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Walking the Moors: A Walking Tour through Exmoor National Park

After only days of tramping the moors in England, I knew I needed two key items to survive the week-long trek through Exmoor. One I already had — a pair of sturdy waterproof boots. Thank goodness my sister had talked me into this heavier, now mud-encrusted pair. Despite the drizzle, my feet were dry and blister-free. The other essential—a good sense of humour—was quickly being cultivated. How else could our group of 15 walkers and two guides be standing in a drenching downpour by a sheep barn, waiting for a mystery guest to appear, and actually be laughing about it? “I know,” one woman joked to our very British guide. “This is our accommodation for the night. This double stall is the bridal suite and we’re waiting for the innkeeper.”

It turned out that we were waiting for a shepherd named Alfie Little and his border collie, Roy. Somehow, a message had been sent to the 74-year-old man who lived alone in a trailer without a telephone. He was to meet the Wayfarers’ walking group at 3 p.m. by this tin-walled sheep pen in order to show the North American visitors what happens at sheep trials. Sure enough, at 15 minutes after three, a car pulled up and out jumped Roy. For 20 minutes or so, the dog intensely herded and divided the sheep according to Alfie’s commands and whistles. “Come by ewe,” Alfie would direct his dog. “That’s enough.” It was a highlight of the week and worth every second of standing dripping in the rain.

For years, the Wayfarers have been leading Canadians and Americans across pockets of England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. It seems to be a winning formula. Take a group of like-minded people who like Britain and love to walk. Put them together from Sunday evening to Saturday morning. Let a good guide lead them across some 75 kilometres of terrain while the manager ferries their suitcases from hotel to hotel and up into their rooms. Make sure the accommodation is more than adequate. We slept in rambling country house hotels and quaint inns in town squares. Feed them well. Plan lots of interesting events like Alfie. And be flexible with the schedule.

When the rain threatened a planned field picnic, our guides arranged lunch in the barn of a neighbour who turned out to be famous explorer Ranulph Fiennes, the only man in the world to have crossed both Poles, the Antarctic Continent and unearth a lost city in the Quarter desert. “Welcome to the Manor, ladies and gentlemen,” said Fiennes, standing in the straw and gesturing toward the barn roof.

My sister Tess, my friend Jeanine and I had met up with our group the previous Sunday night in the Victorian seaside resort of Lynmouth. We’d walked the cliff, the valley, the riverbed, and the moor. We’d seen the famous wild ponies and followed the footpaths over fences and riverbeds. It was beauty and the beast. The area was filled with sheep and wild ponies, deer and wild boar. Also in the park was a local two-day endurance course of 100 miles for horses and their riders. Shouted one horsewoman as she trotted past us in the grey mist, “God, you’re as daft as we are.”

In truth, we were not daft at all. As the population ages and gives up hand gliding or heli-skiing, walking holidays are becoming an increasingly popular way to travel. It’s countryside in slow motion. Travelling through fields and up hills, over moors and back down into valleys, we could smell and touch and even taste what was being offered up. Whether one strode ahead at the front of the line, or hung back to chat to people or take close-up photos of a wild geraniums or a staring cow, you were in constant close contact with the details of the land.

For two days now, we had been exploring the wilds of Exmoor National Park (the part of England that juts the coast across from Wales and straddles Somerset and Devon). By now, the personalities had began to emerge. Allan from Louisiana liked telling funny stories after dinner. David from Montreal was always ready with a quip. Tessa from Lucan, Ontario was keen on identifying plant species. Our professions were as diverse as plant scientist and Spanish professor, nurse and ex-military helicopter pilot. Some liked taking photographs; others recorded everything on video making us shush so they wouldn’t get our laughing as background noise.

No matter the walker, we were all keen on Geoffrey, our walk leader, a rugged individual from the West Country who knew what wild garlic looked like and when the cuckoo was about to sing. A tall, lanky, good-looking man, he led with compass and map and walking stick. Full of encouragement and good cheer, he peppered his remarks with “Good Job” and “Well Done” as we climbed and descended the terrain or “Brilliant” and “Absolutely Right” when a walker identified a chaffinch bird or a clump of wild garlic. Finally Tessa turned to him and asked, “Do they teach positive optimism in the schools here in England?” We all resolved to be more praiseworthy of our kids when we returned home.

Our walk manager, Annie, not only ferried our luggage. She kept the car at the ready for weary walkers who wanted a rest or a lift to the next stop on the walk. In between she did errands such as searching for new boots for someone who was getting too many blisters or retrieving a camera left behind on a picnic table. Most important for this particular group, she purchased anti-diarrhea medicine for some who had succumbed to tummy troubles and were worried about trotting for a couple of hours across an open moor. How could anyone resist such a chance to be pampered? As one walker confided, “I feel like a kid again, when someone always took care of me.”

And then there’s food. If it wasn’t for the walking we would have rolled off the plane. Starting with a full English breakfast—such as lamb kidneys, grilled tomatoes and Exmoor honey—we moved on to mid-morning coffee or a pick-me-up snack of barley water and Hobnob biscuits. Lunch was in a pub or a country house. Several were memorable such as the Vegetable Springy Soup made with too much arrowroot—the spoon could practically stand up in the bowl— or the spartan meal in a gloomy dwelling that felt as if it should belong to the Addams Family. Dinner was always a feast of English cuisine featuring smoked turkey, lamb in sauce.

Although novice hikers are welcome to join any of the Wayfarers Walks, it’s best if they do some practising on hills beforehand. Much of the walking was indeed up and down hills—or “undulations” or “lovely bits of up” as experienced walkers like to call the steep inclines leading to prime viewing spots. As the nurse from Buffalo said after one particularly hard day, “I’ve found muscles I didn’t know I had before.” When Geoff announced that we only had two miles to go, David, the keenest walker of the bunch counteres, “But that’s two thousand, six hundred and forty-two steps.”

Our last surprise of the week was a full cream tea on the lawn of a National Trust Estate near Selworthy, a village filled with thatched cottages and flowers dripping from fenceposts. The other tea drinkers, ladies dressed in hats and babes decked out in prams, looked as if they were in a film set. We were the country cousins but no matter. After numerous pots of tea and scones with cream and strawberry jam, we would be greeted by hot water and jokes around dinner. Asked by friends if this kind of holiday was worth the price, I replied, “every penny.” No visual pollution, no hassles, no noise. A cure for the body and a tonic for the mind.

BOTTOM LINE: For years now, the Wayfarers have been leading Canadians and Americans by foot across pockets of England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales. Two years ago, they introduced walks in France; this year, a walk through Tuscany in Italy is in the schedule. Most walks cost around Britain cost US$1560 per person; the walks in Ireland and France cost about US$200 more. The price includes six nights’ accommodation, breakfast, pub lunch or picnic, dinner with wine daily commencing with dinner on Sunday and ending with breakfast on Saturday, transportation of baggage and a car at the ready. Badges and photos of the group and each walker are also included. Contact The Wayfarers, 172 Bellevue Ave., Newport, Rhode Island, U.S.A., 02840. Tel: 1-800-249-4620 or fax (401) 849-5878.





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