Accidental Ramblers: Hiking Inn-to-Inn through Southwest England
I suppose I can blame The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry for our most recent trip. If you’ve not read it, it’s about a man who spontaneously decides to walk across England. An odd story, it’s one which will always stay with me. And it isn’t so much that I immediately wanted to walk across England after having read it, but I was intrigued.
Like Harold, I’m more of an accidental rambler. My mother most likely sowed the seeds when, by necessity, she decided I would walk to my Kindergarten class which was more than a mile from our home. I thought nothing of it because I was six, or perhaps five. Do children that age think about such things? I chide her about it now, having had my own children and knowing I would never have sent one of them off to school at that age unaccompanied. Still, it could explain my urge to walk from a sink or swim perspective.
I walk for exercise. I have for many years. I’m not wholly committed, though, as Summer’s heat takes its toll, or my husband’s work schedule. An occasional injury. Boredom provoked by the monotony of suburbia. They’re excuses, of course.
Last November after a road trip along the California coast, my husband and I decided we needed to be in better shape. It sounds more honorable than it was considering I had already begun making reservations for an inn-to-inn walking trip through several counties in Southwest England scheduled for the following spring. We walk extensively on our vacations, but this was different. We wanted to make certain we could cover the eight to twelve miles a day anticipated.
Why take a trip that involves so much walking? I’m to blame for that. I have a persistent longing to live elsewhere–somewhere very different from where I’ve lived since I was a girl. Somewhere green. Somewhere evidence of seasons exists. Often when traveling, we spend only a short period of time in each place and we’re so busy conquering the breadth of it, we miss the depth. If I wanted to get my fill of a place I’d like to live, then spending the better part of each day walking through tiny, ancient villages and the fields that surround them would be perfect.
Fast Forward Six Months
After many early morning miles walked each week, and extended hikes taken on weekends, we were each 20 pounds lighter. Four pair of hiking shoes and boots between the two of us were broken in and ready to go. We had studied the weather predicted for the area, heeded advice about being prepared for anything, and began to think about what to pack.
Ah, packing. It truly is a misunderstood art form. It’s made especially challenging when one’s husband decides he’d like to stay in London before venturing to the country. Thank goodness for the internet. I was able to pack city clothes in one suitcase, and hiking clothes in another courtesy of enormous Zip-Lock bags and an interesting rolling technique. Alas, there is no getting around size 12 hiking boots.
I’m thinking now of that spontaneous walk across the country Harold Fry took. He ended up taping his shoes together because he had only what he wore the day he left. After I’ve made a poor decision about shoes, it’s my feet that require tape. When I pack for a trip, practicality wars incessantly with self-indulgence. I remember my husband trying to explain bandaids in a tiny Welsh pharmacy. Or searching through a shop for lambswool pads for my heels when thick socks weren’t good enough for a pair of desert boots I still wear. The memory of brushing “New Skin Liquid Bandage” on a nasty blister will never fade. Self-indulgence wins once again, and more shoes claim space in our luggage. I expected my feet to return home unscathed this time.
Off to the Country
A week in London flies by. I use my time on the train to transition mentally, watching the London boroughs flashing past my window give way to an endless patchwork of green. I recognize a familiar feeling — one of belonging.
At the station, a driver waits to transport us through hedgerow lined lanes to the first of many inns we will be staying in–this one with a 14th century Free House. Maps and guidelines have arrived ahead of us, the artfully packed box full of resources and treats already placed in our room.
Clothes changed and boots laced, we head downstairs to pints of Butcombe Bitter and a quick review of our materials.
Before the sun set across Wiltshire that day, we would enjoy a walk on a circuitous trail, just to orient ourselves. Gently rolling hills, thatched farm houses, an ancient church, cows and stiles. It was a perfect beginning.
In the next seven days we would walk nearly 100 miles.
We would pass many a sign with village names that begged explanation. Names like Sutton Mandeville and Fifehead Magdalen. Tollard Royal. Charlton Horethorne.
We would follow lanes, tracks, and trails. They’re different. It helps to know this.
We’d encounter our share of gates, stiles, and bridges. Electric fences required expected caution and possibly a good roll in the dirt.
I would never tire of walking through pastures, or admiring the cows which were much more friendly than the sheep, their curiosity getting the best of them many times. They followed us along our trail to the fence, sometimes trotting to get closer.
The sheep behaved in the opposite manner, scurrying away as we approached. This makes me wonder about those who consider sheep mentality as one that describes followers. Clearly, they’re wrong.
Walking through private property was never comfortable whether we understood the concept of public footpaths or not, and I wondered how I would feel if someone trod through mine, regardless of the size of my house.
Thatched roofs abound.
Chalk downs, limestone ridges, clay valleys and crops planted in fields strewn with large pieces of flint. Yes, topography can be quite interesting.
Lone trees in fields were a reminder of what once was.
Fields of grain undulating in the afternoon wind, nettles and cowslip lining the lanes, ancient flowering trees, and chalky trails provided pleasant distraction.
Wildflowers are everywhere.
There is no shortage of history along the way.
Every small village is marked by a centuries old church, whose doors are always open. If you take the time to enter, you just might find your surname on a plaque and wonder.
At the beginning and end of each day, there was excellent food, locally sourced, and often, from 100 yards down the road.
A comfortable room, and a hot bath helped soothe tired muscles at the end of each day, but surprisingly, we sustained no injuries, and my feet required no tape.
I’m sure if you asked my husband what he thought of our trip, you may hear something quite different. But that’s only because he is different than I. He knows I would have done this by myself, but he wouldn’t have wanted me to go alone. That’s a good thing because I can’t think of a better traveling companion. Due to this trip, the notion that men won’t ask for directions or read maps has been effectively debunked. He never once let go of ours. His diligence allowed me to daydream and to take photos — hundreds of them.
I never tire of scrolling through the photos I took of Wiltshire, Dorset and Somerset. Each is connected to specific moments I’ll always remember: cows that followed us across fields; a man on the edge of a forest who took time to explain how important it is to manage the trees; the man who graciously redirected us after a particular set of confusing directions had us in fits. The woman at the bar who suggested we enjoy a pint before going up to our room after an especially long day without a break. Nice people, all.
Whether I’ll ever actually live there remains to be seen, but I’m bound to search in the meantime, and I can’t think of a better way to spend my time.
Five Months Later
It’s nearly 9:30 and outside, the morning commute is waning, straggling cars headed up the hill speeding as if trying to catch the others, now long gone. A welcomed chill in the air pushes through the window, keeping my office from getting stuffy. I look out the window at the carrotwood tree which has filled in nicely after a severe trim early last summer. Sunlight ricochets off deep green leaves, the breeze causing them to flutter now and again. On the sidewalk below, a man wearing a wide brimmed straw hat pauses in the shade to wipe perspiration from his brow before continuing up the hill. A motorcycle roars past in the opposite direction. A plane drones overhead. I tell myself I’ll go for a walk later — as soon as I’ve finished this. As soon as I’ve done that. I think of the concrete, the asphalt, the incessant noise of passing cars, the uninspiring sameness of it all.
I indulge myself in a few more memories of a greener place, and then I get back to work.
With respect to the trip described above, please visit Foot Trails and peruse their lovely offering of travels geared toward those who enjoy walking. The trips can be tailored to specific needs if desired. They’re lovely people to work with, provide a wealth of information and respond quickly to any questions you may have. We feel so lucky to have met them and would like nothing more than to share how wonderful their company is.
Additionally, I’m participating in NaNoWriMo this year, although I’m using the opportunity to breathe life back into my writing in general, and my blogs in particular. If you’re interested, visit kellementology to read what I’m writing there as well. I will be alternating posts between the two every day.