Walking is the best way to learn about the places and people of Cornwall


October 11, 1992|By William Ecenbarger | William Ecenbarger,Universal Press Syndicate

At the village of Ruan Lenihorne, we met an old Cornishman sawing tree limbs. A smile tweaked his mustache as he gave tourniquet handshakes all around while explaining that he was cutting pieces of hazel. He would fashion the hazel into walking sticks that he would later sell.

"Holly is the best and ash is more flexible," he said, kneeling back to his task, "but this hazel is good. And the best walking sticks are cut right here," he said, leaning back to show us, "where the root meets the ground. It makes a lovely handle."

He refused to sell us any sticks because they still needed numerous coats of varnish before it would be "proper" -- though, he sniffed, there are those who would sell such unfinished goods. Indeed, he said, there were so many walking-stick makers in Cornwall that most of the trees are claimed and marked off in advance.

There are shops in England that sell only walking sticks because walking is the English national pastime, having supplanted fishing, according to a recent survey. It is a nation that has about 100,000 miles of public rights-of-way -- foot paths, bridle paths and byways that traverse hills, mountains, farmlands, seaside and fields. Many of these walkways are ancient public paths blazed long before the invention of the automobile.

It was after World War I that walking became popular as the English people sought an inexpensive refuge from the grime of the Industrial Revolution. Today, walking is still as much a part of English life as afternoon tea. The government estimates that 38 percent of the population, or about 21 million people, goes walking in the countryside regularly.

Among the most avid British walkers is Chris Hague of the Wayfarers, one of several companies that offer organized walks through the English countryside. Mr. Hague gave up a career as a commercial artist in 1983 to become a professional walker. "I've walked all my life," he said, "and now I'm making a living

doing what I've always dreamed of doing." The choice obviously suits him: Mr. Hague looks to be in his 30s but is 51.

Under his guidance, our walking group learned what the Britons already know: The best way to see the countryside is on foot. We spent a week walking in Cornwall along the Coastal Path, a 562-mile national trail around England's western peninsula. Routes off the Coastal Path would take us into the interior of the land.

Cornwall is well-suited for walking because it offers a varied topography and because of its isolation. It is the tail of England, at the southwest tip, aloof and detached -- a rocky claw thrusting out into the Atlantic. "You won't see any bus loads of tourists here," Mr. Hague said, referring to the southern coast of Cornwall. "Americans who want to see one pretty village after another usually go walking in the Cotswolds. There's really not much to do in this part of Cornwall but walk and sail."

He described these assets of a Cornwall walk on our first day when we began our tour in Truro. The nine who joined Mr. Hague for the walk in Cornwall included my wife, Susan, and me; two couples from Baltimore; two Chicago women (a teacher and a computer programmer) and a retired electronics executive from the Isle of Guernsey.

Although we never ventured more than 50 miles from our starting point over the next five days, we saw a lot of Cornwall. We walked through villages steeped in medieval ambience, across fields, along beaches, down cliffs, up grassy hills medallioned with sheep and cows, along sandy coves, past lone farms in the center of high-walled fields and through forests thick with legends. It was here in Cornwall that Tennyson chased King Arthur's legend and wrote of "wind-hollowed heights and gusty bays."

In pretty villages we learned about the long Cornish history of superstition and magic spells. Along the estuaries and little coves that followed the coastline we would hear not only of the shipwrecks but also of smuggling, pirates and shipwrecks. While the natural elements caused thousands of shipwrecks, the Cornish, it seems, had a hand in more than a few of these disasters. The locals would set beacons on cliffs over the rocks and feast on the leavings of the dying vessels.

Of course, that is history. The Cornish people today are friendly and eager to talk about the past. In fact, one can easily and safely walk around Cornwall (and other parts of England) without guidance. But there are several advantages of organized walks. Logistical problems of luggage, accommodations and restaurants are handled for you. And you have the benefit of experts such as Mr. Hague in selecting the routes. This leaves the visitor free to savor the walk.

So we did. The members of our group were congenial, fit and well-traveled. We walked in various configurations -- twos and threes and fours -- with the groupings changing perhaps every hour. And sometimes people walked alone.

Refreshments on the way

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