Magazine article The Spectator

Walking and Talking

Magazine article The Spectator

Walking and Talking

Article excerpt


edited by Duncan Minshull Vintage, L8.99, pp. 340

Many years ago my friend Jaspistos (now competition provider for this magazine) asked me to walk with him in the Welsh hills. I enjoyed it, and so began a series of walks taken with him, or with another friend, which culminated (too grand a word) in walking the River Severn from estuary to source, a little bit each year. I reported on this walk, once a year, when I wrote a weekly column for this paper: one out of roughly 50 annual columns. But when I met Spectator readers they almost invariably said, `When are you going on another of your walks?' I knew this to be ordinary politeness (racking their brains to remember anything this fellow had written about), but it also suggested an interest, if not in walking, then at least in reading about other people taking walks for them. So an anthology about walking sounds like a good idea.

The trouble is that taking walks is an oddly private activity, and one that is difficult to describe. Those groups of chatting people in serious boots, whom you sometimes come across in lanes, are there more for the talk than the walk, which is fair enough, but walking is not a group activity. `I cannot see the wit of walking and talking at the same time,' says Hazlitt. He is surely right; walks are best taken alone, or with one kindred spirit. (Hilaire Belloc, however, who is under-represented here, is good on the hallucinatory effect of too much solo walking.) And of course there are mad solitaries:

I encountered Mr Hackman, an Englishman, who has been walking the length and breadth of Europe for several years. I enquired of him what were his chief observations. He replied gruffly, `I never look up', and went on his way. (1796)

and mad solitary athletes; the Rev. A. N. Cooper (Tramps of the `Walking Parson, 1902) customarily covered a mile in 12 minutes, which is five miles an hour, almost a run. But solitude has its dangers even for the coolly rational Hazlitt; it topples him into the hearty-rhapsodical:

Give me the blue sky over my head, the green turf beneath my feet, a winding road before me, and a three hours' march to dinner - and then to thinking.

A winding road of green turf? The man can never have left London. In fact he was a great walker, all that gang were. Coleridge was prodigious, but remained forever Coleridge. …

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