I’ve decided for this self inflicted writing challenge, to try and write about the subject which fills the void between my ears and then wakes me from my slumbers. This could be interesting, as I hinted at yesterday, sometimes I wake up with a veritable maelstrom of irrational ideas banging about like wasps in a jam jar. This morning I just had three wasps buzzing in the jar; rain, walking and Fray Bentos pies.
Looking out of the window across the fields to Sand Point in Somerset, I mused on this delightful trio of the cognitive mind as my pre-breakfast tea began to work and awoke the creative soul. I may leave Fray Bentos pies for another challenge, but for today, it shall be writing about putting one foot in front of another, the act of walking.
It is blowing a gale out there, the sort of day which excites me, a day I’d love to be outside experiencing the weather while walking. I’ve always been a walker. What I am not is a get the backpack on and head off into the hills, pockets bulging with Kendal Mint Cake, bright unisex Kagool flapping in the breeze, type of long distance walker. I prefer to walk alone. I’m not averse to walking with other people, indeed some of the best walks I’ have been on have been in the company of like minded people. But I do like my own company, which is I believe a throwback to my childhood. I was an only child, and although my parents made a great effort in ensuring I had a large social group around me, I often escaped this socialising and just wandered off into the fields surrounding my home from quite an early age.
My father was a very keen sportsman, a sprinter, who loved rugby, tennis and golf all played to a high standard. From him I also gained a love of cycling. However he is not a keen walker, my walking comes, I know, from my mother. Derived from Viking stock, a race well known for wandering, my mother at the age of 78 still walks most days. Indeed every Monday she and a few girl friends meet up and walk the 2 or 3 miles along the beach near Seaburn in Tyneside. They have done this for years, and in all weathers, usually ending up at the “cat and dogs” steps at Roker, where a snack bar kiosk is a mecca for refreshment, before the return journey.
My mother was evacuated to the Lake District during the War joining her twin cousins Verena and Dorothy on a farm run by two sisters at a hamlet called Dockray. School was 5 miles away and like many in those days this 10 mile walk was traversed daily without any trouble. Would that today’s children could walk 10 miles to school and back. Verena and my mother were very close and I particularly remember walking with both our families in the 1970’s up Windy Gyle in Northumberland. This was exciting as for the first time that I can recall I walked from England to Scotland over the Cheviot ridge.
Walking and writing are often keen bedfellows. Many writers seem to have a propensity to wander off in a creative reverie, searching for THE inspiration, to clear the mind, or maybe just to escape the housework. Of course from this many books about walking have been written, both guiding and amusing. Of the guide books to walking, Wainright’s seven volumes of Pictorial Guide to the Lakeland Fells are, even today, must reads for any serious walker in the Lake District. As a draughtsman his grasp of topographical detail and reality will probably never be surpassed.
The writer Bill Bryson at the age of 44 threw off his sedentary life and headed off along the 2,100 mile long Appalachian Trail in America ably documented in his dry wit style in his book A Walk in the Woods. Last year a work colleague bought me another walking book, for as she said, “I will enjoy and understand its meaning”. Travels with Boogie by Mark Wallington is an account of his adventures along the South West Coast Path accompanied by his errant mongrel dog, Boogie. It is very funny, and yes I understood it. I could look for other examples of books written as a result of walking, but one in particular has gripped me ever since reading it 10 years ago.
The writer, poet and journalist Peter Mortimer has lived in the North East for 3 decades. In the summer 1998 he set off on a pilgrimage journey across Britain, walking from Plymouth to Scotland. Nothing remarkable in that, many people before him had walked the length and breadth of Britain. What was remarkable was this 500 mile walk involved him becoming reliant on the generosity of the Nation, as he walked without money, or means. Some might argue that this was a foolhardy gesture. Why should the people he encounters along the way give him sustenance, shelter and warmth? But that misses the point. In doing this, Peter was recreating thousands of pilgrimages which have occurred throughout history. He also rediscovered his identity; in many cases he dispelled his often long held prejudices as, being reliant on the generosity of strangers, he encountered great kindness from the most unlikely quarters, but also deep mistrust from people he would have thought open to his quest.
And for me this encapsulates what I like about walking. It is not the physical exercise, indeed now well into middle age and not as fit as I once was long distance walking can be more of a chore now than before. It is more about new horizons. I sense a great feeling of looking forward to where I’m going, being on the move, exploring the unfamiliar and not looking back to where I’ve been.
Looking ahead in life keeps the mind young I feel, so I’ll end with a quote from my all time favourite writer, BB. In his book The Wayfaring Tree, on the last day of a visit to Scotland he goes for a walk. Unsure of where he could walk he asks a shepherd how far he can go;
“To the skyline” said the shepherd “as far as ye can see, mon!”