Continuing Education

Following British Footpaths: A Q & A with Instructor Fred Austin


World traveler Fred Austin takes a moment away from his peripatetic sojourning to talk with CE marketing specialist Cole Hornaday about his path to becoming a professional travel writer along with his wife Donna and why their upcoming class, British Footpaths: The Isle of Wight is one of the best routes to take.  

Q: Please give us some background on your history and love of walking in the British Isles.  When did it first become a passion for you and how did these walking guide books and these classes get started?

British Footpaths was started by Richard Hayward nearly 30 years ago. He loved the British footpaths and started teaching people to follow these easy paths crisscrossing the British Isles.  His students requested guide books to help them follow their passion for walking.  I was one of those students, and I returned over and over to his classes to learn of these magical footpaths.  As Richard battled cancer I helped him to the end and inherited the intellectual property rights to British Footpaths and all the guide books.  My wife Donna and I have been walking and upgrading Richard’s guides and have written a couple of new guides ourselves.  There are now twenty-one small guides and we continue to write and upgrade the series.

Q: What are some distinctions between backpacking in the Pacific Northwest and walking in the British Isles?

We are frequently asked this question and the answer is both important and subtle. You walk in Britain but you hike or backpack in America.  America has trails, Britain has paths.  Hiking in America and especially in our own Cascade Mountains requires you to be strong, carry large packs, and to wear heavy hiking boots.  Walking in Britain is for everyone, including families and elderly, where you can meander from village to village following waymarked paths through the English countryside.  There are frequent Bed and Breakfasts (B&Bs) at reasonable prices allowing the use of small sized walking packs weighing about 10 pounds, and most paths are walkable with your normal shoes.  For those who have backpacked in America they will find a pleasant experience awaits them.  For those who are walkers and can walk about 6 miles or more in a day they have found a way to enjoy a great holiday.

Q: You describe the Isle of Wight as “England in Miniature”.  What about the culture and landscape lends to that description?

First, the Isle of Wight is shaped like an English tea pot, the English love their tea.  There are rivers and hills like England but all on a compact scale.  There are fine country paths connecting villages just like England, only fewer paths, fewer villages and shorter distances.  Just as influences have affected England, so too did events more so impact this small island being close to Europe, and we noticed everything England offers one can find here but in smaller portions.

As for history, the Romans invaded England but one could say the Romans “moved in” to the Isle of Wight as there are no signs of Roman battles from that era.  Just as the pagan Jutes and later the Christian Saxons invaded England from the 5th to the 7th centuries in England so too the Island followed this history.  In the 13th Century Isabella de Fortibus ruled from Carisbrooke Castle with Imagedogged independence and was unwilling to bow to the authority of the English crown.  Her stubborn resistance to England would have lead the Isle of Wight to its own monarchy had she lived longer.  Isabella’s stalwart qualities in many ways mirrored the English monarchy itself.

During the 17th century England’s anti-royalist Cromwell imprisoned King Charles I at this same Carisbrooke Castle which was basically seen by English eyes as being exiled to another country, but to the Islanders, Charles I would have been hastily accepted as their own king had he been allowed to live.

It was two hundred years later when Queen Victoria fell in love with this “England in miniature”, where she often lived in Osborne House and raised her children there.  Significantly, Victoria chose Osborne House for her place to die.

We also discovered a village named Godshill with a miniature model village of Godshill village itself, and in the center of this model village is a small version of this model of the village, and on closer examination we could indeed even see a wee village with an even smaller version of the model village within the model village, reminding us of the effect of looking at a mirror with a mirror behind our head.  This captured the humor we encountered on the island.

Q: When discussing the Isle of Wight in particular, what kinds of lodgings are found there and how would you describe the people you encounter?

The Isle of Wight (a mere 25 miles long and 15 miles wide) offers hundreds of footpaths totaling several hundred miles.  We heard it has more B&Bs and family friendly pubs per square mile than England herself.  For walkers the Island offers bus service linking all sections of the coastal path.  One can walk from B&B to B&B or use buses from a single base during a holiday.  We have stayed two weeks at a church carefully converted for self-accommodations while sensitively retaining its original architecture and spirit.  Accommodations range from standard B&Bs, self-accommodations, and Airbnb.

As for people they all are proud to be English but possibly more proud to call the Isle of Wight their home as it is somewhat protected off shore from the hustle and bustle of the mainland.  Like England and the Brexit vote, the Isle of Wight is split right down the middle.  We have sensed the East-West divide where the western section is more conservative and slower paced while the eastern section is more cosmopolitan, faster paced and progressive – depending on one’s point of view.

Q: Tell us about some of your favorite attractions while walking on the Isle of Wight and why they capture your fascination?

Once you have arrived on the Island you feel a difference, a difference that’s both subtle and profound.  It may be the very slight intonations you hear in the language, maybe it’s the weather with a little fresher sea breeze here off the southern coast of England, maybe it’s the sly sense of humor or maybe it’s the magic of finally arriving in paradise.

Our first walk on the Island followed the coastal path around the southern coast where we encountered an unused badger set hidden under brambles off the path.  On my quiet approach, a fox cub came tumbling out of his burrow with no human fear.  He waddled on Imageunsure legs exploring his surrounding on his first day out of the den, treating me as just another natural object.  Later this fox will learn to fear humans for good reason but at that point we merely accepted each other’s right to exist.

Our second, or was it our third walk on the Island we were discovered by Elizabeth Hutchings now a lively 89, who bicycled to New Zealand and raised a family.  She returned to the Island where her husband was studying Tennyson when he unexpectedly passed away.  Elizabeth carried on and published all her husband’s work and she has continued to publish her own studies on Tennyson and the Isle of Wight.  She has been on the BBC as recognition for completing her husband’s work who is now engraved on the Tennyson Memorial atop Tennyson Downs.

Q: Generally speaking, what keeps drawing you back to the adventures of walking the paths of Britain?

It may be the unbelievable beauty of walking the undulating coastal path where from the tops of the downs (i.e., high hills) you seem to see forever.  It may be the abrupt appearance of dinosaur tracks crossing your path from 100 million years ago.  It may be several hundred year-old church yard filled with coffins which turns out to be cleaver hiding vaults for smuggled whiskey off ship wrecks.  Or it may be it’s the people.

No matter where you walk in Britain the people you meet are the real focus.  And it is especially true here on the Isle of Wight.  There is geology with enough variety to keep you walking from chalk ridge to silt clay deposits. There is history, and yes it is well cared for and it runs deep.  There is language with its intonations and sly humor but it still is English our mother tongue.  But in the end it is the people themselves who make the difference and some of the nicest caring and personable folks we’ve met in England are here to meet you and share their home with you.

Q: What do you hope your students will gain from taking your class?  What can they look forward to taking away with them?

Our class provides an alternate way to experience a holiday.  If one is willing to walk even 6 miles per day, and that is simply to walk around Green Lake twice, there is a whole new way to see the English countryside.  Unlike here, you can walk unencumbered along historically defined pathways that even cut across private property where farmers replace the trackway after working their fields.  The attendees learn how to carry a light pack, select appropriate clothing and shoes, and prepare for independent walking.  Folks will have the information, and knowledge to find accommodations and meals.  By avoiding expensive travel companies who carry your large luggage containers from point to point, the student learns the option of independent walking with small packs.  On departing planes the walker simply shoulders their wee pack and is the first off the plane to immediately enjoy their path.  Last year we even figured how to simply walk out of Heathrow directly to our path along the River Thames.

Our greatest pleasure is to hear back from folks who have returned with great stories and experiences and are ready to return again and again to the magical countryside of England.

Learn more about British Footpaths and Fred and Donna's upcoming British Foothpaths: The Isle of Wight.

Photo credit #1: Courtesy of Fred and Donna Austin
Photo credit #2: Andy Latt_cc_2.0
Photo credit #3: Tony Jones_cc_2.0