By Neil King Jr.
We Americans have an abundance of public hiking trails—the Appalachian, the Pacific Crest, the Ice Age, Buckeye, Finger Lakes, Hayduke, Grand Enchantment, Wonderland, Big Foot, Pinhoti. The sprawling list pleases as it spills off the tongue.
But nowhere across our expanse do we have trails like the English have trails. They go about their land differently than we do. They sculpt it, path it, fence it, walk it, mark it, grace it with inns and houses and farms, with a lighter touch, less fuss, and a more casual inclusion. They are, you might say, more truly democratic about their trails.
The English with their trails snub their noses at the landholder class and say, “There it is, one and all. Yours. Go walk it.” And when you do go walk it, you see all types out for a long tramp themselves—shopkeepers, old couples in church clothes, ladies’ groups, fitness types, the solitary brooder and wannabe Wordsworth. The whole gamut of humankind. There’s a come-one, come-all quality about these trails that puts no emphasis on gear and even less on regulation.
Go walk England’s blandly named South West Coast Path and ask yourself if we Americans have anything even a quarter so outlandish. That path etches its way along 630 miles of coastline that slacken the jaw and boggle the mind. It is like tracking the edge of the Grand Canyon, day after day, except that the far side isn’t a mirror of where you are–more stone and desert—but the sea with glorious rollers building and then crashing onto vast swooping beaches or slapping against stone cliffs and swirling around spires.
When you wander that path and cut through stone walls that look to have been stacked by Druids, when you ascend a set of granite stairs or cut across a paddock dotted with sheep, you wonder as an American why you aren’t banished from the place. How such a vast stretch of some of the world’s most gorgeous scenery isn’t owned by movie stars and tech moguls. How it hasn’t been spoiled by hideous mansions and No Trespassing signs. How it is all yours for the walking, no questions asked.
I was a fool when I arrived at Boscastle, north along the Cornish coast and our basecamp for walking that path. I was an idiot when our rental car curved down the single-track road to that incomprehensible S-shaped harbor where the waves at high tide somehow sneak all the way up to the river. My brother-in-law, Brendan, and his wife, Andrea, had cooked up this scheme that had my wife and me meeting up with them to hike the Cornish coast in mid-October. And I had no idea what that meant. I had no idea that we were going to sample one of the Earth’s true marvels, and one of the greatest public gifts to the common man anywhere in the world.
The South West Coast path began centuries ago as a walkway for the English coastguard to watch for smugglers, which is why it hugs the high cliffs and offers such intimate views into the deepest of coastal gorges. Over time it became a pathway for everyone and anyone, and eventually part of England’s vast network of protected National Trails. Much of it passes through national parks and heritage zones, but the mere fact that it’s a path gives it status and legal swagger.
In one of the great feats of English lawmaking, the Rights of Way Act of 1932 made any path forever more a public path after 20 years of unhindered use, no matter where it runs. In which case, human feet create not only the path but the right of the public to use that path, even when it crosses private land.
If you set out to walk the South West Coast Path all in one go, but allow time for pints of ale and lunches of shepherd’s pie and proper mattresses and roofs overhead for sleeping, you would need eight weeks or so. At the end, you would have ascended Mt. Everest nearly four times, crossed 302 bridges, and slipped through 921 stiles.
But that really is the least of it. What astonishes when you walk even a sliver of it is not just the variety and bounty of the landscape but the relaxed informality of its governance. You are often just walking the trace of a path, a worn indentation through meadows, as though you weren’t the millionth person to pass that way but one of just a few dozen. The signposts guiding your way are sparse, and often no more than the shape of an acorn carved into an upright piece of wood, maybe with an arrow added, maybe not. Nothing will ever warn you not to fall off that cliff to your certain death. The path’s minders assume the path’s users will themselves be mindful.
We’d spent well over a year fretting over the dangers of straying from our Covid hideouts and now here was a path where perils abounded without warning or safeguards, as refreshing as the breeze.
In our short time there we walked the minutest fragment of the whole. One day we went from Boscastle to Tintagel and back. A local passerby at the start gave us helpful directions: “Just keep the sea to your immediate right and keep walking.” You would see a distant point—an outcropping of rock, maybe the remnants of some decrepit lighthouse—and then you would daydream and muse and meander your way across fields and along cliff edges and over hedgerows, and suddenly you would find yourself there, marveling as you looked back at the distance you had traveled.
Everything we saw told a story and held a mystery and notched the passage of time in its own way: the slow-growing tundra underfoot, the gnarled wind-bent tree, the coastal inlets carved by countless millennia of tempests and gentle rains. The walker there on his appointed day, marking time step by step.
In Tintagel we merged again with the crowds that had come by car to walk a stretch of the path and to take the bridge that led to the ruins of the medieval castle where the legendary King Arthur once brooded by the sea. We went down to the shore and into the rock mouth of Merlin’s Cave, full of magic and surprise. On our return stroll to Boscastle, the crowds quickly dwindled to where we were alone again, glad for the motion after a lunch of beers and soup.
The next day took us south by car to the crowded harbor town of Padstow. From there we walked out to Stepper Point as the crowds thinned and then vanished behind us. We wandered south to the cliffs above Butterhole Beach, then down and up the Tregudda Gorge. We walked on a glorious fall day with no aim but to keep going, to round that next bend, to look down onto that next beach, to take in the view from that next point of the surfers catching waves. When we finally came level with the sea, we went out along the sand and swam in the cold rollers ourselves.
We all agreed as we went that at that moment then, there was nothing we would rather be doing in the entire world than walking that stretch of coast.
That coastal path and those few days provided the perfect pairing: Simplicity alongside splendor. We ate lunch at an inn one day and on the next, carried sandwiches to eat on a high point with the wind in our faces. We didn’t talk much, but just walked and marveled. There was amazement at what we saw, but also amazement that the path even existed. That it was there for us and stretched on for weeks and across hundreds of miles. We came away pledging to come again for much longer walks, a week of walks, maybe more, having learned the easy way that there were few things better to be doing anywhere on Earth.
–Neil King Jr. is the editor of Gotham Canoe and a writer who, when not at home in Washington DC, is very happy to be elsewhere.