Following Footpath on the Far Side of the Fence : Author takes public trails through Dorset countryside for a view of England tourists rarely see.


From the rain-splattered windows of British trains, I’ve seen the signs blur by: “Higher Penpoll 3/4 Mile,” “Wide Open 1/2,” “Pity Me 1/4.” They are small and wooden, often weathered green, and inconspicuously posted on country fences to mark the public footpaths of Great Britain, a network of narrow lanes set aside as legal rights-of-way through private farms and estates.

Those byways have always tempted me as a quieter way to travel, to leave behind a rental car and hike through luminous mustard fields and beechwoods, to stumble upon thatched barns and church ruins that never made a guidebook.

But not until I set out one drizzly morning in Dorset did I know the strange, time-machine magic that lies on the other side of a fence stile. Nor did I realize that public footpaths are by far the safest place for a cross-country walk.


I left the little village of Evershot with only one hint from an innkeeper: Start through the deer park of Melbury House, the seat of the Earl of Ilchester. “There are 20 miles of public footpath within a two-mile radius of this front door,” he said. “You won’t get lost.”

Over a small rise, I saw a six-foot fence and the posted warning: “Do Not Disturb the Deer.” The gate creaked open and I shut it carefully, lest the herd escape and run through the village. But when I turned, I knew I had entered another century, another world. Kings could ride out of these woods on noble steeds; Shakespearean ghosts could form in the soft gray mists.

Hoary silhouettes of ancient oaks stood guard on the horizon. The air was cool and damp, and the countryside so quiet that I thought my ears were plugged. I stopped to try to get a hold on reality. Instead, out of the rolling mists, I began to make out a scatteration of beasts too small to be cows, some resting on the sloping ground, some nibbling grass, many more standing as still as statues. But one thing they had in common: Every deer was staring in my direction.

“It’s OK,” I whispered. “Just passing through. Don’t mind me. Love your place!”

All the royals--and other titled folk--used to maintain deer parks and swan lakes and azalea-and-rhododendron gardens, with spewing fountains and whimsical follies shaped like temples or castles. Their wealth was manifested in enormous stables and dovecotes and turreted manor houses with a hundred oddball chimneys--and all arranged like chess pieces on a vast green sweep of land.

Now the gray stone pile of Melbury House loomed beyond a circular gravel drive. A flag flew on the roof but I saw no lights inside. Spider webs glistened between the fence posts at a fork in the path.

The first thatched cottage of Melbury Osmond hunkered ahead, a hood of wisteria jutting over the low doorway, a line of gray smoke rising straight up from the chimney. Window pots of red geraniums brightened the stone walls. No one was about in the village--no dogs barked, no cars moved. I turned into a shadowy churchyard beside a small chapel where, I later learned, the mother and father of the novelist Thomas Hardy were married. Hardy cannot be escaped in Dorset. I walked out of Melbury Osmond without ever seeing another person, and chose another fork in the road.


Soon the drone of traffic rose above the fields and woods and I came out on the bustling A-37, somewhere between Yeovil and Dorchester, I was pretty sure. After a stop at the Welcome Inn, I made a wrong decision, figuring that it would be closer--and easier--to return to Evershot by following the highway.

There were no shoulders on this winding two-lane road; as trucks whizzed by I had to flatten myself against the gullies and overgrown banks. The fumes, at that level, were thick. After the spring country path, the asphalt felt hard and rough and unforgiving. Since I did not know how far I had walked, I misjudged--by maybe three or four miles--the distance I had to return.

By the time I trudged into Evershot and passed the deer park gate, it took the last of my basic store of optimism to remember how wonderfully the day had begun. All I could think of was a cool drink of water and a hot soaky bath.