Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

July 27, 2017

© Dr Heather Wrigley

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England’s paths to happiness

An FP extends her layover in London to walk the surrounding countryside and discovers it’s every bit as charming as she imagined

I like to travel, and due to the vagaries of international flight itineraries from Canada, I often find myself passing through London. If I have time to leave the airport for a few hours, I poke around London or one of its nearby towns. Invariably I find myself enchanted with the place and I regret having to return to the airport to board my ongoing flight. The last time this happened, I started to wonder why I was wasting time elsewhere, when I could be spending it in England.

On a recent trip through London, en route home from somewhere else, I had the good sense to arrange a layover of nearly a week to do some walking in the English countryside. There are wonderful-sounding walks in every part of the country that range in length from a few hours to a few weeks. I hardly knew where to begin, but I knew that I wanted to sample the available options and I didn't have much time to accomplish it. In the end, I chose to walk a greenway (rail trail) called the Nickey Line (nickeyline.org) in Hertfordshire, spent two days doing part of a longer-distance trail (the Saffron Trail in Essex) and took in various unnamed rural footpaths in nearby areas. All of these were accessible using easy, fast and inexpensive passenger rail connections from London. I stayed in 16th-century inns in small towns and ate dinner in 650-year-old pubs. It was every bit as lovely as it sounds.

Compared to North America, and most other places I've been, England seems so civilized to me. It has been under human habitation and cultivation for such a long time that every bit of it has been touched by human hands and yet somehow most of our meddling, at least in the rural areas, seems to have been benign, even beneficial. Verdant rolling fields bounded by hedgerows and falling-down stone walls are the norm. For the price of a few pounds, a convenient passenger train will drop you in your choice of quaint tiny village of tidy cottages, each house with its own name, and some with actual thatched roofs. In these towns, flocks of uniformed schoolchildren on the sidewalks charmed me with their posh-sounding accents.

Outside the towns, there are rabbits, foxes, quail and so many ancient castles and medieval cottages that British people scarcely seem to give them a glance. Old stone parish churches leave their doors unlocked so that curious passersby can enter, inhale the intoxicating scents of old wood, candles and paper, and envision a Thomas Hardy damsel, having just made some shocking and terrible discovery, weeping inconsolably in a pew.

You can get there from here

British footpaths are a walker's dream. Because many of them predate automobiles, they are a genuinely practical means of getting from one place to another. Towns are frequent enough that all you need to carry with you is your clothing, toothbrush and passport; meals, shops and inns always seem to be around the next corner when you want them. There are dozens of books and websites listing British walks, and they invariably direct you to the trail starting and ending points by referencing a nearby pub, which ensures that you will never lack nourishment.

To a Canadian, these footpaths are almost bizarrely numerous. At one point, I was walking near a town called Newport in Essex. Newport is just a few minutes a short distance by train from London's Stansted Airport, but it feels a world apart from the city: it's tiny, sleepy and completely quaint. I was in real danger of never starting my walk because I was taking so many photos of the pretty town itself.

The directions from my walking book had me stymied: I did indeed start “behind The White Horse” (Public House, of course) — but the first path I tried veered off in what was clearly the wrong direction and the next was so overgrown with stinging nettles as to be completely impassable, even after I tried wearing my rain jacket for protection. I retraced my steps to the street. I must have appeared baffled because a 60ish fellow who was unloading groceries from his car asked whether I needed help. I explained that I was looking for the footpath to Saffron Walden (visitsaffronwalden.gov.uk), two towns away.

The man inquired, "You want to walk to Saffron Walden?"

"Yes," I replied. "Here it comes," I thought, certain that he was going to tell me that it was much too far to walk and that I should take the bus or a taxi as almost certainly have been the reply in Canada. But I was wrong. Instead, the man turned to his wife and they began to discuss the relative merits of two alternative footpaths to my destination. I listened to this exchange in happy astonishment, but was even more amazed by what he said next.

"She can probably tell you better than I can. She was the local Footpaths Officer for years."

The local Footpaths Officer? How marvellous to find a country that believes so strongly in the concept of footpaths, that they appoint public officials in miniscule villages to manage them! In the end, I happily followed the friendly couple's advice. Neither of the paths they suggested was in fact the one I'd originally been seeking. It turned out that there were at least three distinct pedestrian routes from that one tiny Essex town to another small town nearby. The Canadian walker's mind boggles.

Walks in a book

If you are a reader as well as a walker, you will find as you traverse England on foot that much of the countryside already seems familiar. For me it mostly evoked Hardy's Wessex, but I also had frequent visions of James Herriot rambling the Yorkshire Dales with his border terrier. Things from those books that never seemed plausible to me — like the ubiquity of ancient and mysterious ruins, the presence of an inn at every crossroads, and the ability for characters to simply walk across miles of neighbours' fields to the next town — suddenly made a lot more sense after I had experienced them. England really was, and is, like that. Walkers are given right-of-way across rural lands, and once you discover the elegant simplicity and inherent friendliness of stiles, you will mourn that they cannot be found everywhere.

Of course, my praise of England's rural footpaths is idealized. They certainly have their flaws. There are nettles and brambles in abundance. (I suggest long pants.) Stepping into a drainage ditch or foxhole can easily sprain your ankle or worse. As everywhere, there is the usual litter of discarded trash, though I can sometimes find a queer British charm even in that. Every time I picked up a potato chip bag in England, my brain insisted on labelling it a "crisp packet," which sounds less distasteful somehow. And British litter is just different. Sure, there are McDonald's cups and cigarette packages, but I also found a discarded tin that had once contained "Earl's Meaty Chunks with Jelly." Yum.

Probably because the footpaths are so terrific, England's roads are not ideal for walking. Occasionally an idyllic rural path would eject me onto a narrow strip of vergeless asphalt where tiny cars hurtled along at absurdly fast speeds. (My sense of their recklessness was almost certainly enhanced by the fact that, to me, they all seemed to be driving on the wrong side of the road.) Nevertheless, before long I would always be rescued from the din by yet another lichen-encrusted stone or wooden signpost bearing an arrow and that sacred inscription: "Public Footpath." And, smiling, onward I would go.

For more info on Hertfordshire and Essex, go to Visit Herts (visitherts.co.uk) and Visit Essex (visitessex.com).

This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.

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