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Hiking: England : Rambling in Land of King Arthur

June 18, 1995|JOHN McKINNEY | McKinney is the author of "A Walk Along Land's End: Discovering the Living California Coast" (HarperCollins-West, $20)

Take a walk along Land's End. Traverse Trevose Head. Ramble Ringstead Bay. March Marsland Mouth.

Britain's South West Peninsula Coast Path is one of the world's great walks, a journey past sandy coves and cobbled shores, across unforgettably high Atlantic-facing cliffs and along spines of rock thrusting out to sea.

South West Peninsula Coast Path, which curves 515 miles around the southwest coast of England, is the longest footpath in Britain, and many walkers claim it's the most scenic. Attractions include Exmoor National Park's rugged moorlands, the towering granite cliffs of the Cornwall Coast, Land's End and Plymouth, where the explorers set sail for the New World.

Most walkers refer to the long-distance path as the Coast Path. By whatever name, it's glorious walking through some of the most wild magnificent coastal landscapes in Europe.

For the hiker who lacks the necessary four to six weeks to complete the whole coastal path, there are two ways to sample it: Join a guided walking tour or rent a car and drive the coastal highways, stopping occasionally to hike the beaches and bluffs.

The Wayfarers, a British tour company, offers a weeklong "Cornwall Creeks and Coves" walk that visits the forested estate of Lord Falmouth; St. Anthony Head Lighthouse; Trebah Gardens, where the rhododendron trees reach eight feet high, and St. Mawes Castle, built by Henry VIII.

A walk manager transports your luggage from inn to inn, while a walk leader guides your small party (usually eight to 12 people) along the coast, usually eight to 10 miles a day.

Walkers stop for a picnic or at a pub for lunch, walking during the afternoon atop wooded cliffs, with more stops at gardens, castles, bucolic villages and, of course, for tea, arriving in the late afternoon at your night's accommodation--usually a historic inn or a cozy B&B.

Another way to go is on your own. If you've rented a car, you can leave it at a number of convenient car parks, as the British call them, near the Coast Path.

Public transportation, particularly in the Dorset area is pretty good, which means walkers can plan a long one-way journey (stopping for the evening at a campground, hostel or country inn) or a one-way day hike along the Coast Path, using the bus to get back to their starting point.

Native coast walkers suggest walking the path counterclockwise so that the prevailing wind is at your back. The British walk the coast path in four sections: 1. Somerset and North Devon (82 miles). Starting at Minehead on the Bristol Channel in Somerset, this path passes first through the coastline of Exmoor National Park, then goes along the North Devon Coast to the Cornwall border. (The Wayfarers also offer "Lorna Doone's Somerset Secrets," a gentle walking tour through moorland and woodland along the Bristol Channel.)

2. Cornwall (268 miles). Stretches of the path in Cornwall are among the wildest and most rugged of the whole route. Dramatic wave-pounded cliffs of stark granite, along with caves, coves, blowholes and pinnacles are part of grandeur of the aptly named Cornwall Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

3. South Devon (93 miles). Kittiwakes, gannets and terns are among the sea birds, oyster-catchers and whimbrels are some of the shorebirds found along this gentler more tranquil coastline. For the walker, nature reserves alternate with popular seacoast resort towns.

4. Dorset (72 miles). Highlights of the Dorset Coast Path include Black Ven, a nature reserve famous for its fossils; Chesil Beach, a 20-mile-long spit of pebble beach, and Golden Cap, a magnificent stretch of cliffs owned by the National Trust. Expect high chalk hills, woods and grand views of the English Channel.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

South West Peninsula Coast Path WHERE: West Country Coast, England DISTANCE: 515 miles. TERRAIN: Bold headlands, chalk cliffs, woods and pebbled beaches. HIGHLIGHTS: Best of the British coast; country's premiere long-distance footpath. DEGREE OF DIFFICULTY: Most day hikes are of the moderate to strenuous variety. PRECAUTIONS: Stay back from high, crumbling cliff edges; prepare for dense fogs, frequent rains. FOR MORE INFORMATION: British Tourist Authority, tel. (800) GO2-BRIT; The Wayfarers, 172 Bellvue Ave., Newport, RI 02840.

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