O'er Hill and Dale

Hiking England's West Country
  |  Gorp.com

By ancient custom, members of the public have the right to cross private land, free of hindrance . . . "

Panting up a steep path on the Devon coast, I am delivered a lecture on the evolution of the English right of way—that marvelous concept that makes Britain such a special place for walking. My mentor and our hike leader is Chris Fulford—we are tramping together through the justifiably famous rolling hills of England's "West Country" for ten days.

Over the next half hour I walk another mile, but travel ten thousand years back in time. As Fulford describes the rich history of this region I trudge ancient ridgeways with hunters, following the retreating glacial ice to the north. I march with Roman legions, along the military roads that dominated travel in England for thirteen centuries. In due course, the narrative reaches the present era, and I learn how I am the beneficiary of thousands of years of tradition, still adhered to by country landowners.

We breast a final hill, and look down on a small cove and quaint fishing community. The village of Portloe is one of the few on the Cornish coast that has undergone little change in the past century. Fishing boats on the slipway, sturdy houses clinging to the cliff—it all looks like it was here in the time of the Spanish Armada. Quite possibly, it was.

The local pub is the "Lugger," which boasts a surprisingly elegant dining room for such an isolated eatery. The noon stop for a pub lunch is the only major rest of the day, and we all need it. The tables near the fireplace are soon piled high with rucksacks and rain suits, and surrounded by weary hikers. Somehow we find room for plates of crab sandwiches, ploughman's lunches, Cornish pasties and half pints of 'best bitter'. Happily, we settle down to the serious business of refueling.

After lunch, with a few minutes to spare before we depart, I lean back against an upturned fishing dory and breathe in the salt air. Enjoying the sights and smells of a tidal beach, I can't help marveling at the diversity of the English countryside. My mind wanders back.

Heavy mist blows in my face, and my socks are soggy. We have stopped, high on a very wet moor, and Chris is explaining the lines of gray rocks that march away down the hillside. "They are thought to be the grave markers of the 'Beaker' people, a prehistoric race that cremated their dead and buried the ashes in earthenware beakers. Dartmoor has been inhabited longer than any other place in England."

I can't imagine why. It's a bleak, barren place, fit only for sheep, rabbits, and the wild ponies that remain from the tin mining days. The grave markers that lead me down the mists of time are the only things that break this empty skyline.

But in contemplating this barren landscape it suddenly occurs to me that its emptiness is what gives it a special charm. In a country where every space on the map has a name, one can still find solitude, that most valuable commodity. My spirits lift at this thought, and I wander up the moor toward my next memory, this time an entire cliffside smothered in gaily waving wildflowers—Yarrow, scarlet pimpernel, coltsfoot, daisies. We are on the Coastal Footpath, which begins at Minehead in Somerset, and runs for 570 miles around the southwest peninsula. Far below, the sea beats itself into a white froth against the shores of Devon. There is a narrow beach, off which a sailboat bobs at anchor.

Another memory shift—I'm on the quay with my fellow hikers in the river port of Dartmouth, waiting for a ferry to carry us across the harbor. There are boats everywhere. Launches, keelboats, sailing dinghies, ferries. Graceful swans move between the anchored yachts, coaxing handouts from sunbathing sailors. Behind us, lines of houses stairstep up the hillside. Above them are green meadows where sheep graze, and cultivated fields that glow in the morning sunshine.

Our ferry is a small barge, lashed to a tugboat and capable of carrying eight cars and our group of stalwart hikers. The tugboat captain is Kevin Pyne ("All the Dartmouth Pynes spell their name that way!"). He's been pushing these barges back and forth across Dartmouth harbor for eighteen years. An eerie wail sounds across the harbor, and I look up to see a coal-burning locomotive pulling into the train station. Yet another timeless feature in this historic town.

Personal comfort, on any lengthy hike, can only be ensured by careful planning. The English climate can exhibit the wildest oscillations during the course of a day, and one must be properly dressed for each. Neither heat prostration nor hypothermia contributes greatly to the enjoyment of a walking holiday. It's not unusual to start a morning with strong winds, sweaters, and complete rain gear, and to finish in hot sunshine, t-shirt, and shorts.

I carry a sweatshirt for warmth, and a hooded waterproof jacket for wind and rain. Gore-Tex rain pants pulled down over my hiking shorts keep me dry and snug. They are easily stripped off when the day warms. Thick wool socks cushion my hardworking feet, and I carry an extra pair for a midday change. Dried fruit maintains my energy level between meals. A hat is my final accessory—shedding water or blocking sun as conditions dictate.

At the end of the day, the high green meadows glow fluorescent in the late afternoon sun. Big fleecy clouds, like stately galleons, drift across the sky. Herds of sheep speckle the distant hillsides like smaller clouds. We carry our pre-dinner pints to the window, or into the garden, loath to miss one moment of such spectacular beauty.

But we don't want to miss dinner, a communal affair that's always hilarious. This group of strangers, held together by the common adversity of blisters and exhaustion, enjoys feasting together like a family.

And, such meals! We eat broiled salmon with marinated mushrooms at the Claremont House in Chagford. We marvel at the chicken and thyme pie, with a featherlike crust, at the Church House Inn at Holne, where Oliver Cromwell once tethered his horse. There is stuffed lamb with rosemary and garlic (known as 'colonial goose') in Dartmouth, where we enjoy a beautiful view of the harbor from the dining room of the Gunfield Hotel. The Carwinion House in Mawnan Smith serves glasses of Pimms and warm lager, followed by the most tender of roast beef this side of Southampton.

And while I've managed to studiously avoid clotted cream, and will yield to the blandishments of pickled onions only by the end of the trip, I can't resist Stilton cheese. I fall prey to any kind of chutney, and develop a passion for Branston pickles. Somehow though, despite the devastation of my diet, I feel lean and fit.

Who are these 15 people who share the trail and dinner table with me? Computer analysts, lawyers, scientists, social workers, teachers. There is no vocational link between them. They come to relax, to exercise, for a total change in environment. There are certainly no fitness fanatics among them—some worry about keeping up, although the pace is geared to the slowest. No spring chickens either. The majority of us are definitely 'over the hill', yet we cover our allotted eight to ten miles daily, with time to smell the flowers and take photographs.

Ultimately, sadly, we walk our last mile together. Before our final dinner, I spend an hour in the garden of Penmorvah Manor, reading a favorite author, and enjoying a last pint of cider. Alexander Kent's hero is Richard Bolitho, a naval captain who hails from Falmouth. The book mentions St. Anthony's Head, and I look up along the coast, catching the same lighthouse miles away on the horizon. Pendennis Castle still defends Falmouth Harbor and the Carrick Roads, and I have seen Gull Rock, infamous for the destruction of unwary shipping. Even the fiction I enjoy has come alive, now that I've walked the ground.

I'll go home with my mind in the meadows, my eye lifting upward to find the horizon. The rattle of rain will bring back wet moorlands, and a high flight of stairs will recall the steep hills. It will be somewhat harder to remember the silence, only the sound of the sheep heard over my puffing, but I'll have no problem at all remembering the country that passed under my boots as we walked in the West.

All Original Material and photos Copyright © by Michael Goldstein. All Rights Reserved.

Mike and Allison Goldstein are internationally-published travel writers, based in Toronto, Canada. Their travels have taken them throughout the Caribbean, through a great deal of North America and parts of Mexico, and to Central America and Western Europe. Print publication credits include The Toronto Star, Travel A Lacarte, Autoroute Magazine, Leisureways Magazine, and Dreamscapes.

Published: 30 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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