Follow on Twitter

Wednesday, 22 January 2014


And in the beginning was the walk, and the walk was made flesh

Biblical walking narratives: doncha just love ‘em! Adam and Eve taking their leave from the Garden of Eden, tales between legs and no longer, sadly, naked; Saul on the road to Damascus, struck down and temporarily blinded by a bolt of lightning; the Israelites and their flight from Egypt; Mary, Joseph and the Baby Jesus on the run from Herod.

So many people on the run, not a good time to set out for a stroll.

All walks have a beginning, most – but not all – have an end. And most walks don’t manifest themselves out of nowhere; there’s usually a modicum of planning. Even Laurie Lee and Patrick Leigh Fermor enjoyed a period of gestation between the thought and the act.

But my favourite moment of literary perambulatory genesis in occurs in The Lord of the Rings, where Gandalf and Frodo are sitting by the fire in Bag End, the former explaining to the latter that in order to destroy the Ring and bring peace to Middle Earth, the hobbit will have to walk 2846 km from Hobbiton to Mount Doom. Yes, somebody has actually sat down and worked it out:! While Frodo sits there gobsmacked, Gandalf reaches out the window and plucks from the garden the ever dependable but eternally dull Samwise Gamgee: the Fellowship is beginning to take shape.

Something similar occurred last Saturday night, over a splendid and uncannily authentic paella in the genteel inner suburbs of Bath. Not quite a gathering of assorted mythical beings presided over by an omniscient wizard – although I can’t help feeling that’s a role I could easily fall into – but six middle class women, all of us hovering around the half century mark.

Fate or circumstance – or perhaps some divine being – has delivered me my research subjects, on a plate garnished with jamón serrano and a couple of bottles of Waitrose Rioja. Five Camino virgins (better make that four and half, Colette’s walked the stage from Burgos to Leon) all ripe for the plucking!

The thesis – inasmuch as it currently exists in material shape or form – is to explore spiritual and/or religious responses to the landscape through geography of emotion and affect, thinking about how our encounters with the landscape produce emotions or experiences that might be construed or considered spiritual or religious. What I also want to explore is the relationship between these landscape experiences and our own personal narratives. Now, clearly I can talk about myself until the proverbial cows pack up their bags and head back to the byre; I’ve written about my own autobiographical/spiritual/sensual landscapes on this blog and elsewhere and will continue to do so as the project continues but even a dedicated narcissist such as myself needs other subjects, hence my motley crew of Camino virgins.

The plan is to walk the first 115 km of the Camino Frances from St Jean Pied de Port, up and over the Pyrenees, down to Pamplona then on to Estella, setting out from the West Country – by train – on June 13th. The decision to travel ‘slowly’, taking the train all the way to the south of France, was a unanimous one and I can’t help seeing it as the foreplay that will get us all excited for the big event – let’s hope it’s not followed by a disappointing anti-climax. The Camino as bad sex; there’s an interesting metaphor to explore alongside Kierkegaard’s life lived forwards but understood backwards.

And so the journey begins. But before we leave there’s bonding and preparation to be done, autoethnographies to be written and group dynamics to be established – maybe even personalities to be clashed. Let’s face it; it could all go arse over tit and one of us could end up in a bloody heap of crushed flesh and bone at the foot of the Pyrenees. Part of me secretly wants to contrive such a conflict; I wonder how I’d explain that to the examiners. Assuming said bloody heap of crushed flesh and bone wasn’t me; I can’t help thinking I’d be the first to walk the plank.

Thursday, 16 January 2014

Walk this Way

Thinking about walking, reading about walking, writing about walking; sometimes it all gets too much and I just want to walk. Walking as an end in itself rather than a means to an end.  
Would it were that simple. One cannot just walk; once you put one foot in front of the other all manner of permutations and possibilities come into effect.
Take last Sunday afternoon, for example. After a chilled Saturday evening in Weymouth – and yes, I know that’s a tautology, that all Saturday evenings in Weymouth are invariably chilled – I took a detour from the A37 and ended up in Chetnole, a dispersed village on the southern fronds of the Blackmore Vale. It was grey, universally and unrelentingly grey, as if all other colours had ceased to exist. Pasture and sward a dull, green-grey, the trees a lacklustre brown-grey, the scudding clouds a muted silver-grey; a landscape with its joie de vivre smothered under a sodden blanket of indeterminate hue.
Enough with the melancholy already! All I wanted was a brisk and bracing walk, to clear the cobwebs and stretch my legs. As if it were ever going to be so simple; no sooner had I forded the River Wriggle than reflexion set in. Isn’t it ever thus, you build up a pace and rhythm and before you know you are, to paraphrase Rebecca Solnit, a mind moving at four point five kilometres an hour.
But I’d finished Ms Solnit’s Wanderlust – for the second time – and started on a paper by Dr Tim Edensor: Walking in the British Countryside: Reflexivity, Embodied Practices and Ways to Escape (Body & Society 2000 6:81). As Dr Edensor notes, ‘walking is informed by various performative norms and values which produce distinct practices and dispositions’ – that bracing stroll soon takes a moral tone and says more about you than perhaps you’d like us to know.
As my PhD research is intent on exploring the liberating aspects of walking – walking as a seditious activity, walking as a theology of liberation – I have a soft spot for the Early Romantic ramblanistas who ‘were apt to champion specific personal qualities: detachedness, dynamism, passion and difference from the crowd’ (Edensor 2000:89) and ‘intent on asserting their individuality and autonomy through walking, partly as a means of rebellion against the bourgeois norms’ (Jarvis 1997:28). Rather the dilettante than the didactic hikers of the inter-war years whom David Matless describes as being ‘concerned to pursue moral and physical achievement through the ‘art of right living’, a set of working-class, leftist concerns which extol the virtues of spartan discipline and the pleasures of hard physical exercise’ (Edensor 2000:94)’
Too many people telling you what to do; too many walkers telling you how to walk: ‘The body should lean slightly forward to offset the weight of the rucksack. There is little movement of the arms and the hands are kept free. The legs are allowed to swing in a comfortable stride.’ (Williams 1979:94)
Ah, the hands. What the f*** to do with one’s hands? I don’t know about you but mine go all over the place. There’s more to walking than legs and I like to throw my whole body into the act. Indeed, last Sunday, as I negotiated a track hemmed in and choked by scrub and brush, I was more arms than legs; emerging from a fantastic little arboreal derive with swathes of scratches and cuts and just a little blood. Here I’m with Richard Sennett who writes that the ‘body comes to life when coping with difficulty, is roused by the resistance which it experiences. Moments of confrontation, of self-displacement, are vital to preserve openness to stimuli, to awaken the senses, and an acceptance of impurity, difficulty and obstruction is part of the very experience of liberty.’ (Sennett 1994:309-10)
Too many people telling you what to do; too many walkers telling you how to walk and the vast majority of them men of a masculine persuasion. But what does it mean to walk like a man or walk like a woman when we’ve kicked off our brogues and heels and shod ourselves in ubiquitous, almost unisexual hiking footwear. I suppose I, of all people, really ought to know but to be honest it’s one of the few areas of my life where gender doesn’t enter the equation. It’s a bit like the way I feel when entering a church, I leave my sex and sexuality outside the porch to become spiritually and materially amorphous. Sometimes, just sometimes, it doesn’t matter whether you’re a man or a woman, both or something in between.
You get into the rhythm, get into the groove and after a while that divide – the tension – between the walker and landscape begins to break down. After five or six kilometres I managed to see beyond the grey, to discern a more dynamic palette of rippling shades and gathering gloom. I’d put in the effort, enacted the ritual and the landscape began to perform. It doesn’t always work, there’s no guarantee it always will. Sometimes the landscape seems to hunt you down, forces you to turn tail and run. Sometimes it seems determined to evict you from its shady bowers and intimate nooks and crannies.
You are the land, the land is you; we are embodied within each other and ourselves. Doesn’t mean to say it’s always sweetness and light.

Rebecaa Solnit: Wanderlust Verso (2001)
Tim Edensor: Walking in the British Countryside: Reflexivity, Embodied Practices and Ways to Escape Body & Society (2000)
Richard Sennett: Flesh and Stone Faber (1994)
David Matless: The Art of Right Living: Landscape and Citizenship 1918-39 in Steve Pile & Nigel Thrift (eds) Mapping the Subject Routledge (1995)
Robin Jarvis: Romantic Writing and Pedestrian Travel Macmillan (1997)
Peter Williams: Hill Walking Pelham (1979)

Friday, 3 January 2014

2014: The Year of Walking Inwards

It’s as inevitable as it is ironic: since embarking on a PhD research project looking at, amongst related themes, walking and landscape phenomenology, I’ve spent more time reading and writing about walking than engaging in the act of walking itself. There’s been times when I’ve been worried I’ve my priorities all wrong but returning to academia after a break of thirteen years was always going to take its toll and November and December seem to be the best months to hibernate behind a laptop and a girt, humungous pile of books.

But the project has legs, literally and metaphorically. In June I’ll be back on the Camino(s) and in August I plan to walk the first half of Hungary’s Blue Trail; before then I intend to walk to the 100 km to school (aka Exeter University) because I’m tired of making the journey by car. All well and good but for a while there’s been something troubling me about this modus perambulare: the linear walk.

Not that there’s anything intrinsically wrong in walking the line. We might think of it as a phenomenological transect, an arbitrary but systematic sampling of the landscape which, in the case of the Camino Francés, leads us over mountains and Meseta, through cities and suburbs and pitches us into the thick of the pilgrim experience: we have the human, the physical and the spiritual, all rolled into one.

But it struck me, crossing the Meseta and gazing lovingly at the Cordillera Cantábrica, some 100 km to the north, that walking the line has its limitations. The trajectory of the path dictates and dominates, the hiker becomes its passive victim; we see only what it wants us to see, and from its perspective.

But the circle serves us little better, nor the figure of eight. If I walk the perimeter(s) I never get close to the centre; the path keeps us at a distance – never the twain shall meet. True, there’s a greater variety of perspective but the hub remains infuriatingly elusive and all the while I want to get intimate: up close and personal.

So in between walking the lines I’m going to move in ever-decreasing circles – in spirals, to be precise; starting on the outside and moving inwards until I reach – or rather, until I want or I’m ready to reach – the centre. The plan is to experiment by applying the theory to the market towns of Somerset and Dorset: their innards and outskirts; their good, their good, their bad and their downright ugly – because, surprise, surprise, not all is bucolically rosy amongst the rolling pastures and quaint quarters of Wessex.

Moving inwards, not just literally but metaphorically, too. An exploration of internal and emotional geographies, landscapes of the mind and the soul. Trying to work out where and when this infatuation with the Wessex landscape began where it might eventually take me. What happens when, like a lover, I get to know it too well; when we begin to bore one another and spend more and more time apart. When we finally come to blows and one of us packs our bags and walks away. And where better to start than the place I now call home: the cathedral city of Wells.