Our first encounter with the footpath system in Britain came when we were visiting our friends Diane and Cyril in the charming village of Newton Harcourt just outside Leicester, a city of around 750,000 people, roughly 100 miles north of London. Diane invited us to join her on one of her daily walks with their dog Cindy. We happily went along, eager to stretch our legs after the long airplane journey.
What we thought would be a walk around the block turned out to be a pleasant stroll through the country. At the end of her street she turned into a road that led over a bridge spanning the train tracks. Instead of crossing the bridge, however, we ducked down onto a path that ran perpendicular to the track, with a hedgerow on the other side. A little later we popped out onto another road that we took over the tracks, and walked along awhile before coming upon the path shown on the right -- this one alongside a canal.
To get onto this path, we had to go through a little gate that you pushed halfway open, walked around, then pushed the rest of the way to get through. Definitely a one-at-a-time operation.
Eventually the path split away from the canal and we found ourselves meandering through open fields -- green, lush and dotted with sheep. Because it was lambing season, Diane had to keep Cindy on her leash for this part of the journey. We crossed several fields, all separated by fences or hedgerows with various types of gates or stiles to traverse. Some had cleverly designed steps to climb over, some were mere slits in the stone wall to shimmy through, some even had little pet doors that you lifted to let your pooch slip through. A few of them would have been a challenge to figure out if we hadn't had our local guide with us to reveal their secrets.
We were admiring the scenery at one point when we rounded a bend in the hedge and came across an ancient stone church and adjoining graveyard. Some of the gravestones were from the early 1700's. Others were too old to read.
Back on the path we continued along an old stone wall until we emerged again onto the road that took us over the canal and train tracks. Rather than retrace our steps along the tracks, we followed the road down into the village, pausing to pat the head of a friendly horse that galloped over to see us as we went by his pasture.
In the village we went by the old manor house, whose owner still holds most of the land in the village. We then slipped down a back alley, past a small flock of enthusiastic sheep in someone's backyard who thundered over to greet us and finally came out onto the main road that led us back to Diane's little street.
All in all we were gone a little under an hour and had a delightful country walk -- in the middle of the suburbs!