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A May Gambol in Devon

May 9, 2016

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I felt like a gamboling lamb yesterday.  Months away from the South West Coast Path, I was finally on the right track again. No more dreams of dirt paths, rocky cliffs and ancient woods while walking cement sidewalks in New York City, Washington, DC, Seattle or Philadelphia with an angry Green Day song in my head about suburban America. I was softened, and back in the pasture again.

But within ten minutes of stepping foot on the trail, I encountered a hardened foreigner. It came in the form of a black iron barrier extending across the path with orange nylon twine wrapped around a post like spooled thread. I suppose we can say it was a simple fence. I searched for a way through. Where was the way through?

I approached, stared and ran my hand across the smooth black metal barrier.  I stared again in disbelief, dumbfounded like I’d just read the headline: “Trump is President” for the first time. I could easily lift myself over it — it only came waist-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?

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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 will appear.

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. And a group trying to figure out where the path went would be an intrusion in to the joy of solitude.  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 then leap over it like hurdler. An inelegant solution would have to wait. 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 I was on the wrong path because of this barrier. “Because I don’t see the way through here!”

“We are,” one of them replied.

“I’m just wondering if we’re supposed to scale this thing,” I hollered, gesticulating behind me. “This here is a fence and it 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 gate open 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 gate in a fence. Maybe I was rusty; it was my first English gate since last autumn — before my arduous book tour and thousands of miles travelled on planes, trains and automobiles.

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“So you’re hiking the Southwest Coast Path?” the thinnest asked as we all walked through 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 alone.  “But 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, remembering what I knew about the section they had just completed. It was next for me.  “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 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 I dreaded the next section they’d just randomly chosen: 15 miles of relentless ascents and descents above a rocky shoreline famous for shipwrecks, near waterfalls, along hidden combes and crossing ten river valleys.

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We all walked through the gate and chatted for a couple minutes. “But 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 ambling is playful; sometimes I do it with friend 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.

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