In the spring of 1997, I fulfilled a long dreamed dream. I went walking in England for two months. When I went on trips out of the country, I always went for two months because that is how long a visa lasts without having to renew it. I thought that, having paid the price of the plane ticket, I might as well stay as long as I could. I went to England from the middle of April until the middle of June.
I love walking long distances. For years I had imagined walking across America: walking all day and then stopping at a farm house at night where I would be given dinner, a room in which to sleep, breakfast in the morning and be sent off with a box lunch and plenty of drinking water the next day. If I could materialize Bed and Breakfasts where ever I might have wanted to stop for the night, this might have been a workable plan. But one does not just walk up to any farm house and ask to be taken in like an invited guest.
No, it wasn’t possible in America, but I wanted to go someplace where it was. Having been to countries where I couldn’t speak the language, I wanted it to be an English speaking country, and I wanted to hike in luxury–to eat dinner that someone else had cooked and sleep in beds.
By chance I met some people who had gone trekking in England and they had been able to stay at Bed and Breakfasts every night. It sounded ideal. From English tourist sources and from The Rambler Association, the primo English walking club, I ordered instructive brochures, maps and lists of Bed and Breakfasts along the trails. Some of the pamphlets that I received had colored photographs of the unsurpassable English countryside. I was hooked, lined and sinkered.
I knew that everything I took with me would have to be carried on my back for the whole two months, so I pared down to barer than bare minimum. I got a canvas back-pack that was the size of a small suitcase and could be turned into a suitcase by removing the straps. I took only one pair of Jeans: the pair I was wearing. I thought if these jeans got dirty, I could wash them out at night and they would be dry the next morning.
Because I was not in good shape for long distance walking, as soon as I got off the plane at Heathrow, I took the train to Windsor and started out on the Thames Path, it being virtually level. It was a pleasant beginning. All of this path was paved. All of it was next to water. I passed through the back yards of lovely homes. I saw a Mandarin Duck, a very colorful small duck with what looked like gun turrets protruding from its back but were actually the ends of its wings. I saw many longboats, the European long, narrow canal boats that fostered my hankering for a longboat vacation on British canals with someone managing the boat while I walked the tow paths. I passed through Henley, where the boat crews from Oxford were practicing in their excessively long, needle shaped rowing sculls. There were many locks along the Thames with their accompanying weirs and sluiceways. The people I met talked about the ones they thought the most beautiful: like comparing waterfalls.
The people I met also talked about the drought that was happening all over England. They said it was the worst they could remember. What they, or I, didn’t know was that THE WEATHER GODS were just waiting for me to get on the Ridgeway so that they could cut loose.
The Ridgeway is one of the oldest pathways in England. It extends east-west along the South Downs from north of London all the way to Devizes near Avebury. I got on it just south of Oxford. As the name implies, it was along the top of a ridge, and that was where The WEATHER GODS gathered. It rained. It poured. It blew. I had to buy a Gore-tex jacket, because the light weight, supposedly water repellant one I had brought with me wasn’t.
This was the moment of truth for washing my jeans at night. They got dirty every day from walking through mud and scraping the inside of my shoes on the inside of my pants legs. The walking paths went through fields and over stiles. For some reason known only to God and Cows, the cows liked to gather at the stiles. On each side of a stile, I waded through, not just mud, but cow excrement kept wet by the other kind of cow excrement, even if it wasn’t raining. I washed my Jeans at night as I had anticipated, but it only took me one night to find out that they would not dry over night. So I put them on wet, and discovered they would dry from my body heat if it wasn’t raining, and if it was, they would be wet anyway. I started out with my pants wet every morning except when a motherly matron of a bed and breakfast let me wear a bathrobe while she washed and dried my jeans in modern machines.
The end of the Ridgeway was fairly close to Bath. At Bath I went onto the Cotswold Way which goes north through the Cotswold’s to Chipping Campden, a market town just south of Stratford on Avon. The Cotswolds were to me, beautiful beyond compare—the most picturesque of English landscapes: rolling green fields with rock walls, hedgerows alive with birds, winding country lanes, buff-colored stone cottages with thatched roofs, quaint villages, typical English pubs with wonderful food, and exquisitely wonderful wood work. Too bad I didn’t drink alcohol; I might still be lounging on a wooden bench beside a burning fireplace, stewed to the gills.
Just before I got to Chipping Campden I had a bad fall from a stile, landing on my hands and knees, but I managed to finish the Cotswold Way and get to Stratford on Avon.
Then I decided to give my knees a rest and take the Slow Coach around Ireland. From Ireland, I went to the Lake District and took the Coast to Coast path across to Ingleby in Yorkshire, and then by train to York where I went on an architectural sight-seeing binge.
Before returning home, I took a train to Bognor Regis on the south coast to visit my cousin Jane and her husband Sam for several days.
The highlights of this trip, I will write about individually.