A common man marvels at uncommon things. A wise man marvels at the commonplace. CONFUCIUS

Tuesday, 31 December 2013

The Disappearing Line

The Solitary Walker on Hadrian's Wall. (Photo taken by George at Transit Notes.)

Walking was not always considered the normal, pleasurable, everyday activity that it is now. In eighteenth-century England the foot traveller could be viewed with suspicion and disdain:   

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 every body that meets him . . . 

In England any person undertaking so long a journey on foot is sure to be looked upon and considered as either a beggar, or a vagabond, or some necessitous wretch, which is a character not much more popular than that of a rogue . . . 

To what various, singular, and unaccountable fatalities and adventures are not foot-travellers exposed, in this land of carriages and horses?


This all changed with the Romantic writers and poets. Wordsworth (and his sister Dorothy), Coleridge, Hazlitt and De Quincey were all prodigious walkers. This extract is from Wordsworth's The Prelude — for me one of the finest poems ever written. Whenever I read the words 'its disappearing line' and 'a guide into eternity, / At least to things unknown and without bound' I get an excited thrill:

I love a public road: few sights there are
That please me more: such object hath had power
O'er my imagination since the dawn
Of childhood, when its disappearing line,
Seen daily afar off, on one bare steep
Beyond the limits that my feet had trod,
Was like a guide into eternity,
At least to things unknown and without bound.


Hazlitt's essay On Going a Journey is a key piece of writing for the solo, independent walker:

One of the pleasantest things in the world is going a journey; but I like to go by myself. I can enjoy society in a room; but out of doors, Nature is company enough for me. I am then never less alone than when alone . . .

I cannot see the wit of walking and talking at the same time. When I am in the country I wish to vegetate like the country. I am not for criticising hedgerows and black cattle. I go out of town in order to forget the town and all that is in it. There are those who for this purpose go to watering-places, and carry the metropolis with them. I like more elbow-room and fewer encumbrances. I like solitude . . .

The soul of a journey is liberty, perfect liberty, to think, feel, do, just as one pleases. We go a journey chiefly to be free of all impediments and of all inconveniences; to leave ourselves behind much more than to get rid of others. It is because I want a little breathing-space to muse on indifferent matters . . . that I absent myself from the town for a while, without feeling at a loss the moment I am left by myself . . .

Give me the clear blue sky over my head, and the green turf beneath my feet, a winding road before me, and a three hours march to dinner — and then to thinking! I laugh I run, I leap, I sing for joy.


One of my New Year's resolutions is to do more walking in 2014 than I did in 2013.

A Happy New Year to everyone, and happy walking!

(All the above passages are taken from that excellent book by Morris Marples, Shanks's Pony: a Study of Walking, first published in 1959.)  


Sabine said...

What an excellent collection of thoughts. happy new year with lots of good walking!

Ruth said...

Thank you for the inspiration. I'm heading out after working for a couple of hours on the computer, into the wintry mix to wander all the way back on our neighbor's deep property. Excited.

Margaret said...

Some people are still pretty suspicious of walking. Going for a walk is one thing. That's OK. Even for a long walk, or a pilgrimage. But walking home two or three miles. Some people find that suspicious or dubious. How to politely decline the well meant offer of a lift in a car is a skill which sometimes eludes me when people are persistent.

George said...

A wonderful post, Robert, and I am with you 100% — more walking in 2014 than in 2013!

These quotes resonate deeply with me and remain very thought-provoking. The disappearing line of a public road on the horizon always seems like a "guide into eternity," especially when one thinks of eternity as timelessness, rather than infinite time. I also think that Hazlitt speaks for many of us, particularly the ramblers and wanderers, when he states: "Nature is company enough for me. I am then never less alone than when alone . . . "

am said...

Wonderful walking portrait of you taken by George. Thank you for the good words on walking, especially William Hazlitt's words. Kind wishes for the new year!

Bouncing Bertie said...

Great words on walking. I find myself wonderering where a walk with a dog fits in to the picture. For me, it enhances the pleasure of a solitary walk, and assists the process of seeing with new eyes, but I can understand that to others a canine companion might be an obstacle to enjoying the natural world.
Anyway, happy walking in 2014.

The Solitary Walker said...

Happy New Year, Sabine.

There's something special about walking in winter, Ruth, isn't there?

Yes, I know what you mean, Margaret — possibly more so in the US? And some people think it's a little odd to go walking without a dog or a rucksack.

Here's to more walking in 2014, George! Had a nice local walk this morning in the sunshine. (However, more storms coming in tomorrow.)

Happy New Year to you too, Am… and Gail, we did have dogs for many years, the first a Golden Retriever, the second a Sheltie...

Susan Alcorn said...

My mother, who turns 103 this month, once said of my walking, "We never walked unless for some reason we had to." Sad, right?
And the concept of long-distance walking? Many associate that with forced marches in the military. You in the UK are so lucky to have the miles of footpaths open to all. Happy New Year, Robert!

The Solitary Walker said...

Happy New Year to you and Ralph too, Susan! I remember our conversation about your mother when we met in France.