|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?
CARL PHILIPP MORITZ
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.)