Within an hour of leaving Winchester on my solo hike of the 170-kilometre South Downs Way, I missed a signpost — obscured, it turned out, by a hawthorn hedge in full flower — and ended up on layby alongside a busy road. After reviving my energies with a bacon “butty” from a tea van parked there, I was redirected to the right path by a local plumber, who had been sitting in his car enjoying his own “elevenses” when I showed up.
I was following in the footsteps of family friends who had ventured out 40 years previously.
“With little experience and great expectations, we set out on the second Sunday of June of 1967 to walk the 85 odd miles along the South Downs,” writes Phyl Coggan in her journal. “With our noses pointed east and mostly following the highest ridges during the seven days we took to reach Eastbourne, we were burned by the sun on our right sides and cooled by the north-east breeze to our left.”
Phyl and Bill had spent weeks planning what they would carry in their canvas haversacks. They had waxed their leather hiking boots, whittled walking sticks, and taken their chances on finding accommodation at the end of each day’s trek. They had pored over Ordnance Survey maps, contacted the Society of Sussex Downsmen — a volunteer group that continues to maintain that county’s section of what is now one of England’s most popular National Long Distance Trails — taking as their only guide a 1950s Sussex Country Magazine article.
I certainly had the advantage of more tools and resources for my trip – newer hiking materials and equipment, internet websites and directories, and many general and route-specific guidebooks that help walkers figure out where they want to go in the UK, what to take, where to stay, and what to look for along the way.
But I still managed to get lost.
So, since then, I’ve let others do the planning.
Full-Service Guided Tours
Some companies will do just about everything – except the actual walking — for you.
I have been on two holidays with the Sheffield-based company Walking Women. When I polled my companions over breakfast during a Quantock Hills trip, I learned that two were on their very first organized walking holiday, one was on her eleventh, and between us we had racked up 61!
One walker told me, “I love the fact that all I have to do is decide where I want to go, pay the fee, and show up. Someone else takes care of everything else.”
“It’s comforting knowing that the guide chooses all the best routes,” said another.
“I can be confident that the hike will be safe and at my level.”
The value of a good local guide can’t be overstated. As well as having “recced” the area, they know of alternatives for those times when you find your way un-navigable for some reason. They can provide background about the geology and history of the area that you may not find in any book. And there’s a good chance they know the best spots for that most British of traditions – the Cream Tea.
Each of Walking Women’s holidays, which cover the UK, Europe and beyond, is graded for difficulty. The company’s website includes details of each route, accommodation, and background about the guides who all have an intimate knowledge of the area in which they work.
This is just one of the dozens of companies in the UK offering walking holidays.
If you know little more than that you want to explore the UK on Shank’s Pony, Britain Express’s website includes a comprehensive list of companies offering walking tours of all kinds.
For those who want to explore the countryside unaccompanied, but needing some help with the practicalities, a self-guided tour might be just the ticket. These often include a planned route, accommodation bookings, a service that moves walkers’ baggage from A to B and all the maps and directions the walker needs to stay on track.
For even more personal service, some companies such as Foot Trails and Lynott Tours are in the business of offering customized tours geared to private groups’ particular interests, priorities and abilities.
The Yarn Market Hotel in Dunster, Somerset accommodated my recent Walking Women group comfortably. Along with daily Full English Breakfasts, bagged lunches and three-course evening meals, they were even able to find us a room for an informal yoga session at the end of each day’s hike. And it turned out that this hotel also offers local walking tours for its regular guests.
While there seems to be no list or network of hotels offering this service, walkers wanting to visit a specific area could contact the local tourist office for suggestions, or contact hotels directly to enquire.
For the independently-minded, numerous organizations and resources can help with trip-planning in ways that weren’t available when the Coggans stepped out of their front door in Compton, Hampshire heading for Eastbourne.
They would have known about The Ramblers, a 123,000 member-strong association that has been promoting walking in England, Wales and Scotland for more than 80 years. But limited as they were to phone and mail contact, getting information would have been much more tedious than it is today. This summer The Ramblers is promoting 2,800 walks, open to members as well as visitors who may enjoy some local company exploring the countryside. The “Paths and Access” page on their website provides lots of information about the right to access specific areas of the countryside.
The Ordnance Survey is Britain’s official mapmaking agency. Its maps —
sold individually or used in many guidebooks — provide accurate topographical information about any route. Along with a compass or GPS device, an OS map is invaluable for long-distance hikers and those on shorter rambles.
Ambitious walkers might want to tackle just one section or the whole “nine-yards” of one of the 19 National Long Distance Trails. Totalling about 22,000 km, these include The Pennine Way, Hadrian’s Wall Path, and the spectacular South West Coast Path, which leads along cliff tops and headlands of the Cornish peninsula, and beyond. The National Trail website provides comprehensive information about each one, along with links to accommodation and services for transporting walkers’ luggage.
A few years ago, I spent a week exploring the Isle of Wight. From my cottage in the small village of Niton, there were four different footpaths to choose from when I headed out each morning. Many of England’s public rights of way, which by some estimates total more than 217,000 km, were established by the Countryside Act of 1949, giving walkers – and, in many cases, cyclists and riders — access to thousands of acres of public and private land in what is colloquially known as The Right to Roam.
I loved following in the footsteps of Bill and Phyl Coggan whose faded typewritten account is one of my most prized possessions. Spending hours on the top of the Downs, which swoop across the landscape so languorously, with only the baleful gaze of sheep to mark my progress, I encountered surprisingly few other hikers – although more appeared on the weekend, along with cyclists and horseback riders. For eight days, I explored paths that over the millennia have been trod by pilgrims, invading armies, tinkers, farmers and travellers. At the end of my trek, I was met at Black Cap — overlooking the Sussex town of Lewes — by my uncle, a lifelong walker, who at 90, still spends much of his days “walking the hills,” without benefit of map, compass or company.
I may have the walking gene, if not the desire or navigational skills, to strike out on another long-distance trek alone. But these days, the many options open to walkers in the UK mean I will never run out of places to go, ways to get there, and the resources to learn everything else I need to know.
If you go
* Britain Express – http://www.britainexpress.com/great_british_sites/walking-tours.htm
* The Countryside Code – download a copy of the brochure or bookmark for your pocket – https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/the-countryside-code
* National Trails – www.nationaltrails.co.org
* The Ramblers www.ramblers.org.uk
Search for “Know Your Signs” for information on footpath signage.
* Walking Britain – perhaps the most inspiring website of them all http://www.walkingbritain.co.uk.
* Walking Women – www.walkingwomen.com