A thank you to felllow Wiltshire White Horse Walker Pam Cogswell who contributed this piece by Jeanette Winterson:

 

Shelley had been dining out with friends in London — it is perhaps worth adding that the dinner

hour was earlier in the 18th century, and the poet’s meal ended around 6pm. Realising that he did

not have enough money for the stagecoach back to Oxford, where he was living, he decided to

walk.

 

The route of the present A40/M40, from London to Oxford and on to the Cotswolds and

Herefordshire, has been a droving road since the Middle Ages, when England’s

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depended on the wool trade. That is the route Shelley took, arriving about 12 hours later, by his

own account, in time for kippers.

 

The British are a nation of walkers. It is in our DNA. Think Canterbury Tales, think the Jarrow

marches, think about the long tradition of “tramping” — the journeymen workers walking from

village to village, town to town.

 

Britain is small, and it is an island. Such facts affect the national psyche and stamp our sense of

what it means to walk. Walking in Britain is different from walking through France or across the

states of America.

 

Six hundred miles long and 200 miles wide, Britain is contained. The coast, the edge, is never

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away. Yet, as a rich, varied, temperate microcosm, the British landscape feels bigger than it is, in

its chalky, limey, sandy, clay-bound, many-coloured earths and dazzling difference of flora and

habitat.

 

In his wonderful book, Albion, about the origins of the English imagination, Peter Ackroyd

speculates on this relationship between land and psyche.

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How does where we are shape who we

are? We have been fooled into believing that we live in a global village, but go for a walk and you

are not “anywhere”, as in a car or a plane — you are “here”.

 

This is liberating. The pace

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of walking frees the mind and calms the body. It is a natural

antidepressant. Our new addiction to virtual life is making us ill. Television, the internet, the car

window are all screens against experience. I’m not saying we should go back to the bog ages.

I’m saying that mind and body belong together; that our bodies are uniquely designed for walking,

and that our minds understand things best through sensory perception, not its disembodied

substitute.

 

There’s some circuit — brain at one end, feet at the other — that closes on a walk. I solve most

 

of my problems walking, and if I am upset or discouraged I know that if I make myself walk for an

hour I will feel better. Serotonin release is part of it, but there’s more: walking breaks the passivity

of misery.

 

Walking literally takes you somewhere else. Walking puts you in another place, another mental

and emotional state. Even the language we use, when we talk about “walking away” tips us off to

the propellant power, internal and external, of such an ordinary activity.

 

Except that it isn’t an ordinary activity anymore. When did the British stop walking? I have just

worked out that when I was growing up I walked six miles most days without thinking about it.

 

School and back and church and back. As my parents had no car and lots of God, church

happened every day; and in the summer, when we went on our Gospel Tent crusades, my dad

and I used to walk about 20 miles a day giving out salvation leaflets.

 

Is the car to blame? Is it as simple as that? Sometimes I think we don’t walk anymore because

we don’t believe there is anywhere to go. The West is jaded and disillusioned. The consumer

lifestyle depends on buying things we don’t really want and jolting from experience to experience

like having convulsive electric shock treatment.

 

Walking, with its natural nomadic history and its connection between the human body and our

only home — this Earth — is not a commodity or a convulsion: it is continuity with our past, our

ancestors, our evolution, ourselves.

 

It may be that the fly high, fall hard economics of the past decade, and this crash to earth, will

encourage walking. It is free. It is democratic. It is solitary or companionable, spontaneous or

planned. It can begin as simply as walking home after dinner, as I always do, whether in London

or in the Cotswolds — though generally not 50 miles through the night like Shelley.

 

Longer walks make a lovely holiday: they are a pilgrimage of a kind, because walking is an inner

journey as well as a timeline. Our thoughts and feelings don’t follow the clock and the calendar,

and our minds like to roam outside the movement from A to B.

So walking seems to prompt memories and ideas, to allow an imaginative freedom that becomes

an emotional freedom. By about day three of a long walk your perspective is changing as surely

as the landscape is changing. And if your walk takes you to the coast, nothing compares to the

sudden beauty of the sea, as you come upon the edge of Britain, and to an edge in yourself,

looking out, who knows where?

But any walk, any day, is good. You can usually find me up on the Cotswold spine; it’s why I

came to live here. I was brought up under the Pennine Ridge, and find in all hilly landscapes a

wild freedom that reminds me that I live in my body and not just my head.

That’s what walking allows,to live in the whole of what you are. I’ve got a lot of time for the Freud/

Jung Talking Cure, but for a bit of self-medicating against the

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Cure?

.