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Rambling With Dad: a Coast-to-Coast Trek Through the English Countryside welcomes this guest post by veteran travel writer Bruce Northam. Bruce has reported (mostly good news) from 125 countries. His book, Globetrotter Dogma: 100 Canons for Escaping the Rat Race & Exploring the World, was cited by National Geographic as one of “Ten better choices: insightful travelogues that will inspire rather than dictate.” Bruce’s wander continues on

What if you only had one more opportunity to take a long walk with your dad and ask him those ultimate questions, the ones you wish you had asked before it was no longer possible?

Where a son takes his father for this precious ramble would depend on his dad’s favored backdrop. Mine treasures sweeping fields and birdsong, and no haven for wide-open strolling matches England’s countryside. But I knew that our trekking savvy would be put to the test this time around, because Dad was a tad more fragile than during our earlier rambles, before complications from a broken neck and heart bypass, back and hernia surgeries all merged.

After initially declining my suggestion for one more trek — at 79, Dad didn’t want to slow me down — he thought better of it, and last April we continued our tradition of long walks. Both Long Island natives, Dad and I used our fourth coast-to-coast United Kingdom trek to discover that country’s Midlands, and our shared history.

Our 10-day walk navigated the 147-mile Viking Way, a county-spanning trail across Lincolnshire, which borders England’s central east coast and the North Sea. Named at the suggestion of the Ramblers Association to reflect the influence of Danish law in Britain’s eastern counties, The Viking Way met Dad’s demands for mild hills, woodlands, livestock encounters and villages of stone houses with friendly inhabitants.

Our previous experiences in the U.K. had impressed upon us the respect Britain pays to its walkers. Foot travelers rule in Britain, on ancient rights of way. Once Madonna (locally known as “Madge”) purchased a mansion adjacent to a public footpath and then spent millions trying to block its public access — to no avail — a testament to ramblers’ solidarity. The right to roam endures.

Our wanderings led us to villages forgotten by modern highways and high-speed trains. In Lincolnshire’s rolling forested wolds, the most timeless scenery on our itinerary, each well-foliated village offered a weathered stone church from the 13th century, usually positioned on the settlement’s highest point and left unlocked. We stayed in homey bed and breakfasts (you must adore dogs and horses) and archetypal English inns that make New England’s historic buildings seem like new construction. Viking helmet signage marked the trail, and when it escaped us, the British national habit of tending yard gardens made getting directions easy. Birds and sheep galore provided the soundtrack.

Most English homeowners post the nicknames of their houses on a placard out front or along the driveway. Handles like Willow Croft and Lilac Cottage prompted me to ask my father, “What should we have named our Garden City house?” Dad first suggested a memoriam to our dog and cat, “Ben and Chelsea’s Pee Palace?” Then he corrected himself with a moniker honoring his three sons’ reign of mild suburban delinquency: “Wild Antelope Range.”

British roots

My father’s parents emigrated from England to Long Island in 1923. Dad graduated from Sewanhaka High School in Floral Park, as did my mom, Johanna, four years after him. One sunny afternoon, just before Dad marched off to join Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s occupation of Japan, he noticed my mom (“and her legs”) strolling down Long Beach. Between their two engagements, my mother’s Manhattan phase included modeling and dating the actor Steve McQueen. But the bird-watcher prevailed, and Dad fashioned a honeymoon atop Jayne’s Hill, Walt Whitman’s favorite spot and Long Island’s highest point.

In a Rockville Centre hospital, my father imparted my middle name, Thoreau, hoping that I’d sympathize with philosophical naturalists; today my standing as a professional wanderer pleases him. In high school, I had difficulty distinguishing the family station wagon from a daring off-road all-terrain vehicle. Dad frequently discovered muddy grass clumped in the wagon’s wheel wells and forbade me from borrowing it. No measure of lawn mowing, firewood chopping and stacking or kitchen puff-basketball tournament victories could reverse his decrees. (Note: We were the lone residents in Garden City who burned storm-toppled trees for heat and used our backyard as a hedge-to-hedge vegetable garden.)

On our recent trek, Dad enjoyed interviewing unguarded Lincolnshire locals about birds, flowers and heritage. These included the truck driver who rescued us when we had to hitchhike our way back onto the vanished route. Our feet held out without incident, hiking boots broken in prior to departure. I’m told that when my English-born great-grandfather and his son walked the south coast of England together, my great-grandfather had some trouble with his feet and poured a bit of whiskey into his boot “to make the leather more supple.”

Dad’s sporty, self-styled, extreme suburbanite hiking outfit for the ramble was an evolving melange of trusted sweaters over button-down shirts, khaki or corduroy pants, his hiking boots plodding a confident, sturdy gait, and game face shadowed by a traditional British flat cap — or farmer’s cap, as it’s called locally. Plus, a nose primed for blossom exams.

Swinging through charming Normanby le Wold, in need of directions, we encountered a woman hosing down her mastiff who demonstrated the Anglo-specific custom of agreeably ending nonquestioning sentences with either “isn’t it?,” “doesn’t it?” or “wouldn’t it?”

“Well, it would be that way then, wouldn’t it?” she said.

I looked hard at Dad. He looked hard at a bird.

We used the ubiquitous medieval churches — cool and still inside, bird chorus outside, stained-glass light bleeding in — as pit stops. The All Saints Church, 1226 character intact, sits on a hilltop overlooking Walesby and beyond. Nicknamed “The Ramblers Church” because it holds Sunday services and weddings for rambling enthusiasts, Dad decided it was an apt place to pray for the continued absence of fast-food franchises on the North Fork, where my parents now live.

Lectures on art and Long Island history aside, Dad declared another signpost of his retirement from teaching: The self-appointed status of back lawn-reclining, binoculars-peering-at-sky air traffic observer. An elderly couple dining at an adjacent table pretended to not hear the conversation, but then I suggested an attempt to short-circuit the often obligatory jests about anyone’s Long Island heritage by renaming it Isla de Long. The couple broke down and peered at us. When Dad steered the chat toward our family’s established legacy of “booming,” a familial term for inspired but aimless wandering, they left.

Our route then tromped atop the metropolitan hill city of Lincoln, once a retirement community for the Roman military and home to spectacular Lincoln Cathedral, the 271-foot-tall, limestone block beacon for all of Lincolnshire. Built between 1072 and 1290, the church substituted as Westminster Abbey in the movie “The Da Vinci Code.” Inside, Dad reminisced (again) about Winston Churchill.

After getting our urban fix of an Indian meal, we returned to 360-degree views of the horizon. Trotting past another screaming-yellow crop of rapeseed (harvested as cooking oil and a base for butter alternatives), Dad reminded me that “prostitution is not the world’s oldest profession … farming is.” Dad’s flora identification computer was heating up again as we crossed into a young green field of wheat — he petitioned the next three civilians on genus and species. Isaac Newton, a Lincolnshire native, would have been proud. (Other notables are Capt. John Smith, who helped establish Jamestown, and Puritan preacher Anne Hutchinson, after whom the Hutchinson River and parkway are named.)

Whenever I stopped to take pictures, Dad obliged by allowing me to uptilt his farmer’s cap stylishly to allow sunshine on his face. After a fence-leaning shoot, I tried talking him into taking up modeling back in New York, such as Mom did in the 1950s. He immediately focused on the dung stuck to his soles.

Walk talk stimulates recall, anywhere. While ensuring the survival of more perfect memories, 24/7 abroad with Dad for two weeks transcended the proverbial pat on the back at the end of a round of golf. We retuned into that global circuit of father and son connections … the perfect time to thank him for teaching me that I don’t have to peer through keyholes when my hand rests on the doorknob.

On the path, I enjoyed the role reversal of being in charge. When we inevitably found ourselves lost in a muddy field of cows — and all of us wondering what we were doing there — I drove the boat, er, station wagon. I intentionally delayed answering his question about what sort of meat hid in that Indian food.

The 30 meals we shared (yes, British cuisine has come a long way) along the route afforded me ample time to encourage Dad to recount his life story, the entire odyssey. These discussions made us realize that our greatest fortune was also our supreme bond: Hi, Mom.

In Somersby, birthplace of Victorian Alfred Tennyson, we visited the poet’s baptismal church, which doubles as a Tennyson shrine. Inside, my Walker Laureate reminded me to unfold my days — and my life — like a map, understanding that it is rarely folded back up the same way. Minutes later, stepping across the stone bridge over Tennyson’s “babbling brook,” we nodded to each other.

Rural England is a rare zone where humans have improved on nature. Somewhere in the dream of hunting for Viking Way signposts, I discovered my best friend, the bird and jet watcher.

Keeping up

In the end, after hiking at least 10 miles a day, wiry Dad slept less and ate more than I did and seemed to have more energy. He also noticed every birdsong, flower, shrub, tree, gardener and plane. Once again, we’d fruitfully reinvented “modern” father-and-son recreation without props. At the Viking Way’s lakeside terminus, Dad unlocked from an expression recalling a medieval frieze we’d seen (he may have just been hungry) and raised an eyebrow to declare, “When my mother turned 100 on Long Island, she received a congratulatory telegram from the Queen … ”

Pause. “But it was routed through Philadelphia?”

At London’s Heathrow Airport, my creator, who loves Big Band jazz and once suggested his epitaph read simply “Clown,” let his inner actor shine by faking a docile, staring dementia to secure me a standby seat to New York.

The eternal revelation surfaced in mid-trek, en route to Tealby, while contouring along a green hillside as magpies chattered to each other overhead. I finally asked, “Dad, what gives you hope?”

He paused to reflect, here in the midst of England’s secret rambling magic, changed his expression to a large smile, and declared, “You.”

Looks like I’ve got another shot at borrowing the station wagon.

Written By Bruce Northam for
(originally published by Newsday)

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