English Ramblings

I’m walking in the Cotswolds for a week, followed by a week in Cornwall – topped with a few days in London. Why walk at home when you can jump on a plane, fly for hours at great expense, catch a train and a bus, all to walk in unfamiliar territory in another country?  I keep trying to answer/explain that question to myself and my quizzical friends. 

Here’s one obvious reason. They have different fences. 

20230402_111854The land is portioned off by stone fences. Loose stone gathered from fields piled without mortar in a linked, orderly manner to be virtually indestructible. They go on for miles. They amaze me. I think the word is gobsmacked.  I’m equally impressed by hedgerows, ancient tangles of bushes, virtually impermeable,  a living home for rabbits and other beasties. Rural England fields, delineated by hedgerows and fences, are easily traversed however by right of passage paths; in most of the UK, a person can walk across a farmers field with impunity, although death-by-surprised/angered-cow happens more often that one might expect. It’s a Canadian hiker’s dream.

20230414_115217_HDRI’m also impressed by the quality of the mud here. March was the wettest on record in the Cotswolds. The Windrush river is high. Puddles abound especially around a plethora (love that word, had to use it; forgive me) of gates all ingeniously designed to befuddle sheep and foreigners. Foolishly, we try to stay clean and dry on our walks. A quarter hour in, I give up. Mud adds to the ambiance. 

The final reason that we travel afar to walk is we often come across the ‘sweet spot’, an unforgettable event that would never happen at home. 

20230402_125241We stopped at a small village green for a standup lunch. There was a checkin for some local event close by so we wandered over to see what it was about. Think of a treasure hunt with multiple stops, the avid participants being vintage motorcycle owners. In England there is a club for almost every interest; all taken seriously, all pursued with joyous concentrated eccentricity. A perfect example appeared in a puff of smoke – a couple on a motorcycle and a sidecar rolled in. 

Catnip! We had to investigate. The elderly couple (being slightly older than me) eagerly and proudly explained their hobby. The 1938 cycle had been owned by the driver for 60 years! His wife was the navigator. She looked warm all bundled in the cocoon of the sidecar; she assured me she wasn’t. They were feisty, fun-loving and full of laughter. This was their hobby, they were part of a club; this was a regular club outing, eccentric and idiosyncratic – enthusiastically enjoyed.

When I grow up, I want to be just like them. 

20230402_183225England is littered with history; celebrated, discussed and debated as if it still mattered. We casually visit small Norman churches that go back to the 12th century. Bourton-on-the-water is a perfect village, our home for the week, all golden cottages, picturesque pubs and stone bridges crossing the Windrush River, Upper Slaughter, a village close by even has a water wheel, still turning after all these years.

20230413_120402Next week, I exchange the rolling hills, quaint golden cottages and bursting-with-spring-green meadows of Bourton-on-the-Water for the rugged, wind-sculpted upsy/downsy terrain of Cornwall; defined by the ocean, cliffs and abandoned tin mines. It’s as desolate looking as the Cotswolds were lush. 

We walked various pieces of the iconic Coast Path. Blue skies, bluer ocean, stiff winds, lots of elevation gained and lost; broken regularly by hidden coves and pristine beaches. Malevolent looking clouds roll in, direct from Newfoundland. 

Cornwall’s tin mines in the late 19th century were a major industry. Nasty, brutish and short would inadequately describe the life of a Cornish tin miner. Few lived past their 40’s. A few structures still exist paying homage to their labour and to their lives. 

20230410_111751_HDRA slight digression if I might be allowed. At St.Just, I was compelled to sample my first.original pasty (pronounced with a soft ‘a’ like pasta). One cannot pass a shop that claims to be the oldest maker of Cornish Pasties. It would simply be wrong.

The Cornish Pastie was the traditional lunch for tin miners. A hearty stew of beef, potato, onion and swede (turnip to us) is scooped onto a round of sturdy pastry; the pastry dough is then folded over to make a half moon with thick crust around the crescent. Miners could find their lunch in the dark by feeling for the unique markings made in the cooked dough by their wives. They ate everything but the crust they held in their hands; their hands were contaminated with arsenic usually found in tin mines so they had to throw the crusts away. No one reports on the effect on mine rats who presumably ate the contaminated crusts. 

I’ve done a selective taste test and they are wonderful. And, not being a tin miner, I was encouraged to eat the crust. Risk taker that I am, I obliged. 

St. Ives, our base, has been a robust creative centre for the arts for almost a century, home to a Tate Modern satellite museum that pays homage to Barbara Hepworth, a famous sculptress whose best known piece graces UN headquarters in New York. 

20230410_102415Our walks along the Coast Trail are amazing confirmation of my desire for the experience. I choose the shortest of the daily walks – about 8 km. We ramble about for 4-5 hours, view the scenery, learn some fun facts, most of which I immediately forget. I have my own room, meals, a packed lunch and a guide.  I am getting an April tan. I become mildly addicted to canned pork and beans on toast for breakfast, as close to a vegetable as I can find. The English still seem mystified about how to cook vegetables; Ottolenghi is trying.

 It’s a big change from walking alone on a pilgrim path. 

20230413_120840Stories abound of resourceful Cornishmen who, not looking forward to a nasty, brutish and short life toiling in a tin mine, took matters into their own hands and became experts at salvaging whatever drifted ashore from wrecked ships. While lighthouses did exist to guide ships away from rocks and harm, enterprising Cornishmen were known to create illicit lighthouses, carefully designed to lure ships onto the rocks. The Cornish version of Robin Hood. 

Wicked and ever-changing weather is a Cornish trademark. We awoke one morning to predictions for heavy rains and winds of 60 mph gusting to 80 mph. (Yes that’s miles not km, do the math). And most of the group went out walking anyway; though they pointed out, they would not walk close to cliff’s edge for safety reasons. Rest assured, I was not one of them. I stayed home. ‘Mad dogs and Englishmen (and women)’…

20230414_123152I learned new definitions for a couple of common words that impressed upon me the English capacity for understatement.

 ‘Undulating’ in Cornish English means steep up or steep down. As in rollercoaster ups and downs. ‘Technical’ means the path is closed to mortals because boulders as big as bungalows block it constantly. If one does manage to climb the boulder, it inevitably drops down to a ‘puddle’ about the size of English Bay. And, about 5 miles is closer to 7, a fact confirmed by one of our group with a Garmin sophisticated enough to launch rockets for Elon Musk. 

It’s the unique nature of walking on foreign soil, with strangers who share this mild obsession. It’s also stopping for tea and crumpets at a little hut that magically appears along the way. It’s walking past the small building where Marconi and his colleagues gathered to receive the first telegraph message from Signal Hill – not the US – as I pointed out to my group. It’s walking close by the home of John leCarre, seeing the lighthouse that Virginia Woolf used as her model in To The Lighthouse.20230405_113415

It’s why we walk. It’s why we walk in strange faraway places. 


This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to English Ramblings

  1. Gaynor Wlliams says:

    Hello Bob, good to see that you are enjoying your walks. I have two daughters-in-law who love walking. Rhian is off next week to semi-circumvent Anglesey – she has walked the whole of the Welsh coastal path with her old schoolfriend Helen, (They have a blog – Two women walking). The other, Sian walked the ‘three peaks’ last Saturday. Snowdon and Cader Idris with my grandson Calum, and then Pen-Y-Fan joined by my granddaughter Bryony. All for charity. Enjoy the rest of your holiday, love, Gay.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s