Nowadays we take it for granted that walking is a laudable pastime and recreational activity. We tend to give a positive nod to the walkers we see: they are taking exercise, they are getting out in the fresh air, they are enjoying being part of nature. All Good Things. It was not always thus.
Up until the late eighteenth century no one walked unless they could help it, unless they were poor and could not afford horse, carriage or coach. And, for the ubiquitous poor, walking was not always a pleasurable pursuit. It was a means to an end, not an end in itself - the practical, indeed the only way to drive cattle and pigs to market, to reach crops grown on feudal agricultural strips, to visit friends and family. Beyond the village, routes were uncertain, if not dangerous. Highwaymen and footpads roamed the highways and byways, and folk in other settlements could be suspicious of, or downright hostile to, strangers. Even as late as 1782 the German minister Carl Moritz, walking across England, found himself abused by innkeepers, and ejected from hostelries where he wished to spend the night. His crime? He was on foot! He wrote: A traveller on foot in this country seems to be considered as a sort of wild man, or an out-of-the-way being, who is stared at, pitied, suspected, and shunned by everybody that meets him.
But, by the early nineteenth century, all of this had changed. Influenced by the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who originated the idea of the 'noble savage' living free and uncorrupted in the wild, poets and writers like William Wordsworth and Henry David Thoreau wholeheartedly embraced the cultural, aesthetic and moral value of nature. And, to get close to nature, you had to walk through it. Thoreau's two-year sojourn in a hut by Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts, is well known. He wrote: When we walk, we naturally go to the fields and the woods: what would become of us, if we walked only in a garden or a mall?
And Wordsworth - often accompanied by his sister, Dorothy, or fellow Romantics like Coleridge or De Quincey - must have walked tens of thousands of miles during his lifetime. He would regularly cover fifteen or twenty miles a day, and, even when at home in his Lakeland cottage, would stride endlessly up and down the garden in a creative reverie. Walking in nature gave him solace and inspiration, and he would commonly compose his poems while walking, rather than at his desk. To return to Thoreau, Thoreau also wrote: When a traveler asked Wordsworth's servant to show him her master's study, she answered, 'Here is his library, but his study is out of doors.' Wordsworth's masterpiece of a poem, The Prelude, is really just a long walk in words.
Throughout the nineteenth century, this walking lark really caught on. Tourism was invented - helped by the boom of the railways - and people travelled further, and walked further, to admire and be awestruck at picturesque views, raging cataracts and terrifying mountain scenery. Hikers and climbers started to explore the European Alps and other mountain chains. Souvenirs were manufactured, and cameras began to record it all. The activity of walking also began to appear in the literature of the day. If you read Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice or Thomas Hardy's Tess of the d'Urbervilles, you'll find they are full of people walking.