Wild at Heart

07th August 2020

Country walking has enjoyed a renaissance in recent years. And it’s easy to see why: it’s healthy, free, therapeutic and, declares enthusiast Alan Franks, good for the soul. Illustrations by Melvyn Evans

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It was JB Priestley, the author of the 1934 classic English Journey, who spoke of the “skull cinema” when describing the meditative effects of putting one foot in front of the other for hours on end in the open countryside. True, Priestley was doing much of his legwork through the dire urban streets of the Great Depression but here again walking was the best way to the heart of the matter by being the simplest. You are your own vehicle, unencumbered by the machinery of other transport, and there are times and places when this plainest of facts can strike you with the force of a revelation.

Never more so than now, on a small island which over the past half-century has seemed bent on imprisoning itself. The choked ring roads, the jam as standard, the motorways transformed into linear car parks, the powerless rage of the drivers in their over-mighty cars; all these symptoms of strangulation have led to a rearguard action by the foot-soldiery of Britain, taking to the highways and holloways with the zeal of an occupying but benign force.

For while walking may give the impression of being a timeless pursuit beyond the reach of trends, it is now enjoying what observers of fashion would call “a moment”. And if people aren’t actually doing it themselves, they are reading about it from others who do. The new wave of nature books attests to this, none more emphatically than Florence Williams’ The Nature Fix and Robert Macfarlane’s revisiting of The Old Ways in 2012, which revealed the origins and biographies of the nation’s ancient paths. 

It’s hard not to feel the pull of a grounded reality when you’re dipping into a muddy trail or a flowing river


These may head the field of classy pedestrian authorship, but there are others at their shoulders. They include Simon Armitage, who wrote Walking Home, a poetic account of doing The Pennine Way “the wrong way” – ie, north to south – Rachel Joyce, author of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry a novel about a man walking the length of the country in order to hand-deliver a letter to a dying ex-colleague; Keri Smith and her celebration of walking’s imaginative stimulus in last year’s much praised The Wander Society.

The success of such titles has also brought fresh readers to many of the genre’s late great practitioners such as the restlessly inquiring Patrick Leigh Fermor, who crossed Europe on foot, and the cultish literary rambler WG Sebald. 

Robert Macfarlane comes the way of JB Priestley and John Hillaby, author of Journey Through Britain in 1968 about his walk from Land’s End to John o’Groats, avoiding all metalled roads (with the exception of 11 miles in the West Midlands). Macfarlane, who came to prominence with his book The Wild Places in 2007, pays tribute in turn to a great walking writer of the previous century, Stephen Graham, who wrote that “as you sit on the hillside or lie prone under the trees of the forest, or sprawl wet-legged by a mountain stream, the great door, that does not look like a door, opens.”

This metaphorical door might have slammed shut more often in Macfarlane’s face if he had not enlisted the advice of the extraordinary Roger Deakin, author of Waterlog, a book about swimming his way through Britain. Macfarlane’s search for wildness was doused in poignancy by the fact that his mentor was dying. This sad reality grafts itself onto the writing as an emblem of urgency, finiteness, imminent vanishing, of not knowing what you’ve got until you lose it.

What distinguishes much of the new writing is not simply its powerful evocation of the natural world, but its ability to focus on nature as a moral, physical and even spiritual force for good in our lives. If the vision of these authors is a broad one, this is partly because they stand on the shoulders of such varied giants as the Cumbrian fell-walker Alfred Wainwright MBE, the early twentieth century Hampshire poet Edward Thomas and John Clare, the so-called “Peasant Poet” of Northamptonshire in the nineteenth.

Like the impassioned voices of today, these writers conveyed the sense that to damage or diminish the countryside is to inflict a wound on the body and soul of humanity. Such a view has gained new impetus from some of the ideas emanating from neuroscientific research. You may have missed the April issue of the US online journal Neuroscience News, but it carried an article headlined “How Walking Benefits The Brain”. This asserts that it’s not just your heart and muscles that gain, but that “the foot’s impact sends pressure waves through the arteries that significantly modify and can increase the supply of blood to the brain.”

Today, woodlands enjoy a particularly revered status, with “forest-bathing” a key item in the urban stress victim’s armoury of soul-soothing activities. Florence Williams’ much-lauded The Nature Fix has become a central text in the current, heartfelt quest to reconnect with nature. Her arguments are so intense, her reasoning so visceral, that to read her is to encounter, well, a force of nature. “I’m no tree hugger,” wrote the New York Times’ critic, “but The Nature Fix made me want to run outside and embrace the nearest oak. Not for the tree’s sake but for mine.”

The point to which her book repeatedly returns is that the appreciation of nature is not so much some decorous contrast to our cities’ clogged grids but an absolute necessity for our survival; even limited exposure to the living world has direct and immediate effect on the state of our cognition. “Perhaps what matters,” she writes, “is not the source of (our) stress, but the ability to recover from it. This is a key point because it’s perhaps what we’ve lost by giving up our connection to the night skies, the bracing air and the companionate chorus of birds. When I’m walking across a pleasant landscape, I feel I have time and I have space. I’m breathing deeply things that smell good and seeing things that bring delight. It’s hard not to feel the pull of a grounded reality when you’re dipping into a muddy trail or a flowing river.”

Williams makes approving mention of a project called Mappiness, launched in 2010 by a Sussex University economist called Dr George MacKerron, an aim of which was to assess the part played by place in the happiness, or otherwise, of his 20,000 participants. One of the biggest factors turned out to be where you are, rather than who you are with or what you are doing. Elsewhere she reminds us that Jesus, Buddha and Reese Witherspoon (in the guise of author Cheryl Strayed) all went to the desert to seek wisdom.

One of Williams’ spiritual forbears is the author Richard Mabey. Still best known for his encyclopaedic Flora Britannica, a sort of Domesday Book of the nation’s plant life, he has been credited with doing for botany what Elizabeth David did for cooking. But it was a smaller and more personal volume of Mabey’s, called Nature Cure that restated the sense of connection between the state of nature and our own mental and emotional condition. Mabey had suffered a serious breakdown, brought on in part by a painful deracination from his childhood home. There is a parity between his own lowness and that of a swift that he once found stranded in an attic. He saved its life by flinging it out into the open air, allowing instinct to reassert itself. The book sees him treating himself with the same bracing compassion.

Although I am writing this in suburban Surrey, I am also three-quarters of the way between the Paddington Basin in West London and Gas Street in Central Birmingham. If you had caught me at another time, it might have been at one of the villages of the South Downs Way between Chichester and Eastbourne, or else somewhere along the rugged Pennine Way, that seminal route in the tremendous evolution of Britain’s postwar footpath network.

If ever you doubt what a sociable, talking-shaped thing a long walk can be, look to your Chaucerian prototypes

It begs the question, “Why?” I take the points made by Williams, Mabey and others, but there is another answer, and it remains as good as any. It is the one given by George Mallory when he was asked in 1923 about the slightly hillier proposition of Mount Everest: “Because it’s there.” The joy of it lies in things such as these: the taking of the train that sneaks you out, empty against the rush-hour tide; the plotting of the day’s stretch, anything between five and 15 miles; and discovering the near-secret lives of rural bus timetables. 

The Ramblers, formerly The Ramblers’ Association, boasts more than 120,000 members. The name remains as deceptive as ever. Throughout its 80-year life its positioning and campaigning have not rambled at all, and it has waged bitter, timeless-feeling wars with all manner of corporate or civic bodies that have had the nerve to threaten the walker’s right of way. So-called leisure pursuits don’t come more serious, more resonant with historic struggle, than this.

Some would go further, arguing that the truest analogy for walking is nothing less than life, our time on the earth being a passage. Whatever our walk of life. In the case of Chaucer’s 14th-century pilgrims to Canterbury, a varied bunch treading what is now M25 and North Downs country, the life stories were indivisible from the travelling. 

Somewhere between Leighton Buzzard and Milton Keynes, I broke the rhythm of my stretch-by-stretch walk along the Grand Union in order to join the British Pilgrimage Trust, founded just last year on the principle that our holy places are all connected by green lanes and public footpaths. Though the title gives the word a capital P, the organisation’s vision is a more secular one, commending the sheer enjoyment, health and good company to be had. If ever you doubt what a sociable, talking-shaped thing a long walk can be, look no further than your Chaucerian prototypes. The Trust has already compiled an enticing batch of routes.

the appreciation of nature is not so much some decorous contrast to our cities’ clogged grids but an absolute necessity for our survival

Our own pilgrimage took the centenary of Jerusalem as its motif. Therefore anything or any place with connections to the posthumous lyricist William Blake or to the composer Hubert Parry, who set the two stanzas to music in order to stiffen the national sinews during the Great War, was fair game. Hence it started at Bunhill Fields, location of Blake’s unmarked grave, stopped by at the Royal Albert Hall, where that song is the second most frequently sung, after the National Anthem; went on through Surrey and Hampshire, calling in at Shulbrede Priory where Parry’s piano stands, and on top of it the original sheet music of Jerusalem.

On to Chichester, where Blake just avoided the death penalty on a charge of high treason. On the way we went into churches and pubs and open fields and sang “And did Those Feet…” at the tops of our voices. Which made us wonder, and argue, and dissect: what was, what is, Blake trying to tell us? Did he intend or not intend a question mark after “walk upon England’s mountains green”? If not, then it stands as a statement, and we might have to consider a new nomination for pedestrian patron sainthood.

Next week I’ll be back up on the canal’s hard shoulder, wondering whether to do the short stage from Napton-on-the-Hill to Long Itchington, or strike out all the way to Leamington. Footling questions, but how large they loom on the day.

Alan Franks writes regularly about walking in The Guardian. His new play, Looking At Lucian, has been showing at the Theatre Royal Bath this summer

This article is taken from the Goodwood magazine, Autumn 2017 issue

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