Posts Tagged ‘walking’

On walking

August 1, 2019

Having been very critical of a book about walking in my previous post, I realised that I could write about being a walker and what it means to me. But I’m no philosopher…

I’ve always walked. When I was a toddler, once a week I had to walk from the village where we lived into the town a couple of miles away, when my mother went to the market. And back! My stamina was fed by a bag of loose broken biscuits from Woolworths under the pram cover, where my sister rode. And then when I was a little older, I had to do the walk again on a Sunday with my father, to go to church. But the treat was, we got the bus back. When I was five, just after I’d started school, we moved into the town and I could walk to school; at seven, the journey to the juniors was just over a mile each way, and I did this on my own, most of the time without batting an eyelid.

There were also frequent walks for pleasure, usually on a Sunday afternoon if the weather allowed; we went to the town meadows or to the park. Either way, we hoovered up a few miles, and I only recall occasionally being tired.

When I got to boarding school, I could have won prizes for skiving sport and games, which I truly loathed. Instead, my choice to go for a long walk in the surrounding countryside, along with a couple of like-minded friends, was acceptable to the powers that be, so this was what regularly happened, at least a couple of times a week. We explored all sorts of places, woodland, canal and riverbanks, an abandoned airfield…

What I realise is that I have always walked a great deal, finding walking anywhere within reason a normal and usually pleasurable activity, as long as the weather wasn’t truly foul. I developed a reasonable sense of direction and road sense, and an ability to estimate how long a journey would take.

As a student, I walked miles, around the streets of Liverpool, and home across the park at night – ah, those carefree days when I thought little of the city’s dangers. Then, when I moved to Lancaster, I lived in a village again, a couple of miles outside the city, and frequently found myself walking home through the night (buses were never that frequent). And there was the beauty of the Lune Valley and the Trough of Bowland, as well as the Lake District to explore. I walked miles around the streets of London when I lived there for five years.

Cities are best explored on foot, I think. I used to know Paris really well, though it must be over ten years since I was last there. And, although the Metro was quick and efficient and cheap, I walked everywhere as I explored; it was impossible to get lost as there was always a Metro station with a huge helpful map every few hundred yards. You really get the sense of a place when you walk its streets. I’ve explored some of Berlin like that, and found all sorts of wonders. Food and drink are easily available, and I’ve always found locals friendly and helpful.

Having had a number of holidays in Europe with our children when they were young, I got used to country walking there: footpaths and walking trails are so much more clearly and helpfully signposted than in Britain, we found, and often it was not necessary to use a map at all.

Now I travel to the Ardennes every year for a walking holiday. I have learned to use maps reasonably well, although I also find that maps on my phone are very helpful if I think I’m lost. And since I’m on my own, I am beginning to be rather more sensible about safety and security, rather than just blithely striding forth…

So, what, if anything, has my experience of walking taught me?

I prefer to walk alone. If I’m with someone, or with a group, I will find myself paying less attention to my surroundings, to the nature, the flora and the fauna, the views and landscapes, and these are the things I really enjoy when I’m walking for pleasure. You can’t stalk a heron for ten minutes in a group of people, or outstare a wolf or a mouflon if you’re busy chattering; you won’t get face-to-face with a deer who hasn’t noticed you because the wind was blowing the other way… And if you meet someone who’s up for a brief chat rather than the usual polite walker’s ‘Hello!’ (or Bonjour, Guten Tag or whatever) then that’s a brief additional pleasure. I shared half an hour’s walk with a couple of French folk in the Languedoc because we were trying to find a particular track: I’m sure we enjoyed each other’s company, but equally were relieved to make our farewells.

I prefer to walk in forests or woodland, rather than in open space, which is why I prefer the Ardennes to the Lake District, for example, and I’ve written here about my fascination with forests. The birdsong is astonishing – and no, I can’t identify more than a couple of birds by their call, I just like the accompaniment as I go – even though I have poor hearing. And there is always the possibility of spotting or seeing other interesting wildlife.

I like to think. Being alone, and in motion, is very conducive to being reflective, I find. I can review where I’ve got to with my life, make future plans, ponder the meaning of life and existence, feel at peace and contented with my lot; I often find that where I am stimulates what I can only call spiritual thoughts, meditation, if you like. It’s peaceful, and reassuring. And technology is helpful here, too: if I have a moment of epiphany, or just a useful flash of inspiration, I can record a message to myself briefly on my phone so I don’t forget it…

I’ve read about walking, too. When I was quite young, my father introduced me to a fascinating book by a fellow Pole who had escaped from captivity in Siberia with some of his comrades and walked to India. It’s called The Long Walk, by Slawomir Rawicz, and is an astonishing tale of hardship and endurance, a tribute to the human spirit and urge to survive. And I’ve previously mentioned the books of Bernard Ollivier, who walked the entire Silk Route from Istanbul to Beijing. There’s someone whom I can admire and envy, for I can’t really contemplate such lengthy journeys myself because of a problem with my right foot, which will allow me to clock up getting on for fifteen miles a day for a couple of weeks, but does begin to complain quite a lot if I overdo things.

In the end, I suppose I regard walking as natural. It keeps me reasonably fit and healthy, and I’m not obsessive about my 10,000 steps a day, which apparently is a myth anyway. It gets me about at minimal cost, and as long as the podiatrist and the orthotist can sort out my wonky foot, I’m looking forward to many more years and miles…

Frederic Gros: A Philosophy of Walking

July 30, 2019

91BBJbiHQXL._AC_UY218_QL90_  It’s a long time since I came cross such a frustrating book. I count myself as a walker, in that I try and walk everywhere I can in my normal daily routines, and in that I love going off on walking tours, exploring hills and forests and taking in the beauty of the countryside. Although I’d also like to undertake some long-distance trails, I think that age and a foot problem probably exclude this. So a book about walking ought to be right up my street (!).

But reading this was like trying to nail jelly to a wall. Gros hardly ever seemed to be going anywhere clear, he rambled (verbally) and spent a lot of time stating what I’m afraid I have to call the bloody obvious if you are a walker yourself, leading me to think that, if you’re not a walker, then you won’t find this book very helpful, either.

He writes about famous people who apparently walked a lot – Nietzsche, Rimbaud, Kant and others, but I could never really see what he was achieving by using them as examples. A good deal of what he had to say was plain common-sense dressed up a philosophy, banal to any serious walker, I would have thought. I found him most (and that wasn’t very) interesting on Thoreau and the contrasts the latter drew between frugality and austerity, and between benefit and profit, when considering decisions about how to run his life. Gros also had a few thought-provoking comments about the idea of pilgrimage too, and I learned more about Gandhi and his many non-violent protests, which also involved a lot of walking.

So, what was the purpose behind this book? What can it say to us ordinary walkers? To this one, it was vacuous and ultimately forgettable, as well as pretentious in a way that only a certain type of very annoying French writer can be. Professional, long-distance walkers and pilgrims could write something far better and more interesting: let me point you in the direction of another French walker who is miles (!) better: Bernard Ollivier. I’ve written about many of his books, if you care to search my posts. He writes about the astonishing walks he’s actually done, the people and places he’s been to and encountered, and, more to our point here, a real philosophy of walking (though I’m not sure he’d call it that) emerges as he walks and writes…

On forests

July 7, 2019

My father was born and grew up in some of the most remote forests in Europe, far away on the borders of Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Bielorussia as they were before the Second World War, forests so large and impenetrable that it was said that during the war, Germans dared not enter the forest because they would not come out again… which is probably why my father’s home village was burned to the ground because of partisan activity. And yet vague traces of the tiny hamlet of four houses are still faintly visible on Google Earth…

So I’ve often wondered if my love of forests is inherited. Yes, I know that biologically that’s a nonsense, but all the same, I love forests: nothing beats a walk in the woods where I am surrounded by trees of all different kinds, an astonishing variety of shades of green, amazing effects of dappled sunlight through the leaves and branches. If it’s raining, there’s the gentle sound of the downpour on the leaves. There’s all the birdsong from all sides, and the possibility of encounters with creatures: last year in Luxembourg I met a wolf, and the year before, mouflon (wild cattle).

I have family, friends and acquaintances who rave about the Lake District and the views, and who don’t like the idea of being surrounded by trees. But I like the element of surprise, rather than having all the landscape permanently visible when the hills are bare: in the forests, suddenly there will be a gap in the trees and a surprise view; half a mile or so further on, another opening will reveal quite a different picture: nothing is ever the same. I can enjoy open spaces, but nothing cuts it for me quite like a forest.

When I’m off walking in Luxembourg, I can walk for an entire day without meeting a soul: I like this, not because I’m some kind of misanthrope, but because I do find such solitude very conducive to reflection and meditation. It’s rather like being on an open-air retreat. I can take stock of the past year, or of my whole life; I can ponder problems and difficulties I may be faced with; I can elaborate future plans. And there’s my phone to record notes, ideas, flashes of brilliance whenever they occur.

Recently and rather belatedly it has occurred to me that I do need to be rather more careful when wandering off on my own like this, and I do now make sure that I have a first aid kit, emergency whistle and various useful supplies with me in case of any mishap: at nineteen I may have been immortal, not any longer. Each year I take a day or so to re-remember my basic map-reading and way-finding skills, and on the rare occasion when I have briefly strayed from the right path, the combination of maps and GPS on my phone has helped me get back on track.

I’m looking forward to a trip into the Kielder Forest in Northumberland soon, and another visit to the forests of the Ardennes in the autumn.

August favourites #17: walking

August 17, 2018

My favourite walking has long been in the Luxembourg Ardennes, and I try to have a holiday there each spring. The town of Vianden lies on the border with Germany, in quite a seriously hilly part of the country, on the banks of the Our river, and there are many marvellous walks which start out from Vianden or nearby, often crossing the border a number of times. One begins in a meander of the river a couple of miles away, at the village of Bivels, and eventually takes one up as high as it’s possible to go in the surrounding hills, to the castle of Falkenstein: the views of the castle itself, from all directions, are quite spectacular; you can get to the castle gates, which are locked, but no further, for it is privately owned and apparently in a somewhat dilapidated state. Sitting eating a picnic at the gates and staring at the stunning views of the river and the valley, I felt so utterly contented.

Bernard Ollivier: Longue Marche – suite et fin

May 19, 2018

I was fascinated by Bernard Ollivier‘s account of his three-year endeavour to walk the 12,000kms of the Silk Route, from Istanbul to Beijing, a project he undertook around the turn of the century, after he had retired, and lost his wife. It wasn’t exploration, but it was genuine travel, as he engaged with all sorts of people he met on his journey, and grappled with many problems. There are three volumes in his account (1,2,3).

He met and settled with a new partner and lives in Normandy: she asked why he had started from Istanbul rather than from France, as Lyons was where silk manufacture and trade had developed in France from the Middle Ages. Then she suggested they walk that final stretch of the journey together. Ollivier was faced with two challenges: walking with someone else, whereas he had always walked alone, from preference, and covering a further couple of thousand kilometres at the age of seventy-three. I can only admire him and hope that I have a small portion of such energy and the desire to live adventurously if I reach that age…

He is less rigid about scrupulously covering every kilometre on foot this time; there are occasional short bus and taxi journeys when these are necessary to avoid difficulties. He is older and more crook than previously and he lets us know this. Encounters with locals in places they pass through are markedly more difficult and rarer when there are two of them, though people still do marvel at the craziness of the exploit when they learn what the couple’s goal is.

It’s Europe, so feels more familiar than the earlier walking, but for me the real eye-opener was his account of their journey through the Balkans. He passes through all the countries that were rent by the horrific civil wars and massacres in the years around the turn of the century, conflicts that we lived through and heard about at the time and were appalled by, but which, of course, we have now more or less forgotten. Their impressions of the aftermath of the war: the destruction still apparent; the cemeteries which dot the landscape as those of the Somme battlefields do; the suspicions and latent hatreds still smouldering between communities and nations, the issues unresolved; the footpaths they cannot walk along because of the uncleared mines… it was a chilling picture, presented through the eyes of a couple with whom I could identify because of their ages and their love of walking and encountering people.

The book rounds off and closes the epic adventure, I suppose. Ollivier is a kind of hero for me, or at least someone I can admire for his spirit of adventure at his age, knowing that he has done something I might aspire to but will never do…

My travels: L is for Luxembourg

April 28, 2018

I fell in love with Luxembourg years ago. I don’t mean the capital city, which is small, and has a couple of good bookshops and some astonishing eighteenth century fortifications, as well as a stunning site, to recommend it; I mean the countryside – the forests and hills of the Ardennes and its stunning walking. Now I seem to go back each spring for what has become a combination of a walking holiday and a retreat, a couple of weeks of peace and quiet in the hills.

I have to admit, of course, that my picture of the country is a romanticised one. It’s small – perhaps the size of Greater London, roughly; a lot smaller than Yorkshire, which I call home. Some friends remind me that it’s home to a huge tax-avoidance economy; this is true, and yet, as far as I know, Luxembourg hasn’t bombed Syria or invaded Iraq or Afghanistan recently… the country’s motto is ‘we want to stay the way we are’, conservative with a small ‘c’, and when I fantasise about living there and being able to do all the wonderful walks all year round, I remind myself of what living in such a small, catholic, conservative and conformist society might be like. There doesn’t seem to be very much for young people to do, and only the capital and a couple of other towns would seem to offer much in the way of cultural attractions. It would probably be both dull and stifling. But the public transport is stunning – a four-euro ticket takes you anywhere in the country, on bus or train, for a whole day!

But, the walking is stunning, and seemingly unknown to us English; in season the place fills up with the Dutch heading for the nearest hills to home. What I like is the fact that the hills are relatively gentle – although that doesn’t exclude some gruesomely steep ascents, particularly at the start of walks – and also largely wooded, which I find particularly attractive because it means that I often come across surprise views after turning a corner: suddenly an unexpected panorama opens up. And then there are the colours, so many varieties of greens and browns at the time of year when everything is just bursting into life after winter. There are the streams and rivers winding through the valleys, and occasional glimpses of wildlife – deer, wild cattle, wolves even – and the birds.

It’s so peaceful, too, at the time of year when I go. I can park the car, put my boots on and in five minutes be far away from the village or town, up in the hills where the only sounds are the birds and the crunch of my feet on the path. I’m away with my thoughts and the wonders of nature, at peace.

The country is a maze of way-marked paths, some maintained by the Ministry of the Economy (!) and so pretty clear, others maintained by localities and so rather more variably signposted – so my map-reading and compass skills have improved over the years. And for such a small place, there’s a good bit of variety, too – steep and more rugged further east, along the German border, with rather narrower tracks, and large areas along the western border with Belgium that are being gradually allowed and encouraged to revert to more primeval forest.

It’s as European a place as one can find, which I also find attractive, being small and on so many borders and crossing points; a third of its population are immigrants or the descendants of immigrants; the inhabitants speak their own language and usually French and German too, if not English as well. I feel comfortable there; I can escape the hecticness of Britain, its woes and insanities, for a few days; I feel calmer and rested even after walking dozens of miles in a weeks or so. I hope I can manage many more spring holidays there…

My travels: W for Walking

June 7, 2017

I’ve never been one for sport or strenuous exercise: I could have won prizes for skiving at school. And I’ve always firmly believed that the only time it’s necessary to run is to catch a train one might be in danger of missing otherwise… But I’ve always loved walking, from exploring footpaths around my Stamford home in my childhood, to walking and tramping around rural Nottinghamshire when at boarding school – as long as a couple of friends and I took exercise, we were pretty much excused team games, which was marvellous. And we fairly ate up the miles.

Later, as a student, I did some walking in the Lake District with friends who were keen fell-walkers, but I’ve never been wild about that part of the country, and have recently realised that it’s because to me – sorry! – it’s rather grey and bare: I prefer walking in woods and forests where suddenly and unexpectedly an amazing view can reveal itself as I turn a corner, or briefly come out into the open… and I loved the footpaths around the River Lune when I lived in Halton, near Lancaster.

I walked the footpaths in the parks of Leeds and later around Ripon when my daughters were small, and I think I’ve helped pass on a love of walking.

Now that I’m retired, I can do a lot more, and lead my feet farther afield, as it were. I have come to enjoy walking on my own, spending time with my thoughts, reflecting and meditating, and looking carefully at my surroundings, pausing to take time over my photography when I see something worth capturing; all of these are things much harder to do when you are in company. I sometimes think I’m a bit anti-social, but I set out with good intentions of joining local walking groups when I retired and, six years later, have still to do so. I’m a fair weather walker, too – can’t be doing with wind and rain, so mostly it’s spring to autumn, and despite living in Yorkshire, I’ve yet to do much exploring of the Dales or the Wolds.

My favourite walking territory at the moment is the Ardennes, in Luxembourg. There’s an astonishing variety of terrain and landscape in a very small area. There are walks along the border with Germany where you often don’t know what country you are in, and there’s a broad swathe of land along the border with Belgium that is being allowed to return to the wild, and it can be quite spooky in the middle of it all, carefully following a map and a trail and wondering where the next way-marker will be, or whether I’m lost. It feels like being lost in a jungle, especially as it’s quite rare to meet another walker, and yet you can be only a couple of miles from a village.

I’ve walked quite a bit in the Somme region of France, exploring the battlefield sites of the Great War: there are some good walking guides, and everywhere now looks so peaceful, beautiful in places, especially along the river marshlands, that it’s almost impossible to believe the carnage that happened here a century ago. That is, until you come across a small pile of rusting shells at the side of a road or path, waiting for the French equivalent of the bomb disposal squad to pick them up and take them away. They’re not in a hurry – there is 700 years’ (yes!) worth of such work to do in some areas. But you do get a clear picture in your mind, as you walk along sunken paths, or look at the gently undulating and open landscape, of the utter insanity of climbing out of a trench and walking slowly towards enemy lines under machine-gun fire: those poor men never had the slightest chance.

Last year I did some wonderful walking the the Aude departement, in Cathar territory: it was incredibly hot, even in September, but the landscapes were beautiful, even in their dryness; they smelt different, the plants and bushes and trees were different. And assuming I remain fit and healthy enough, I have plans to go walking in the Eifel region of Germany, and also in Switzerland.

Tristan Gooley: The Walker’s Guide to Outdoor Clues & Signs

January 1, 2016

51Yjd+BScbL._AA160_There is an awful lot of information in this book, which appeals to the Sherlock Holmes in me: the idea that, by being attentive whilst out and about, it’s possible to pick up all sorts of useful and interesting information about the world around.

I do a lot of walking generally, as well as taking a couple of walking holidays each year, these last on my own, which gives me the opportunity to try and be observant. I suppose I would say that I do pay attention while I’m walking, but not in any structured or organised way, and I hoped that this book might give me some ideas as to how I could develop some of these skills.

The book is well-structured, taking one logically through how to observe terrain, weather, trees and plants, wildlife and so on, with plenty of examples. It was an interesting read cover-to-cover, and yet, my overall impression at the end was one of confusion, or rather, information overload, and I realised that I would need to have a second, more careful read of certain sections that I feel I might be able to use, and perhaps to annotate and highlight some key points, before trying to put anything into practice.

It’s clear the author is very knowledgeable, and has travelled, explored and found his way about, using the data around him, in many different parts of the world; equally, he manages to explain his techniques pretty clearly and logically, but what seems to escape him, I feel, is how much this knowledge is ingrained in him – second nature, really, and how hard the rest of us neophytes may struggle to use any of it in a structured way.

However, I cannot see how else the information might have been presented, and I’m not sure I would want to be carrying a book around with me to refer to as I walk: I need to have a map, and I already find that sufficient distraction… but I will persevere.

Bernard Ollivier: Sur le chemin des Ducs

May 9, 2015

downloadI became a fan of Bernard Ollivier through reading his epic account of walking the entire Silk Route, from Turkey to China, which took him three years and which he completed in several slices. He’s an interesting man, who has also set up an organisation in his native France which aims to help young offenders rethink their lives and get back on the straight and narrow through long-distance walking, and this has had some success.

In this book he’s in his home territory of Normandy completing the pilgrim’s walk from Rouen to Mont St Michel – not a long trek compared with his previous ones. I was also attracted to this book because of my own love of Normandy, where many aeons ago, it seems, for a year I was an assistant at a secondary school. I came to enjoy the food and the landscape.

Ollivier is more relaxed as he walks, in familiar territory, including passing through the town where he grew up. He describes well the beauty of the Normandy landscape and his love of solitude, nature and contemplation comes strongly through his writing. There’s also rather more humour than I recall from his previous books. The episode where he recounts the installation of a new weathercock on a village church is interesting: tradition demands that he takes it to each house in the village to show it, and he is treated to coffee and a shot at each house. He is totally plastered when begins to climb the spire and totally sober on his descent!

Olliver notices the gradual rural depopulation as the flight to the cities continues, and the continuing gentrification of the desirable areas of the region. He clearly loves walking, deploring our increasingly sedentary world where few make the effort to get out on their feet and encounter the natural world and engage with it. A voice crying in the wilderness, maybe, but it’s a great pleasure to accompany him on his travels.

Robert Macfarlane: The Old Ways

February 18, 2015

51lcCRMsz6L._AA160_Ultimately, I found this book frustrating. Macfarlane walks a great deal, loves walking, for the sake of it and for the feel and exhilaration of it. He write about some of his favourite walks, the people he meets on his way and perhaps shares some of the way with, and the people he stays with.

Some of the walks are fascinating – Ramallah in Palestine, and the difficulties encountered in following footpaths there, tracks in the Himalayas, the trail to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, the South Downs. England and Scotland seem to be his real ones. The detailed exploration of the haunts of the poet Edward Thomas and the story of his troubled life, and death in the First World War are very moving. Some of the walks were, quite frankly, tedious, especially some of the ones in Scotland, and the digression to sailing across wild waters off the Scottish coast left me cold.

I longed for some maps to help me relate more closely to the journeys, but there were none. The books called out for images to accompany his wonderful writing, so descriptive and atmospheric. Macfarlane is inspirational, urging us to our feel to get out and tramp through hill and dale, here and abroad; I’m certainly looking forward to my walking trip to the Ardennes even more than I was before. There is a spirituality to his idea of walking, a retreat from the world in one way, and yet a sharpening of the senses and a closer engagement with it in another…

The book did remind me quite a lot of the late W G Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, through Sebald is more philosophical, more engaging, and pursues a rather more coherent thread, whereas Macfarlane’s approach was often rather too disparate, too diffuse for me.

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