are essential. Lodging along such routes as the Pennine Way must be plotted in advance; or consider backpacking. Finding a room--B & B to farm barn

The English bed and breakfast is rightly famous, and an inexpensive choice (we paid $20 to 30 a night for three people). You don't need advance reservations; local tourist offices are the best sources of information and can make arrangements for the night.

There are also more rustic choices where hikers do thier own cooking and sometimes provide their bedding. It's advisable to reserve these ahead.

Youth hostels are located along trails in more remote and mountainous areas (Lake District, Yorkshire Dales); all you need (no matter your age) is a youth hostel card and reservation handbook from the U.S. Semiprivate "family rooms" are sometimes available. The cost: about $3 per peson.

Disused stone barns are now being converted to bunkhouses for walkers in some national parks. These spartan accommodations, akin to alpine huts, cost less than $2 a night.

If you have a car, consider staying at a farm. Some are operated by the National Trust. They're remote, but often close to good walking routes. Overnight rates are from $15 for two; weekly rates offer substantial bargains. Extend your reach--trains, buses, cars

Our editor traveled by train (with Brit-Rail Pass), bus, and briefly by rented car. Each model has advantages.

Main-line train service is fast, on-time, comfortable. But with continuing cutbacks in service to the remote rural areas that walkers often want to visit, train travel becomes less satisfactory.

Bus service within these areas is often good; one-day excursion tickets can often bargains (with a $7.50 family ticket, our threesome explored half a dozen Cotswold villages and enjoyed a 3-hour walk from Chipping Campden to Broadway as well).

A recent car can get you to even the remotest trails. If you already intend to buy a BritRail Pass, consider the rail option that includes a rental car. Many rental agents provide information on walking. Writing ahead for information

Include an international reply coupon with your inquiry to cover return postage.

British Tourist Authority, 612 S. Flower St., Los Angeles 90017, (213) 623-8196, has limited introductory materials.

Countryside Commission, John Dower House, Crescent Place, Cheltenham, Gloucestershire GL50 3RA, has brochures on footpaths and parks, leaflets on bunkhouse barns. It also publishes a detailed guidebook for each long-distance path ($5 to $6 each).

Ramblers' Association, 1-5 Wandsworth Road, London SW8 2LJ, has information sheets covering walking, lodging, guidebooks, guided walking tours, long-distance walks, parks. Choosing guidebooks and maps

Accurate references are essential, but many are unavailable outside England. Here are some that proved reliable; supplement them with specific guides and maps purchased after you arrive.
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Date:Apr 1, 1984
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