The reader’s guide to walking: Why we do it and what we think about it

Walking for pleasure … No, let me start again. Walking as a recreational activity dates only from the late 18th century. Prior to that human beings walked because they had to – either they were nomadic or walking was their only way of going on a necessary journey. The Wordsworth family were pioneers; William and his sister Dorothy ate up the miles around their home in Grasmere. To read Dorothy’s journals is to be flabbergasted by how much walking the pair did, most days, in all seasons, all weathers, walking for maybe three hours at a time, Dorothy in her ankle-length skirts, and often just for a cup of tea. The curious side to this is how often Dorothy reports one or both of them as “ill” – bowel problems it seems – they got the exercise right but not the diet.

by Gerard Windsor

First published in The Sydney Morning Herald, 18 July 2015

Yet the Wordsworths were primitives on the recreational walking scene; generally they went out their own front door and were home the same day. As the 19th century wore on and the railways opened up, walkers could select a protracted itinerary far from home. That sub-species of travel writing, the record of the walking tour, was born.

First among the writers were the now unread George Borrow, and the rather more read R. L. Stevenson with his 1879 Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes​ (read not least because of its re-enactment by the young Richard Holmes in his 1985 Footsteps). The genre flourished in the 20th century – Hilaire Belloc’s The Path to Rome (1902), Eric Newby’s A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush (1958), Patrick Leigh Fermor​’s trilogy of his walk from the Hook of Holland to Istanbul between 1933 and 1935 … On and on they stride.

Walking of this kind is a rarefied activity, restricted to the better-off citizens of First World countries. Compulsory walking, the endless forced marches of pedestrian refugees, is as common as ever. And over the whole enterprise of walking hangs the armageddon imagined by Cormac McCarthy in The Road where there’s no alternative, if there’s to be any salvation at all, but to walk. For a man such as McCarthy, whose other fiction has been so equestrian centred, this pedestrianism is the ultimate degradation.

Meanwhile leisure walking is a snowballing business, and increasingly up for analysis. A Foucault scholar, Frederic Gros​, has given us A Philosophy of Walking, a fair example of the Gallic intellectual’s blend of non-sequential abstraction and soaring rhetoric.

Gros doesn’t actually let on whether he himself has so much as walked to the boulangerie, but he does micro-studies of prodigious walkers, notably Rimbaud and Nietzsche. Given that one gave up his poetical vocation for a career (highly unsuccessful) in trade, and the other went mad, I can’t unravel Gros’ argument. But he does make one striking point – walking is very monotonous but never boring. I think that’s a very French, and fair, sort of distinction.

Much more feet on the ground is Canadian Dan Rubinstein​’s Born to Walk, an encyclopaedia of the benefits of walking, scary to the delinquent and cheering to the virtuous.

It’s full of facts and the results of studies – sitting is the new smoking, the catastrophic plunge in the number of children walking to school is in inverse proportion to the rise in obesity levels, regular exercise in a park or forest will halve chances of developing a mental illness, Australian adults average 9700 steps each day while Americans only manage 5100, and there was an epidemic of the wonderfully named hysterical fugue, alias dromomania, alias compulsive wandering, in Europe in the late 1800s.

Rubinstein, who likes to walk in the snow, is earnest, and also very secular, so that he’s sniffy about pilgrimages. But they’re not to be sneezed at; the walk to Santiago de Compostela​ is engendering books on an industrial scale: pioneer producers included David Lodge (solid), Paulo Coelho​ (an acquired taste), Shirley MacLaine (nutty).

For many Santiago pilgrims the walk ends on the Galician coast, at Finisterre. So Land’s End in Cornwall is also a fitting terminus for a walk. The superb Yorkshire poet, Simon Armitage, recently elected the new Professor of Poetry at Oxford, spent three weeks on the road in 2013, starting from Porlock (of Coleridgean memory) in Somerset and following the South West Coast Path for 250 miles to Land’s End. (He actually went on to the Scilly Isles, but not being Jesus he had to take a boat, so Land’s End is where he stopped walking.)

He records the trip in Walking Away, a sequel to his Walking Home, an account of his 2010 walk along the Pennine Way, the spine of England. He ends his new book unequivocally: “I won’t be doing any more long walks.” Twenty pages earlier he records his father (a great bit part) phoning him and saying, “I think this will be your last long walk”. Armitage comments “it’s less of an observation and more of an instruction, issued partly out of concern for my skeletal structure and partly as a response to increased child care duties.”

I wouldn’t bet on either of them being right. For both walks Armitage arranged in advance to give a reading every evening, pass a capacious sock around at the end, and spend the night as a guest of the local organiser. The strategy works well, and so do the books. Not least because Armitage is a born humorist, particularly adept at recording (or maybe recreating) snatches of dialogue. At his last reading, on the island of Tresco, a woman asks if she can come up and read some of his work.

” ‘I don’t know if that’s a good idea,’ I say. ‘I’ll be good at it. I’m an auctioneer,’ she replies.”

Walking books rely on two staples – the trials and the encounters of the way (once upon a time these were combined – dragons, or giants). Armitage’s encounters are fleeting; his hosts for the night, locals who accompany him part of the way. His family pop up in cameo appearances and he is joined periodically by his oldest male friend, an apparently charming sponger known as Slug. There is also a beautifully delivered story about someone thanked in the Acknowledgements as “the hooded lady who propositioned me on the path between Clovelly and Hartland Quay”.

In all these encounters Armitage presents himself as reticent, but readily recording the topics of the garrulous. There is no suggestion of any conversations about emotional issues or the meaning of life. It’s that sort of book. In one way Armitage’s main encounter is with the landscape. A student of geography at university, he weaves precision of observation and naming with a poet’s unforced lyricism.

The second staple of the walking book are the trials. The grimmer the better. I can’t think of a greater masterpiece of the genre than Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s 1922 The Worst Journey in the World, his account of an ordeal that no human should have survived during Scott’s fatal expedition to the Antarctic. Beside this account anything else is a stroll, a doddle. Cherry-Garrard has permanent rights to his title.

For Armitage the Pennines were infinitely bleaker than the South Coast, the weather far worse, his chances of getting lost stronger, the likelihood of his giving up more immediate. This gives an edge and a tension to Walking Home that Walking Away lacks, but the pair are a treat, just the things to slip into for a winter hike, around the heater.

Gerard Windsor’s most recent book is Angels Before Me: The Road to Santiago. He is about to attempt the European Peace Walk from Vienna to Trieste

Nick Hunt shortlisted for Stanford Dolman Travel Book of the Year

award1Great news to see that Nick Hunt’s magnificent book, Walking the Woods and the Water, has been listed for the 2015 Stanford Dolman Travel Book of the Year. I guess there will be lots of comments about the strength of the competition but I am backing Nick to win. Let’s wish him the best of luck!

More about the award here. The Shortlist is:

The Land Where Lemons Grow: The Story of Italy and its Citrus Fruit, Helena Attlee, Penguin (Penguin Random House)

Down To The Sea In Ships: Of Ageless Oceans and Modern Men, Horatio Clare, Vintage (Penguin Random House)

Walking the Woods and the Water: In Patrick Leigh Fermor’s footsteps from the Hook of Holland to the Golden Horn – A Time of Gifts, Between the Woods & the Water and The Broken Road, Nick Hunt, (Nicholas Brealey Publishing)

Rising Ground: A Search for the Spirit of Place, Philip Marsden, (Granta)

A Journey into Russia, Jens Mühling, (Haus Publishing)

Indonesia etc.: Exploring the Improbable Nation, Elizabeth Pisani, (Granta)


In the footsteps of Marco Polo: the journey that changed William Dalrymple’s life

Taken from the introduction to the 25th anniversary edition of William Dalrymple’s first book In Xanadu: A Quest, and first published in The Spectator on 24 June 2015

At the end of the windy, rainy April of 1986, towards the end of my second year at university, I was on my way back to my room one evening, when I happened to trudge past my college notice board.

There my eyes fell on a bright yellow sheet of A4, headlined in capital letters THE GAILLARD LAPSLEY TRAVEL SCHOLARSHIP. It hadn’t been a good week. I was 21: broke, tired of revision for exams and already longing for the holidays. But stopping to look closer, I found that the notice was an announcement concerning a fund that had been established in the memory of some recently-deceased history don; its stated aim was to fund research travel for the college’s mediaeval historians. There were, I knew, barely a handful of mediaevalists in the college.

I walked straight over to the library, found a large quarto edition of The Times Atlas of World History and leafed through the pages to see what was the longest and most ambitious mediaeval journey I could think of following: the longer the trip, I figured, the larger the grant I could apply for.

An hour later I had typed out an application for an expedition to follow the outward journey of my childhood hero, Marco Polo, from Jerusalem to Kubla Khan’s Xanadu in Mongolia. The place names were the stuff of fantasy, and so, I felt sure, was the application. But I happened recently to have seen an article announcing that the Karakorum Highway linking Pakistan to China had just been opened to travellers. This meant that following Polo’s journey was technically feasible for the first time since the Soviet invasion had cut the hippy’s overland route a decade earlier. I posted the application in the letterbox of the don responsible, then went back to my revision and forgot all about it.

A month later, I was returning to my rooms from the last of the year-end exams when I found an embossed college envelope had been slipped under my door. Inside was a short letter and a cheque for the princely sum of £700: much the largest cheque anyone had ever written me. To my immense excitement, but also real foreboding, I found I had just committed myself to an enormously long and dangerous journey through a part of the world I was almost entirely ignorant about. To make matters worse, I had just been chucked by the girlfriend with whom I had planned to make the journey.

It was not a promising start; but the expedition which followed remains by far the most exhilarating I have ever undertaken: nothing I have done since, in half a lifetime of intense travel, has ever begun to equal the thrill of that 16,000-mile three month journey, walking, hitchhiking and bussing from one side of Asia the another. It was also a journey that, in a very real sense, changed my life forever.

I had already travelled in India, and the previous summer had hitchhiked from Scotland to Jerusalem following the route of the First Crusade. I read more widely still among the English travel writers, and Eric Newby, Bruce Chatwin, Peter Fleming, Patrick Leigh Fermor and especially Robert Byron were then my literary Gods, at whose altars I worshipped with an almost fundamentalist fervour. Now I was determined to write my own travel book, and from the first morning of the trip, on arrival in Jerusalem, I kept detailed notes with a view to producing a book that I wanted to be an updated homage to Robert Byron’s The Road to Oxiana, a text I loved so much and had read so often, that I knew great chunks of it by heart.

The result was In Xanadu: A Quest. The book, which was first published quarter of a century ago, in 1989, had a lucky reception. The early 1980’s was a time of disenchantment with the novel, and travel writing seemed to present a serious alternative to fiction. A writer could still use the techniques of the novel – to develop characters, select and tailor experience into a series of scenes and set pieces, arrange the action so as to give the narrative shape and momentum – yet what was being written about was true. Moreover, unlike most literary fiction, travel writing sold.

The success of Paul Theroux’s The Great Railway Bazaar, with its sales of 1.5m copies, had dramatically breathed life into the sort of travel memoir that had flourished in an earlier age, but which had languished since the European empires imploded after the Second World War. Its success inspired Bruce Chatwin to give up his job as a journalist and to go off to South America. The result – In Patagonia – was published in 1977, the same year Leigh Fermor produced A Time of Gifts. The final breakthrough came in 1984 with the publication of the celebrated travel writing issue of Granta: ‘Travel writing is undergoing a revival,’ wrote Bill Buford, the magazine’s editor, ‘evident not only in the busy reprinting of the travel classics, but in the staggering number of new travel writers emerging. Not since the 1930s has travel writing been so popular or so important.

So In Xanadu came out at just the right moment, when travel writing was at its most popular. Partly as a result of this lucky timing, the book got generous reviews, was an immediate bestseller and won a small clutch of prizes. It allowed me for the first time to think of writing as a feasible career. It nonetheless remains a text I have always felt deeply ambiguous about.

For In Xanadu records the impressions, prejudices and enthusiasms of a very young, naïve and deeply Anglocentric undergraduate. Indeed my 21 year old self – bumptious, cocky and self-confident, quick to judge and embarrassingly slow to hesitate before stereotyping entire nations – is a person I now feel mildly disapproving of: like some smugly self-important but charming nephew who you can’t quite disown, but feel like giving a good tight slap to, or at least cutting down to size, for his own good.

And yet this book brings back so very many happy memories. It retains, bottles and distills all the good humour, cheerfulness and joie de vivre of one of the very happiest periods of my life, a period when every day contained an adventure, a discovery or an epiphany. Re-reading it now, on the cusp of my 50th birthday, what was even more pleasurable than being reminded of forgotten places and adventures, was that sensation of recovering the raw intoxication of travel during a moment in life when time is endless, and deadlines, responsibilities and commitments are non-existent; when the constitution is elastic, and the optimism of youth undimmed; when experience is all you hope to achieve and when the world is laid out before you like a map, ready and waiting to be explored.

The great Swiss travel writer, Nicolas Bouvier, wrote that being on the road, ‘deprived of one’s usual setting, the customary routine stripped away like so much wrapping paper,’ reduces you, yet makes you at the same time more ‘open to curiosity, to intuition, to love at first sight… Travelling outgrows its motives. It soon proves sufficient in itself. You think you are making a trip, but soon it is making you—or unmaking you.’

For better or worse, In Xanadu made me. I am still with the editor who bought the book for Collins, Michael Fishwick: we have now worked on eight books together about the Middle East, and South and Central Asia – the world opened up for me by that 1986 journey. Shortly after it was published, I married my very charming flatmate, who had edited much of the manuscript, even though she was then working for finals. Together, we moved out to Delhi. She wanted to paint; I wanted to begin work on the book which became City of Djinns. Thirty years later, we’re still there, with three children, the eldest of whom is now herself at university, planning her own ambitious trips around the world.

I still see my two long suffering travelling companions. Lousia is now a skilled picture restorer, married a very handsome and rich young man, and they live in some style in the Anglo-Welsh marches south of Hay on Wye. Laura went on – to no one’s surprise – to become one of the country’s most successful – and formidable – businesswomen and pops up in the press every now and then having climbed some dizzying new corporate pinnacle.

Many of the countries we passed through have fared less happily. Syria, so hospitable to us, is now gripped by civil war and the Islamist anarchy of Isil. Pakistan, so thrillingly wild yet alluring then, is now a much more dangerous and tortured country than it was in the 1980s. Conversely, China – then a land of bicycles, Mao suits and tannoys blaring strident political slogans down every main street – has become the world’s newest economic superpower, something unimaginable at the time. So much has changed.

Travel writing has also changed. If travel writing used principally to be about place – about filling in the blanks of the map and describing remote places that few had seen – the best 21st-century travel writing is almost always about people: exploring the extraordinary diversity that still exists in the world beneath the veneer of globalisation. As Jonathan Raban memorably remarked: ‘Old travellers grumpily complain that travel is now dead and that the world is a suburb. They are quite wrong. Lulled by familiar resemblances between all the unimportant things, they miss the brute differences in everything of importance.’

Raban is not alone in this conviction. Colin Thubron, perhaps the most revered of all the travel writers of the 80s still at work. He is also clear that the genre is now more needed than ever: ‘Great swaths of the world are hardly visited and remain much misunderstood – think of Iran,’ he told me recently. ‘A good travel writer can give you the warp and weft of everyday life, the generalities of people’s existence that is rarely reflected in academic writing or journalism, and hardly touched on by any other discipline. Despite the internet, google maps and the revolution in communications, there is still no substitute.’

In Xanadu records a world that has in many ways already disappeared, and it is an oddly avuncular pleasure to see one’s own memories slowly turn into the raw material of history. Yet for all its youthful innocence and naivety, and the excruciating sense of entitlement exuded by the narrator, as well as the occasional downright silliness of the opinions he expresses, I am still immensely proud of this book, and prouder that the Folio Society have chosen to reissue it. This, after all, was the journey and the book which started everything for me. I feel immense nostalgia looking through the photographs the Folio Society has painstakingly selected from bundles of my old negatives, and hope that the text too still retains some interest, 25 years on: a message in a bottle from a lost moment in time and space, fished ashore and opened up anew.

Dervla Murphy in conversation with Jasper Winn, 8 July

dervla-murphy460_1670571cJasper Winn is a good friend of the blog and it seems he is to appear at Waterstones, Cork in conversation with Dervla Murphy on Wednesday 8th July at 7pm. For details phone 021 4276522.

Dervla Murphy will also be appearing at the Junction Festival in Clonmel on Monday 6th July at 7pm. For more information go to: The Junction Festival

And at the ‘Literary Brunch’ West Cork Literary Festival on Saturday 18th July with Anthony Sattin. For more information go to: West Cork Literary Festival

In November you can catch Dervla in London at the Slightly Foxed Readers Day, at the Art Workers Guild, Bloomsbury on Saturday 7th November. For more information go to: Slightly Foxed.


From Mystras to Kardamyli: A hike in honour of Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor

John Kittmer, the UK ambassador in Greece,recently completed a four-day hike, together with the Danish ambassador, from Mystras to Kardamyli, recreating part of PLF’s similar walk described in Mani.

The blog post starts as follows:

This morning, thanks to the Benaki Museum, I was standing in the study of the great man – war hero, romantic, philhellene – who wrote these words. Scanning the bookshelves of Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor, whose love of Greece was nurtured by wartime experience, by a lifetime of conversation and friendship with Greek people, and by deep reading and learning, I felt an inestimable sense of good fortune, veneration and humility. I fell in love with Greece because of Greece. But every would-be lover needs friends who encourage and nurture the love affair. For me, my teacher Gerald Thompson, about whom I wrote (in Greek) in February, and the travel-writer Patrick “Paddy” Leigh Fermor, whom I never met, were those such friends. In the past five days, I repaid through imitation the great debt I owe to Sir Patrick.

You can read more on John Kittmer’s English blog and one in Greek.

The House of the Mani

paddys house at kardamyliI wonder what John Humphrys will say about Paddy’s house in the programme on Monday? In fact I wonder more what the Benaki will say. I want to highlight a comment on a recent post from Michael Hanson, which if correct describes a property that is falling apart. Given that Paddy probably did little restoration and it has now been four years since his death, during which nothing appears to have been done, one can imagine it must look dilapidated and in serious need of attention.

I was in kardamyli recently and visited paddy’s house covertly. It is in a decrepit state, shutters rotten and falling off. Garden overgrown. Totally unloved and a disgrace, given that paddy gave it to the Benaki Foundation to be used as a haven for writers. Hopefully this programme will shame the Greeks into doing something. They say it will cost over £100,000 to restore. Nonsense!
We photographed paddy’s child hood public school trunk languishing in his study. Heartbreaking!

The PLF Society want to raise funds to cover immediate repair work and you can donate. Read how here. The higher figures mentioned above are not just for restoration and repairs but to cover renovation and reconfiguration to prepare the house so it can be used as a conference centre. The Benaki are due to report In July on whether it has been successful in raising finance for the main renovation works planned for the house which are expected to cost some € 630,000.

The Man of the Mani – BBC Radio 4 Monday 22 June

johnhumphMS2010_468x402Final scheduling for the John Humphrys’ BBC Radio 4 programme about Paddy is available on the BBC website. It will broadcast at 1600 hours on Monday 22 June and will be available later on the BBC website. Which tells us …

John Humphrys travels to Greece, to the village of Kardamyli in the Mani, to explore the life and work of travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor.

Fermor is arguably the most influential travel writer of the 20th Century. At the age of eighteen he took off, with notebook in hand, on a walk across Europe. During the Second World War he fought in Greece and Crete, and is still remembered in the country today for his daring exploits with the resistance. His most celebrated action came in 1944 when he led a commando operation to abduct the German General Heinrich Kreipe.

In the early 1960s he moved to Greece, to the Southern Peloponnese. He built a house in the village of Kardamyli in the Mani. It was here that he wrote much of his most celebrated work and where he remained until his death in June 2011.

John Humphrys visits Fermor’s village to explore the influence that Greece had upon his life and work, and also to consider the impact that he had on the village and the people he lived alongside. John visits Fermor’s former home, now in the care of the Benaki Museum in Athens, and discusses the plans for its future. He meets those in the village who met Leigh Fermor when he first arrived in the 1960s – a man in his nineties recalls how they “danced on the tables into the night” – and he hears tales of influential guests, great writers like Bruce Chatwin and John Betjeman, even a King and Queen.

Accompanied by Fermor’s book ‘Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese’, John Humphrys also travels into the deep Mani, one of the remotest, wildest and most isolated regions in Greece.

Visit the BBC website here for further details.