by H. F. ELLIS
H. F. ELLIS is a Londoner whose light prose has frequently appeared in the Atlantic. He is the author, also, of an extraordinarily funny book, The Vexations of A. J. Wentworth.
NOBODY need doubt that walking is in danger of becoming a lost art. Even the English, whose propensity for walks has long been regarded as only just this side of insanity, nowadays get most of their serious walking over by the age of two, and thereafter, feeling that they have the trick of it, go to endless trouble to engineer other means of transport. It is no uncommon thing for a family to spend a solid hour discussing how they are all going to get to some place which, if they had trusted to their two feet, they would have reached in half that time.
The reason walking has got itself such a bad reputation is that at a very early age it is presented as something that ought to be done. “Time for your walk, young man.” In the old days the familiar cry rang like the trump of doom through a thousand nurseries, interrupting whatever pleasurable occupation a child was engaged upon. The walk was a daily intrusion on the child’s liberty, second only to bedtime as a source of scandalized irritation.
Later on, the walk became a standmg reproach to the budding adolescent life: “Why don’t you get out for a walk instead of staying indoors?” . . . “Know what you’d better do, my boy? You’d better go and walk off that ill temper of yours.” . . . Or, most forbidding of all, “Come for a walk. It will do you good.” It will do you good! No five words in the English language have such power to stir up a spirit of mulish, heels-in-the-ground resistance. All this is rather a pity. Because, rightly handled, walking can be not merely a tolerable but a downright pleasant occupation.
Walking should be voluntary, uncomplicated, and preferably spur-ofthe-moment. This is one of many arguments in favor of walking alone. The potential walk-taker who suggests that somebody accompany him is inviting endless delays. There are preparations to be made, household problems to attend to before leaving. Interminable arguments arise about the wisdom of taking raincoats. Somebody suggests a picnic, and ominous bread-cutting noises come from the kitchen. Plans for the project rise to fever pitch as more and more people become involved, and no one is happier than the man who first suggested it when a cold rain-laden wind springs up and they can all go comfortably to the movies instead.
This is not to say that one should always, in all circumstances, walk alone. But walking with others does have drawbacks. No two people ever want to walk at precisely the same pace. When the track divides there must be consultation, and no certainty at the end of it that each would not rather have taken the other fork. Where one walker desires to lean over a gate and look at cows, the other is for pressing on; or worse, both may be for leaning and looking but neither care to be the first to mention it.
The man who walks by himself is a free agent. He turns left or right, halts or continues, entirely as the whim of the moment dictates. If he feels inclined to sit for an hour on a fallen tree trunk and contemplate nature, or nothing, he is at liberty to do so. The essence of enjoyable walking is that it should be unregimented. There must be nothing rushed about it. And it is worth remembering that in walking, he travels the slowest who travels alone.
Freedom from talk is one of the supreme boons of walking alone. Solitude and silence are rare enough to be surprisingly enjoyable once in a while. Also, the absence of talk makes it much easier to observe, which is another of the pleasures of walking. Animals and birds will often tolerate the unobtrusive approach of a solitary walker, but nothing empties a wood of its wild life more surely than the trampling, vociferous onset of one of those organized walks or Mass Rambles beloved by the gregarious.
There should be nothing swashbuckling or aggressive about walking. This automatically rules out speeds in excess of three to three-and-a-half miles an hour. One has only to watch professional walkers speeding round a track at eight miles an hour, elbows working and hips and heads waggling in unison, to see that man was never intended to walk fast.
As for paraphernalia, the less of it the better. A modest walking stick, made of ash and crooked at the handle, I am prepared to allow; it is useful for slashing at brambles and hooking down unreachable clusters of blackberries. Binoculars are an asset, and afford frequent excuses for stopping. But let us have no pockets bulging with sandwiches, maps, and compass, no haversack laden with vacuum flasks and spare socks.
Unburdened, unhurried, prepared to stop and look at things whenever he feels inclined, the walker is all set to exercise his art. The question remains, Where should he exercise it ?
The poets used to sing with striking unanimity of the joys of the Open Road, but they were writing before the days of motorcars. I think if one were writing now he would change his tune. I think he would not at all like what he would meet on the road — having to leap for safety at 30-sccond intervals, to emerge from his quickthorn refuge covered with a thick layer of fine white dust - and my guess is he would get the hell out of it after five minutes and take to the fields.
Fields, woods, and mountainsides, along the banks of rivers or on cliff tops by the sea — these are the places for walking, if you can get to them; variety is the essential thing to be considered. It doesn’t matter whether a man is in Alaska or Ceylon, he needs change of scenery on his walk. Ideally, he should be continually coming round corners, seeing new vistas through gaps in hedges, wondering what it will be like over the brow of the hill. That way, he isn’t conscious of distance or fatigue; he just potters on to see what happens next.
But put him on a flat plain, where he can see all too clearly what is ahead for the next three miles, and a great sense of weariness comes over him. Better, far better, to walk in a city than in a monotonous countryside. Here, silence and solitude being unobtainable, the arguments against having a companion lose some of their force. No city worth the name lacks variety for those who are bold enough to plunge down alleyways and into courtyards. How astonishing to turn a corner in Boston and come upon the Italian Quarter, with its narrow wrought-iron balconies; to step from roaring Piccadilly into the little village of Shepherd Market; to move from ancient to medieval, to modern, and back again, within 400 yards in incredible Rome.
It is a mistake, I think, to plan a walk in too much detail; there must be liberty at any time to turn aside, to improvise, to take misleading short cuts. But only the feckless will fail, if walking in the country, to ensure that they are within easy reach of an inn by lunchtime. After so long an enjoyment of silence and solitude, you will be ready for conversation, so it is not a bad plan to arrange for someone to meet you at the inn for lunch. With a car.
Another of the pleasures of walking. . . . But. I must not keep you any longer. You will be wanting to be up and away, stick in hand, striding out in the fine fresh air.
It will do you good.