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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)

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