Midmorning sun glints off puddles from last night's rain as 40 walkers gather on a muddy Scottish path, eager to begin a daylong adventure. Ahead of us lies a scenic 10-mile walk that will take us through meadows and woodlands to the sweeping eastern coastline bordering England and Scotland.
We have come to this pastoral spot, 50 miles southeast of Edinburgh, for an increasingly popular event: the Scottish Borders Festival of Walking, a weeklong celebration held in September. As one of a dozen such festivals scattered around the British Isles, it represents a new way to see Britain on foot.
In a hurry-up world, where travel is often measured in frequent-flier miles at 35,000 feet, walking offers an ideal slow-down vacation. What better way to enjoy the local landscape than by lacing up hiking boots, tucking a lunch and rain gear - just in case - into a backpack, and heading for the nearest trail? That prospect is especially enticing in Britain. With thousands of miles of centuries-old footpaths, it remains one of the most walker-friendly countries in the world.
Unlike walking tours, typically run by private companies for groups of 16 or 18, walking festivals are underwritten by local tourism councils and open to the public. Groups can number 30 or more. Walks are usually free of charge, with participants paying only modest fees - perhaps 1 ($1.60) for bus transportation to the starting point of a walk and 5 ($8) for entertainment. Walkers arrange their own lodging and meals.
Walking festivals offer a something-for-everyone approach. Participants can come for a day, a weekend, or a week. They can also choose from a variety of routes. These range from easy three-mile walks through gentle farmland to strenuous 14-mile treks over rough terrain. Local experts serve as guides, sharing details about history, flora and fauna, and geology.
Here in the history-rich Borders region - an area fringed by dramatically beautiful coastline and marked by ancient territorial feuds - participants can choose from 32 walks. The festival's base moves to a different Borders town each year, offering further variety.
But walks are not the only attraction. In the evening, social events range from talks and slide shows to spirited parties. A historic walk around the fishing port of Eyemouth features a local actor dressed in swashbuckling period costume. And a gathering in an 18th-century country house offers music and refreshments.
Capping the celebration on the final evening is a Celtic dancing party called a ceidilh (KAY-lee). As a folk-music band fiddles and strums, walkers turn into dancers, skipping and stomping their way through such Scottish folk dances as "Strip the Willow" and "St. Bernhard's Waltz."
One of the most tireless promoters of walking festivals is Roger Smith, a friendly, energetic man who carries the official title of walking development officer. Borrowing an idea from Ireland, he organized the first Scottish festival in 1995. The concept quickly spread to England and Wales.
These festivals also promote what he calls "green tourism." By encouraging walking and cycling, he says, local officials attract visitors without adding pollution and congestion from automobiles.
Mr. Smith's own love of walking started early. As he explains, "My father never owned a car. He'd say, 'Let's go for a walk.' We'd be out all day."
Now he hopes to pass along that enthusiasm to others. "Every walk is a new experience," he says, relaxing over lunch after leading a group of about 35 across the wet and slippery sands at low tide to Holy Island, a seat of early Christianity.
Philip Marshall of Tyne and Wear, England, who has attended all five Borders festivals, explains their appeal to him. "It's the camaraderie, and it's the friendship," he says.
This festival draws walkers from Scotland, England, Holland, and New Zealand. My husband and I are Exhibit A - the first Americans to participate. "You came all that way just for this?" the locals ask, wide-eyed.
On this September Thursday, we choose a walk graded "moderate." Mike Baker, a local ranger, guides our group along an initial muddy path to rolling farmland. Cylinders of freshly harvested hay sit like giant spools of thread on golden fields. Later, sunlight filters through tall trees as we wind along a woodland path, a stream rushing through a ravine below.
Elsewhere along the way, Scottish blackface sheep huddle near a fence. Snow-white geese honk in noisy disapproval as we pass by. A black horse grazes near a crumbling stone house. And buzzards glide overhead in a cloudless sky, their call sounding like the mewing of a cat.
Nature doesn't get much better than this.
Still, the ultimate reward for more than four hours of hiking comes as we catch our first glimpse of coastline. Threading our way along a cliff-top ridge, we get a buzzard's-eye view of picturesque Cove Harbor. Here, whitewashed 17th-century sandstone buildings stand in dazzling contrast to the deep-blue water.
As we head inland again, leader Mike Baker offers encouragement. "Just another kilometer or so," he says cheerily.
The group groans good-naturedly. "He puts it in kilometers, so nobody knows how far it is," one man teases.
Another adds, "You have to watch out for that 'or so.' "
Finally we round the corner into the tiny village of Cockburnspath, where our bus waits. A grocery store beckons like an oasis in the desert. Soft drinks! Snacks! We make a quick detour. Then, as we sink into our seats for the ride back to Coldingham, one woman takes a cooling bite of her ice-cream bar and sighs contentedly. "The perfect ending," she says.
What foot-weary but triumphant festival-walker could disagree?
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society