Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Scottish Highlands: A Hiker's Wonderland

We've always enjoyed Europe's well-established network of hiking trails and walking paths but were none-the-less greatly impressed with the quantity, quality, and mapping of Britain's public footpaths. Everywhere we went from suburbs to countryside, from the Cotswolds near London to the Highlands of Scotland they were there -- uncrowded and ready for every level of activity from pleasant riverside strolls to strenuous mountain treks.

The first thing that struck us about the footpaths was the sheer number of them. It seemed like we never had to travel more than a mile in any direction before we came upon the soon familiar sign. In many areas there were three or four per mile intersecting the smaller roads.

The paths that we took were all well maintained and marked so you could find your way easily. Many times the only marking was a yellow arrow, but that was enough to reassure us we were on the right track. At intersections where two or more paths converged, wooden signs were engraved with town names to point us in the right direction.

If there ever was a doubt about which way to turn, we simply referred to our Ordnance Survey map of the area. These are finely detailed maps showing the paths, towns and villages, and points of interest along the way. They're also good for navigation while driving, with all the major (A) and minor (B) roads clearly marked and numbered. Finally, if all else failed, we were prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice and stop at the next village we came across, find the pub, and ask for directions over a refreshing pint of locally brewed ale.
We started walking the day we arrived with a lovely stroll through the countryside surrounding the village of Newton Harcourt, just north of London, but this was only the beginning of our hiking through Britain. In the course of our two-week stay we hiked through breathtaking countryside in the Yorkshire Dales, over heather covered mountains in the Scottish Highlands, through forests and around beautiful lakes in Cumbria (England's Lake District), and over gently rolling hills from village to village in the Cotswolds.

One interesting additional bit of entertainment we weren't expecting during our walks was an air show. It appears that the RAF version of the Blue Angels practices over the Yorkshire Dales and Lake District, and several times one or more fighter jets would come screaming overhead, sometimes quite low. One particular time we were high on a desolate hillside when a low and slow flying jet came along. As I was shielding my eyes from the sun to watch it go by, the pilot tipped his wing to us, or so it seemed, before gracefully disappearing over the hill into the next valley. I wonder if he thought I was saluting.

Finding your way on the footpaths is easy. With a simple compass and an idea of the general direction you want to travel, you could start out at the nearest path, following the trail and signs, and enjoy a lovely walk. If you desire a bit more knowledge about where you're going and what the terrain will be like, the maps are all you need. And for those who want to see particular sites or know how long a hike might take, there is an abundance of books devoted to hiking in each of the specific areas of Britain.

Each book lists detailed walks with distances, level of activity and interesting sites along the way. They have explicit directions such as, "Follow the dismantled railway path through two pastures. After going through the stile in the second stone wall, follow the path to the left through a grove of birch trees." They also give you detailed excerpts from the Ordnance Survey maps for the section covered by the walk.

The walks are rated by activity level and there are many in each class, plus some special interest books that cover walks on specific topics such as poets, castles, gardens, etc. We were particularly interested in the guides to pub walks that we found in many areas -- two of our favorite pastimes rolled into one!

So whether you like strenuous hiking or gentle walks, through countryside, woods, lakeshore, or rugged mountains, you can't go wrong with a trip to the UK.

A tip about guidebooks

You don't need to purchase hiking guides before taking your trip. Every B&B that we stayed in had plenty of guidebooks available for the use of their guests. If by chance yours doesn't, the local stores carry a much wider variety than you'll find in other countries. They also sell handy plastic map holders that hang around your neck.

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