During my walks, many of the English folk I meet are baffled why I would come all the way across the ocean to hike in their backyard. They have a point. The United States is unmatched in terms of pure natural aesthetic and diversity. From the Grand Canyon (virtually in my backyard) to the coast and virgin redwoods forests of California, to the bucolic farm country of New England, there’s really no place like the U.S.
Of course, natural beauty is not the only reason to go for a hike. Before I discuss why someone may want to take an English walking tour, I want to briefly talk about what an English walking tour is exactly. (See my post from last year for a more detailed explanation.)
Generally, the type of walking tour with which this blog is concerned is a self-guided hike on a long distance end-to-end British footpath. While these trails generally dip in and through rural farmland and villages, they never really stray too far from civilization. A day’s walk will usually include breakfast, lunch, and dinner in three different and distinct villages. Every night, a walker will lodge in a B&B, inn or the occasional hotel. This is not the type of nature hiking we are accustomed to in the U.S.
So why go on a U.K. walking tour? I’ll give you four reasons:
Most Europeans I’ve talked to don’t share the American’s fascination with historical sites. When you grow up in a place where there are remnants of neolithic settlements, the roman empire, and medieval societies, history loses its novelty. With the exception of the isolated and sporadic native American ruins, there are very few signs of human history in the U.S. A 100-year-old house is considered historically significant enough to exempt the owner from certain real estate taxes in some U.S. states. Meanwhile, living in a 300 old structure in some European cities not uncommon.
In England, I can walk through neolithic long barrows, Celtic hill forts, Roman ruins and maintained medieval structures, all in a single day. Walking into a slouching 17th-century pub and having to crouch to avoid hitting my head on the ceiling, teaches me more about the nutrition of 17th century Europeans in a more tangible way than any museum exhibit could. It’s a study in living history that just doesn’t exist in the U.S. (Sidenote: in looking for a picture of a tall man in a pub, I found my English doppelganger.)
In the Dales, I visited a 12th-century Norman church that was built on the remains of an Anglo-Saxon church, which itself was built on the remains of a Roman settlement. In the church stood three 9th-century Anglo-Saxon crosses covered in flowing designs and, in the corner, were two 4th-century Roman altars discovered in the oldest part of the foundations of the church. It’s such a thrill to see and physically touch the tangible continuity of culture from ancient times. I can run my fingers along grooves in stone carved by an ancient Roman. Real. Tangible. History.
Infrastructure, Physical and Legal
English law recognizes a unique principle known as “Rights of Way.” This right grants the walking public access to a network of public footpaths and bridleways that honeycomb the countryside. These footpaths are trails that often run through private property. Over the years, long distance paths (referred to as a “Way”) through and to points of interest have developed. These trails, while often passing through protected wilderness areas, most of the time, pass through rural but largely uninhabited areas that are dotted with villages and towns.
Contrasted with the American system of trails, where we generally hike there-and-back routes through rugged and remote virgin nature, the English walking experience includes interaction with people, culture, and history. The English walking tour means, more times than not, you’re in a small village, each with a unique history and feel, for lunch and another village for dinner. In the U.S., if you find a trail that passes so regularly through inhabited areas, you’re likely to find yourself eating at Burger King and staying in a Motel 6. Not quite the same experience.
English long distance footpaths are well marked with regular waymarkers. The waymarkers are regular enough that you could almost get away with walking an entire 100-mile route without a map. That being said, there’s a thriving English walking trail guidebook market. These guides provide the walker with detailed maps as well information on local points of interests.
With established routes, the locals have fostered a cottage (literally) industry of services that cater to walkers. B&Bs, inns, and the occasional hotel, offering comfortable lodging and hot meals, are conveniently located along the trails. Baggage handling services are available on many trails (more on that later).
Lastly, unlike the U.S., most of the trailheads for a long distance footpath are accessible by public transportation. The country has an outstanding train system that will likely get you within walking distance of a trailhead. In rare cases where a train doesn’t run to a trailhead, a train can get you within a few miles and buses and taxis can take you those last few miles.
Active And Authentic Cultural Experiences
For the American, England offers all the benefits of experiencing a different culture without the stress of an insurmountable language barrier. True, American and the British are not that different. But they are different enough that we can confuse each other whilst speaking the same language, and that’s kind of amusing. Alright, mate?
Walking the countryside is an excellent way to bypass the crowds, high cost, and gimmicks of the tourist honeypots and actively experience the history and culture of England firsthand. Exploring the ruins of an off-the-beaten-path hill fort or simply chatting with a local over a pint of real ale brewed down the street will result in a more authentic and more memorable experience than passively whipping around on a double decker site-seeing bus in London.
While we don’t need to leave the U.S. to experience bucolic beauty, rural England has it in spades. Thatched roofs, dry stone walls, and cobblestone bridges, the English countryside reflects the charming reality of the absurd rococo romanticism of Thomas Kinkade.
There’s something very special about sauntering through an old sheep field, into an ancient forest, and then into a picturesque English village.
Thousands of years ago, Britain was more or less a giant forest. Over the millennia virtually all the forests were felled. What was left was a land sculpted by men. Asymmetrical property lines resulting in patchwork landscape. We tend to think of nature as a place unmolested by humans, but in England, there are very few places that can claim such a description. Nature in England has been tamed and domesticated. But it’s an ancient domestication, resulting mostly from the hands of ancient people rather than the earth churning mega machines that spit out strip malls we have in the U.S.
There’s nothing quite like it in the states.
In summary, England offers a unique and accessible walking experience not available in the states. It’s a uniquely beautiful place filled with history and culture that an American can experience without feeling isolated by a language barrier.