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Free to Roam

Michael Perry

LIKE MANY WHO THINK about where they’d like to retire, we’ve always had a vague list of wants: comfortable climate, walkability, good health care, access to cultural events and outdoor activities, friendly tax regime, reasonable cost of living, that sort of thing.

I wrote previously about feeling stuck for many years in a place where we didn’t want to stay, but also not really having one place where we felt drawn to settle, whether for a few years or permanently. Spending three months in England has influenced our thinking about what we want. Unfortunately, it may have also made that place harder to find.

One of the things we’ve really enjoyed here is having the countryside on our doorstep and being able to walk it easily, including between towns. We’ve had days when we leave our charming town, walk across a few gently rolling pastures to have coffee or lunch in the next charming town, and walk through others for a different route back home. We’ve hit 10,000 steps by midday more times than I care to count. Sometimes, we meet another friendly walker along the way, and other times it’s just us.

In England and Wales, people have the legal right to use designated public footpaths or bridleways. Some of these are prehistoric routes that have been trod since ancient times. Others are of more recent vintage. In either case, once they’re so designated, they must be respected, and they form a vast network. To my understanding, Scotland goes even further, with a generally accepted “right to roam” in the countryside, footpath or not.

An interesting thing about these paths is that they often cross private land. We’ve walked one that crossed a field of vegetables, another that crossed through someone’s lawn, and many that crossed pastures of cattle or sheep. Both the cattle and the sheep are mildly curious about us if our path takes us close to them, or indifferent if it doesn’t. By the way, you’ll find these paths in towns too, where they create shortcuts that allow you to walk without vehicle traffic.

In addition to this network of paths, there are other areas designated as simply common land, on which you can veer off the paths and explore more widely. These have usually been “commons” for centuries. Last week, we walked a path that crossed ancient common land that now includes a golf course. You legally have the right to walk down the middle of the fairway, but it’s probably advisable to stick to the sides.

There are similar traditions in continental Europe, but I’m not aware of anywhere in the U.S. that has a system of public access to private land. If there’s somewhere that does, we’d like to give it a closer look. Now, I know folks are going to comment about places with a great park system or trails on federal land, but this is not that. Nor is it beaches that are considered public, or one abandoned railway line that has been turned into a walking and biking path between towns. All those are great, but what I’m describing is far more extensive.

I wonder if some of New England might have a similar tradition. It seems reasonable, as the English got there and were walking or riding around in the 1600s, so maybe such paths similarly came to be respected. One can hope. Then again, they were walking and riding around my home state of South Carolina almost as long ago, and I wouldn’t walk across someone’s field there.

At one point, our thinking about where to settle prioritized tax and cost of living considerations. Those are still worth thinking about, but over the past few years we’ve realized that other factors are worth paying more for. The past few months have reinforced the importance of certain quality-of-life features. If we learn that tax-unfriendly Vermont or Connecticut is a miniature Cotswolds, we’ll be scheduling a fact-finding mission.

Michael Perry is a former career Army officer and external affairs executive for a Fortune 100 company. In addition to personal finance and investing, his interests include reading, traveling, being outdoors, strength training and coaching, and cocktails. Check out his earlier articles.

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