For our first visit to Cornwall, we decided on a gentleman’s ramble (Paul, Mark and myself) on the South West Coast Path, which stretches an impressive 630 miles (1014 km) through Devon, Cornwall and Dorset. We decided on a 69 mile (110 km) westbound section starting at The Lizard peninsula and ending in the charming town of St Ives.
In September the Five Musketeers (Paul, Mark and Amy, teenage Bart and myself) hoofed the 84-mile (135 km) Long Distance Footpath in Northern England from Ilkley in West Yorkshire to Bowness-on-Windermere at the edge of the Lake District.
Not a strenuous walk but gorgeous vistas and perfect weather — a great time for family bonding. At pub stops, underage Bart managed to progress from Half Shandies (half pint beer/lemonade mix) to multiple pints of ale in a mere five days! No doubt he’s one of the family.
Our third long-distance ramble in the United Kingdom, the Cumbria Way drew Paul and I forth from the southern Lakes District north to Carlisle on the Scottish border. Our journey began with uncharacteristically fine weather during our overnight stay in the friendly seaside community of Ulverston on Morecomb Bay.
In the surreal and tense wake of the 9/11 al-Qaeda terrorist attacks in the United States, we headed off to England on the first flights out after a week of quiet skies due to the air travel ban. We needed to get away, stretch our lungs and legs in the English countryside.
A circuit through the al-Gharb (Algarve, Portugal), across the Strait of Gibraltar to al-Magrib (Morocco), then back to the Iberian Peninsula through al-Andalus (Andalucia, Spain) — a journey through Arabic lands! We met in Madrid having traveled from London via different means: I arrived fresh via 1.5 hr British Midlands flight, and Paul weary and worn from a 36 hr slow train odyssey through France and half of Spain.
The next night we took the sleek and shiny Ferrol “Rias Gallegas” train to Galicia where at dawn we crossed into Portugal and arrived in Porto for a seaside lunch, then onto Lisbon. We made a side trip to visit the Castelo dos Mouros, an Arabic hilltop castle dating from the 8th century, and to taste the queijadas, or delectable cheese and spice pastries I has “discovered” on my first trip to the area in 1990 and had since enjoyed at Chave d’Ouro (“Golden Key”) Portuguese bakery across the street from my East Cambridge apartment where I lived after university.
From the seaward capital we headed to southern Portugal, the Algarve to enjoy a couple days of beachy R&R then to hip Tarifa, Spain. The hills around this town were dotted with wind turbines, symbol of Spain’s emergence as a green energy superpower. We then departed Europe from Algeciras en route to Tangiers, gateway to the great African continent.
To celebrate Dad’s retirement from a long and distinguished career as a British Literature teacher, the family (Erik, Paul, Kelly and Dad) flew from the Midwest to Glasgow where I met them. After a quick tour of the School of Arts and other Charles Rennie Mackintosh architectural gems, we departed urban, proletariat Glasgow and drove south to the English Lake District. We rented the pleasing self-catering Fairfield Cottage on the outskirts of Grasmere village. We enjoyed great views of the surrounding fells and fields, full of green splendor and pastures of bleating sheep.
Our first long distance footpath in the United Kingdom, Paul and I succeeded in walking all 192 miles from St Bees in the Lake District on the Irish Sea to Robin Hood’s Bay on the North Sea.
It was an amazing accomplishment, hard days pounding the trail but passing stunning landscapes through three spectacular National Parks: the Lake District, the Yorkshire Dales and the North York Moors. Each dramatic and unique in character, offering new challenges each day.
Despite the physical effort, it was largely a meditative experience for me. We quickly fell into a simple routine of eat–walk–sleep, with satisfying conversation with Paul and other ramblers, and ample time for quiet thought. Each day my mind grew calmer, my body strengthening, and my senses consumed with sunlight and clouds, the colors of farms and fells, smells and sounds of everything we passed.
We quickly developed a community with other walkers: a group of strapping Belgian soldiers on holiday leave equipped with massive packs and GPS gear; the two chatty retired schoolteachers who somehow always managed to beat us to every tea shop and over-night village but barely seemed to exert themselves; the group of old pals, one of whom always exclaimed “crackers!” (as in the English Christmas crackers which make a firecracker sound when pulled); the young vegan university gals from Essex (which they jokingly referred to as “Es-SEX” due to its unfavorable reputation in Britain) who ate only rice and chips (refusing even pub ale which purportedly contains fish-based emulsifiers). The other walkers were an assortment of all types, itinerants with different motivations and stories; we found ourselves among fast friends. The evening conversations in the pubs were always a highlight of our day.
Exhausted yet exhilarated, we arrived with blistered feet and sore legs at the North Sea 11 days after leaving the Irish Sea, faster than the suggested 14 days. Next time we will take more time, the fine market towns of Richmond and Reeth deserve more attention, and a couple days of padding to recover our strength and break up the daily rigors of foot travel. It was an incredible learning experience and an achievement we were eager to repeat. Fortunately the United Kingdom is rife with footpaths, we have endless choices in front of us.
I still remember the disorienting feeling of riding a bus leaving Robin Hood’s Bay, how quick and easy powered transport is! After 12 days riding my own two feet, I was ready to sit back and let the countryside slip by effortlessly as we made our way to London.
A dramatic and gratifying visit to Scotland, starting in Glasgow and a drive to the west coast to sample scotch in Oban and Mallaig, then off to the islands: Skye, Lewis and Harris. Back to the mainland via Ullapool and into the Highlands past the venerable Ben Nevis.
We drove along the rugged north coast, which is constantly pounded by the rough North Sea. We caught a ferry to the Orkney Islands where we visited amazing Skara Brae, the best-preserved Neolithic village in Europe dating to 3200 BC. Our days there were relaxing as we enjoyed the distinctly quiet people and Nordic culture still alive on the island.
We returned to the south via Inverness and the central Highlands, passing Loch Ness (of course we looked but didn’t find) and ended our stay in elegant Edinburgh. We covered a lot of ground but each moment was filled with natural spectacle, Scotland knows how to draw you in.
Oh, but let me tell you that I love you
That I think about you all the time
Caledonia you’re calling me
And now I’m going home
– Dougie MacLean, Caledonia
My first return trip to Spain to visit my college friend Andrés then living in Madrid. We were joined by his sister Cristina and her friend from Miami, and the four of us headed to Asturias in the north. Those were fun-filled days of carefree touring through the scenic Cantabrian Mountains, enjoying phenomenal regional cuisine, and visiting Andrés’ distant but welcoming relatives. His paternal grandfather left the village of Pola de Allande as a youth and headed to Puerto Rico, so this was a heritage trip of sorts for Andrés and Cristina. I was lucky to be able to tag along!
My first trip to the United Kingdom countryside, a splendid introduction to the stunning scenery and pleasant village life in rural England. First stop was the Cotswolds near the Welsh border where Paul was born and still has family. Teeming with charming pubs, honey-colored cottages, and pastures aplenty, this area has thrived since Roman times on wool production. Paul was a great guide and I saw Chantilly cottage in Cheltenham where he first entered the world, his Naughton Park childhood school, and of course the many favorite pubs he caroused during his Air Force days.
We then headed north to the Lake District which surely won our hearts. Gifted with fine weather, we rambled each day through the fells and spent our nights in cozy pubs and B&B’s. It was here we “discovered” the Long Distance Footpaths found in all parts of the UK; we vowed to return with boots, rucksacks, and Ordinance Survey maps in hand for a deeper dive into this wondrous land.
From my journal dated Sept 20, 1997:
I am sitting in perhaps the prettiest place on earth. The tiny village of Hartsop in the northeastern Lakes district. A wonderful stone cottage with a spectacular view of the mountains, lakes in the distance. This is Fellgate Farm, a delicious setting — centuries-old homes and fresh, grassy farms spreading up the valley, and not a single tourist shop. It is brilliantly unspoiled.
Today’s hike was one of the best in my life. We climbed to High Street, curious name for a rugged mountain path but indeed it was a Roman road a long time ago which remains clearly inscribed today, the alta via. The hike up through a lush and desolate valley, cut by a noisy brook with green pastures spanning the center. Up it rose, higher with water dripping from the saturated earth (it rained buckets for two days before we arrived). We emerged at a second, higher pasture even more remote and solitary.
After a steep but not very technical climb we arrived at a windy ridge and continued upwards to marvelous views of both valleys, the eastern one now in view. At the top we stopped for lunch — home-baked bread, local cheese, apples, chocolate McVities digestives (a tasty discovery for me!), and of course a tall can of stout to replenish the burned carbohydrates.
Ever joking around, Paul tried to grab my rear as we sat down on a high crag but I jumped (of course) and we both fell backwards and he ended up with a minor cut on his hand. We laughed, it seems he always gets injured with his shenanigans: the first time I met him he fell off his mountain bike trying to swat Russ’ behind, I thought he was goofy then and he hasn’t changed!
Anyway, the day was a visual feast — bright sun everywhere with a slight cloud cover to dim the intensity but highlight the rich green and golden valleys below us, always a clear view. That’s one thing striking about the mountains here — they are not very high but rough at the tops with rolling, thicket-covered hills tucked in between. Everything is exposed, the landscape mostly lacking forests which makes for unending dramatic vistas. Lots of walkers today but not crowded; the English are exceedingly charming — smiles and friendly hiya’s when our paths cross.
The walk continued along the ridge on the Roman road, an impressive feat of engineering. Still in generally good condition, it made for trouble-free “hands-in-pocket” rambling, we followed its length taking in the fine views of the lakes, valleys and villages dotted far below.
We came upon a half-dozen graceful horses, wild it seems, grazing peacefully alongside the alta via, exotically jet black with long manes and hair at their hooves, giving them a flare-legged look. We remarked how elegant they were with flowing hair blowing in the breeze. Apparently they are a rare local breed called “Fells Horse” (every promontory here is called a fell, a Nordic Viking word for hill).
The descent was gradual and easy with a new sight at every turn. My mind wandered as easily as my eyes with thoughts of the ancient road and travel during Roman times across the high Lakeland pass from one garrison to another — direct but probably often cold and dreary in the predominantly wet climate, this last, lonely outpost of the Empire bordering wild Caledonia, the frontier. I envisioned the local people crossing this ridge, who for centuries used the road and likely had little idea how it was built, why or by whom. I thought of us today — walkers drawing inspiration from the heights, mountain bikers seeking challenge in the lofty terrain, aged ramblers breathing the fresh air, horses and sheep — a constant flow of many creatures with many purposes.
It was an awesome day on High Street. I feel so alive up above the world and so grateful to have health, motivation and now companionship to share it with. I am truly blessed.