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

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