Actually, I’m not sure you’d call it hiking—maybe trekking, or even … well … walking. Sure, it sounds pretty tame, as in no rugged trails or big ups and downs. But for me, hiking in the UK was a revelation: fun, ever-changing, an adventure.
On the west coast of the United States, where I live, I hike in national and state parks, public lands miles from the places people live and work. Trails switchback up and down mountains, over creeks and rocks and tangles of roots. The hikes are steep and physically taxing. The point is to get away from it all and to get a workout.
As much as I appreciate those hikes, though, they sometimes feel like long, repetitive slogs. The scenery might vary along the way, but often not all that much. It can be a relief to get back to the car.
Hiking in the UK
In the UK, it’s nothing like that. When my wife Mardena and I went to England and Wales for the first time in 2018, we tromped over farms and moors, past barns and horses and sheep, through villages and hamlets. The terrain was gentle. The sights were varied. The workaday world was never far away.
Lots of our walks went through private property. Thanks to the British tradition of rights of way, Mardena and I were free to cross private land as long as we stuck to designated paths.
After that first visit, we were hooked. In the summer of 2022, we decided to go again. The coronavirus was still active, so we limited ourselves to two and half weeks, this time in England alone.
Partly, it was the novelty that made the walks so special. In the US, private property is sacred. Signs on fences and gates saying, “Private Property, Keep Out,” read like threats. I never saw that in the UK. On a trek from Chipping Campden, our temporary base in the Cotswold’s, to the village of Broad Campden a couple of miles away, we crossed a field where the owner was busy on his tractor not fifty yards from us. On another walk, we passed a farmer forking hay into her shed. On another, the path ran through a horse farm where the manager greeted us with a smile and cheerful “hello” as we walked past.
When we got off track, locals were quick to steer us right. One afternoon when we were practically spinning in circles trying to figure out which path to take out of little Donnington, an amiable farmer clattering along on his tractor, stopped, chatted with us a bit, and pointed us in the right direction before rattling off. Another time, when we’d lost our way in a village on England’s Cornwall coast, a man working in his yard came out and guided us a half mile out of town until the path became clear again.
Every guesthouse we stayed in had guidebooks we could borrow detailing local walking routes. All rights of way paths have signs at key points saying, “Public Footpath,” but Mardena and I still needed guidebooks that identified barns, fences, gates, crags and other markers along the way: “Turn right at the stone building and go through the gate. Turn left and walk between the houses in Spring Gardens. Turn right into the field and continue …” and so on. Some farmers mow swaths through their fields to indicate footpaths, but some fields have no obvious path. Deciphering the route, though, was part of the fun. It was like orienteering without the time constraints.
Lost in the English Countryside
The guidebooks are usually specific, with maps and detailed directions, but not always. One day when our guidebook let us down, we crossed paths with an Italian couple coming from the opposite direction. The young man announced, “We are Italians, and we are lost.” “We are Americans, and we are lost,” I said. After floundering around together awhile, we all finally gave up. Mardena and I gave the couple a lift back to the village they’d started from.
Then there was the time our missteps bordered on the ludicrous. Near the end (I thought) of one hike, I reckoned that we’d finally made it back to the outskirts of Stow on the Wold, the village we’d started from. I asked a young woman we ran into how to get to Stow’s central Market Square. She looked startled, but then smiled genially and gave us directions. They sounded complicated. A couple of blocks farther on, I asked a middle-aged man in bright, billowy pantaloons the same question. He seemed amused, but he got us reoriented. Probably, neither of them had the heart to mention that we weren’t anywhere near Stow. We were in Lower Swell, a village two miles away. I’d have found it comical too.
That was our one spectacular debacle. Elsewhere, we just toddled along and enjoyed the sights. They could be wonderfully diverse. On a four-mile walk from Stow on the Wold to the village of Bourton on the Water, we started by passing through a community flower garden, then through a cemetery, a field of sheep, a stand of woods, and a riding academy. We crossed a stone walking bridge over a willow shaded creek, passed a postcard cute stone cottage, crossed fields of horses and cows, passed a sort of rural athletic retreat, and continued into the fairy-tale villages of Lower and Upper Slaughter before finally reaching Bourton on the Water. On our way back, we stopped at a little hotel in Lower Slaughter for tea.
As much as I loved rights of way, I sometimes felt a little uncomfortable when we’d pass close to someone’s cottage or through a meadow where a farmer was fixing his fence. I felt vaguely like we might be violating something. It was probably the American in me. It never seemed to bother the locals; no one ever said a word except to greet us or help us find our way.
Oddly, despite my unease, there was something liberating about walking across private property. You might think that to people like Mardena and me, used to hiking on wilderness trails, walking up people’s private lanes and between their farm buildings might feel constraining. But it was the opposite. It felt like we’d been let loose to go places we could never go in the US.
The walks left us with a medley of unforgettable images: dazzling green and gold farmlands; willow trees drooping over the grassy banks of a quiet stream; lakes shimmering in the afternoon sun; stone cottages with flowery gardens; moody old churches with tottering gravestones; ancient stone circles on grassy upland moors.
Rural Versus City England
Before visiting England’s rural spaces, I’d dismissed the country as dull and colorless, a place where everyone looked like Americans, spoke our language, and ate food like ours. I was drawn to countries that seemed strange and exotic, those of the Middle East, say, or Southeast Asia whose foreignness hit you the moment you stepped off the plane. The England Mardena and I experienced, though, felt every bit as exotic as any of those more distant lands. Its dark old churchyards, colorful landscapes, storybook villages, mysterious stone megaliths, and expansive moorlands were different from anything I’d experienced before. Sights like those made the place a magnet, hard to stay away from, drawing us back again.
When you go:
As mentioned in the article, books and pamphlets detailing local walking routes can usually be borrowed at guesthouses in the villages and towns where many walks originate. However, the following are some websites that provide an overview of British rights of way walks:
UK Walking Routes | UK Walks. The only guide you need
Find your perfect trail, and discover the land of myths and legend
The 20 Best Walking Trails in England | englandexplore
Written by: Paul Michelson
Paul lives in the Central Valley of northern California. He enjoys writing about travel experiences and people he and Mardena have met along the way. He likes to spend his free time walking, running, and biking or, when the weather’s hopeless, staring outside and wishing he could do those things.
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