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Take a Walking Vacation in England and Ireland

Discover pretty villages, natural wonders and an Irish good time

spinner image Patricia McCreary and Shane O’Doherty walk along a path
Patricia McCreary and tour guide Shane O’Doherty walk along a path on Ireland's Howth Cliff Walk. Writer Crai S. Bower says walking combines nature, exercise and local culture.
Courtesy: Crai S. Bower

The importance of walking for personal health is well documented. I admit, I don’t prioritize a daily stroll when at home, but when I travel, I count on walks as a key facet of my active vacation. I like to take guided tours whenever possible, and I’ve booked walking vacations with luggage-forwarding services that alleviate logistics and let me focus on the trails. Unlike my backpacking experiences, a comfortable bed and pillow await me each evening.

Walking served as the modus operandi for the 19th-century American philosophers who celebrated and fought to preserve the natural places we cherish today. In Henry David Thoreau’s essay “Walking,” which first appeared in Atlantic Monthly in 1862, he proclaimed, "Two or three hours walking will carry me to as strange a country as I expect to ever see."

Obviously, Thoreau didn’t have to worry about crossing freeways, cluttered cities and other modern impediments on his sojourns. Fortunately, the establishment of new trails is a trend all over the United States. Communities have opted to create rail-to-trail systems, ring walks around cities and a variety of other greenways.

Walking provides a wonderful way to combine nature, exercise and local culture. My two favorite places to plot walking holidays are England and Ireland. Both nations have public right-of-way policies — the legal right to walk historic paths even when they cross private property. I love how English trails traverse farmers’ fields as well as moors, mountains and woodland. Ireland’s 43 National Waymarked Trails cover every corner of the Emerald Isle, as I’ve discovered from just outside Dublin to the Wild Atlantic Way on the west coast.


Walking the Lake District trails in Northwest England

I first discovered the right of way when shadowing the steps of poet William Wordsworth in Lake District National Park in Cumbria, Northwest England. Located 275 miles from London, the Lake District is covered with trails that depart pretty villages to ascend the fells, cross the moors and bisect the farmers’ fields.

spinner image Northwest England’s Lake District National Park features more than 1,200 trails to explore.
Northwest England’s Lake District National Park features more than 1,200 trails to explore. The park also offers free guided walks several days a week.
Courtesy: Crai S. Bower

Wordsworth was a major-league walker. When at University of Cambridge, he spent two summers treading all over continental Europe, returning late to school each time. As a teenager, he would walk 10 hours from his home in Cockermouth to his boarding school in Hawkshead. To honor his trek, I walked the 4.1-mile path from Latterbarrow to Hawkshead, where I enjoyed a well-deserved ploughman’s lunch at the Tower Bank Arms, a 17th-century pub.

A popular two-day walk from the Wordsworth House in Cockermouth to Rydal traces the steps of Dorothy Wordsworth — William’s sister, companion and muse — from her birthplace to where she died. An overnight in Keswick is standard for this 34-mile journey.

I choose the far less arduous 5.4-mile loop from Rydal to Grasmere that also covers Wordsworth country. The walk takes about three hours, but I paused to visit Dove Cottage and Rydal Mount, former homes of the romantic poet. Dorothy and William are buried in St. Oswald’s cemetery in Grasmere. You can view St. Oswald’s church from inside the adjacent Grasmere Gingerbread Shop, an ideal spot for tea.

Most trails in the Lake District are clearly marked and graded for difficulty. You can certainly get your mountain goat on in many spots, as I discovered one afternoon while scaling Loughrigg Fell from the village of Ambleside. The moderately difficult trail takes about four hours to walk, with 1,952 feet of elevation change over the 7.6-mile loop. The views of the fells, crags and, especially, Windermere, the region’s largest lake, quickly put the climb out of my mind.

More than 1,200 individual walking trails lattice Lake District National Park. The park offers free guided walks several days a week on a variety of routes. Not every stroll I take is led by a docent, but walking in the company of a local guide slows me down and allows me to hit pause on my daily-steps obsession to study a rare orchid, to hear an anecdote about a local farmer or, in the Lake District, an opinion about the area’s most impactful former resident, the children’s book author and Peter Rabbit creator Beatrix Potter.

Potter’s cast of anthropomorphic characters springs to life everywhere in “The Lakes.” Waistcoated Jeremy Fisher “lived” in Estwait Water; Flopsy and Mopsy inhabited Potter’s Hill Top garden, a public museum today. Potter purchased 15 farms spread across 4,000 acres, and eventually bequeathed the property to the National Trust.


Discovering poetry and plants in Ireland

Usually less than $30, walking tours rarely tax the travel budget. Most guides gladly double as go-to local authorities, offering insights into where to find the best chowder, live music or any one of myriad other amenities. The finest guides spin yarns with exactly the right mixture of local lore and historical fact. Not surprisingly, the best weavers I’ve met ply their trade in the Republic of Ireland.

spinner image Tony Kirby is an export on the topography of Ireland’s Burren National Park.
Tour guide Tony Kirby is an expert on the topography of Ireland’s Burren National Park. Encompassing 200-square miles, the area is home to diverse plant life and as well as burial plots that date back to the stone age.
Courtesy: Crai S. Bower

I’m obsessive about gardens and wildflowers, and Seamus Heaney is my favorite poet. Imagine my delight when, several years ago, I met guide Tony Kirby, who not only recites Heaney poems, but is familiar with most, if not all, of the 700 plants found in Burren National Park, the geological marvel on Ireland’s west coast.

A native of Limerick with the lilt to match, Kirby wrote the book The Burren and the Aran Islands – A Walking Guide, about this confounding natural region. The Burren — Irish for boíreann, meaning a “rocky place” — is a limestone landscape that encompasses 138-square miles. The soil that manages to take hold in patches here is nutrient-rich, providing habitat for many plants that are found nowhere else in Ireland.

A walk with Kirby is not so much about steps as squats, as in kneeling to examine this panoply of flora, including more than 20 orchid species, few rising more than 4 inches in height. Wild geraniums dot the landscape with gentle brushstrokes, rare dropwort spreads like a wee pink blanket across the limestone sheet, as do choruses of spring gentian, trumpet-shaped with boldly blue petals.

The Burren, which at first looks like a barren rockscape, unfurls petite flowers upon nearly every step. Kirby notes the presence of hazel, long associated with wisdom in Ireland, as an example of nature’s constant transition. White hawthorn, a favorite of the faeries, is also recolonizing.

Kirby points to one of more than 75 burial plots. These square stones set in a rectangular form date back to the Stone Age. “These were some of the earliest ‘temples of stone’ for which Druidic culture is known,” he says. “They were portals between the living world and whatever they believe came afterward.”

As we stand beside these well-worn stones, Kirby clears his throat and recites “Postscript,” a beloved Heaney poem about the Burren that begins:

“And some time make the time to drive out west / Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore…”

The next morning, I drive 12 miles from the Burren to the Cliffs of Moher.

Plenty of trails have been trodden across Ireland in the 2.6 million years since the Stone Age began, so it’s with some surprise that we meet the creator of the 15-year-old Doolin Cliff Walk Experience, Pat Sweeney. The Sweeney family has farmed above the Cliffs of Moher for five generations, running pastures to their fenced terminus within feet of the dramatic precipice.

spinner image The guided Doolin Cliff Walk Experience along the Cliff of Moher offers stunning views of the Aran Islands.
The guided Doolin Cliff Walk Experience along the Cliff of Moher offers stunning views of the Aran Islands.
Courtesy: Crai S. Bower

In 2007, Pat asked his agricultural peers, including his dad and grandad, if they’d be willing to move their fences to allow for a walking path to pass from the village of Doolin to the Visitors Center. All 39 farmers agreed to, in Pat’s words, “give people a view of the Cliffs of Moher they could never imagine.”

Note that the fences were moved only slightly back from the cliffs. A gentle climb, this is not a trail for the acrophobe. The public path rarely diverges more than 6 feet from the edge. “I wanted everyone to enjoy this view of the Cliffs of Moher,” Sweeny says, “to absorb their magnificence.”

And magnificent they are. Our tour meets outside Gus O’Connor’s Pub, where breakfast can be ordered, though I recommend forgoing an Irish coffee until after the cliff walk is complete. Sweeney arrives a few minutes late, owing, he says, to an escaped steer. We’re on the trail in a heartbeat, walking beside a sea of pink flowers above waves crashing against the sandstone edifice. The vistas of the distant Aran Islands and 220-foot Branaunmore sea stack — a dramatic shard that remained as the cliff receded — take my breath away.

We humans are hardly the only creatures drawn to this dramatic landscape. Local naturalists estimate that 20,000 pairs of nesting Atlantic puffins, razorbills and other alcid species reside here in summer. Alcid chicks fledge by, flopping over the cliff and then spiraling into the water below, as dramatic a surge for independence as any species in the animal kingdom.

I highly encourage sticking around Doolin for a day or two. A night there inevitably means stepping into O’Connor’s Pub, as it should. A small posse of musicians play traditional music, and everyone’s excited for the craic, Irish for a (very!) good time.

I’d hoped to find the craic with Shane O’Doherty, founder of Howth Adventures, when I returned to greater Dublin, about three hours east, the next morning. Shane’s lived on the Howth Peninsula his entire life, a fact that becomes obvious when he greets seemingly every person we pass on the popular 5-mile Howth Cliff Walk. The trail feels remote, even though the area is only about 30 minutes by commuter train to Dublin.

The Cliff Walk also reveals the best views of Ireland’s Eye, an uninhabited island unless you count the myriad seabirds and peregrine falcons that nest there. Our walk passes several historic Irish Sea swimming pools constructed of massive rock walls that the Guinness and other prominent families moved into position in the coves beneath their estates. These manors pale in comparison to Howth Castle, the ancestral home of the St. Lawrence family, who maintained the vast property for 800 years before selling it, along with Ireland’s Eye, in 2018.

The path turns inland with a brief uphill climb, across a golf course and within a dense wood where Shane tells us he spent many youthful days lazing about and searching for faeries. The beeches — considered among the oldest in Ireland — along with the oak canopy and dreamlike tangle of rhododendrons make the idea of magic pixies very real. The path finally departs the shadows to reveal Aideen’s Grave, a megalithic monument that Oscar, considered bravest of the Fianna (mythical warriors from the “wild places”), built for his fallen bride.

The magic continues at the Brass Monkey, a village institution that serves the best seafood chowder that I, a Seattleite, have yet tasted. My walk completed, the chowder consumed, it was time for me to cross the street and enter the Bloody Stream pub for more music and a self-guided tour of a Guinness pint, or two. Let the craic begin.


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