Why Walking May Be the Best Way To See Britain’s Countryside
There are 91,000 miles of footpaths in England, and they’re all open to the public. All you need to join in the country’s great walking tradition is a pair of shoes and a love of ambling.
Photographs by Carolyn Drake
Illustrations by Mark Caneso
Maybe walking all day breeds a kind of cognitive fog we hadn’t anticipated. Maybe middle age had come for our hearing. Maybe Brits need to enunciate better. Whatever the case, my four friends and I stood on a windy moor in the waning afternoon light wondering what, exactly, the nice lady had said might eat us.
It was the first leg of our 50-plus-mile walk through the Yorkshire Dales. Close your eyes and picture the English countryside: I’m here to tell you it’s really like that. Windswept hills. Lush valleys. Cozy pubs in tiny stone villages. An abbey here, a castle there. Roughly a zillion sheep. This is James Herriot country, Wuthering Heights country, Secret Garden country, all lazy becks and misty woodlands and dry stone walls, and travelers come from around the world to take in its beauty. Other travelers, I mean, not us.
I’ll get to our ulterior motives in a moment. For now we had a moor to cross, and from the sound of this woman’s voice, something intended to stop us. She’d been walking up there just like us when she noticed my friend Maple wearing flip-flops.
“You’ll want to put those on,” she said, gesturing at the boots hanging from his backpack. “There’s [unintelligible] around here, they’ll getcha.”
I could’ve sworn she said “routers.” Maple heard “gators.”
“Oh?” he said, in an elicit-more-info tone.
“Oh, yes,” she replied, walking off. “Big for nips!”
How big is a nip? What is a nip? No time to ponder these. Maple laced up and we pressed on, just a smidge less carefree. We’d begun our trek in the thimble-size village of Pateley Bridge (sign on wall across from tearoom: HEDGEHOG AWARENESS WEEK!), and the apartment we’d booked in the tiny village of Lofthouse was still miles away. Tidy and clear for the first dozen miles, the trail had lately grown steep and overgrown and a little hard to see. Perhaps we’d nipped off more than we could chew.
But here’s the thing: We didn’t need a trail. In fact, that was the point.
Over the next four days we would honor trails only so much as they suited us. We’d come to England not for its 91,000 miles of wonderful and orderly footpaths, but because by law we were free to disregard them. In 2000, the U.K. passed the Countryside and Rights of Way Act, which granted walkers in England and Wales the right to walk more or less where they pleased, regardless of who owned the land beneath them. More than 3 million acres of private moorland, heath, and other privately owned hunks of earth became exactly what they were at the start of all things: ours to wander.
How did something so radical happen here? Trick question! It was always thus — until the 13th century and the beginnings of enclosure, when landowners started fencing off previously accessible property. Land that had been commonly managed was suddenly off limits, and a once-communal relationship to the earth began to shift. Enclosure continued right on through the end of the 19th century, sequestering much of the countryside behind an ideological and literal hedgerow. Maybe that’s why the landowners didn’t see how big a protest movement was forming.
We walked through acres of low heather and forests of fern, and set out not just to have an adventure, but to keep oiled a vision of life not shared back in the States.
One spring day in 1932, about 400 frustrated walkers converged at a hill called Kinder Scout, some 65 miles from where my friends and I were now. The budding ramblers’ movement, which grew to form the Ramblers’ Association, held a growing sphere of influence, and one of England’s greatest acts of civil disobedience was about to take place. The walkers made their way to Kinder’s plateau, undeterred by the local duke’s menacing gamekeepers, only to have five of their own arrested. The imprisonment of those men galvanized the right-to-roam movement like nothing up to then, and it only grew stronger. The Countryside and Rights of Way Act 68 years later was its long-hoped-for culmination — not a radical act so much as a return to form.
One consequence of the ramblers’ campaign is the thousands of excellent footpaths carving across the country. How to choose? What you want is the Nidderdale Way, Mike Brockhurst told me a few months back, referring to an easily reached, historically fascinating loop just outside the Yorkshire Dales National Park. You might know Brockhurst by his nom de ramble: the Walking Englishman. Over the last several years he’s become something of a legend in rambling circles. He’s strolled more than 20,000 miles and written authoritatively about how and why to do so. People stop the guy on the street. The Nidderdale Way it was.
So that’s how we got knee-deep in wavy British grass on a summer evening, far from home and far from where we’d sleep that night. As problems go, ours paled. But it needed solving nonetheless, and out came the massive old Ordnance Survey map I’d bought online. The five of us crowded around it, attempting to square the surrounding hills and valleys with the lines and colors arrayed before us. After weeks of coordinating, we were doing it, walking from one corner of the planet to another corner of the planet. Okay, corner A and corner B weren’t all that far from each other. But the trip would be unmediated by car or property lines or any other modern inventions. I felt that singular thrill that comes with reverting to the elemental and ancient.
Adders. That’s what the woman was warning us about, we realized, the only venomous snake native to the UK. If they’re indeed big for nips, we never found out.
The five of us had been friends since the previous millennium. We’d been kids, and now, in a way somehow clarified by standing on a blustery hillside, we were not. All but one of us had kids of our own. Even our jobs sounded weirdly grown-up when spoken aloud: professor, lawyer, schoolteacher, architect, and me, a male model. Of all the things we’d done over the years — dares and pranks and road trips and sneaking into pools and whatever else young humans do — we’d never attempted this simplest of activities: walk really far.
We hit the road early that second morning. A small bridge took us across the River Nidd, and then we headed toward How Stean Gorge, where we spotted a small café. “Should we skip breakfast, just keep walking till lunch?” someone asked. This person was ignored, and two minutes later we ordered our first calories of the day.
“How Stean Gorge,” José said, spreading our map across the table.
“Studley Roger,” Erik read, 15 miles to the east.
“Timble Ings,” I read. “Blubberhouses.”
Everything was so green as to seem fake. After discussing whether British place names are deliberately silly, we discussed which parts of our bodies ached from the previous day’s 17 miles. Then we folded the map and rambled. A cobbled road took us through the green and up Stud Fold Bank. We veered left from there, then right, then right again, passing from one pasture into another. The permeability of English property lines gave rise to a fascinating suite of technologies, all dedicated to getting over fences. We climbed over step stiles and squeezed through squeeze stiles, and let ourselves through too many bridle gates, pedestrian gates, and kissing gates to count.
Of all the laws that control our behavior — don’t steal, don’t stab each other, don’t snip off the mattress tag — property laws have always struck me as among the most interesting. Fences and walls and property lines are so central to the way we live, and seemingly so commonsensical, that it seldom occurs to us to question them, until we do. On my way to England, lifting off from San Francisco, I felt acutely the bizarreness of borders: the squares and parallelograms below demarcating this and that piece of planet I was allowed to look at but not touch.
The previous year, in California’s Russian River Valley, I had started to touch. The Russian River is dotted with lovely little beaches, the vast majority of which prominently forbid trespassing. But the majority of those notices — on this river and on rivers all around the country — turn out to be bogus. The average resident doesn’t know it, but a long-held easement enshrines the public’s access to beaches on most navigable waterways. The right dates back to Emperor Justinian (A.D. 482–565), who declared that “these things are common to all mankind; the air, running water, the sea, and consequently the shores of the sea.” It was an early articulation of the commons, a privileging of the common good over private interests. If that sounds a little too socialist for America’s private-property-loving public, that’s because it is. For Americans, the river easement is one of precious few concessions to humanity’s interest in traipsing the planet unchecked. By and large, we are meant to stay on the sidewalk.
But not the British! So committed are they to their so-called access lands that the government asks to be notified of anyone deterring passage. When a 2016 survey classed 9 percent of the footpaths in England and Wales as poorly kept — meaning they were difficult or impossible to traverse due to barbed wire or overgrown undergrowth — it was a big deal. The message from the Ramblers Association and their ilk was stark: Use it or lose it.
And so my friends and I set out not just to have an adventure, but to keep oiled a vision of life not shared back in the States. We walked freely through acres of low heather and forests of chest-scratching fern. We cooled off under gnarled hawthorns and threw rocks in the slender river murmuring beside us. We ate fish and chips and heavy ham slabs, and vast ploughman’s lunches in cool, dark pubs. Rain had been predicted all week, but we got exclusively sunny days. One of our bartenders complained about it: “We like it a little miserable.” In the village of Ramsgill, we dusted ourselves off for a sublime lunch at the Yorke Arms, an 18th-century coaching house turned Michelin-starred restaurant. It’s my belief that people who walk 15 miles or more may eat gnocchi with celery velouté and roasted fennel in the muddiest of shorts if they wish.
On our third morning we trudged up to an old church in the town of Glasshouses to find a man waiting for us. I’d invited Mike Brockhurst to come walk with us for a spell, and he’d obliged. He was two decades our senior, with the physique of someone two decades younger. I liked him immediately. He had an impish smile and a joyful, Tigger-like enthusiasm for everything ever. “Brilliant,” he said, regularly.
The plan was for him to accompany us for the first few miles of our day, but we were the ones accompanying, scurrying to keep up while these chiseled calves charged over the Nidd, then into the trees across the valley. Brockhurst had lived his 60-something years just a few miles from here, had hiked from one end of Britain to the other, but somehow he’d never seen a particular tarn that supposedly lay hidden in a hillside grove ahead. So up we went, and along the way he spoke of the rambling life.
It had been a management life previously, and before that he checked on people’s water. Then, in 1994, Mike’s first marriage fell apart, and he found himself on a 12-day stroll, the Coast-to-Coast walk through northern England. You know how a small seed sometimes gets planted and slowly grows into something bigger? This was not that. The small seed immediately became a redwood, and Brockhurst has devoted every plausible moment since then to walking. Over 80 consecutive days in 2011 he walked more than 1,000 miles to complete the Great British Walk. Since he started rambling he’s lost more than 40 pounds. I find it sweet and a little comforting to picture him out there all those years, a singular if mobile kind of constant. During my college years, through my 20s and 30s, marriage, the birth of my kids — that whole time, Brockhurst was walking.
“Do you ever bike?” my friend Erik asked as we passed an old barn. We’d noticed some cyclists on the trail earlier.
“I walk,” Brockhurst said, simply.
Later I asked what he thinks about while he walks. He shrugged. “I walk,” he replied.
Ten thousand people a day, hailing from the U.K., China, and Ethiopia, read his accounts of those walks. They come for inspiration, for entertainment, and, I believe, for something a little more complicated, too. There’s something about the way Brockhurst experiences a walk that makes you want to be like him. Watching him make his way through the trees, up onto a sunny bluff, and out and across a series of fields clarified something for me. He’s stoned.
This is James Herriot country, Wuthering Heights country, all lazy becks and misty woodlands and dry stone walls.
Okay, he’s not actually stoned. On the contrary, I’d wager the guy lives cleaner than most. But the level of quiet, sustained attention he brings to the natural world, his sheer delight at its exquisite, overlookable detail, calls to mind an altered and deeply attuned state. He’ll stare at the shape of a boulder for a full minute, shake his head incredulously at a butterfly. At one point I asked if he ever got bored on his walks. The question nearly knocked him down. He stopped.
“Look at that bird there,” he said, recovering. I hadn’t noticed it, but up ahead on the path a small brown bird was hopping daintily away from us. Every few hops it appeared to glance back at us, then would hop on.
“She’s leading us away from her nest, from her babies,” he continued. “It’s a brilliant little thing, isn’t it? And there she goes. How could any of this ever be boring?”
We began again and accompanied him all the way to the river in Summerbridge. He had some errands to run for his wife, and fondly we said our good-byes, though not before I could ask what he’d be doing now if he hadn’t discovered walking.
He cocked his head.
“Probably sitting around at the pub, griping about how bad the world is,” he said after a moment. Then he laughed at the sheer idea of it. “Look around,” he said, and then did so, gazing at some rocks, and the slope of a field, and a bush full of butterflies. “The world is perfect!”
Charlotte Brontë once attempted to capture her sister Emily’s love of the moors: “Flowers brighter than the rose bloomed in the blackest of the heath for her; out of a sullen hollow in a livid hillside her mind could make an Eden. She found in the bleak solitude many and dear delights; and not the least and best-loved was liberty.”
My friends and I did not pass the days in solitude, nor were we Brontës. But we were enjoying our liberty, free to roam and free to notice what happens when you do. Partridges flushing from low shrubs. Expanses of limestone reaching bleakly across the horizon. Sloping old barns, farmers in actual tweed. We trampled little yellow buds and the cloying scent of fresh chamomile wafted up.
On our fourth night we reached Ripley Castle, the ancestral seat of the Ingilby family for the past 27 generations. Time is like that here — you look at a wall and realize it’s been there half a dozen centuries. Here’s a field of lavender clicking with crickets, and the great-great-plus-grandparents of those crickets surely clicked in this same spot for passing knights. We slept near the castle, and in the morning everything had changed. The sky had gone gray and heavy — at last this godforsaken pleasant weather was coming to an end. The first rumble came 20 minutes into our four-hour walk.
Digging our raincoats out, we edged along a fence line, then dipped down into Cayton Gill, home to the ruins of a medieval village. We traced the edge of a small forest, took a right over a beck, and passed into a shady oak plantation. A fence led to a gate; a gap in a wall appeared; a bridleway brought us to a cobbled ford and then a gamekeeper’s track. Kettlespring became High Kettlespring, and that became Shaw Mills, and then we were at Brimham Rocks, an assortment of gritstone boulder formations carved by ice and river and wind over hundreds of millions of years. If all of that sounds a little confusing, we thought so, too.
In our defense, the map was unclear, the bushes were thick, and the sheep pastures had conspired to all look the same. We scrabbled over a fence, and stinging nettles bit into my legs. We walked along no path whatsoever, then tumbled through a fence into a recently hayed field and pulled out the map for the thousandth time. If we were where we thought we were, we needed to head southwest. If not, we needed to go northwest. Choosing wrongly would add a whole additional leg to the trip, and already the sun had started to sink in the sky. Just south of Fountains Abbey, we sat on the road and rationed the last of our peanuts. I cut our remaining granola bar into fifths.
Of all the times for an amiable blogger to appear Yoda-like in one’s thoughts, I suppose this was ideal. In his absence, Brockhurst’s spiritual mantra grew stronger: I walk. Am I tired? I walk. Are we lost? I walk. Adversity was no match for its simplicity, and who knows, maybe neurosis and doubt aren’t, either. Should I check my email? I walk. Am I a good enough person? I walk. And so we took a guess and walked. An hour later, at the site of an old flax-spinning mill, our steps merged once again with the faint dotted line on the Ordnance Survey map. The sun had not yet set when we limped triumphantly into Pateley Bridge.
The next morning brought a rainy taxi ride through Yorkshire on the way back to Leeds for my flight home. I knew the driving would feel wrong, and it did, so I comforted myself with solemn promises: From now on I’d only ramble to work, to the store. I would ramble over property lines a little, too, not to be a jerk but because this land is our land, and it’s full of partridges and boulders and butterflies, and the Walking Englishman convinced me for a while that it’s perfect.
Planning Your Walking Vacation
Where to go
There’s no shortage of maps and guides for U.K. walkers, from National Trails to iFootpath to Walking Britain to the website of the Ramblers Association. You can search by region, distance, or difficulty level. Companies like Explore Britain and Ramblers Walking Holidays will set up your entire trip for you.
When to go
Plenty of ramblers ramble in the winter — there’s a stark beauty to snowy moors. But spring and summer might be easier for first timers, provided they understand it can rain absolutely anytime in Britain, and will.
Order yourself a good Ordnance Survey before your trip. Nobody makes maps like the Brits, and you’ll be grateful for the fine detail.
If you’re hiking from village to village, be prepared to plan your treks around pub hours — they’re often the only food you’ll find out in the country. Pack some trail snacks, too, to be safe. But if you end up in Ramsgill and want an upscale affair that is truly worth the trek, head to the Yorke Arms, a stately old coaching house since converted into a statelier Michelin-starred restaurant.
Ken Ilgunas wrote a wonderful book about walking on private property, This Land Is Our Land: How We Lost the Right to Roam and How to Take It Back. It’s full of history and a rousing call to arms (or legs). Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust: A History of Walking will also get you in the mood. The podcast 99% Invisible did a terrific show in June 2018 called “Right to Roam.”
About the author: Chris Colin’s writing has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Saveur, the Atavist, Pop-Up Magazine, Wired, and Best American Science and Nature Writing. He’s a contributing writer for California Sunday Magazine and Afar.