Some years back, I went out for a walk. In England. For three and a half months. I did it almost entirely on what are known there as “public footpaths.” There are something like 140,000 miles of them in England and Wales alone and they existed long before there were ever roads. How long? One of them, the Ridgeway, has been in continuous use for at least 5,000 years. It runs atop a high chalk escarpment (once a coral reef) that stretches diagonally across much of southern England. It may have been used even before England separated geologically from the rest of Europe. Why? Consider the word “highway.” Back in those days, carving your way through forest and undergrowth-choked lowlands, or slogging through swamps, was hard going. Far better and faster, then, to go “high” and follow “thinly treed ridgelines”—the high way.
During my own personal trek, I followed the Ridgeway west across Berkshire and Wiltshire and, a few months later, hiked another chalk ridge footpath, the South Downs Way (“down” comes from “dun” or hill and is very “up”), on my way back east, high above the English Channel coast.
Most of the rest of my walk was along the Southwest Coast Path, a National Trail that runs some 630 miles from North Devon, down the Atlantic Coast all the way to Land’s End, and back again along the English Channel Coast all the way north to Dorset. Much of it is wild and windswept; all of it is flat-out spectacular (think of the PBS Poldark series). Fool that I have been known to be, I thought: what could be better than weeks of strolling along cliff tops with sweeping views and little pocket fishing villages within which to shelter for the night (think of Doc Martin’s “Porthwenn,” in reality, Port Isaac)?
However, I did not take into account erosion. Or gravity. See, here’s the thing: these cliffs have been cut through over the eons by knife-sharp streams which have left them as deeply serrated as the teeth of a lumberjack’s saw. You can’t go a tenth of a mile horizontally without encountering a narrow but very deep gorge, one after another. The coast path is maintained, in most places, by the National Trust. There are rudimentary steps cut down and up through these defiles, which is very thoughtful. But maybe they weren’t counting on my 50-pound backpack. Trekking the Southwest Coast Path is a wonderful, life-changingly beautiful experience, and essentially the reverse of Newton’s Law: “What goes down must go (very steeply) up.”
I recommend it highly.