With an apparently innate antipathy to the internal combustion engine, I’ve always been a keen perambulator. I was born and brought up in Stourbridge, that strange interface between the industrial Black Country and the Worcestershire and Shropshire countryside. My beloved Grandfather was a great walker. In my late teens I journeyed to Birmingham to catch a gig and, not wanting to leave early to catch a last bus or train, and lacking any alternative, walked the twelve miles or so back home. I related this to my Grandfather, and it reminded him of the time he had some unexpected army leave, and had to walk a similar distance back home, only to find his wife saying “What are YOU doing here?”
Living on the edge of the town, we weren’t far from a small mature woodland, Norton Covert, once a working sand pit accessing the ice-age sand deposits in the area. The main access point to the Covert was on the junction of Sandy Road and the Sandy Lane bridleway. All this made for fine walking, and a valuable asset in my early years.
Anyone who’s engaged in country walks may have their own primal, formative experience of this. For me, walking brings up memories of those sandy lanes next to mature woodland, long straight roads leading to a topographically diverse Covert with great views of itself; an opportunity to observe nature. My first close encounter with a fox was in Norton Covert: a timeless moment between us where the fox, which had been rummaging in a pile of leaves, and I locked eyes for a moment before the fox remembered itself and scarpered. I remember some of my primary animistic experiences there, as well as observing how wildlife uses the canopy as a transport network, and observing the signs of human impact on the woods.
A walk, to me, is to embark on a journey of unpredictable possibilities. The word walk traces its history back to the Indo-European *walg- (“to twist, turn, move”), via the Old English wealcian (“to curl, roll up”), to the Middle English walken (“to move, roll, turn, revolve, toss”). I like this element of unpredictability in the word. As has been noted by such luminaries as Will Self, walking is political; the twisty-turny connotations of the verb ‘to walk’ leave the route to the destination – or even the idea of a destination at all – unwritten. The word is intimately bound up with political tensions around land, access rights, and liberty. Wikipedia contributors assert that:
freedom to roam takes the form of general public rights which are sometimes codified in law. The access is ancient in parts of Northern Europe and has been regarded as sufficiently basic that it was not formalised in law until modern times.https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Freedom_to_roam
I’m curious as to the truth of this assertion. These islands historically are known for pioneering the practice of enclosure, erasing common land. This practice proved controversial in law and in letters, being criticised from Sir Thomas More to George Orwell. Tudor politicians were concerned about the effects of land enclosure on the well-being of the people and on the economy, and the people themselves also made their views known in a series of revolts, riots and rebellions.
Kinder Scout to Right to Roam
In 1932, an organised mass trespass of Kinder Scout in the Peak District took place, leading to violence as local landowners and gamekeepers tried to force the ramblers away:
several of the ramblers were arrested and imprisoned… over the following days and weeks much larger trespasses were held and public opinion started to sway in the trespassers’ favourRamblers Dot Org
Today, we can see this as the beginning of a journey, taking in the establishment of National Parks, footpaths and trails, and the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000, codifying the right of free access to certain types of land in England and Wales.
Luminaries of the Enlightenment wrote on the value of walking. Thomas Jefferson, the essential American politician (intimate with revolution, nation-building, war, and slavery) wrote to his nephew advising a course of study, including two hours a day of physical exercise. Jefferson advised “the gun…it gives boldness, enterprise and independence to the mind”. Jefferson continues:
Let your gun, therefore, be the constant companion of your walks. Never think of taking a book with you. The object of walking is to relax the mind. You should therefore not permit yourself even to think while you walk. But divert your attention by the objects surrounding you. Walking is the best possible exercise. Habituate yourself to walk very far. The Europeans value themselves on having subdued the horse to the uses of man. But I doubt whether we have not lost more than we have gained by the use of this animal. No one has occasioned so much the degeneracy of the human body. An Indian goes on foot nearly as far in a day, for a long journey, as an enfeebled white does on his horse, and he will tire the best horses. There is no habit you will value so much as that of walking far without fatigue.The Writings of Thomas Jefferson: Volume I, pp298
In a similar vein, but more English mode, the English essayist William Hazlitt, celebrated in his time but little-read today, wrote:
One of the pleasantest things in the world is going a journey; but…I cannot see the wit of walking and talking at the same time. When I am in the country, I wish to vegetate like the country. I am not for criticizing hedge-rows and black cattle. I go out of town in order to forget the town and all that is in it. There are those who for this purpose go to watering-places and carry the metropolis with them. I like more elbow-room and fewer incumbrances. I like solitude…
Hazlitt touches on the therapeutic value of walking
There is hardly anything that shows the short-sightedness or capriciousness of the imagination more than travelling does. With change of place we change our ideas; nay, our opinions and feelings.On Going On A Journey (1822)
A kind of freedom can be found in walking the city too.
Paris Street; Rainy Day Gustave Caillebotte
We’ve explored the country walk as a journey without a destination, where in slowing down, and spontaneously exploring the sights and sounds, the mind can relax. Why not bring such an attitude to city walks too? The flâneur, from the French for “stroller”, “lounger”, “saunterer”, or “loafer”, emerged as a privileged and critical position in the project we call modernity, not unlike Auden’s Airman, emblematic of the changes of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The flâneur stands, or rather strolls, to this day, “casual wanderer, observer and reporter of street-life in the modern city”.
The figure emerged through the writings of Charles Baudelaire, whose flâneur “wandered the streets and arcades of nineteenth-century Paris looking at and listening to the kaleidoscopic manifestations of the life of a modern city. The flâneur’s method and the meaning of his activities were bound together, one with the other,” according to Bobby Seal of the Psycho-Geographic Review. As Seal explains
In the twentieth-century Walter Benjamin returned to the concept of the flâneur in his seminal work, The Arcades Project. This weighty, but uncompleted, study used Baudelaire’s flâneur as a starting point for an exploration of the impact of modern city life upon the human psyche…
Benjamin puts forward two complementary concepts to explain our human response to modern city life. Erlebnis can be characterised as the shock-induced anaesthesia brought about by the overwhelming sensory bombardment of life in a modern city, somewhat akin to the alienated subjectivity experienced by a worker bound to his regime of labour. Erfahrung is a more positive response and refers to the mobility, wandering or cruising of the flâneur; the unmediated experience of the wealth of sights, sounds and smells the city has to offer. Benjamin was interested in the dialectic between these two concepts and cited Baudelaure’s poetry as a successful medium for turning erlebnis into erfahrungBaudelaire, Benjamin and the Birth of the Flâneur
In working with vulnerable clients, we may find they lack access to green spaces within and outside the city. Services I work with have noted clients who have never, or rarely, been outside the city, and who are unaware or unable to access green spaces near them. Some clients have spoken of the benefits of breaks outside the city, and the benefits of walking in the green.
Liaison and Diversion Services in Birmingham work with clients with multiple health and social challenges referred from the criminal justice system. L&D Birmingham initiated a series of walks in green spaces in the city. Participants included staff and service users. The notion of peer support taking place in outside environments, on a walk, was thought might be beneficial, talking and healing while doing an activity – multi-tasking, in other words.
Walking, in the sense of free roaming in open green spaces, has a lot to offer in terms of improving the physical health and well being of clients on low incomes with multiple social challenges: turning erlebnis into erfahrung.
Walking as a post-trauma therapy has plenty of anecdotal evidence beghind it. Here for example is Jennifer Tennant’s essay “Walking Myself Home”, in which she writes
For me, walking makes space for reflection, much like church or meditation does for others.
Tennant argues walking may have physiological effects similar to eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy, and thus effective for symptoms associated with post-traumatic stress.
The evidence seems conclusive. The conditions for well-being include the need for walking, for exploring both the twists and turns of our environment, the world we live in, and the possibilities of our souls.
Thanks to three individuals for their invaluable contributions to this post: Emma for initially linking walking with EMDR, Matt B for information under greener horizons, and James E for putting me onto the Hazlitt essay.