January 10th 2008

'England’s green and pleasant land' upclose and personal. After weeks of watching the scenery fly by outside BritRail’s windows, I was going to step into this lovely and well-ordered landscape. Literally: I was going to walk across England. 'And we’re away.' With this quietly delivered line—a line I’d hear many times in the week to come from our leader—our group of twelve walkers began our hike across England. Seventy-six miles in six days—two strenuous and four easy—through the Lake District, the Yorkshire Dales and the North Yorkshire Moors—to Whitby where we ceremonially dipped our hiking boots into the North Sea and drank champagne on the beach. The Wayfarers organize luxury walking vacations in the UK and Europe, and the Coast-to-Coast is their most arduous walk, although given the warm sunny days (only once did it drizzle) and the confidence I felt as I got stronger each day (I DID IT! I DID IT!), I felt by week’s end I could have walked right through the next month. The old wish, 'May the wind be at your back and the road rise up to meet you' suddenly makes sense—we walked west to east to keep the prevailing winds at our backs, which is far less tiring than walking into the wind, although the road—well, footpath--often rose up to meet us rather too steeply. And although 'luxury'is usually combined with words like limousine and private jet, it works perfectly with walking: you get lots of strenuous exercise and fresh air, and then, after trudging hip-high through sun-drenched fields of barley and across meadows of buttercups, up sheep-covered hills and through dark scented woods, over/through stiles of every description (stone, wood, ladder, kissing, gate) until, when you’re thinking there’s nothing in your immediate future but another hill, there, in the middle of nowhere, is an eighteenth century country inn, or a manor house that looks as if it’s a Masterpiece Theatre set, or even a full-fledged seventeenth century ivy-covered turreted castle. Your room is waiting, your bag is magically already in it, the shower is hot, and drinks in the 'snug' await, with an elegant dinner to follow. And, with this much exercise, I didn’t even debate with myself about dessert. Lunches are at country pubs along the way (The Foresters was actually built in the 11th century!) and another, called The Mortal Man, was established by Sally Birkett in 1689 with this poem painted on its bar wall:
O mortal man, that lives by bread, What is it makes thy nose so red? Thou silly fool, that looks’t so pale, Tis drinking Sally Birkett’s ale.
Along our route, we walk by two of Richard III’s castles, and through the ruins of two beautiful abbeys (destroyed when Henry VIII had all the roofs removed and the monks driven out), we have a little ride on a steam railroad train—the same one they used in the Harry Potter movies for the Hogwart Express—and one day, if we get up early, we have a half hour to walk through a village market. (This is NOT a shopping trip.) We see classic English cottages covered with roses, and we walk by ancient stone walls built without cement hundreds of years ago when the fields were first cleared. We meet two men are repairing a stone wall in the old way, fitting the shapes of the stones together. The black and white Holstein cows are ‘normal’ size cows by my totally urban standards, while the gorgeous brown and cream Jerseys are huge hulks and have long pale eyelashes. There is the occasional handpainted sign on a fence saying 'beware of bull.' Sheep, I discover, awaken at daybreak (about 4:30 a.m.) and call to each other; this is called 'The sheep’s dawn chorus'; sheep have really, REALLY loud voices. The guides are the kind of guys who immediately inspire confidence and then earn it—no bracken is too dense to hide a footpath—and, complete with broad Yorkshire accents, courtly manners and steely-blue eyes, kept us all, seemingly effortlessly, on schedule. No hurrying, no coddling, just steady, cheerful walking. The walkers are Americans and Canadians and all good company. We sing, we tell jokes, we narrate life stories, and sometimes just walk along in companionable silence—nothing like an uphill climb to shut us up. Many of these people have walked the world and tell sensational stories about leeches in their bloody boots in Nepal, and walking through twelve days of solid rain in Sicily. On the last morning, during our ride to the railroad station in a van, I discover how radically altered my sense of distance had become; fifteen miles by car takes about fifteen minutes, while fifteen miles by foot takes a whole day. I look out the van window and the world zips by with barely time to register the landmarks much less details, and I realize I’ve had a very privileged week, moving through the world at an old-fashioned pace with old-fashioned perspective, moment by moment, step by step. For more information, see our Coast to Coast page. About the Author Toby Zinman is Professor of English at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, and has published widely and lectured internationally on contemporary American drama. By night she is theatre critic for a variety of magazines and newspapers. and she has for years been writing articles about her travel adventures--white-water rafting in Alaska, climbing Mt. Sinai in Egypt, dogsledding in the Yukon, kayaking through mangrove forests in the Bahamas, horse riding through the Australian Outback.

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