BRITAIN, TOWN AND COUNTRY Walking is the best way to learn about the places and people of Cornwall


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

Between walks, we took morning coffee, lunch, afternoon tea and dinner at pubs and restaurants in towns that were never far from the sea and with distinctively Cornish names like Philleigh, Trewortha, Gerrans, Veryan, Portloe, Portscatho, Mevagissey and Bohortha.

Every day we walked about 10 miles. We carried only small backpacks for sweaters, rain gear, water bottles, cameras, maps and other necessities. Twice a day, Malle Adkins, the walk manager, would rendezvous with us and offer refreshments and a ride in the Wayfarers' station wagon for anyone who was tired, blistered or otherwise indisposed. She also transported our luggage to the next night's lodging.

Our accommodations were at village inns that were family owned and tended. The rooms were neat, clean and modest, and you had the feeling of staying at someone's house rather than a hotel. Each inn had lively pubs where we met Cornish villagers who were unaccustomed to talking to Americans and ** who grilled us about our lifestyles, politics, even NFL football.

Anticipating novelty

Sleep came early and easily, and each morning we awoke ready for walks that sparkled with the dew of novelty. Throughout the day we were propelled by the unshakable need to see what was around the next bend or over the next hill. Along the way we chatted with shepherds, refuse collectors, schoolteachers and assorted local eccentrics and amiable bucolics. At the village of St. Mawes, a workman was painstakingly thatching the roof of a cottage. We yelled up and asked him how long it would take him. "I don't know, but when I'm finished it will last 30 years."

More often we found ourselves in the company of only each other as we walked the cliffs, ablaze in yellow gorse, high above the English Channel.

Fifteen minutes from the roar of the sea, the sounds became bovine, porcine, equine. The hogs were indifferent to this strange group of two-legged walkers, the horses almost friendly, the young bulls downright curious.

Then the countryside would give way to thatched-roof villages such as Veryan, with church steeples jutting into the sky like admonishing fingers, and cemeteries with tombstones canted and jockeyed by the frosts of a hundred or more winters. We wondered about Veryan's round houses and then learned that they were so designed because their 19th-century architects believed that if there were no corners there would be no place for the devil to hide.

Veryan, like most of the villages, is so small that entering and leaving amounted to almost the same thing, and soon we'd be in a pasture again within earshot of the channel waves doubling their fists and pounding the shore.

Back on the Coastal Path, we might see a dozen or more black gulls holding an important meeting on a foam-flecked rock, each one earnestly seeking the attention of the chair. A half-hour later, we were climbing over yet another stile, a set of steps over a farmer's fence or wall.

With this rhythm of landscape, we fell into a pleasant dailiness. It began with a full English breakfast (juice, cereal, eggs, toast, grilled tomatoes, bacon, sausage and kippers) about 8, walking from about 9 to 12:30. We'd stop for a leisurely pub meal (perhaps a plowman's lunch of cheese, ham and bread) and then walk till about 4. Then it was rest and recuperation until 7, and a long, voluble dinner followed by conversation and reflections on the day's walk while the fire snapped its fingers in the hearth.

Interesting people

This postprandial relaxation climaxed the steady winding down of the day, which I often began by pondering some problem, but the rhythmic motion of arms and legs cleared the mind and opened up the senses. All thought soon left the head, to be replaced by the sights and sounds of land and sea. For the walker, the landscape is no longer something passing by through a window. And you get to meet some interesting people.

Near St. Keverne, we met a woman along the Coastal Path with a black dog. She wore boots, a handsome tan coat and a brown cap from which wisps of gray hair protruded. "Have you seen any adders?" she asked, and as we shook our heads she continued. "Well, it's wet and that brings them out, you know. I expect I shall walk across the field."

She smiled a goodbye. "Come on, Jane. I don't think you need any more grass. She's a gun dog, but she's gun-shy, so I said, 'I'll take her, I don't mind.' Cheerio."

Mr. Hague noted that "cheerio" as a word of parting is fading from usage. "The younger generation thinks it's too square, and they've taken to using 'cheers' as a substitute. I think it's a damn shame."

On the fifth and last day, I descended steep cliff steps to a sheltered sunny beach near Bohortha. The waves fought their way onto the shore in a melee of foam, and I walked along the beach between surf and cliff. As a walker, I felt like a traveler rather than a tourist. I remembered that Paul Theroux, walking around the British coast in 1982 gathering material for the book "The Kingdom by the Sea," became convinced he was engaged in travel because "I was looking hard and because I had no other business there."

In the end I felt attached to Cornwall, both the people and the place. Walking was a powerful antidote for the isolating patterns conventional tourism. I came to know what the British know: that the real charm of their landscape is best seen from the public footpaths.

If you go . . .

The Wayfarers is one of several walking tour companies operating in Britain. Its U.S. office is at 166 Thames St., Newport, R.I. 02840; telephone (401) 849-5087. A walk costs about $1,000 and includes six nights' accommodations, all meals, guides and luggage transportation.

Other operators are Great British Vacations, 4905 Griffith Drive, Beaverton, Ore. 97005 (telephone [800] 452-8434); and Wessex Heritage, 235 Post Road West, Westport, Conn. 06880 (telephone [800] 992-7700).

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