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Experience April/May 2023

Long-Distance Walking in a More Civilized Manner

Joan M Burda


  • Long-distance walks on trails in England, such as Hadrian's Wall and the Kennet and Avon Canal path, have many advantages such as the availability of comfortable accommodations like hotels and inns, the flexibility to choose your own pace and distance, and the rich cultural and natural experiences along the way.
  • Gain insights into how to plan such walks and what to consider in terms of gear and resources.
Long-Distance Walking in a More Civilized Manner

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The Appalachian Trail, Pacific Crest Trail, Pacific Northwest Trail, Continental Divide Trail, America Discovery Trail are just some of the U.S. trails you can walk. And what do they all have in common? Camping!

Now my idea of camping is a hotel without room service. When I travel, I want a roof, four walls, a bed (off the floor), and indoor plumbing. Needless to say, since those trails don’t meet those criteria, I won’t be embarking on any of those anytime soon—or anytime at all.

Let’s get civilized

England, however, is an entirely different, and more civilized, story. It offers many long-distance trails that have options reflecting my version of camping: hotels, B&Bs, guest houses, inns, and 16th-century thatched-roof cottages providing accommodation for weary walkers.

Plus, there are companies, such as Contours Holidays in Matlock, England, that will make all the arrangements; provide directions, maps, and books; and schlep your bag from one accommodation to the next. The Contours website lists walks throughout the United Kingdom, and the staff will work with you to plan a walk that fits you. Other companies also offer tours, including Macs Adventure Walking Tours and Trafalgar Tours.

With Contours, for example, all you need to carry is your day pack, rain gear (de rigueur in the U.K.), snacks, and water. These are self-guided tours, and unless you’re bringing your own group, they’re not group walks. You walk at your own pace to get to the next inn, hotel, or thatched-roof cottage.

Along the way, you’ll come across tea rooms, cafés, and pubs where you can stop and relax before continuing on your way. Another advantage of walking in England (and Wales, Scotland, and Ireland) is that you get to pick your distance.

None of this 20-plus mile per day nonsense, which makes it, in my humble opinion, less of a walk and more of a forced march. Had I wanted to join the Marines, I’d have done so at a much younger age.

Walking the wall

As I said, it’s a much more civilized walk in all respects, though there are wild camping options. However, a recent high court decision in Dartmoor allows private owners to restrict wild camping on their property. There are public footpaths everywhere. And many cross private property—like fields with flocks of sheep and herds of cows. But I digress.

Our first experience with a long-distance path in England started at Housesteads Roman Fort near Hexham. Housesteads is considered the most complete Roman fort in Britain and one of the best known. It’s about midway on Hadrian’s Wall, and seeing it piqued my interest in walking the entire wall.

Hadrian’s Wall was hand-built by the Roman Army in AD 122 on orders from Emperor Hadrian. Since there’s nothing as dangerous as a bored army, the emperor had the right idea to keep the boys busy. Nineteen hundred years later, we can see the fruit of their labors.

Walking along the wall, I wondered why the mortar in the wall and the Roman-built buildings has held up so well when my cement driveway is chipping and breaking up after two years. But that’s another digression.

Hadrian’s Wall begins at Wallsend, just outside Newcastle, and ends 84 miles away in Bowness-on-Solway. That’s the traditional way to walk the wall. I prefer to walk west to east because it keeps the wind and weather (think rain) at your back. It’s easier to be pushed along by rather than walking into driving rain. My spouse and I have walked the wall twice. The first time, we made our own arrangements. The last time, we worked with Contours. That, by far, was the better way to go.

While the wall isn’t visible between Carlisle and Bowness-on-Solway, we decided to stretch our legs with a short jaunt to Grinsdale. There, an elderly resident came running out to tell us, “You’re going the wrong way,” thinking we’d missed the trail turnoff. When we told her we wanted to see the church, she said, “Well, I have the key.” And that’s how we got inside the 18th-century Saint Kentigern village church.

We also met Honey, the horse, who made it very clear that Granny Smith apples weren’t her favorite. She spit it out until her breeding and good manners prevailed and she ate the apple. She then turned away and refused to engage further.

We start our Hadrian’s Wall walk from Carlisle and head east. The terrain is varied and alternates between a walk in the woods and challenging ascents and descents with scree covering the path. My favorite section is from Birdoswald to Gilsland.

You have to be observant, but this is a good section to look for graffiti carved into the stones by Roman soldiers. It’s a “Kilroy was here” experience. Northumberland is particularly memorable, with the wind-swept bluffs and milecastles reminding you of how lonely and miserable the soldiers stationed there must have been. Still, on a clear day you can see Scotland.

We walked into Gilsland on the last day of the village’s annual leek festival and competition. The winning leeks were almost three feet long. Now I scoff at the leeks I find at the grocery store. The leeks are used to make a stock that’s distributed to the villagers. This is the kind of experience you get whilst walking in England.

Walking the canal

Hadrian’s Wall is a remote, challenging walk, but you never know what you may see, including Roman soldiers passing you in full military regalia. In 2019, we embarked on our most recent long-distance walk in England—the Kennet and Avon Canal walk from Reading to Bristol, a little more than 100 miles. We spent 12 days on the towpath.

Our longest day was 12 miles, and the shortest 4. That short day gave us the opportunity to take a side trip to Avebury and its stone circle. Seventeen miles from Stonehenge and dating to approximately 3,000 BC, you’ll find the largest megalithic stone circle in the world. Unlike Stonehenge, you can walk among the stones and touch them. It’s a more intimate experience and without the crowds.

Much of the time while walking along the canal, our only living companions were the young signets trailing after their mothers, who kept a close eye on us, ducklings, goslings, and the rarely seen red kite (we saw one). The fields along the towpath were brilliant with the golden spring crop of rapeseed. Unlike many U.S. canals, those in England are navigable, and you’ll encounter many narrowboats chugging past.

We became quite adept at opening and closing those locks. The process can take 20 minutes or longer from start to finish. Since many of the boats are crewed by two people, our help was never refused. As we walked along, one couple remarked, “Oh, you’re the Americans. We heard about you.” The locks, based on a Da Vinci design, are fascinating to watch in action. It’s what made walking the canal such a unique experience.

So far, on all of our walks, the weather has cooperated. We’ve had little rain. And on the canal walk, we managed to get sunburned. Didn’t think that was possible in England.

The odd thing about walking in areas that are a tad remote means you’re apt to run into people and you can’t figure out where they came from. No houses in sight. No roads. Just acres of rapeseed.

It happened to us with three women who just appeared on the path in front of us. We stopped to chat and learned they were on their way to the tea room—pointing up the path behind us. The women walked on, and when I looked back a few minutes later, there was no sign of them. We chalked it up to it being a Brigadoon moment—even if this was England.

If you choose to walk the canal, as you near Honey Street, be sure to look across the canal for the chalk horses. It’s mesmerizing. Why are they there? What was the purpose? No one really knows. And you’ll find quite a few abandoned World War II pillboxes along the route.

This particular walk takes you through Newbury, Hungerford (which has a really cool cathedral), Bradford on Avon, and Bath, among other towns and villages.

Unlike Hadrian’s Wall, the Kennet and Avon Canal walk is fairly flat, with minimal elevation gain. The town of Bradford on Avon is very hilly, but climbing the hills is voluntary. We took a walking tour of the town that included going into the 14th-century tithe barn, where the local tenant farmers brought their payments to Barton Grange, the richest nunnery in medieval England, and climbing to the top of the town. Worth it.

One of the biggest differences between Hadrian’s Wall and the canal walk involves stiles. These remind you of wooden stepladders that allow you to go up and over stone walls. There are fewer of these on the canal walk. You’ll also run into kissing gates and regular, run-of-the-mill gates that separate fields.

Major rule to remember: Close and latch the gate after you. This helps keep the sheep and cows safe. Most of the gates close automatically, but it’s best to pull it shut after you. Our first walk along the wall had us herding some errant sheep back into the field. And, since we’ve walked in the spring, it’s not unusual to see the calves and lambs meandering away from mama.

It’s best not to get between mom and her calf—she won’t like it, and they’re bigger than you. Also, for some reason, the cows like to gather around stiles and kissing gates. They’ll move but definitely have an attitude about it. You know they’re talking about you as you move on.

Our next adventure?

Now that we’re retired, the Thames Path, a 200-mile walk from the headwaters of the Thames River to the Thames Estuary outside of London, seems to be beckoning. We figure we can spend a month on that one. Or the 100-mile path through the Cotswolds, wending our way from Chipping Camden to Bath. We gravitate toward walks we know fit our disposition and interests.

A couple of things to consider, starting with pacing. This is a vacation. Spend extra nights in places. We always spend two nights at the start of our walks and have begun to add extra nights along the way. It extends the overall trip, but we find it lets us enjoy it more.

Accessibility is another consideration. Hadrian’s Wall follows the terrain, and that limits accessibility. The full K&A Canal towpath is a rutted, narrow dirt path in most places. There are areas that are stile and gate free, with paved surfaces that allow greater accessibility. England is working to make more walks accessible. The Outdoor Guide is an excellent resource for finding accessible walks.

Likewise, the Ramblers is a national charity in the U.K. that sponsors walks, trips, and advocacy for walkers. Its magazine, Walk, is a wonderful resource for information on walking in the U.K. There’s a listing of Ramblers groups throughout the country that have regularly scheduled walks, and you don’t have to be a member of the group to join one. This might appeal to you if you prefer doing things on your own.

You’ll need hiking boots and poles for Hadrian’s Wall. Hiking shoes will suffice for the K&A Canal walk. Gaiters are important—they help keep your pant legs clean. A 20-30-liter day pack is enough to carry what you need. Good rain gear is essential because, well, it’s England. Layers are the best way to dress, with quick-drying materials.

Above all, enjoy yourself. We’ve not had a bad experience walking in England. I’m not counting my latest slip coming down the Old Bank from Shibden Hall in Halifax last October. Apparently, cobblestones, leaves, and rain, along with a steep decline, aren’t the best combination.

And it sure beats camping.