These are notes, very much work in progress, hopefully you will find some interesting stuff in here…
Walking is what makes us human
Bipedalism is unique to man, it is a complex skill given to all through months of crawling and exploring.
‘It is, when you come to think of it, a remarkable achievement. On a flattish piece of flesh and bone measuring some eleven inches by four, an ungainly edifice six feet high and weighing 160lbs is perfectly balanced for half a second, carried forward a yard, and perfectly balanced again, in unending progression. In a 20-mile walk this feat of balance and forward movement is performed nearly 36,000 times.’
Paths are recorded history of people and movement – ‘this connecting thread’
Richard Long the artist has perhaps more than anyone else captured the sense of paths being part of history. He writes:
‘A walk is just one more layer, a mark laid upon the thousands of other layers of human and geographic history on the surface of the land.
A road is the site of many journeys. The place of a walk is there before the walk and after it.’
‘A walk expresses space and freedom and the knowledge of it can live in the imagination of anyone, and that is another space too.’
‘A walk marks time with an accumulation of footsteps. It defines the form of the land. Walking the roads and the paths is to trace a portrait of the country. I have become interested in using a walk to express an original idea about the land, art, and walking itself.’
Footpaths are as old as man. Wherever people have regularly gone on foot a trail has appeared, and this trail is the simplest form of man’s impression of himself on nature. In WH Hudson’s words, ‘the footpaths seem to indicate a merely animal, an innocent, light presence…this connecting thread.’
Paths create connecting threads across the countryside as metre does to poetry. A kind of loose framework or jacket that facilitates our appreciation and understanding of the countryside – it’s the ‘way in’ for most people. Blank verse would be the equivalent of tramping across trackless country which, as we all know, can be really tricky, albeit occasionally rewarding.
Paths often provide a connection with the past because their route and timbre are unchanged. As Edward Thomas remarked:
‘The men and women – who hundreds of years ago were eating and drinking and setting their hearts on things – still retain a thin hold on life through the joy of us who hear and sing their songs, or tread their curving footpaths, or note their chisel marks on cathedral stones, or rest upon the undulating churchyard grass.’
For many writers, walking is an experience and expression of freedom
It was perhaps William Cobbett (1763-1835) who started off all the snobbery about walking/riding rather than being in a coach/car: ‘There is no pleasure in travelling, except on horseback or on foot. Carriages take your body from place to place, and if you merely want to be conveyed, they are very good; but they enable you to see and to know nothing at all of the country… to see the farmers at home, and to see the labourers in the fields; and to do this you must go either on foot or horseback. With a gig you cannot get about amongst bye-lanes and across fields, through bridleways and hunting-gates.’
Wordsworth crystallises the idea of the freedom of walking in ‘The Prelude’ (1799), a release from imprisonment into free wandering:
Now I am free, enfranchised and at large,
May fix my habitation where I will.
What dwelling shall receive me, in what vale
Shall be my harbour, underneath what grove
Shall I take up my home, and what sweet stream
Shall with its murmurs lull me to my rest?
The earth is all before me—with a heart
Joyous, nor scared at its own liberty,
I look about, and should the guide I chuse
Be nothing better than a wandering cloud
I cannot miss my way.
There is also a sense in which you escape from conventional society, escape from your own identity when you are walking. As Virginia Woolf’s expressed it in her beautiful essay ‘Street Haunting’ (1930):
‘As we step out of the house on a fine evening between four and six, we shed the self our friends know us by and become part of that vast republican army of anonymous trampers.’
‘But when the door shuts on us, all that vanishes. The shell-like covering which our souls have excreted to house themselves, to make for themselves a shape distinct from others, is broken, and there is left of all these wrinkles and roughnesses a central oyster of perceptiveness, an enormous eye.’
Or Frédéric Gros, in A Philosophy of Walking (2008): ‘By walking, you escape from the very idea of identity, the temptation to be someone, to have a name and a history. Being someone is all very well for smart parties where everyone is telling their story, it’s all very well for psychologists’ consulting rooms. But isn’t being someone also a social obligation which trails in its wake – for one has to be faithful to the self-portrait – a stupid and burdensome fiction? The freedom in walking lies in not being anyone; for the walking body has no history, it is just an eddy in the stream of immemorial life.
Walking often helps writers to get into the ‘a creative frame of mind’
The name of Aristotle’s school of philosophy, Peripatetic, dating back to around 355 BC, today, of course, means travelling and walking from place to place. Numerous philosophers and thinkers have commented on the link between walking and thinking:
‘The rhythm of walking generates a kind of rhythm of thinking’ Rebecca Solnit
‘Walking is also an ambulation of the mind.’ Gretel Ehrlich
‘Methinks that the moment my legs begin to move, my thoughts begin to flow’ Henry Thoreau
‘I can meditate only when I am walking. When I stop, I cease to think; my mind only works with my legs’ Jean-Jacques Rousseau
‘All truly great thoughts are conceived while walking’ Friedrich Nietzsche
Scientists speak of ‘transient hypofrontality’: a state-of-mind promoted by pursuits that require physical exertion, but little thought or concentration. The parts of the brain that coordinate general concepts and rules are turned down, while the motor and sensory parts are turned up. In this state, ideas and impressions mingle more freely. Unusual and unexpected thoughts arise. Many writers find walking helpful to clear the mind, to think things through and to be inspired.
Iain Sinclair wrote: ‘There are many set-piece walks that I do. I’ve got different walks for different questions or problems of ideas that I’m dealing with, a whole chain of maybe fifty different walks that I do for different things.’
Bertrand Russell was an astonishingly active walker. His friend Mile Malleson wrote that ‘every morning Bertie would go for an hour’s walk by himself, composing and thinking out his work for that day. He would then come back and write for the rest of the morning, smoothly, easily and without a single correction.’
Walking is about health, physical and mental – ‘If I couldn’t walk fast and far,’ wrote Dickens, of his pacing through London streets, ‘I should explode and perish’.
‘I have walked myself into my best thoughts, and I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it. If one keeps on walking, everything will be alright.’ Søren Kierkegaard
Ronald Blythe has always been a very keen walker, and it has helped him with his writing too: ‘I walk a mile or so of flinty track to fetch the milk, and each week two miles or so to the post office, church and pub, and more miles still when my thoughts run out and the typewriter clicks to a halt, and I have to wander off to the river paths for a little ‘solvitur ambulando’.
Kenneth Grahame writes: ‘Nature’s particular gift to the walker, through the semi-mechanical act of walking – a gift no other form of exercise seems to transmit in the same high degree – is to set the mind jogging, to make it garrulous, exalted, a little mad maybe – certainly creative and supersensitive, until at last it really seems to be outside of you and as if it were talking to you whilst you are talking back to it. Then everything gradually seems to join in, sun and the wind, the white road and the dusty hedges, the spirit of the season, whichever that may be, the friendly old earth that is pushing life forth of every sort under your feet or spell-bound in a death-like winter trance, till you walk in the midst of a blessed company, immersed in a dream-talk far transcending any possible human conversation. Time enough, later, for that…; here and now, the mind has shaken off its harness, is snorting and kicking up heels like a colt in a meadow.’ ‘The Fellow that Goes Alone’ (1913)
In ‘In Praise of Walking’ (1898), Leslie Stephen, Virginia Woolf’s father, writes:
‘Walking is among recreations what ploughing, and fishing are among industrial labours: it is primitive and simple; it brings us into contact with mother earth and unsophisticated nature; it requires no elaborate apparatus and no extraneous excitement. It is fit even for poets and philosophers, and he who can thoroughly enjoy it must have at least some capacity for worshipping the “cherub Contemplation.”
‘The memories of walks . . . are all localised and dated; they are hitched on to particular times and places; they spontaneously form a kind of calendar or connecting thread upon which other memories may be strung. As I look back, a long series of little vignettes presents itself, each representing a definite stage of my earthly pilgrimage summed up and embodied in a walk.
‘The walks are the unobtrusive connecting thread of other memories, and yet each walk is a little drama in itself, with a definite plot with episodes and catastrophes, according to the requirements of Aristotle; and it is naturally interwoven with all the thoughts, the friendships, and the interests that form the staple of ordinary life.’
…and for several of our writers walking stands out as an intrinsic part of their work
For several of the authors we look at, walking is something more; an intrinsic part of their psychological and creative process. A sense that walking is the best way to resolve inner thoughts and to build on creative issues first mentioned way back in Roman times as Solvitur Ambulando – ‘It is solved by walking’. This is very much in tune with today’s feelings of well-being associated with walking; as a healthy, calming activity it was one of the stars of Lockdown.
In the British canon, perhaps the most famous walker of all is William Wordsworth, who was estimated to have walked 175,000 miles in his lifetime (he would definitely be a FitBit winner…). For him and his sister, walking was central to well-being and the means of getting close to nature and being inspired. In Dorothy’s words: ‘He walks out every morning generally alone and brings in a large treat almost every time he goes out’. In creating a poem, he would walk for inspiration, each walk almost representing a layer of meaning in the way an artist would add layers to a painting one by one.
Edward Thomas is another writer who belongs to this more ‘introverted’ school of walking, looking into oneself or nature for meaning. Robert MacFarlane writes about him: ‘To him, paths connected real places, but they also led out to metaphysics, backwards to history and inwards to the self…paths are sentences, the shod feet of travellers the scratch of the pen nib or the press of the type. He understands that reading and walking expire into one another, that we carry in ourselves evolving maps of the world which are, as Wordsworth put it, ‘of texture midway between life and books’.
Walking, Laurie Lee reflects, refines awareness: it compels you to ‘tread’ a landscape ‘slowly’, to ‘smell its different soils’. The car passenger, by contrast, ‘races at gutter height, seeing less than a dog in a ditch’. Laurie Lee, like Patrick Leigh Fermor and William Cobbett long before, believed in walking not only as a means of motion but also as a means of knowing, as he demonstrates in ‘As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning’.
And then there are the people watchers, led of course by Charles Dickens who uses walking to glean many of the detailed observations and descriptions that populate his novels. He was literally addicted to walking. Virginia Woolf was another who walked out to try and understand how others were existing or thinking, most famously in Mrs Dalloway.
Some find walking and the writing of poetry to be almost indivisible
Rhythm is an essential aspect of the experience of walking; the rhythm of walking allows for a detailed exploration of the world at an intimate, human-scaled pace.
‘The resemblance of the motion of a person in walking has given to syllables when they form poetical lines, the name of feet.’ Barrett, The Principles of Grammar
Think ‘feet’, metres, iambic pentameters, striding across a ditch (enjambment), changing direction, pausing, adjusting your feet (caesura), the motions of walking are very similar to the motions of poetry.
Wordsworth paces up and down his gravel path in front of Rydal Mount, producing perfectly formed iambic pentameters. Dorothy describes it thus:
‘At present he is walking and has been out of doors these two hours though it has rained heavily all the morning. In wet weather he takes out an umbrella, chooses the most sheltered spot, and there walks backwards and forwards, and though the length of his walk may be sometimes a quarter or half a mile, he is as fast bound within the chosen limits as if by prison walls. He generally composes his verses out of doors, and while he is so engaged he seldom knows how the time slips away, or hardly whether it is rain or fair.’