By Ellen Barone
The sun, the hills, the clotted cream. There’s nothing as existentially refreshing as a slow walk through the English countryside. For eight June days, I strapped on my hiking boots for a coast-to-coast ramble with The Wayfarers across South West England, where the food is local, the air crisp, and the hilltop views make the miles seem easy.
Among the many reasons to join a guided walk are the opportunities to learn from local experts, each hand-selected for their unique insights, knowledge, and passion for a region. Here are five walk highlights I might never have experienced as an independent traveler.
1. D-Day secrets
Our first morning, on the 67th Anniversary of D-Day, began on a somber note at Slapton Sands beach, the center of operations for Exercise Tiger, code name for a super-secret full-scale rehearsal in 1944 for the invasion of Normandy. In remembrance of the 946 American servicemen tragically killed in the exercise, Wayfarers’ walk manager, Jamie Daniell, a retired career officer in the British Army, recited For the Fallen, a moving poem by the English poet and writer Laurence Binyon.
2. Cob art
Rural England is full of the eccentric characters that embody country life. At Burrow Farm, a remote Dartmoor farmstead near Drewsteignton, we meet up with Jackie Abey and Jill Smallcombe, a dynamic, artistic duo specializing in the art and craft of cob architecture, a traditional building mixture of subsoil, straw, and water. Encrusted in a fine layer of dust, the beautiful Jill and Jackie are not your average gray-haired, storybook grandmothers. Rather, the vivacious twosome spend their days transforming crumbling piles of 200-year-old walls and heaps of excavated earth into commissioned sculptures, National Trust renovations, and massive public works projects. It was impressive to see how the pair has turned playing in the dirt into a highly successful creative pursuit.
3. Medieval Hound Tor
In Widecombe-in-the-Moor we were met by cultural environmentalist, Dr. Tom Greeves for a steep climb across the wide expanses of Dartmoor National Park to the site of Hound Tor, one of the best-preserved examples of a medieval village in England. Tom, a professional observer of modern and ancient Dartmoor residents, traditions and customs, brought alive the longhouse architecture and agrarian lifestyle of the inhabitants who lived there at least 900 years ago.
4. Folk singing
Later that night, at the New Inn in Coleford, a charming 13th-century Free House, we were joined for dinner, drinks, and dancing by Dartmoor folk singer, Bill Murray, and an impromptu band of local musicians. Jolly, unassuming, and hospitable, Bill filled us in between songs on the music’s provenance: Each character and verse traced back to a Dartmoor community like wine is to a vineyard.
5. Exmoor magic
There is something magical and monumental about walking in Exmoor National Park, where Britain’s oldest breed of pony runs wild. Or to stand on the same stretch of track where, in 1797, Samuel Taylor Coleridge composed his great poem ‘Kubla Khan,’ until interrupted by a Person from Porlock. So, the final descent into Porlock felt like a fitting end to our moorland walk. Especially since one last clotted cream tea awaited us.
Ellen Barone is a freelance photojournalist specializing in travel. For travel news, tips and reviews, visit her website at EllenBarone.com.