For months, I’d been dreaming of English footpaths. Not merely dreaming, but singing their praises — their history, the benefits of walking — on my long, hard book tour. From New York City to Seattle and Philadelphia to Pasadena, I talked to thousands of Americans who knew nothing about this ancient network of paths in England. They are so much a part of life for me now that I feel pulled toward them.
But yesterday, I was in the steep, cobblestone village of Clovelly, picking up where I left off many months ago. I planned to walk ten miles to the next stop of Hartland Quay.
Within ten minutes of stepping foot on the trail, I came face-face with a foreigner: a black iron barrier extending across the path, orange nylon twine attaching it to a post like spooled thread. I suppose we can say it was a simple fence. Any other place would be right, but not across the path. I approached, stared and ran my hand across the smooth black metal barrier. I could easily lift myself over it — it was only rib-height. But that wasn’t the point, exactly. Was this a wall or barrier where none could trespass? Walls and fences kept things out. And that thought made me indignant. How un-English to construct a fence across a national treasure known as a public footpath.
Where, I searched, was the most welcoming and humble hinged invention known the gate?
Every pasture, woodland, hedgerow or enclosure with a public footpath sign has a way through, even if not readily discernable, I’ve learned in my ten years of walking in England. Keep to the path, the way always appears.
And then I heard jolly voices behind me. This did not bode well. Not the concept of jollity, I should clarify, but the idea of company. Not that I am anti-social, but don’t fence me in with strangers. And if I’m ‘rewilding’ — the latest buzzword for urbanites feeling transcendental about taking walks — I like to ‘rewild’ on my own. I turned toward the fence and tried to assess if I could back up, run at it and leap over it like a hurdler. It was too late. I turned to see three paunchy middle-age men ambling toward me.
No no non non nonononono. No.
“Oh hi!” I called out to them, feigning delight in company. “Are you walking the Southwest Coast Path?” I asked, thinking this was all wrong. “Because I don’t see the way through here … ”
“We are,” one of them called back.
“I’m just wondering if we’re supposed to scale this thing,” I hollered, gesticulating behind me. “This seems to go across the path.” And as I said this, my hand — again, gesticulating wildly — accidentally hit a moveable part of the structure behind me, and it let out a metallic squeak. A gate. And this camouflaged gate in the fence opened onto a path leading into a woodland of dappled light where bluebells, yellow primroses, spotted orchids and wild garlic were in full, heady bloom.
“Hey, no worries. We’re on the right path!” But they were close now and I felt sure they would want to converse now that they heard my Yankee accent, and probably thought I’d never walked a footpath a day in my life given my apparent inability to find a way through. Maybe I was rusty; it was my first ramble since last autumn — before my arduous book tour and thousands of miles criss-crossing the United States on planes, trains and automobiles.
“So you’re hiking the Southwest Coast Path?” the thinnest asked as we took our turns opening the gate. I said I’d started in Minehead, about a hundred miles east. “But not through-hiking. I’m just a fair weather ambler,” I said, wanting to press on. “I take it in pieces. And you?”
Their eyes turned glassy at the idea of walking 100 miles on this ethereal coastline. (As they should and yours, too.) “We walked from Hartland Quay to Bude yesterday –” Were they walking the path counter-clockwise, I asked. “No, no. It’s our second day. We live in London.”
“Oh,” I paused, recalling what I knew about the section they had just completed. It was next for me on the walk and I dreaded it. “That’s said to be the most difficult on the entire path.” The South West Coast Path is 630 miles.
One contorted his face into the shape of a walnut at this news, wincing as he reached for his knees. Ahead of me today was just 10 miles of intermittent ups and downs with flat grasslands and pastures along with ancient woodlands from Clovelly westward to Hartland Quay. But the next section they’d just randomly chosen was a bit beastly: 15 miles of relentless ascents and descents above a rocky shoreline famous for shipwrecks, near waterfalls, along hidden combes and crossing ten river valleys.
“I’m going to pick up my pace now,” I said. “Have a great day walking. It looks beautiful everywhere…”
I may not have been able to discern a gate from a fence, but I wasn’t exactly a rusty ingenue. I know how walking distills the big from the small. It clarifies thinking in the way water goes through a sluice, revealing gold nuggets. I walk because it’s playful; sometimes I do it with friends or family but if they’re playing cricket, or travelling or still in bed at 10 o’clock, I will set out alone and very much enjoy reading the landscape for stories by myself.
And yesterday was nursery rhyme beautiful — story of spring bluebells, gamboling sheep, diving swallows and the perfect breeze, the perfect warmth, the perfect blue sky and blue ocean. Nettles be damned: it was a day for a halter top and shorts. A day walking in Devon in May rivals any place on earth.