April 25, 2024

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Circular Walks Outside London – The New York Times

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When is walking in circles a good thing? When following a trail through villages, forests and fields using open-access paths that begin and end at the same train station.

Britain is known for being a country of walkers, with thousands of miles of footpaths and bridle ways open to the public (Scotland, for example, has a law commonly known as the right to roam). Even just watching other people stroll has become part of popular culture in Britain with prime-time television programs featuring lone celebrities capturing the rural landscape using a high-tech selfie camera or groups of them on religious pilgrimage hikes in Portugal or Spain.

But from London, opportunities abound if you just want to get out of town for a bit.

I found that I could easily escape the noise and crowds of the city to experience the poet William Blake’s “pleasant pastures seen” without needing to own or rent a car; drive on the left side of the road; or attempt to conquer complicated roundabouts.

I did it by following the maps and text in the lightweight guidebook “The Home Counties From London by Train: Outstanding Circular Walks” (£12.99, or about $16, Milestone Publishing).

Part of a series of paperbacks produced in a partnership between Pathfinder Guides and the Ordnance Survey, the British national mapping agency, the book details 27 walks of varying intensity levels and ranging in length from two to nearly 12 miles, each beginning after a relatively short train ride from one of London’s main stations. (While much of the terrain isn’t suitable for those with physical challenges, Pathfinder recently added its first roundup of accessible trails on harder surfaces in “Lake District and Cumbria: Accessible Walks for All,” outlining 38 itineraries, 20 of which are considered circular. )

“The footpath network exists,” said Kevin Freeborn, the editor of the guidebook series, “because people needed to get from one place to another, like from a farm to a village or from a village to a town. And obviously back in the day, walking was the way to do it. So, many of the path networks are based on rights of ways that have existed for a long, long time — hundreds of years.”

Each of the guidebook’s walks can be accomplished as a day trip or a more relaxing overnight jaunt. The time needed will depend on your own speed and whether you stop at a village pub for a pint or pause for a picnic on a riverside bench.

For example, a 70-minute train ride from Liverpool Street station to the town of Manningtree in Essex county is the starting point for discovering the Stour Valley scenery that inspired the painter John Constable. The approximately 3½-hour, 7½-mile trail passes through the village of Dedham, once a flourishing textile center, and where Constable attended grammar school.

Depending on the season, you might see five-petal primroses in sun-dappled hedgerows, cowslips on grasslands where sheep graze, dainty white wood anemones or even orchids. On the 4-hour, 8½-mile walk from Limpsfield in Surrey (30 minutes from London Bridge station), famed for its carpet of sweet-scented bluebells in late spring, bird-watchers can listen for nightingales or spot hawks circling overhead.

One of the more challenging trails begins in Wye, about an hour from London’s St. Pancras station by rail, and traverses 9½ miles, gaining 1,065 feet in altitude over 4½ hours through woods, past a Norman church and along the crest of the Crundale Downs, a ridge of chalk hills close to the village of Crundale.

My first walk using the guide was the 2½-hour, 5½-mile stretch from the town of Sandwich, on the English Channel coast of Kent, almost two hours by train from St. Pancras station. I chose this destination because it included the pebble beach along Sandwich Bay and because I’ve always wanted to tick a box off my bucket list by having a sandwich in Sandwich.

The route went past the centuries-old St. Bartholomew’s Chapel, over a footbridge and through orchards and fields; past the Sandwich Bay Bird Observatory through the Royal St. George’s Golf Club course as people were playing, to the beach. Then through a field of calmly grazing sheep, a “kissing gate,” a stile and another footbridge, along a river bank and eventually back to the Sandwich station. (About that sandwich: Although I did stop partway through for a half-pint of ale at a village pub, adding nearly an hour to the walk, I waited until I was back in the town itself for that long-planned snack.)

I chose an overnight stay for another walk — a 3-hour, 6-mile trek from Rye through the village of Iden and back to Rye (the historic former port city about an hour and 15 minutes from St. Pancras station) — so I could later explore the town’s medieval architecture, enjoy a warm scone and a pot of tea at a quaint cafe and tour the 18th-century Lamb House, where the American author Henry James lived and wrote. (The English author of “Black Narcissus,” Rumer Godden, also lived at Lamb House and is buried in Rye).

Some of the trails on this walk were slick with mud right after a rain shower, but still proved passable if you stayed on the edges. Sheep and their lambs bounded out of the way as humans approached.

And I did check the guidebook frequently to make sure I didn’t veer off course.

Only rarely does Mr. Freeborn, the editor, hear from people who say they followed the guide’s directions but still got lost.

“Sometimes people write or email us to say, for example, that a stile has been turned into a gate,” he said. “Or in a woodland, sometimes trees are harvested and cut down. So it might not be as wooded as the description in the book. I mean, basically, the countryside in Britain is kind of a working environment, it’s usually a farming or forestry environment and things change.”

Still, one change now affects the Rye walk I did in April. About 15 minutes after leaving the station and walking through a 14th-century stone gate, down a slope and across a bridge, I found signage that said the next stretch of footpath along the Rother River was to be closed until October 2024 because of works to improve flood defenses. But the intrepid can shift onto Military Road, being wary of traffic, Mr. Freeborn said, and reconnect to the trail just before a steep climb through woods into an open field.

Before setting off on a circular walk, be prepared. Know that train schedules sometimes shift on weekends and holidays and it’s wise to be alert for rail strikes.

Map-reading skills help. I did briefly feel lost a couple of times, but it was easy to correct course and find my way back to the trail. Getting familiar with the terms and symbols on the inside front cover of the guidebook will save time and puzzlement along the way, such as a red footprint indicating a starting point, or a blue beer glass signaling a pub.

Know your footpath from your bridle path (the latter is more likely to have horseshoe imprints) and know that a “kissing gate” is nothing romantic but a way to keep livestock from venturing into other areas.

Bring provisions, and keep an eye out for pubs with fun names like the Tickled Trout and the Black Horse Inn.

Susanne Fowler

2023-11-27 10:00:29

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