The perfect English country walk: five ingredients

perfect english country walk

The country walk near or around London is a venerable tradition. Every weekend, in good weather and bad, scores of Londoners descend upon different areas of the Home Counties–the counties surrounding London–to tramp along country roads, walk adjacent to (and sometimes through) cultivated fields, and wander into rural churches.

My first walk transpired this past Saturday. I was lucky enough to do a walk with a group of friends, some of whom have spent many a weekend exploring the countryside. Our meander, a circular walk based on a Surrey town called Guildford, came from Time Out’s Country Walks Volume 2, which was written by a committed group of walkers called the Saturday Walkers’ Club. The Time Out volumes are well-known and very well researched. Most of their walks require only very basic fitness.

Here are five ingredients for the perfect country walk. First up is a tip for making things affordable from the get-go.

1. Take the train to your origination and from your termination points, and take advantage of discounts for groups. Go in a group of three or more. My inaugural walk last weekend required the purchase of a group round trip ticket from London Waterloo to Guildford, a snip at £6.95 ($11.10), considerably less expensive than the lowest normal round trip fare of £13.90 ($22.30).

2. Make sure there is a good restaurant or pub at the midway point as well as at the walk’s conclusion. A filling midday meal, capped with a scone slathered with insanely good clotted cream and jam, is part of the tradition. And a crisp refreshing drink at the close of the walk, alcoholic or otherwise, is also key. There should be a pub close to the termination of your walk.

3. Do your research. Time Out has published two Country Walks volumes, with over 80 walks between them. Take a look at these and examine walk durations, transit times, and level of difficulty. The Time Out volumes certainly aren’t the be-all and end-all of country walks, either. Check out the walks detailed at Urban75 for some additional ideas.

4. Walk with someone with a good sense of direction, or, barring that, good navigational gear. Some of the Time Out walks travel through unmarked territory and will accordingly be made more pleasant by including someone comfortable with a compass.

5. Not to belabor the obvious, but dress appropriately. You’ll need rubber boots or hiking shoes with very good traction for walks during or following rains. For some walks, sneakers will do. Other walks will require shoes with an especially good grip. Pay attention to the difficulty grade and description of your walk beforehand. And layer appropriately.

A hidden church near Oxford

Yesterday I reviewed Michael McCay’s Hidden Treasures of England, a book filled with wonderful places that most people miss. Here’s one McCay missed.

Not far from the popular destination of Oxford is the little hamlet of Binsey and its historic St. Margaret’s Church.

St. Margaret’s is reputedly founded on the spot where St. Frideswide (pictured here) built an oratory in the seventh century. The holy woman fled Oxford to Binsey to escape a local prince who wanted to marry her. As punishment for his lust, the prince was blinded by lightning, but the forgiving yet still chaste St. Frideswide cured him with water from a holy well that miraculously opened up from the ground after she prayed to St. Margaret of Antioch.

The well is still there today and attracts people who pray for help, especially cures to blindness. This tradition may even be older than St. Frideswide, because many holy wells in England were actually pagan holy spots before being taken over by the new faith. In the nineteenth century Lewis Carroll visited the spot and used it as inspiration for his “treacle well” in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. He was making a play on words. In his day treacle was a syrup, but in Saxon times it meant “a healing fluid.”

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The Saxon church of St. Frideswide’s day is long gone, replaced with a modest but beautiful 13th century building. There are some well preserved Gothic features such as the arch and the carved doorway, and a rare trussed rafter roof made with no nails.

Although it’s one of the most historic churches in Oxfordshire, St. Margaret’s is desperately in need of money for repairs and upkeep. The Church of England is feeling the pinch and smaller churches like this one are struggling to keep open. They are taking donations at their website and you can always drop some coins in the donation box at the church. A building with this much history deserves to stay open.

The church and its well make for a fine half-day excursion from Oxford. It’s only about three miles from downtown and much of the walk is through serene countryside. A map is available on the website. As you pass through the village of Binsey, you might want to stop by The Perch, a relaxing pub with a big garden. It’s tradition to stop at a pub during an English country walk, and you wouldn’t want to break with tradition, would you?