Editor's note: Contributing writer Danny Bernstein recently had the great opportunity to walk the 102-mile Cotswold Way in Great Britain. The hike, she discovered, is both similar and very atypical of what hikers experience in the United States.
Superintendent Dale Ditmanson of Great Smoky Mountains National Park always starts a public meeting with, "Welcome to your national park." It's a nice, expected gesture, but I never thought much of it until I walked the Cotswold Way, west of London.
In the United States, you see, there's hardly ever any question of who owns the land we hike on. Almost all the land we walk across – national parks, national forests, state parks - is owned by a government entity.
But in England, and really in most of Europe, the landowner is not obvious. England and Wales have 15 national trails that are looked after by National Trails officers and funded by the national government. But the land the trails go through is privately owned.
The Cotswold Way, a 102-mile trail going from Chipping Campden to Bath, took us eight days to walk. Each evening, we ended up in a bed-and-breakfast. This is a very common way of walking a long-distance trail in England – more expensive than backpacking, but easier. It gave us all the feeling of backpacking, since we stayed in a different village every night without having to carry tents, sleeping bags and the rest of the backpacking paraphernalia. In return, we were able to plan long days, several over 15 miles.
Cotswold is the England Americans imagine, with tea shops, massive Anglican churches that are always open and pubs -- lots of pubs.
By staying at bed and breakfasts (B&B) and eating dinner mostly in pubs, we met many locals. B&Bs are just extra rooms in people's houses. The homeowners had retrofitted a bedroom to put in a tiny bathroom, making the bedroom even smaller. Breakfasts were huge - a two-course meal. First, they offered cereal, yogurt, fruit and toast. Then eggs, beans, tomatoes and breakfast meats, if you wanted it.
But I rated the B&Bs not by the size of the bedrooms and quality of the breakfasts but on how interesting the hosts were. My favorite place was Orchardene in King Stanley. Lesley and Tom described themselves as "green socialists" and talked about their involvement in their community.
The sound of the trail is the constant cooing of the wood pigeon, a large pigeon with a white band around its neck. The terrain goes up and down a couple of hundred feet; there are no steep climbs. The trail doesn’t go through wilderness. Many will argue that there is no American-style wilderness in Europe, except maybe in northern Norway and Finland. We walked through wheat fields, across sheep meadows and in cattle fields. We walked past ruins belonging to several eras.
We spent an hour at Hailes Abbey. The monastery, founded in the 13th Century, attracted many pilgrims. It was dissolved in 1539 when King Henry VIII left the Catholic Church. Now the site has a row of cloister arches, several foundations, and a museum. A little further up the trail, Belas Knap is a Neolithic barrow with burial chambers. All you see is a large mound about 180 feet long, but a plaque explains its significance. We passed the Devil's Chimney, a more modern monolith, left over from the days when much of the area was quarried.
We even went through a couple of golf courses, mindful of flying balls. But golfers knew that hikers might come across the course. We went through tiny villages, many so small that they didn’t have a store or tea shop.
It doesn't take much altitude here to get spectacular views with minimal effort. The land is very open and trees are at a premium. The path, as they call it here, also goes through wooded areas, dominated by oaks and majestic beech trees. Because there are so many sheep and cattle farms, woods are much more precious here than in the United States.
Property boundaries are marked by fences or stonewalls, each with a gate or stile. Many stiles even have a passage way for dogs. Landowners are responsible for keeping gates in good condition and mowing a strip through their crops if that's where the trail goes.
England is a very crowded country. The American idea of asking residents to leave their homes to make way for a national park owned by a government entity would seem ludicrous to them and wouldn't work. Still, they have many national parks and national trails that are managed by public authorities. In addition, the National Trust, similar to our Nature Conservancy, owns a quarter of the Lake District, a sizeable amount of the Peak District National Park, and many other parcels of land.
There have always been public rights of way in Britain, paths that allow the public a legal right of passage. The permanence of a public right of way is guided by the principle "once a highway, always a highway." These are shown on Ordinance Survey maps. Serious hikers put their current OS map in a map case that they wear around their necks while on the trail.
In 2005, hikers, or "walkers," as they are called in Britain, were given a new right to access most open country in England and Wales. The Countryside and Rights of Way Act (CRoW) provides a right of access on foot to mapped areas of uncultivated open countryside. Open countryside is defined as mountain, moor, heath, down, registered common land or land that has been voluntarily dedicated for access by the landowner. It is felt that access to the countryside and safeguarding public rights of ways remains linked to the protection of that countryside.
Many landowners appealed this new law but Madonna, the American singer, got the headlines. Madonna, who then owned an estate in England, contested the public's right to walk on her land. The Countryside Agency settled the dispute by allowing some of her land to be opened up to walkers but agreed that walkers will be banned from other sections during the shooting season.
When I discuss this with Americans, the question of liability always comes up. According to the CRoW law, landowners have no responsibility to anyone injured on their land by any natural feature or improperly using a wall, fence, or gate. We entered several fields where there was a sign warning us of a bull. Of course, landowners are still liable if they've created a risk.
We also saw almost no trash on the Cotswold Way. We did see lots of people of all ages. And I can imagine the reaction of some of the local walkers if they saw someone litter.
"Young man, could you please pick up the wrapper that you dropped?"
Walkers also have responsibilities under the countryside code. In particular, walkers must leave all gates as they found them. Most of the time, we found gates closed and we made sure that we closed them after we went through. Dogs must be kept under control, and that means on a leash in most places.
I don't think that people walk more in England, but it seems that more people walk. Almost every walker seemed to have a large, well-behaved dog. Most of the time, they use their dogs as an excuse to do a couple of miles on a trail. If they do that every day, even at a slow pace, they're moving more than most Americans.
Want to walk a British National Trail?
Go to the official website to see all the national trails. You can figure out where to stay and make your own reservations or you can use a service like Contour Holidays. They will make all the bookings and transport your luggage from B&B to B&B. You'll pay a premium for this but it will allow you to walk with a daypack and therefore longer distances each day. They'll also help you to get to the trailhead by public transportation.