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Venturing Into the U.K. Countryside

April 26, 1987|JOHN KELLY SHEEHAN | Sheehan is a Camarillo free-lance writer.

LONDON — There I was in a flapping coat, bearing 30 pounds of possessions, and streaking from the Barons Court tube (American: subway) station like a comet.

Generally it looks stupid to run in London because nobody with any dignity does it, but it was run or miss the bus. As it turned out, there really wasn't any hurry. The bus (English: coach), a squat, homely machine, was nearby, still casually filling with passengers.

With a sigh I downshifted my entire being and sauntered over, eager to begin my eight-day excursion into northern England and Scotland.

Inside, Paul Gunningham, our redheaded, enormously tall and easygoing guide/driver, greeted everyone and briefly went over the trip itinerary and the day's destination.

"Venture U.K. was designed to enable tourists to see Britain from ground level, at a pace and in locations that give one an appreciation of the countryside," Gunningham said. "We stay off the beaten track as much as we can."

Variety of Travelers

Created to serve British vacationers, Venture U.K. (formerly known as Blue Hedgehog Travel Ltd.) has attracted a multiple ethnicity of travelers despite only local advertising. Our group contained an Aussie, a New Zealander, five Americans, an Irish woman and only three Brits, one of whom was a tag-along Labrador named Loudon (after Loudon Wainwright, the musician).

Small and friendly, our Gypsy band was soon gabbing away like old-time chums as we headed north, gradually leaving crowded civilization behind.

We set up camp 250 miles later at Masham, a tiny village in the heart of the Yorkshire Dales. After eating and washing, we set off for Theakstons Brewery, where a tour had been promised us. An aging, thick-accented fellow met us at the entrance to a creaky old wooden building.

The insides of the brewery were an odd combination of both modern and ancient equipment, and the smell of fermentation almost sickened the air.

Centuries-Old Craft

The highlight of the tour was a lecture and simplified demonstration of the cooper's craft, fashioning beer casks by hand. Known only to a few and achieved only after years of practice, this centuries-old skill requires the aim of one's eye and the sureness of one's hand to construct leakproof wooden kegs of amazing durability and perfect symmetry.

It wasn't difficult to imagine that time had recoiled a hundred years as we observed our guide (a cooper) and stood in that magnificently mellowed room full of wood shavings and still-used antique hand tools lying about in a rich poetry of disorder.

We pushed northeast and arrived mid-morning in Glentrool Forest. A place of perpetual drizzle (I nicknamed it Glen drool Forest) and infuriating midges, it nevertheless had dramatic topography and hills covered with heather and ferns.

We hastily put up tents, then rounded up firewood. Even the more citified of us were slowlygetting accustomed to the rough comforts of camping. No hardships--in the strictest sense of the word--seemed to exist. We always had shower facilities, and the campsites were clean and pleasant.

We slept comfortably in warm sleeping bags atop waterproof foam mats. The coach was always a haven for those who desired it. After breakfast we broke camp and left.

It was simple living: roaring bonfires, the great outdoors, people discovering things together. We functioned as a self-contained adventure unit, independent and on the prowl for spontaneous diversions.

Slogging Through Bog

The next day's terrain was mean. Cunning bogs would appear suddenly and munch you up to the thigh. If that weren't enough, it required the balance of a cat to navigate slippery knots of grass and skinny trails that became sideless without warning.

It was work , 10 solid miles of it, battling up one side and down the other of a ridge 2,700 meters (8,600 feet) high. It was probably the best sweat any of us ever had, and earned us an eye-load we couldn't have bought: wary, half-wild sheep a stone's throw away, and Loch Trool lounging splendidly in a bowl of hills.

Amidst the serene enchantment of the dense forest, I slipped quietly away from the group and stood in a soundless chamber of almost perfect peace.

Later, after pitching our tents, we fled for the city, endowed with a measure of freedom for the next two days, like sailors on shore leave.

We agreed to convene nightly at a cozy pub to plan our search for the mysterious and legendary Folk Musicians, a nameless band of itinerant song makers who played wherever and whenever it suited them.

The first night they eluded us, but on the second, after many false leads and endless journeys down spooky alleyways, we found them performing in a cellar bar on a dirty side street.

They played stirring, jolly, sometimes ravishing music, and at one point a girl in the audience bravely launched into a song so beautiful it was almost stunning.

Asleep Under the Moon

Hours and pints later, the merriment came to an end, taxis whisked us to camp and we slept on pillows under the moon.

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