Footpaths. Get acquainted with England's charms up close, on pleasant strolls down country-village lanes or rough rambles up lonely hills

JOHN Hillaby, British naturalist and author, calls walking -- which is something of a national pastime in this country -- ``a way of life.'' With him, walking is not so much a pastime as a profession. Or not so much a profession as a positive love affair with the ground. In the current issue of Britain's National Trust magazine, he writes that something he particularly enjoys about walking is the feel underfoot of ``nice differences'' between ``spongy peat, different kinds of clays, rasping grits, springy chalk and limestone, and the ring of fire-born rock'' found in Britain's Lake District.

Many keen or casual walkers would undoubtedly endorse Mr. Hillaby's explanation.

And for them, Britain offers its share of ``Long Distance Paths'' (LDP) -- more than a dozen are officially designated as such -- and there are countless other unofficial ones. The LDPs include the 250-mile Pennine Way, stretching from the English Peak District to just over the Scottish border, and the 168-mile Offa's Dyke Path, which marks part of the boundary between England and Wales. Such LDPs, which often present a challenge even to experienced walkers, are in fact made up of much shorter paths linked together. And it is in these short public footpaths that Britain also excels.

The ``AA Book of Country Walks'' says: ``No country in the world has such a wealth of public footpaths as Britain.'' They can offer brief, level strolls on the edge of cities; they can provide rough, taxing rambles up steep, lonely hills. They can take one across desolate moorland or along cosy old country-village lanes with high banks.''

Many of Britain's paths have astonishingly ancient beginnings. They might have been cattle-drover's routes or tracks worn originally by pilgrims en route to religious shrines. Merchants' pack-ponies might have slowly wound their way through the same woods and over the same little stone bridges as walkers do today.

Footpaths run along the banks of rivers or canals or dramatically follow the edge of oceanside cliffs. Others, since the closure of many railway lines in the '60s, trace segments of defunct routes.

In England and Wales, alone, there are 120,000 miles of traffic-free public footpaths, bridleways, and byways, each with a slightly different legal status, but all guaranteed by law as ``rights of way'' to the walker. Scotland is also crisscrossed by many paths, but they are not mapped and recorded in the same way.

There is a wealth of literature available to walkers in Britain (see some titles below). For a starter, there is a good leaflet put out this year by the British Tourist Authority (BTA), ``Walking in Britain.'' This offers a map of the country with all the official long distance routes marked and described. There is also advice on suitable clothing -- thick socks, stout boots (leather preferably), a change of warm clothing, a waterproof jacket and, perhaps, waterproof over-trousers, even on a sunny day. Jeans are not advisable in this climate for hill-walking.

The leaflet also says where, by law, you can and cannot go. A public footpath can sometimes lead through farmyards and private gardens, but as long as you don't stray from it you have every right to be there. One walker, David Angell, told me he doesn't think ``anyone bothers too much about trespass. One tries to stick to the footpaths,'' he explained. ``But you very often find that the farmer has deliberately allowed the path to become overgrown, and you have to go the other side of the hedge or something...'' Legally you can remove enough of any obstruction to get past, or, if this is impossible, even walk through a growing crop to get around it.

Every publication I have seen on walking in this small country lays great emphasis on the ``Country Code'' -- the term for such conduct as guarding against fire risks, fastening all gates, keeping dogs under control, taking litter home, and protecting wildlife. There is mention, also, of not making ``unnecessary noise.''

A compass and a good map are also musts. Thick mists are always a possibility on this island. The Ordnance Survey maps are extraordinarily detailed, and, of course, show footpaths.

Walkers I have spoken with vary in their approach to the art. David Angell prefers to go it alone. He likes unplanned (or minimally planned) adventures. ``I love the freedom of not being directed, of being able to go at my own pace, sit down, slow down, speed up, get off the path to look at something, perhaps a bird or a deer....'' Living in the South of England, he often walks on the South Downs, but he waxes much more lyrical about walking in Scotland, particularly the mountains known as the Cairn gorms.

John Falkingham, a young head-teacher living in Norfolk, tends to be more sociable on the walking holidays he takes with his wife, Elizabeth. They walk together or they enjoy the kind of specialized group walking arranged by such organizations as HF Walking Holidays or CHA Countrywide Holidays. The Peak District is their favorite walking area. They reckon this stony landscape, situated in the middle of the industrial north-midlands (Sheffield, Manchester, Stoke, and Derby surround it) -- sometimes bleak, sometimes wooded or comfortably farmed -- is ``grossly underrated.''

A recent trip to the Peak District on Mr. Falkingham's recommendation quickly convinced me that its beauties ought, indeed, to be better known. Much of it is, in fact, a National Park, but the designation should not be misunderstood; in Britain the phrase means, essentially, conserved countryside -- but countryside that is inhabited, farmed, even quarried. Much of the land in British National Parks is privately owned. Their appeal to tourists, and particularly walkers, is considerable.

The part of the Peak District most favored by the Falkinghams -- around the Hope Valley, with the high ground of Kinder Scout and the beginnings of the Pennine Way near Edale -- belongs to the National Trust, for instance, and is completely unrestricted.

What the Falkinghams like, as Elizabeth puts it, is the feeling of walking over the peaty ground on the wide top of Kinder Scout: ``It's bouncy!'' she says. And her husband sings the praises of Kinder Downfall, a waterfall that can be reached only after ``quite a hard trek,'' he says. The views are ``breathtaking on a clear day.''

Mary Cockerton, a Canadian who was born in the Lake District and whose father took her up Great Gable when she was 7, frequently comes over to walk here and in Scotland. She enjoys ``short walks'' now of three or four miles, centered on such places as Keswick or Ambleside or such lakes as Derwent Water or Windermere. The spring is the best time for the Lakes, she says, with ``primroses and violets and bluebells in the woods, and the fresh green of the trees -- larch, beech and birch.... Another thing I enjoy is the lambs!''

The Lake District is not famous for its shortage of rainfall. Ms. Cockerton, however, isn't in the least bothered by the precipitation. To new walkers she offers this advice: ``Don't be afraid to ask advice. Go into some of these information centers -- they're all over the place -- and they are very helpful. If you are going up into the hills for the first time, if possible go with someone else.'' Practical information

For the free ``Walking in Britain'' leaflet or other information, Americans can contact the British Tourist Authority, 40 W. 57th St., New York, N.Y., 10019, tel. 212-581-4700. Or in London contact the Tourist Information Centre, Victoria Station Forecourt, London SW1, tel. 01-730-3488.

For information on paths in Scotland, contact the Scottish Tourist Board, 19 Cockspur St., London, SW1Y 5BL, UK, tel. 01-930-8661. For similar information on Wales, contact the Wales Tourist Board, 34 Piccadilly, London, W1, UK, tel. 01-409-0969.

For information about youth hostels in England and Wales, contact the Youth Hostels Association, Trevelyan House, 8 St. Stephen's Hill, St. Albans, Herts, AL1 2DY, UK, tel. 0727-55215.

Youth Hostels in Scotland are represented by the Scottish Youth Hostels Association, 7 Glebe Crescent, Stirling, FK8 2JA, Scotland, UK.

For organized walks, contact the Countrywide Holidays Association, Birch Heys, Cromwell Range, Manchester, M14 6HU, UK, tel. 061-225-1000; or HF Holidays, Ltd., 142/144 Great North Way, London, NW4 1EG, UK, tel. 01-203-0433.

Ordnance Survey Maps can be bought at many bookshops. A color brochure describing the full range is available from Ordnance Survey, Romsey Rd., Southampton, England, SO9 4DH, UK, tel. 0703-792765. Suggested books

A wide selection of books on British walks is listed in the British Tourist Authority's ``Walking in Britain'' leaflet. Here are some specially recommended publications:

AA Book of Country Walks: Step-by-Step Around 205 of Britain's Finest Routes. Looseleaf pages, waterproof plastic wallet, includes a small handbook of British flora and fauna. Obtainable from the Mail Order Dept., Automobile Assn., Fanum House, Basingstoke, Hants., RG21 2BR, UK, tel. 0256-20123. Send international money order in sterling for 18.95 (includes postage).

Long Distance Walks, HMSO (Her Majesty's Stationery Office). Guidebooks cover 14 of them. Obtainable in the US from Bernan Associates Inc., 9730-E George Palmer Highway, Lanham, Md., 20706. Write for price list.

Walker's Britain -- The Complete Pocket Guide to Over 240 Walks and Rambles, published by Pan Books/Ordnance Survey. Also, just published, Walker's Britain 2, including additional walks. These books are only two of many obtainable from YHA Adventure Shops, 14 Southampton St., London WC2E 7HY. Mastercard or Visa purchasers must give name (legible), signature, card number, expiration date, address of cardholder, and address to which book is to be sent. Walker's Britain costs 6.95 plus postage (surface mail 2, air mail 7). Book list also available.

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